The Pope made quite a stir last week when he said that even atheists are redeemed and can meet Catholics on the bridge of good works and love. To a former Catholic like me that was a surprising statement, having been thoroughly trained at the hands of many nuns and priests in the nuances of mortal and venial sins, purgatory, the necessity of the sacrament of confession (which is what we called it then), of staying true to the Catholic church and her teachings (and this included never attending a protestant service), apostolic and papal authority and tradition, and so many other admonitions for avoiding the fires of hell.Of course the Vatican ended up having to walk back the Pope’s comments but it was fun while it lasted, and the possibilities of what such an inclusive shift could have meant to the religious and political discourse were intriguing and electrifying. Perhaps in my lifetime I would actually get relief from what I believed from my earliest religious memories were impossible, unjust and unethical institutional teachings that I was forced to accept somehow at the risk of eternal hell, an idea too abstract and terrible for a child.
I posted a link to the Pope’s statement on my Facebook wall and wrote for the headline, “What?! The gates of heaven have been wide open all this time, no matter what anyone believes or not?” The thread generated 445 comments (so far) on all kinds of things including posts on the use of Bible prophecy as proof of Christianity. One of the thread’s bunny trails was from a friend who did not believe there was much daylight between essential Catholic and Protestant teachings, especially those that would be critical for passage into heaven (always the main concern). Back and forth it went and ultimately ended with his inquiry to a relative who he said was an “expert” in Catholicism and a scholar (of what and with what certification I do not know, but I take him at his word). Here’s what was written and posted:
Insofar as I understand the Pope’s recent statement (and I’m not a theologian), he means something like this. Most of us have contradictory beliefs. We don’t always think we do; our beliefs seem consistent to us. But push us hard, and we’ll find that we have lots of inconsistent, contradictory beliefs. So, someone who says (sincerely) he thinks there is no God could still (without realizing it) believe in God’s message.
Appealing to the idea that we see people’s beliefs best in how they act, if people act on the principles of love and truth, they are living out the principles of the Gospel and believe in its central message. This even extends to a personal relationship with God. The idea (I think) is that we can have relationships with people without really knowing who they are. We feel the movement of grace in our lives, and we may not realize it; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. And the movement of grace can urge us on to live the message of the Gospel.
The Biblical warrant for the claim is scattered, but is found in such texts as when Jesus identifies himself as the Truth, or when he says that what one does to the least of his brothers is done unto him. The idea seems to be that God moves us to live in his ways, and in loving the truth, and in loving our neighbor, we are loving God (whether we are aware of that or not).
The business about the contradictory beliefs is, I think, clearly true. The business about being Christian without realizing it is a lot more speculative (like being Christian without a license). But none of this can happen without God’s grace, so just “being good” is not enough. At least, that’s the way I think the claim is supposed to be taken.
And thus the thread ended. It was a more gracious note and tone and I think we were all happy to be done with it; until now. There are some things about this that I just have not been able to shake. Let’s have a closer look.
So Far, So Good
I have no problem at all with the first few sentences. It is true that we have contradictory beliefs and that we think our own are consistent. We also will find, if we are honest with ourselves and what we claim to believe and actually put some effort and legitimate study into understanding the things we believe, that we do hold inconsistent and contradictory beliefs. It’s part of being human, and I think that it’s part of becoming a mature human to confront those contradictions head-on, even though that suggestion directly argues against the holding of dogma.
So, someone who says (sincerely) he thinks there is no God could still (without realizing it) believe in God’s message.
Things go downhill from here, beginning first with some hard-core question-begging. Perhaps a better way of saying this would have been, “someone who says (sincerely) he thinks there is no God could still (without realizing it) believe in what I believe to be God’s message. But to assume that it IS God’s message negates whatever good will there may have been in the attempt towards fellowship and unity with unbelievers. It asserts that “we are correct,” that the message is God’s, and the unbeliever is mistaken in thinking that the source of “God’s message” has not been proved to begin with. There’s something subtly pernicious about this.
Love, Truth and the Gospel
If people act on the principles of love and truth, they are living out the principles of the Gospel and believe in its central message. This even extends to a personal relationship with God.
Love and truth existed of course in practice all over the world, long before the existence of Canaanites and the Jews, and before any of the Judeo-Christian scriptures appeared or were conceived. Now perhaps it can be argued that even though there were no scriptures in earlier times, that love and truth are still not possible without God, who only later codified things in the scriptures. There is no evidence for that of course, and we are into more question-begging. We simply must assume the claim and assent blindly to the premise.
Which is more reasonable given the facts and what we know about the origins of man, families, societies and religion – that love and truth are the Johnny-come-lately of human existence, only after the Judeo-Christian God created them, or that those religions that have made love and truth central to their message instead crafted that message after what we have known all along is universally central and vital to humanity? Unlike the chicken and the egg riddle, this one has an answer.
Cogito Ergo Sum
The idea (I think) is that we can have relationships with people without really knowing who they are.
This is true. But what is more true is that I cannot have a relationship with people without knowing that they are.
We feel the movement of grace in our lives, and we may not realize it; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. And the movement of grace can urge us on to live the message of the Gospel.
First we have to have a definition for the word “grace.” The one I remember from my own evangelical days in church is; “Mercy is not getting what you deserve and grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” A bit trite and over-simplistic perhaps, but implicit in that is the idea of a gift, a bestowal of sorts.
Dictionary.com defines it thus (I have included the last three definitions because the first two have to do with charm and beauty, presumably not what is meant in this post):
3. favor or goodwill. Synonyms: kindness, kindliness, love, benignity; condescension.
