“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one gets to the Father except through me.” This is one of the most oft-quoted lines uttered by Jesus, usually re-uttered by Christians claiming a corner on the market of salvation.
I remember being in elementary school and asking my mom if people who didn’t know about Jesus would go to hell. You see, I had a fundamentalist Baptist neighbor who taught neighborhood kids (me included) about the bible and Jesus every Wednesday after school, and she very forcefully insisted, using the above line from the Gospel of John, that anyone who hadn’t asked Jesus into their hearts would not go to heaven, no matter how good they were – even people who didn’t know about Him. That is why it was so important to support missionaries in the world, she said.
I was born a skeptic. Not of God, because I knew God before I even knew what name to call Him. I was a skeptic when it came to people who think they had all the answers, or the only answer. By the way, I still am, if you hadn’t noticed. Nothing pushes my buttons more than someone who thinks they have the only possible answer. (Unless, of course, that “someone” is me!)
Even as a youngster, I’d been going to Catholic Mass long enough to hear the apparent contradictions that can be found in Holy Scripture. For example, the passage in today’s daily reading, also from the Gospel of John.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him.”
So what is it, Jesus? You can’t have it both ways, can you?
(There is some great commentary on these two passages at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christianpiatt/2012/02/belief-in-jesus-the-only-way-to-heaven/)
I must have posed this question, or something like it, to my mother. I can remember her response like it was yesterday. She pulled out her own well worn Bible (the New American version, not King James) and read a few things I can’t remember. But with the authority of that book sitting on the kitchen table in front of us, she shared with me what she was taught by the nuns in Catholic school – that we get to heaven by being baptized. That those who aren’t baptized, she was taught, go to “limbo” – a state of bliss that is not fully in God’s presence the way heaven is. And those who had been baptized but had died with sin in their hearts would have to somehow have to be purified and “purged” in purgatory.
As for the folks who never had the chance to know Jesus or be baptized, she told me that the Catechism of the Catholic Church taught something called the “baptism of desire.” It is worth looking up if you are curious, especially if you are concerned about those who reject God because they’ve been harmed in some way by an inauthentic witness of what it means to believe in God. The priest scandals come to mind, as does my own imperfect example of trying to love like Jesus.
Ultimately, though, my mother just looked at me after sharing all this and said, “But we really don’t know, do we? This is what we believe, though, and it certainly couldn’t hurt to believe it just in case.”
If you ever doubt, as a parent, that you do not have what it takes to pass on your faith (whether it’s faith in a deity or a social structure or an ever-changing understanding of the physical world), think of my mom and the power of her humble and honest imparting of what she believed and why. I was probably only seven or eight, yet her words were so important that I remember them vividly 30 years later, and they are the bedrock of my faith.
She didn’t try to explain the contradictions with some deep understanding of theology. She certainly didn’t take every word literally – we Catholics are taught that the Truth of Holy Scripture is as much in the metaphorical and literary structure of The Word as it is in the words themselves. If there is something we don’t understand, “It’s a mystery,” is the answer we often must accept.
I have a lot of friends who don’t or can’t accept mystery and metaphor and metaphysics. And if that works for them, more power to them.
But in those times of doubt, when the lawyer in me is parsing passages of John’s Gospel (which is more poetry than narrative and was never intended to be read literally), I find my mother’s approach to faith reassuring: “It certainly couldn’t hurt to believe, just in case.”
I don’t think it has hurt me to believe. But perhaps I have hurt other people. I’m sure there are times when I’ve held so rigidly to something I don’t really know that I’ve disregarded different dogmas in a personal and callous way. I strive for a “live and let live” approach to religious faith, but I know I’ve fallen short of that with certain people in my life.
I think it’s because I’ve felt responsible for them. Some of that Baptist missionary talk must have sunk in, because I’ve certainly done my best to “save” more than a few souls. Or maybe I wanted the rush that comes from that kind of ego trip.
Ultimately, we don’t have empirical proof that God or His Heaven exist. But we don’t have empirical proof that they don’t exist, either. It takes as much faith to disbelieve in God as it does to believe. So for me, it doesn’t hurt to believe. Not because I’m afraid that I’ll go to hell if I don’t, but because if I die and there really is nothing, there won’t be a “me” left to be disappointed anyway, will there? If believing in the Way, the Truth, and the Life gives me comfort and direction in this life, more power to me.
That’s one thing believers and atheists can agree on. This life matters. And perhaps it doesn’t matter what source we turn to for Good Orderly Direction, for it is written in the prophets:
They shall all be taught by God.