What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?
(Fooled you. . . . I bet you thought from the title that this was a Bob or Joe post not a Cathleen post , didn’t you!)
A couple of posts below, there is an interesting conversation on the recent Pew Forum Study, which shows that a substantial portion of the American population (10 percent) are ex-Catholics. The discussion centers around the answers that the Church is providing to American Catholics –too much ritual, too little ritual, too much structure, too little structure, too many demands, too few demands.
I’d like to take the discussion back a level–and look at Christianity in more general terms. This Pope is worried about evangelization–not merely in the context of localized disputes among Christians, but in the broader, global context where Christianity itself is affirmed only by approximately one fifth of the world’s population, and where Christians have ready access to people of other faiths.
So what are the obstacles to evangelization? How does one evangelize? It seems to me that the first step is not to provide people with the answers, but to convince them that one is framing the problem in the right way. As anyone who has taken any Intro to World Religion course knows, the major world religions do not provide different answers to the same problem; in most cases, they ask very different questions. For someone who wants to see an examination of this question within a Catholic framework, see (JA DiNoia, The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective).
The basic problem that Christianity sets itself out as answering is the one from the Gospel of Luke: “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” That problem would be unintelligible as a problem to most Buddhists, who want, not heaven, but to escape the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.
I think it’s worth considering whether and how people relate to the problem identified in the Gospel in contemporary first-world countries. I see several basic lines of resistance to this way of framing the problem. First, there has always been worry–and resistance–in Christianity to the idea that God has favorites. Judaism saw itself as in a unique covenant partnership with God, and Christianity continued that idea with the idea of a Church whose true membership was the elect –those who were given divine grace. Some people, through no merit of their own, received it grace; others, for no reason, were denied it. Most preachers (for a stark example, read Calvin) emphasized that we cannot know–and must not attempt to know –God’s eternal will. For many centuries, the urgency behind the need to evangelize was the need to impetus people from eternal damnation–certainly, that impetus can be seen in the Pauline corpus. Over time, Catholicism has finessed the question; Vatican II affirms that God can save people outside the Christian fold who live morally upright and pious lives.
But the problems do not disappear. First, influenced by democratic thought, which itself is influenced by the Christian conviction that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, many people are repelled by the idea of an arbitrary and capricious God who does not give all people an equal chance to love and to know Him. The call for human beings to treat all people as made in the imago dei loses much of its moral force if God Himself treats the vast majority of humanity as if they were throw-aways, to be cast forever into the pit. Interestingly enough, the moral call of Catholicism to respect human dignity in every instance can be turned back on God himself, to call into question the picture of a heaven where the elect few will reside in bliss, and a hell where the damned masses will undergo eternal torments. The idea that God is the Lord of life and death, who can do what He wants, whereas we simply don’t have the power, doesn’t touch the underlying moral issues any more, if it ever did. No lord should have that power. The underlying problem is this: Is a divine being who behaves this way worthy of worship?
But doesn’t the Catholic way of finessing the problem make the problem disappear–God provides for the morally upright of all religions? God does give people an equal chance? Yes and no, depending upon how you conceive of the moral life. Here is the second basic line of resistance. Many sociological and psychological studies show that morality is not simply something one chooses; parental love, support, education, nutrition, etc. all have something to do with it. Many of the “monsters” on death row have had something monstrous done to them. To say that life’s fortunate–the ones who get the good genes, the good parents, the good upbringing, in any society, will also get eternal life, seems to undermine the great reversals of the beatitudes. The poor are disproportionately the ones in jail. The poor, it seems, will be disproportionately the ones in hell too.
Furthermore, as the Pope knows, we’re walking a fine line. If God does give everyone an equal chance, if no one is his favorite, then what is the point of evangelization? It can’t be to win eternal salvation– it must be something else, such as to better know and love God. But in this case, the fundamental question of Christianity has been altered in a fairly significant way. The same question can be asked of theologians like Balthasar (whom I find deeply attractive on this point) in his Dare We Hope that All Men Might be Saved?
What about the attractions of eternal life? Interestingly enough, I think here, too, work needs to be done. The idea of eternal life–of paradise–was formulated in a time and place where life, for most people, was nasty, brutish, and short. In the United States, and in Europe, we suffer from a different problem–ennui, boredom, a slowly freezing sense of despair. The idea of eternal life, as generally formulated–doesn’t begin to touch the emotional problems of first world countries. It seems to be more of the same–and who wants that? In such a context, it seems that may people find the Buddhist notion of release from the endless cycle to be more appealing.
At any rate, I agree with John McGreevy and Peter Steinfels that using the Pew study to push our ideological lines isn’t going to help anyone long term. I also think there are deeper questions at stake. My own increasing sense is that the key points for further reflection aren’t at the level of the answers, but at the level of the fundamental question itself. That’s where the greatest challenge to Christianity lies, at least in developed countries.