4. a manifestation of favor, especially by a superior: It was only through the dean’s grace that I wasn’t expelled from school. Synonyms: forgiveness, charity, mercifulness. Antonyms: animosity, enmity, disfavor.
5. mercy; clemency; pardon: He was saved by an act of grace from the governor. Synonyms: lenity, leniency, reprieve. Antonyms: harshness.
Of course I agree that grace is real. It seems patently obvious that such actions towards me by anyone, acts of kindness and good will, do invite me to consider my own station in life and lead me to take inventory of my own capacity and practice of kindness towards others. It is a humbling and liberating feeling and experience, restoring my faith in mankind and in myself. But where in this definition or in this practice is there any requirement for God? Where is the evidence that this originates from any specific god?
Isn’t this like love and truth, pre-existent and superior to any religious context or scripture? Yes, the movement of grace in my life motivates and animates me to act in kind to others, but I do not need to make that a religious phenomenon. It is universal to the human condition and not dependent on any religious belief system or deity. Like love and truth, religion has made grace central to their message but has crafted that message after what has all along been universally human without the requirement of faith. To the extent that the gospel message is one of love, truth and grace, yes, grace does urge me to live that message. But I do not need to qualify it as the gospel message. It is simply the realization of our highest human capacity and we all have that capacity as members of the human race.
The idea seems to be that God moves us to live in his ways, and in loving the truth, and in loving our neighbor, we are loving God (whether we are aware of that or not).
More question-begging, more co-opting of the human experience for religious purposes and ends. I am not moved to live in any God’s ways, I am moved to follow my human heart and capacity for love. It is simply the writer’s claim that these are uniquely “God’s ways.” Children do this before they have any religious awareness at all. Claiming that it is sourced and rooted in God is nothing more than just saying that it is – a belief. There is nothing to back it up.
What would be convincing? Well for me, if adherents of any faith that made such claims were the only ones who exhibited these outcomes, that would be compelling! I’d even go so far as to say that if they were only just better at, or had more mastery of love, truth and grace, that would make a stronger case. We do not see this at all.
Baptism for the Dead
The business about being Christian without realizing it is a lot more speculative (like being Christian without a license). But none of this can happen without God’s grace, so just “being good” is not enough.
Circular reasoning is using the thing you’re trying to prove to prove what you’re trying to prove. If I can construct the logic here, what we have so far is:
- I need God’s grace to love
- Love is equated with doing good (see Frances’ statement).
- Those who love and do good are following God even if they don’t realize it.
- Just being good is not enough.
This is another pernicious claim, but this one is not so subtle. It attempts to supersede or preempt what I claim for myself, for my own identity, that I am not a Christian. It does so by telling me that I am Christian if I love, even though I don’t realize it or have “a license,” and that it’s the Christian god causing this in the first place. This feels a lot to me like it does when I read about the Mormons conducting baptismal ceremonies for the dead including Jews who died in the Holocaust. It wipes out their own religious preferences and identification against their own and their families wills.
What harm is there in any of this? Why can’t people just believe what they want to believe? If someone really wants to put all this in the context of their own religion, what’s the danger in that?
These are fair questions. In my “coming out” interview, I wrote about how I see the co-opting of human phenomena by religion.
I don’t think that religion or faith are necessary for us to become complete human beings, to love, to have a strong and pure sense of morals and ethics. Religion and faith can do a lot of harm. I am told they can do a lot of good too, although I think it’s also possible that the good could just as easily be done outside religion. But good is good, love is love, and wherever it comes from is fine with me. It’s just that love and good so often have to take this long detour through doctrine, dogma, speculation, mental exercises, contrivances and convolutions before it gets to love. I am inclined toward complete acceptance and respect of others’ beliefs.
My preference, as I wrote then, is to simply accept anything anybody else wants to believe – unless and until it becomes harmful. I have already pointed out that some of the claims above are disrespectful at the very least, and in the first case could have been avoided by simply re-wording the claim. So let me ask some questions of my own.
- Do you think your belief system is the only way, the highest truth?
- Do you think your belief system is clearly the best way and that others’ are wrong?
- Do you think you have anything as a result of your faith that is not available to all others?
- Is compliance with central tenets required to realize love as fully as humanly possible?
- Are you closer to all that is good and loving because of what you believe and confess?
- Do you vote on policies impacting others based only on your beliefs, scriptures and religious authority?
- Do you believe your religion and only your religion has the right to be represented in monuments, plaques or other displays on public property, and in prayers in public meetings?
- Do you know what constitutes “sin” and will these sins condemn you to eternal torment?
- Do you interpret your scriptures literally?
I consider an affirmative answer to any of these questions a red flag and a warning to me that the seeds of harm are fertile in those beliefs and that its practitioner is not safe. This is why it matters. I don’t believe that believers are inherently bad or harmful in their hearts. But I do believe many people are prisoners to a religious worldview outside of which they believe it is not possible to be moral, to love, to reach our highest potential as a specie. Many people continue to believe untenable and ridiculous things because they have no context for a meaningful life outside of their religion, away from their God-ideal, no matter how outlandish the things they are asked to believe and how indefensible many of its doctrines, ethics and morals. It is simply too ingrained.
Love is the umbrella over all of humanity. Love is what unites us. Love is the pinnacle of the human experience. Religion would often have it the other way around, with doctrine and correct beliefs most important, and its specific doctrines more important than anything. It divides us.
We must resist and counter any attempt by religion to co-opt or assimilate love or any of the other universal human experiences or conditions because it didn’t originate there, nor does any of it belong or reside exclusively or even primarily in the realm of religion. There is no religion that is required or essential as a framework or context for anything related to the human experience. If you insist on using religion as a framework, please let it do no harm. Love is the big umbrella under which religion resides, not the other way around.