There is an iconic and painful story told of the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann was the highest official in the Nazi hierarchy who was brought to trial after the war. His crimes were historic in their wickedness. The tales of horror that unfolded during the proceedings remain etched in the collective conscience of humanity. After he was condemned to death, a Christian pastor asked the Israeli court for permission to see him and encourage him to repent.

Do you mean, one of the justices asked incredulously, that if Eichmann accepts Jesus he will go to heaven, and yet all his Jewish victims will go to hell?

That, replied the pastor, is the miracle of salvation.

For a non-Christian, such a story is hard to credit. Historically, Jews have been accused of dismissing the spiritual claims of others through the idea of "chosenness." Yet the Jewish tradition does not claim that one must be Jewish to be saved. The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come, insists the Talmud in a phrase repeated by Maimonides and many other Jewish thinkers. Surely, that is more ecumenical than a faith that insists salvation comes only through one way of believing?

From a Jewish perspective, the Newsweek/Beliefnet poll results indicating increasing acceptance in the Christian community that God’s embrace is larger than any single tradition are encouraging. The picture they paint is also philosophically complex, even perplexing.

Monotheistic faiths have a certain imperialism built into them. If there is one God, and God has given a people a certain way of worshipping, then surely God wishes that for all creation? The sacrifice of Jesus is made pointless, according to some, if people disregard his sacrifice. The message of Muhammad, many would argue, is trivialized by discrediting his prophetic status.

Each tradition solves this problem its own way. Judaism insisted that God had a special plan for the Jewish people, but it did not include that everyone become Jewish; it was the recognition of one God that was important, and from there each had a path to follow. For Christians traditionally the answer was that the entire world had to be brought to recognition of Jesus as the messiah.

Believing in one’s own faith, but accepting that God might allow others to follow a separate path, might be seen as part of the maturation of traditions. Pluralism, far from being an inability to believe, is an ability to conceive of the other--that there are convictions as deep, reasons as sound, experiences as profound as one’s own that nonetheless point in other directions. All of us, of every faith, grow when we recognize the partiality of our own perceptions.

As the world opens, we are subject to disturbing images, to be sure, but also to the manifold varieties of human life. After the devastating Asian tsunami, we learned of a tribe, the Moken people in the Andamen Sea who speak a language that has no word for “when” and no word for “want.” Their experience of the world must be profoundly different from my own. I cannot understand it, but neither can I discount it. I believe in the one God who created a diversity of ideas, and surely would not bar the way to eternity to those whose convictions about the world differ from my own.

Perhaps the most important response to the dilemma of salvation was given by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1809-1883). He said most people worry about their own bodies and other’s souls, but true piety consists in worrying about other’s bodies and one’s own soul.

We do not know who will get into heaven--as Rabbi Salanter said to his students, “After all, what makes you so sure you’ll be standing at the gate?”--but we do know our responsibilities on this earth. It is, as the prophet Micah teaches, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. As I understand it, walking humbly with God means, as so many of my Christian sisters and brothers agree, allowing God to make the decisions about salvation, in the fullness of time, and the greatness of divine wisdom.

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