For years now, I have been saying that the two most controversial subjects in American religion are sex and salvation.
Obviously this shows up (GetReligion drinking game alert!) in the questions that make up the tmatt trio. Let’s review those questions again, for reasons that will be obvious very shortly. All together now:
(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?
And, you may recall, when trying to define doctrinal boundaries in Anglican disputes I add a special bonus question that is, in a way, linked to question No. 2. That question is: Should churches in the Anglican Communion ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?
This is a rather basic question, but one that is directly linked to any discussion of salvation. As the question is often stated, do all religious paths lead to the top of the same mountain? Are there beliefs that are eternally right and others that are eternally wrong? Are all religions true, even when they teach that others are false? Is everyone going to heaven — if there is such a place — no matter what they believe or do? As sociologist James Davison Hunter (his name should be in the GetReligion Dr Pepper drinking game, too) has stated, is the primary divide in contemporary life between those who believe that absolute, eternal truths exist and those who do not and, thus, put their faith in evolving, experiential concepts of truth?
You can see this issue rumbling around in the very first question posted at the massive new On Faith site operated by the Rt. Rev. Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, on behalf of the Washington Post/Newsweek empire.
If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation?
It’s all in the word “monopoly.” Of course, it could be that Meacham and Quinn have a monopoly on truth when they imply that millions of believers are wrong when they believe that their faith contains some absolute truths. You have to watch out for those mature freethinkers who are absolutely sure that there are no absolute truths, other than their own absolute truth that there are no absolute truths. It’s kind of a Zen thing.
You can also see this basic question looming over that Jeffrey Weiss news feature last weekend in The Dallas Morning News, the one with the kicky headline “Whose soul is saved, and who gets roasted?” Here’s the heart of the story:
Who does go to hell?
Many people don’t believe in hell at all. Non-Christian faiths have their own take, of course. Judaism, the religion that birthed Christianity, teaches of the eternal nature of the soul, a divine judgment and a mostly undefined “World to Come.” But specifics are left up to God.
Islam is more like Christianity, with concrete traditions of paradise and hell. Who ends up where is a matter of how well the person submitted to God’s will while alive. Hindus and Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation, so the evil done in one life is atoned for down the road — a road on earth.
Modern Christianity has many answers to who goes to hell. On the one extreme are universalists who say that a loving God could leave nobody in eternal torment. On the other are strict Calvinists who say that God picked a small elect for paradise before the world was created, and everyone else is simply stuck in the Handbasket to Hard Times.
The Christian discussion generally starts with this passage from the Gospel of John: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Weiss has collected a dizzying amount of detail about what different religions teach on the heaven and hell issue, including the doctrines of groups whose teachings have evolved and softened through the centuries. But you end up with the same logical problem: How can all of these world religions be right when some of them clearly teach truths that clash? This is especially true when dealing with missionary faiths such as Islam and traditional Christianity.
And what if you had a church or a global communion in which clergy — bishops and archbishops — had clashing views on this crucial doctrine? What if they could not agree on whether their faith was based on eternal truths? What if they could not agree on whether key events, take the resurrection for example, actually happened? What if they clashed over how to define certain doctrines or even sacraments, such as those linked to marriage and family? What if they disagreed over the path to salvation?
Then you’d probably have a giant conflict that would create lots of headlines and stories that would really test the skills of the journalists who had to cover leaders on both sides of this conflict in a fair and accurate manner. Yes, that would be quite a test.
So the salvation issue is out there and, in my opinion, is much more important than the debates over marriage and sexuality. For example, pay close attention to this exchange in a Here & Now radio interview between Robin Young and the new leader of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:
RY: Time asked you an interesting question, we thought, “Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?” And your answer, equally interesting, you said, “We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.” And I read that and I said, “What are you: a Unitarian?!?” [laughs]
What are you — that is another concern for people, because, they say Scripture says that Jesus says he was The Light and The Way and the only way to God the Father.
KJS: Christians understand that Jesus is the route to God. Umm — that is not to say that Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jains, come to God in a radically different way. They come to God through … human experience … through human experience of the divine. Christians talk about that in terms of Jesus.
RY: So you’re saying there are other ways to God.
KJS: Uhh … human communities have always searched for relationship that which is beyond them … with the ultimate … with the divine. For Christians, we say that our route to God is through Jesus. Uhh … uh … that doesn’t mean that a Hindu … uh … doesn’t experience God except through Jesus. It says that Hindus and people of other faith traditions approach God through their … own cultural contexts; they relate to God, they experience God in human relationships, as well as ones that transcend human relationships; and Christians would say those are our experiences of Jesus; of God through the experience of Jesus.
I think that means “Yes.” And I think there are millions of Anglicans who disagree. And there is no way to cover the heaven-and-hell story without talking to people on both sides and wrestling with the fine details of their beliefs. Congrats to Weiss at The Dallas Morning News for taking a shot at that. Ditto for the producers at Here & Now. This is an issue that is hidden between the lines of many other news stories on the religion beat.
Photos from The Dancing Silk Company.