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.