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The Blessed Company of All Faithful People, Part II

The Blessed Company of All Faithful People, Part II

by Donald Schell

My colleague Rick Fabian took a questioning hymn title, “Who are these like stars appearing?” to lay out the logic of St. Gregory’s messy blurring of the boundary of Christ’s Body and God’s work transforming humankind. And to the same end, I’m continuing a reflection on the startling descriptive phrase from the old Prayer Book and Rite I,

“The mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people”

In Part I of this piece, I spoke of the considerable joy I felt reading C.S. Lewis description of a last judgment scene in his Narnia series where Aslan welcomes Emeth, a vaguely Muslim-seeming “Calormene” into the community of blessing. Through his whole lifelong worship of the “dark” god Tash, Emeth had imagined Aslan was an enemy he feared and loathed. At the end Aslan explains to him, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”

The passage is dense with contradiction. It’s a fictional moment of grace and reconciliation. It’s also a small piece of a broader picture that prompted fantasy writer Phillip Pullman to call C.S. Lewis, “blatantly racist.” The Calormene enemies of Aslan are darker skinned than the good folk of Narnia. Lewis described their clothing, weapons and architecture apparently drawing images from Turkish Islam. And, except for tiny instances like the one I mentioned, the Calormene are unrepentant in their war on Aslan, the Christ figure and have no place in Aslan’s final reconciliation and redemption.

I felt wonder and joy at Aslan’s welcome of Emeth because I’d grown up with teachers who emphasized that our choice for “personal knowledge of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior” would send us one by one to heaven or hell. Aslan’s acceptance of the Good Faith of Emeth’s flawed practice helped move me to become an Episcopalian. I didn’t want God’s embrace and welcome for me to come at the cost of countless people in distant times and places who “couldn’t know God.”

What moved me was Lewis’s assertion of something like Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christianity” which I discovered a decade or more later. In Rahner’s words –

Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity — Let us say, a Buddhist monk — who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

“…a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ.”

In a world of hellfire preaching, compassion grasps for any and all hope for the salvation of those who don’t share our faith. I don’t think I knew any Buddhists when I was growing up in suburban California. I certainly didn’t know any Buddhist monks. So, at least in my U.S. West Coast experience, my 1950’s and 1960’s compassion was for people a distance away. At an earlier point it seemed like “everyone” went to church. As I started to notice that I had Jewish friends and I began wondering about their not confessing faith in Jesus. That’s where it came close to home. But I heard furlough talks and slide shows from the missionaries a lot and knew I didn’t want to carry the burden that God’s condemning someone to hell might be an article of “my faith.”

I don’t believe in hell anymore. When a younger evangelical like Rob Bell argues in Love Wins for an empty hell, I appreciate what he’s saying and admire the courage it takes him in his particular Christian context to say it, but my own faith and hope lie in a different direction. I’ve come to hope in a God who suffers with anyone experiencing hell in life, who blesses just and unjust alike, and who dies with the forgotten. Bell’s title, Love Wins, speaks much more immediately to me than his empty hell. I’m less and less interested in second guessing a last judgment and, hoping and trusting that love is indeed stronger than death, I’m still more interested day to day in finding the power and love of God present among us, like the African Gospel song that speaks one hope for present moment and whatever follows it – “God welcomes all, strangers and friends, God’s love is strong and it never ends.”

Just what do Episcopalians mean by “salvation?” A lot of different things, of course. I think salvation has little to do with “where we end up” and everything to do with God’s work reconciling us to each other and to God, moving closer to our embrace of one another in God now and forever.

Bishop Kilmer Myers retired just before I came to the diocese California. I met him a couple of times before I’d come back home and once after, and I know that people who loved him found him an inspiring, holy, and sometimes conflicted figure. I heard stories of storytelling conversations he carried on and sustained with Navajo healers that led them to baptism and of how he’d introduced Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara to the people of the diocese challenging rich donors he most counted on and loved. And in this context, I recall the story of a televised dialogue between Bishop Myers and Rinpoche Tartang Tulku, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher who founded Berkeley’s Nyingma Institute, just across San Francisco Bay from Grace Cathedral. They were having a warm, mutually appreciative conversation, until Tartang Tulku, somewhat regretfully, confronted Bishop Myers, “We can speak as friends, but I know that in the end your religion teaches you that it’s your duty to convert me.” Bishop Myers replied, “No. My faith teaches me to look into your eyes and see Christ.”

And that brings me back to Dancing Saints Icon where this pair of essays began.

