Introduction Chapter 1: In Praise of Maria: a memoir


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Despite the relentless intellectual attack on religion in recent centuries, it shows no signs of disappearing. Some secular thinkers may believe that the recent resurgence of religion is a last gasp before its final demise. What seems more likely is that, while all traditional religion is under severe challenge, new forces in the world are pushing toward a radical rethinking of religion. The worldwide environmental movement is one of the most obvious factors. But any new religion will almost certainly have to emerge from attempts to reform ancient religions. A single religion for the world is highly unlikely but some converging of the world’s great religions is quite possible.

Religion very likely started with the funeral ritual, an affirming of life in the face of death. Religion is a confidence that the “ultimate environment of our lives is trustworthy and fulfilling rather than indifferent or hostile toward us.” If that belief is to be sustained, religion has to speak candidly about death and the meaning of a life that leads to death. Death has to be a prospect for life not simply an end to life.

Human corpses deserve respect and usually get it because they are understood to be transitional to another reality. “The gorilla, the chimpanzee, the orang-outang and their kind must look upon man as a feeble and infirm animal whose strange custom it is to store up his dead.”ccxxi Samuel Beckett painted a picture of twentieth-century life as one of barren suffering. There are numerous cries of protest against the absurdities of life. But the most despairing line in all of Beckett is from Endgame: “There are no more coffins.” In a world where war, famine or disease make impossible a respectful treatment of the dead, human society would reach the edge of disintegration.

Throughout the centuries humans have believed that the dead do not stay dead; they go on to another existence, either on this earth or somewhere else. Religious traditions demand that the living recognize a bond between the unborn, the living, and the dead. If individuals ask only “what’s in it for me?” and “what has the future ever done for me?” then the human project is near collapse. “Tradition refuses to submit to the oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around.”ccxxii

Although it is impossible to imagine eternal life, religions make a legitimate protest against seeing time as merely a series of moments ending in death. Modern science, economic systems, and management theory subscribe to an image of time as a sequence of points with before and after. That image of time threatens to exhaust human life of any depth. If the past is gone, the future has not arrived and the present is a disappearing point, where is serious life to be found? “Do you believe in the life to come?” Clov asks Hamm in Endgame. Hamm answers: “Mine was always that.... Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains... all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life.”ccxxiii

The past does not disappear; it remains in the depths of the present and is the material out which the future is fashioned. Similarly, it can be imagined that the death of an individual does not annihilate what has been his or her participation in the temporal process. “The most general formulation of the religious problem is the question whether the process of the temporal world passes into the formation of other actualities, bound together in an order in which novelty does not mean loss.”ccxxiv The religious hope is that what has emerged as novelty, including human lives, is present not merely evanescently in our lives but enduringly in the universe itself.ccxxv

The religious believer who professes belief in eternal life may perhaps be saying, “I believe in earthly historical life that is so truly life that it is stronger than death.”ccxxvi Religion is sometimes accused of being a higher form of selfishness, a sacrifice of goods in this world to get a greater return in the next. Undoubtedly, religion works that way in the lives of some people; the individual is out to protect his or her investment in eternal life. What they expect as a payoff is difficult to imagine. Some people talk about eternal life, wrote G.K. Chesterton, who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.ccxxvii

Belief in eternal life is not always a product of selfish desire. In the lives of ordinary people, as well as religious mystics, belief in eternal life arises from an outgoing love. The most common reason why people believe in some form of survival is that someone they have loved is dead. Although it is difficult to imagine that the dead person is alive, it is more difficult to believe that the person is simply no more. The question of life everlasting, John Baillie wrote, is not “Do I want it for myself.” Even if I say that I am reconciled to the finality of my own death, can I say that is all I want for people I love. “The man who can see his beloved die, believing that it is forever, and say ‘I don’t care,’ is a traitor to his beloved and to all their love has brought them. He has no right not to care.”ccxxviii

Many people have beliefs about an afterlife that involve communication with the dead. In today’s culture, these beliefs are usually considered loony, and, indeed, specific examples are often revealed to be fraudulent.ccxxix Nonetheless, we are all thrown back on basic human experiences for shaping our attitudes and beliefs concerning death. No experience is more powerful than mourning the death of a close friend or a family member. Until someone has that experience, the basis of his or her belief may be thin. The death of a loved one can transform a belief system in a flash. Reflecting on the death of his close friend, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis wrote: “When the idea of death and the idea of Williams thus met in my mind, it was the idea of death that was changed.”ccxxx

