At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

One of the (Roman Catholic) Mass readings this past Sunday was from the Acts of the Apostles.  In this reading, Peter says: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (10:34).

During his homily, my priest and pastor of many years shared his version of an old joke so as to illustrate what he presented as the meaning of Peter’s remark:

A Protestant of one of the thousands of Protestant denominations in existence dies and goes to Heaven. Upon entering the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter proceeds to show him around.  Eventually—this is the punchline to which the joke leads—he encounters a huge wall.  On the other side, Peter explains, are the Catholics.  “Are they in Hell?” the Protestant asks.  “Not at all,” Peter replies.  “They just like to imagine that they’re the only ones here!”

With Catholics of an older generation, my priest noted, this joke carries more resonance than it promises to carry with younger Catholics (and non-Catholics).  The sentiment hearkens back to a time when Catholics believed that only Catholics would inherit the Kingdom.  But my priest’s point in sharing this joke was most definitely not to wax nostalgic.  His objective was to insure that the “exclusionary” sensibility that prevailed in the bad old days would not raise its ugly head again.

In my priest’s variation of this joke, you see, while the newest addition to the Heavenly community sees Baptists and other Protestant Christians, he also sees Muslims praying on their prayer rugs and Jews worshipping in their own distinctive ways.

Christ offers the gift of salvation to all, my priest reiterated.  He then referred to the notion of the “Anonymous Christian,” an idea developed by the 20th century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner that was later endorsed by the Church during Vatican II.

“‘Anonymous Christianity’,” Rahner explains, “means that a person”—like, say, “a Buddhist monk”—“lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity.” Because this person “follows his conscience,” he “attains salvation and lives in the grace of God.”  Such a person, Rahner declares, is “an anonymous Christian” (emphasis added).

Rahner supplies an argument for his conclusion.  Unless he infers that a person, like a Buddhist monk, is an anonymous Christian, “I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that…simply has nothing to do with Christ.”  This Rahner is not willing to do. Thus, “if I hold [that]…everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity” (emphasis added).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “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—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

According to the document Dominus Iesus, God “makes himself present in many ways…to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors.’” Hence, “the sacred books of other religions…receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.”

For those residents of the contemporary Western world, particularly those residents who self-identify as Christian, the doctrine of Anonymous Christianity is bound to be appealing.  It’s emphatically inclusive and inclusiveness, after all, is the one value to which the Western world of 2018 pays endless lip service.  Yet Christians, though in the world, are not of it.

Is the doctrine of Anonymous Christianity true?  This is the only relevant question.

From what this Catholic is able to discern, one should think twice before embracing it.

First, Catholics have long maintained that God, being the Author of Truth—being Truth itself—is present wherever truth manifests itself, both within and beyond the Christian universe.  More specifically, Saints Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas—two towering intellectual giants of the Catholic tradition—are representative of Christian theologians from the late classical and medieval periods who recognized in, say, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, “the many ways” in which God chose to “present” Himself.

These Catholic Christians from yesteryear, however, did not think that because these pagan geniuses made intimations to God that they were Christians.

Second, of course, the analogy between, on the one hand, the ancient Greeks and, on the other, our contemporaries of other traditions is a weak one, for unlike the latter, the former heard neither of Christ nor His Gospel.  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle could not have “expressly recognized Christ.”  It was truly “through no fault of their own” that they did “not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church,” for the advent of Christ was still centuries in the future.

Matters are dramatically otherwise, though, with respect to contemporary Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Taoists, Jews, Muslims, secular Humanists, and legions of others—i.e. those millions and possibly billions who most certainly have heard of Christ and the Gospel but who choose to reject both.

Third, this choice on the part of non-Christians may not be conscious and spontaneous, but this is irrelevant, for beliefs of any sort are never the products of explicit, spontaneous choice.  Rather, beliefs are intellectual habits that are produced gradually, through series of countless choices.

And every time a non-Christian, though aware of the fact that approximately 2 billion or so of his fellow human beings from around the globe and, not infrequently, from his own society, denies that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he makes a choice.

Fourth, the logic on the basis of which Rahner argues for Anonymous Christianity is obviously flawed.  He presents a false dichotomy: Either explicit, recognizable non-Christians receive salvation from Christ or they receive salvation from some other source.  Since the latter alternative is no alternative at all, according to Rahner, the only available option is the former.

Yet there are at least two other alternatives:

(a)There are indeed those who, despite having lived decent lives, will not receive salvation because, in refusing to embrace Christ as the Savior of the human race, they refused to avail themselves of the gift of salvation that He offered them.

(b)There are indeed decent non-Christians who will receive salvation.  But they must, at some juncture—and not necessarily while they remain in this world—acknowledge that they had been mistaken and that Jesus is God and Savior.

Option (b) is viable, particularly for Catholics who believe that there is an intermediate spiritual state between this world and Heaven.

Even Protestant Christians can concede that for God “all things are possible.”

The point, however, is that Rahner’s case for Anonymous Christianity is fallacious.

Fifth, neither does the Catholic Church’s argument for this doctrine fare any better.  It depends upon, at best, the fallacy of equivocation.  “Those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church,” as long as they seek God with sincerity and aspire to act in a Godly manner, will, by His grace, achieve salvation.  This is the claim.

Knowledge can be understood in more than one sense, as can “through no fault of their own.”  Socrates cannot be held responsible for not knowing the Gospel of Christ and His Church.  It was through no fault of Socrates that there was no Gospel of Christ and His Church for him to know at the time at which he lived.

It seems that the Church is equating those, like Socrates, who couldn’t possibly have heard of the Gospel and the Church to the contemporary adherents of non-Christian traditions who, having spent their entire lives in non-Christian cultures, were less likely to “know” Christ than they would’ve been had they been raised in a place in which Christianity was more prevalent. And, of course, the circumstances in which they were raised obtained “through no fault of their own.”

Yet Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Confucians, and Taoists know of the Gospel and the Church. That they have a constrained range of beliefs from which to choose does not mean that they are oblivious to the existence of the Gospel and the Church. Everyone must reckon with a limited range of choices.  Do those who reside within what was once known as Christendom and who reject Christ receive salvation too if they received little to no religious education while being reared within irreligious homes?

That the Church resorts to ambiguous and misleading language to support it strengthens the suspicion that the doctrine of Anonymous Christianity is cooked.

In conclusion, while Rahner, the Church, and my priest are correct in maintaining that God offers salvation to all and that all can receive it, no salvation is possible for a person unless he chooses to embrace Christ as his Lord and Savior.



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