We didn’t include Rumi, Abraham Heschel, Ella Fitzgerald, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Anne Frank, and the Kangxi Emperor with familiar saints like St. Paul, St. Francis, and St. Mary Magdalene to claim that all these good people were actually believers in Christ, whether they knew it or not. It wasn’t to celebrate them as ‘Anonymous Christians’ whose faith we understood better than they did. Rather we included them with others, some baptized believing Christians, some not, because we saw Christ in them in specific ways we hoped would challenge and inspire us to find him everywhere and in everyone.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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Donald Schell

Juan,

Yes. And even in your list (I know you'll be with me on this), our crazy mis-read of "eternal life" prevents us from hearing that John's Gospel means by "eternal life" our living into an unbounded Now (and not some ever after and hereafter infinity of time).

For a year and a half in our morning prayer cycle, my wife and I were reading Robert Alter's translation of the psalms. Pretty fascinating in exactly the terms of your comment, and more powerful from the repeated reading of the same familiar texts over that time.

For any reader who doesn't know him, Alter is a professor of Jewish scripture and languages at University of California, Berkeley. He's done new translations of the The Five Books of Moses, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms. For his translation of the psalms he gave himself two central tasks - to create an English language analogue to the terse, unmetered three beat per line sound of the Hebrew poetry, and to use ordinary English words to translate where we've become accustomed to theologically laden 'obvious' translations like "salvation." How do we hear the familiar texts when it makes complete sense to hear psalmist begging for (or giving thanks for) health or rescue instead of "salvation."

Alter claims that the KJV translators used technical theological language because they were convinced that the church's Christological re-interpretations of the psalms were what they 'really meant.'

Trying to replace ordinary language with technical language to make an interpretation clear diminishes our ability to discover God or grace in the lives we actually live.

In our praying (together liturgically and individually) and in our speaking our stories of God to each other, language laden with the specialized meaning inevitably veers us toward making 'faith' a mouthing formulaic ways of interpreting life rather than a God-filled way of living it.

Thanks for your additions to this conversation.

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Juan Oliver

Donald,

Sorry to take so long to respond. You make the point better than i ever could for new liturgical materials that speak, as Cranmer would have it, the language of the people. Presentism is not unavoidable. What's unavoidable is people' inability to know what is meant in the BCP without a doctorate in liturgy. The main problem (among many many virtues) of the 79 BCP is that it is not in the vernacular enough.

In other words, one can't blame people for thinking that "salvation" means "rescuing" or "eternal life". But one can translate salus or soteria as what they actually mean, "healing."

The deeper, more interesting question for me is, Why are we so tempted to traffic in arcane terminology? One stab at an answer might be that these arcane terms give us the impression of dealing with something "mysterious." "The salvation of the world" sounds so much more grand and deep that "the healing of the world," which is actually much easier to imagine, and therefore harder to beg off.

So maybe specialized, arcane language is a way to keep God and her agenda at arm's length, all in the name of "mystery." But as Louis Weil

never ceases to remind us, that is not true mystery (which, in any case, has been revealed) but mystification.

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Juan Oliver

Donald,

Sorry to take so long to respond. You make the point better than i ever could for new liturgical materials that speak, as Cranmer would have it, the language of the people. Presentism is not unavoidable. What'.s unavoidable is people' inability to know what is meant in th PB without a doctorate in liturgy. The main problem (among many many virtues) of the 79 BCP is that it is not in the vernacular enough.

In other words, one can't blame people for thinking that "salvation" means "rescuing" or "eternal life". But one can translate salus or soteria as what they actually mean, "healing.". The deeper, more interesting question for me is, Why are we so tempted to traffic in arcane meanings? One stab at an answer might be that these arcane meanings give us the impression of dealing with something "mysterious." "The salvation of the world" sounds so much more grand and deep that "the healing of the world," which is actually much easier to imagine, and therefore harder to avoid.

So maybe specialized, arcane language is a way to keep God and her agenda at arm's length, all in the name of "mystery." But as Louis Weil never ceases to remind us, that is not true mystery (which, in any case, has been revealed) but mystification.

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“I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash... if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”

Of course, Donald, I am not surprised that we basically end up in the same place about heaven/hell/salvation/redemption. But you are the first person I've ever heard cite this scene from The Last Battle ...

When I read the book - while attending Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in Mill Valley at age 21 - and came to that sentence it was one of those absolute and utterly transforming moments. I don't think anything about my deepest theology truly changed, but Lewis gave me the words for, and an affirmation of, what I had always thought about God but hadn't yet cultivated the ability to articulate. Even to myself.

The transformation for me was from a wondering, stumbling, feeling-out-of-sync-ness, into a clearness about the nature of a loving God.

It's odd thinking about it today because of your essay that that my own transformation was a bit like Emeth's in that when I finally had that put in front of me I recognized it. I have used that story from The Last Battle so many times in explaining my theology of our relationship with God and God's love and I have never heard anyone else ever cite it. It's nice to have the use of that passage affirmed, too ...

peace,

Rosa Lee

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GrandmèreMimi

Sorry, I hit 'Post' prematurely. I meant to add to Kathy and Clint that I love your contributions to the commentary. What a lovely discussion.

And I meant to add my name: June Butler

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