Although it is impossible to demonstrate that the intuitions of love are valid, it is possible to invalidate one charge against the religious belief in afterlife survival. The claim has been made, especially by Marxists, that belief in an afterlife arose from a vain hope held out to oppressed people. The “opium of the people” was a promise of “pie in the sky.” From archeology and anthropology we now know that ancient people believed in a better world for those who had the best things in this world. For the majority of people, the next life did not promise a social and economic reversal.ccxxxi

The rise of the great world religions did signal a new concern for every individual’s destiny, not just the king’s or the hero’s. The pharisaic image of God as a loving father suggested that the individual would not be abandoned. In all three of the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – the fate of the individual became central. In these three religions, a person has one chance to get it right, and what is right is specified in sacred texts. Eastern religions include scriptures as guides to experience but not as the word of God. Because of their more flexible outlook, which allows several religions to overlap in individual lives, the religions of the East are thought to be more tolerant of differences.

Any suggestion that the Jewish, Christian and Muslim views of an afterlife might need serious comparison with Eastern views runs up against deeply entrenched beliefs. Any tampering with beliefs in Christianity or Islam is likely to be called heretical. Judaism does not enumerate beliefs in the same way but it too has its own distinct boundaries.

There may be an ultimate and impassable gap between the Abrahamic religions of revelation and the spiritual disciplines of the East. But before we can even ask that question, the world needs a dialogue among Christian, Muslim and Jewish religionists. All three religions seem to present an obstacle to worldwide dialogue. They need to address each other and examine their respective languages which strike many other people as highly intolerant.

The question in the following section is not whether Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions have always acted tolerantly. The question is whether there is any room for interpreting these religions in a tolerant way. Can a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim be open about the salvation of others and still be a faithful Jew, Christian or Muslim? Asking about a religion’s belief in the salvation of “the other” is one of the best ways to understand each religion in its relation to other religions.

Ultimate Intolerance?

Jewish writers do not charge Christianity with the belief that Jews go to hell; instead, they presume it is obvious that Christians do and must hold this belief. Herman Cohen, for example, cites Maimonides’ teaching that “the righteous of the gentile nations have a portion in the world to come.” This position is in stark contrast with Christianity in all its forms. “In Christianity,” writes Cohen, “Christ is the indispensable condition of redemption.”ccxxxii

Milton Steinberg cites the same passage from Maimonides. And Steinberg makes the same contrast of Jewish universalism and Christian particularism: “Paul’s universalism applies to professing Christians only, and of them only to those who profess correctly, that is, in harmony with Paul’s ideas. All other men, no matter how truth-loving, devout, and good are irretrievably damned.”ccxxxiii Even more surprising is to find this contrast bluntly stated by Emil Fackenheim: “Judaism is ‘universalistic’ for it teaches that the righteous of all nations enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Christianity is ‘particularistic’ for it bars from the Kingdom all unsaved, non-Christians, no matter how great their righteousness.”ccxxxiv

The irony of this contrast – universal Judaism versus Christian particularism – is that it perpetuates in reverse the unfair accusation that Christians have often made against Jews. It has seemed self-evident to some Christians that the Jewish religion is for one particular group while Christianity is catholic or universal. If there is to be understanding between Christians and Jews, this claim that one’s own religion is universal and the other’s is particularistic must stop.

What has to be realized is that Jews and Christians (and Muslims) use the same logic. Each of these religions points toward the universal by affirming their particular language of belief. While Christians, Jews and Muslims have traded charges of narrow-mindedness among themselves, these three religions can seem to the rest of the world to be remarkably similar in the intolerance of their claims.

Secular outsiders and believers in other religious traditions have plenty of evidence for intolerance by Christians, Jews and Muslims. But the beliefs of Jews, Christians and Muslims may be more complex than many people assume. As Abraham Heschel says, religions are forced to use a language “the terms of which do not pretend to describe, but to indicate; to point to rather than to capture. These terms are often paradoxical, radical, negative.”ccxxxv

The logic of the three religions is closer to the artistic than to the scientific. That is, it is based upon looking for the universal by going more deeply into the particular. Its literary form is the narrative, the poem, or the play. It looks for the deeper truth in the lives of a community and the experience of persons. In contrast, scientific logic moves from individual cases to general statements; it deals with controlled experiments and statistical surveys. On the basis of scientific logic, Jewish, Christian and Muslim statements of who gets saved certainly sound arrogant.

