from Death on a Friday Afternoon
Richard John Neuhaus
If, in the mercy and mystery of God, people can be saved who have never even heard of Christ, they are still saved only because of Christ, "for there is salvation in no one else."
Many Christians are embarrassed by this claim. They are intimidated by a culture that decrees that all truths are equal. Who are you to claim that you have the truth and others do not? That is indeed an intimidating question, unless we understand that we do not have the truth in the sense of its being a possession under our control. The Christian claim is that we have been encountered by the truth revealed by God in Jesus Christ and by his grace we have responded to that encounter by faith. We hope and pray and work for everyone to be so encountered and to so respond.
Christians are often responsible for the common misunderstanding of what is meant when we say, "there is salvation in no one else." We are heard to be saying, "My truth is better than your truth; my religion is better than your religion (Or nonreligion)." But Christ is not my truth or your truth, he is the truth. He is not one truth among many. He is the truth about everything that is true. He is the universal and cosmic truth. Everything that is true--in religion, philosophy, mathematics, or the art of baseball --is true by virtue of participation in the truth who is Christ. The problem is not that non-Christians do not know truth; the problem is that they do not know that the truth they know is the truth of Christ.
To speak of Jesus is to speak Truth, and the one Truth that really matters. We are called to evangelism not as some arcane religious competition to see who can create the largest number of converts; we are called to evangelism to spread the truth. And one important point about the truth is that it cannot be spread at gunpoint or knifepoint, or through threat of a bomb or of annihilation. Orwell's 1984 introduced the reader to the minitruth--a ministry dedicated only to the truth of the day, to the eradication of the contradictory past and the promotion of the present truth. The truth of the totalitarian is not truth at all, but will made into a species of "fact" without basis.
Jesus is not totalitarian, nor is Christianity. A Christian, by virtue of his or her baptism, is required to share the truth--in words, but usually more profitably in the way one leads one's life. But first each Christian must know the truth and understand it to the extent that a person is capable of doing. In knowing and understanding the truth, there is no temptation to grandstand or to get into the "my truth is better than your truth" competition. For truly, to know this Truth, the chief faculty required is not the intellect, but the heart. One cannot know Christ Jesus in the head alone. Unless Jesus is the center and core of life, He is nothing at all to the person who claims to follow Him. If Jesus is not constantly in the heart, He has no home at all, because Jesus is not an idea. Jesus is incarnate love, and such love only has a home in the faculties capable of love--we refer to these as the "heart." If Jesus has not been allowed to enter and transform the human heart into His temple and throne room, then He is a transitory visitor. He will continue to visit, of course, because He is all mercy and kindness. But the person for whom Jesus is not the center is not a person who can witness for Christianity in any believable way. The central truth of Christianity has not taken hold. There is no effective evangelism apart from love. And once love has taken hold, there is no effective eradication. This we can derive from the history of Christianity in Japan, which, although now a small percentage of the population, survived the most ruthless and barbaric oppressions to still emerge, sometimes in strange native shapes, but nevertheless, the light of Jesus is still there.
Where Jesus has been made at home, the person is ready to witness to the truth. And this person is more likely to witness in their service to the poor and dying, to those oppressed or overcome by temporary hardship, by those in need of a friend or a visit. The heart of Christianity is Christ in the heart. Anything less is the shell of Christianity--Christianity as nice idea once it is implemented, Christianity as construct or institution, Christianity as historic edifice. One must first hear of Jesus and learn about Him, but at some point, one must make a conscious and deliberate decision to allow Jesus to take His rightful place at the center of our being.
A person can choose to keep Him out. And in His mercy, He will honor that decision. And a person can choose to allow Him a sort of shadow existence, so long as He promises not to get in the way too often. But this latter never remains for long. Either the person gives way completely, or he or she pushes Jesus out the door. There is no middle way. God's love is all or nothing at all. Half a love never appeals to Him. Someone either accepts God and thus His love entirely, or rejects it entirely.
It often seems too many Catholics, perhaps too many Christians of all stripes, try to walk a balance line--it seems that they want to retain autonomy all-the-while wanting to have God as well. It is as though we wish to be in a driver training car, where we hand over the wheel, but at any point can take back control. Tepid faith, angry apologetics, internecine divisions over every point of rubric or doctrinal interpretation--these are the signs that God has not been given a welcome in too many hearts. For if God were at the center, all other things would fall into place, just as promised, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you."
Catholics are not wont to speaking of "giving your lives to Jesus," or , "Accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior." The language is alien and seems to embody some sort of alien concept of salvation and of religious life. But the truth is that we can attend all of the sacraments and spend hours in Church, but "if you have not love, you are as a clanging cymbal." There is much noise about the religious life, but no substance. The substance of religious life is complete surrender to Jesus Christ. Say this with whatever words are necessary to convince, but there is no deep faith without love. If one fails to look always at the face of the One who loves, one cannot maintain the fervor of faith--one is like the seed on shallow hardened ground which sprouts and then dies in the light and heat of the troubles of the day.
This week more than any other, a Christian has a chance to walk the path of love and see where it leads. It is frightening and it is heartening--because through the many trials, pains, and terrors of the way, the end result is always life, light, and love. When one looks upon the face of Love in trial, and sees how it is set like flint in doing what is right and not what is easy, one can be transformed. Holy Week is an invitation to transformation as the Church journeys once again through the last days of Jesus. His love is shown in the washing of the feet, in the trials before Pilate and Herod, and in his suffering to the last moment and His shedding to the last drop His blood. It is in that blood that there is forgiveness of sins and the spark that will give life to half-a-faith.
"Lord, I believe, help thou, Lord, my unbelief."