Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Religious Diversity and Anonymous Christians

There are many religions out there. They make very different and often inconsistent claims about God and other religious matters and practices, so they can’t all be right. To truly accept a particular religion must be to believe that truth, the truth, and salvation are located within that religion alone, not the other religions which disagree with it. But at the same time most theists believe that God is merciful, just, benevolent, and good, with humans’ best interests at heart.

And that’s a problem.

For whatever your particular religion might be it seems clear that most people will not obtain salvation through it. The problem isn’t so much with the many who may explicitly reject your particular faith, for at least they can be said to have freely chosen to decline salvation. Rather it’s with the millions who never have or had any opportunity even to know about your religion--who lived long before your religion arose, or who live or have lived in nations, cultures, or remote areas never infiltrated by your religion. For something seems very wrong with a “benevolent“ God quite literally hiding the sole means of salvation from the vast majority of people, condemning them, in effect, through no fault of their own.

As Karl Rahner (1904-1984), a Catholic theologian, puts the problem, true Christians must believe that the only salvation is through Jesus Christ, available by supernatural grace to all and only those who have the proper faith in and relationship to him. They also must believe that the good and benevolent God desires the salvation of all people. Yet millions of people lived either before Christ or, if after, in places where they never could even hear of Christ.

But now, Rahner replies, if God desires the salvation of all and there is no salvation apart from Christ, then the conclusion is obvious: every human being must really and truly be exposed to the divine grace by means of which God communicates Himself. Every human being is in fact provided with the opportunity to accept or reject Christianity.

Even those who never had the opportunity to hear about Christ.

How could that be?

It is plausible (Rahner suggests) that, given our social nature, human beings are incapable of achieving the proper relationship to God purely on our own, divorced from the organized religions in our social environment. Moreover it is implausible to expect of most individuals the ability to escape their immediate religions, no matter how critical an attitude they might have towards it on particular matters. So if, as must be the case, every individual has the possibility of obtaining salvation but yet is unavoidably bound up with his immediate religion, it follows that he must have that possibility of salvation within that religion. And if salvation is truly available through Christianity alone (as a Christian must believe), then it must be that Christianity itself is somehow present within that religion.

It may not be easy to see, in all the world’s religions, any explicit traces of specifically Christian grace. But perhaps, Rahner suggests, one could see if one looks more deeply, and with more love, at the non-Christian religions, for it must be there. Indeed Christianity ought not simply confront members of other religions as mere non-Christians, but rather as people who must already be regarded in some respects as anonymous Christians. Whatever specific religious concepts they may explicitly have, those concepts must in the end contain implicitly the knowledge that their lives are oriented in grace-given salvation towards Jesus Christ.

Even if they’ve never even heard of him.

(1) Karl Rahner, “Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions,” in Theological Investigations, vol 5 (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1966). Excerpts reprinted in John Lyden, ed., Enduring Issues in Religion (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1995).
(2) “Observations on the Problem of the ‘Anonymous Christian,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 14 (New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1976). Excerpts reprinted in John Lyden, ed., Enduring Issues in Religion (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1995).