Christianity may have a bigger problem than does Judaism of explaining this logic. Christian missionary activity in the past was often accompanied by political and military force. Islam, too, has a bad reputation, at least in the West, for failing to live according to principle in the Qur’an that there can be no compulsion in religion (2:256). Whether Christianity or Islam has more often failed in practice does not have to be decided here. I am interested in the logic or grammar that is inherent to Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions.

A Parallel Logic

All three religions believe that there is one God, creator of all, who is good and just. Each religion also believes that this God of the universe spoke to their particular group at particular times and at particular places. The paradox here is obvious to everyone in the world who is neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Muslim. How can a just and benevolent God condemn people who through no fault of their own do not accept and practice the Jewish or the Christian or the Muslim religion?

The solution to that question is found in the way that each religion uses several of its key terms that refer to something very particular but also point to a universal ideal. The major documents in each religion, using the inner language of the group, are addressed to the believers. Little is said about outsiders. The doctrines are warnings to the believers in each group not to be smug.

The statements about people inside a religious group can sound offensive when they reach the ears of anyone outside the group. Each of the three religions has a new task in the present world because intramural doctrines are now readily accessible outside the group. When the Vatican makes a statement about Judaism, Jewish leaders are more likely to pay attention to it than most ordinary Catholics. But unless one devotes a lot of time to understanding the history of Vatican documents, the statements may be unintelligible or offensive.

The problem is not peculiar to Vatican documents; the problem is inherent to religious statements. In the case of a particular religion, writes George Lindbeck, “one must have some skill in how to use its language and practice its way of life before the propositional meaning of its affirmations become determinate enough to be rejected.”ccxxxvi A religion cannot abandon the only logic it has; nonetheless, each of the three religions has a major educational task in trying to improve its intelligibility. That does not mean converting people to the religion. It means changing some formulas that may have once made sense but no longer do; more often, it is trying to explain the context and the limits of statements that sound intolerant of other religions.

Christian Logic. Christianity uses several key terms that are particular but they are also pointers to the universal. The most important of these terms are Christ, church, and baptism. From its earliest centuries, Christianity has maintained that “Christ is the one savior,” that “outside the church there is no salvation,” and that one needs to be baptized in order to be saved. Salvation appears to be limited to the Christian.

From the earliest centuries, however, Christian thinkers have wrestled with the question of the salvation of the non-Christian. Tertullian said that the soul by nature is Christian. Clement of Alexandria thought that Christ saves souls even if they do not realize it.ccxxxvii Augustine developed a place called Limbo for the unbaptized; God would not damn those who died without baptism.ccxxxviii

Alexander of Hales in the twelfth century did not see a problem with Jews finding salvation by following the revelation in the Torah; for other people, God must provide a special revelation.ccxxxix Thomas Aquinas asks what happens to the unbeliever in Africa who has never heard the gospel preached. Aquinas’ answer is that perhaps God sends an angel to deliver the gospel to such a person. The solutions were often clumsy but at least they were tried. The official doctrine makers did not directly address the question; they concentrated on practical guides for Christians rather than speculative questions about non-Christians. The assumption was that the Christian Church was the “ordinary way of salvation.” Today based on sheer numbers, the church would have to call itself the extraordinary way of salvation and therefore rethink its role in history.

The logic of Christianity can be seen in the double meanings of Christ, church and baptism. The term “Christ” has always been a title attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. But in the later Pauline literature, in the fourth Gospel, and in the philosophical thrusts of Justin Martyr or Clement of Alexandria, “Christ” became the name of a universal ideal. Thus, in Christian terms the path of all righteous men and women leads to “Christ” whether they have ever heard of Jesus, Pope or sacraments.ccxl In Christian terms one must be a follower of Christ to attain salvation.

The continuation of this logic is found in the outrageous-sounding doctrine that outside the church there is no salvation. The doctrine has been especially insisted upon in the Roman Catholic Church. To people outside this institution, the meaning of the doctrine seems obvious. Yet, Pope Pius XII excommunicated Leonard Feeney, a priest in Boston, who wanted to be more Catholic than the Pope. Feeney took the doctrine literalistically. By insisting on the need to be within the church, he ironically found himself outside the church.

“Church” has a different meaning for Protestants and Catholics. The typical Protestant usage of church is to refer to the local congregation. Catholics usually mean the world-wide institution. In both cases, however, church refers to the assembly of Christian believers. But church can also be used as a pointer to the gathering of the elect, a meaning that was quite common until the twelfth century and reappeared during the Reformation. In this meaning, there is no salvation outside the church – by definition. Even if one is Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist, one is saved because of the church.

Karl Rahner’s phrase “anonymous Christian” has often been attacked, sometimes ridiculed. But it is simply an attempt to state in Christian language that salvation is not restricted to card-carrying members of the Christian Church. In Rahner’s words, “it is a profound admission of the fact that God is greater than man and the church.” The phrase, anonymous Christian, would be better understood as “follower of the path of goodness that Christians see summed up by the term Christ” rather than meaning an unwitting member of the institution called the Christian Church.ccxli

Paul did not say that Jews would come into the church or accept Jesus as the Christ. Paul never denies the validity of the Torah path for those Jews who cannot accept Jesus as messiah. Paul’s main problem was not “how do I find a gracious God” but “how can Jew and Christian live in one community.”ccxlii Salvation was from the Jews, according to Paul, while the Christians were to be grafted into the tree of salvation.

With the term “baptism” there was a more contrived distinction. In addition to baptism of water there was baptism of desire. The “good pagan” was said to receive baptism of desire if he or she was seeking God with a pure heart. The same path of salvation was possible for those who are baptized by water and for people who had never heard of baptism.

The Catholic Church’s teaching is stated by the Second Vatican Council: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – these too may attain salvation.”

This Vatican II language is admittedly more positive than was the teaching in the past, but it is not the invention of a new doctrine. The Catholic Church is now much more aware that it has to relate its statements to other religions. A Joint Commission for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue” declared in 2002: “While the Catholic Church regards the saving act of Christ as central to the process of salvation for all, it also acknowledges that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God.” ccxliii There is no explanation given for what to many people might seem incompatible claims. The “ambiguities” in the statement led to a Vatican document in 2009 that upset many Jewish leaders. The journey along the rocky road of trying to find compatible language continues.ccxliv

The Christian who says to the non-Christian “you are saved because you are unknowingly a follower of Christ” may be offering the highest compliment that the Christian can offer. However, Christians have to realize that what is offered as a compliment may be received as an insult. This is especially the case in Christian-Jewish relations because of past conflicts. A Buddhist might not be offended by being told he is Christ-like, just as the Buddhist may offer the Christian the compliment that he or she has a true Buddha-nature. But Christians had better refrain from complementing a Jew as a follower of Christ – at least for another millennium or two.

Jewish Logic. Christianity’s historical aggressiveness presents a more obvious problem than the one that Jewish religion has. Nonetheless, the logic of Judaism is similar. The misunderstanding of that logic in the gentile world is widespread. Three key terms that Jewish religion uses to link particular and universal are chosen, Torah, and covenant. Each term is an obviously particular word with specific references in Jewish history. Nevertheless, each term also points, in a Jewish way of speaking, to an all-embracing universality.

The Jewish claim to be the chosen people sounds outrageously arrogant to many gentiles. Some modern Jewish writers try to soften the claim or avoid the claim to be the chosen, but it is the central Jewish claim. God chose “his people.” The prayer book, Gates of Prayer, says: “We must praise the Lord of all, the Maker of heaven and earth, who has set us apart from the other families of earth, giving us a destiny unique among the nations.”ccxlv

If chosenness were an achievement and a possession of the Jewish people, it would be a claim to moral superiority. But chosenness is said to be a burden, the place where responsibility lies. In the Bible the burden is usually Israel’s but it can suddenly shift. “Blessed be Egypt my people and Assyria the work of my hands and Israel my heritage.”(Isa. 19:25).ccxlvi When the Egyptian soldiers who were chasing the Israelites drowned in the Red Sea, the angels in heaven began to sing. God stopped them and said: “My children lie drowned in the sea and you would sing”?ccxlvii

This occasional reversal is a reminder to the Jewish people that the real chosen people are people; that Israel is a stand-in for the vulnerable creature that God placed in the middle of the garden. The unique destiny cited in the above prayer is not an exclusion of gentiles but openness to all humanity. Jewish thought at its best has always recognized this vocation: “The election of Israel constitutes in no sense an exception; it is rather the symbolic confirmation of the love of God for the whole race of man”.ccxlviii

The term Torah involves the same logic. “When Torah came into the world, freedom came into the world.” Torah is a term that starts out as the instruction of a parent to a child. It becomes the name for God’s revelation to Moses and thereby the center of Jewish life. Although Torah is a term unknown to most non-Jews, the Talmud premises the salvation of the gentile on the fact that he or she “engages in Torah.”ccxlix How can someone engage in Torah who either has never heard of it or wishes no part in Jewish life?

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