Chapter 2: Atheism and Non-Christian Religions
In the first chapter we discussed the possibility of belief in general and we came up with the conclusion that, contrary to the traditional view, Marxist atheistic humanism is not a form of unbelief, but, paradoxically, a form of religious belief. Now we intend to discuss the nature and character of atheistic humanism and the non-Christian religions as beliefs and attempt to integrate them into a theology of religion. More specifically, we want to ask how other forms of religious belief are similar to and different from Christian belief.
The problem we have proposed is important in the practical sense, since our world is torn apart with disunity, and a partial cause of it lies in the religious attitudes of Christians toward other religious positions and humanisms. The ordinary Christian’s attitudes and policies, both private and public, domestic and foreign, are predicated on the assumption that Marxist atheistic humanism is ungodly, irreligious, and an enemy of Christianity. In his mind its advocates easily become villains, simpletons, and unworthy of the kingdom of heaven. Non-Christian religions, on the other hand, are tolerated; missionaries are sent to convert their devotees. But we are learning more and more that in determining the cause of disunity, it is not the Christian’s role to be self-righteous, especially if we remember how intolerant Christianity was in the past toward "unbelievers" and non-Christians. In the task of continuing dialogue between Marxists and non-Christians, on the one hand, and Christians, on the other, it is necessary for the Christian to reexamine his attitudes to see if they are not partly the cause of disunity. Since the Christian’s attitude is derived basically from his theology, it is necessary to reexamine our theology of religion. Ironically, it is this branch of academic theology that is most undeveloped and in most need of rethinking.
Before the movement toward the secularization of Christianity, it was traditional in our theology of religion to distinguish Christian belief from non-Christian beliefs in terms of the so-called supernatural character of the former and the purely natural quality of the latter. Other commonly used terms to differentiate Christianity from non-Christian religions speak of the former as sacred and religious, while the latter are secular and profane. An exception was made with regard to the Jewish religion which was considered as somehow supernatural by virtue of its genetic connection with Christianity.
The implication of the difference between supernatural belief and natural belief was that the Christian, through the acceptance of a supernatural revelation by an act of supernatural faith and through baptism, was incorporated into a sacred society called the Church which had a sacred history. In this sacred society, the Christian lived a supernatural life which was maintained and increased through the performance of supernatural activities. And when the Christian died, the possession of grace (supernatural life) assured him of a supernatural existence in heaven. By way of contrast, the non-Christian, deprived of supernatural revelation, was possessed only of natural knowledge, lived his life in the secular sphere, and performed purely secular or natural activities that merited him only a natural beatitude if they were naturally good.1 The atheist, however, being obdurate in his unbelief, was unregenerated and therefore considered unworthy even of a natural beatitude.
The foregoing distinction between the Christian, on the one hand, and the atheistic humanist and non-Christian religionists, on the other, besides being inhuman, is un-Christian and un-theological. With the trend toward the secularization of Christianity, the distinction between the supernatural and the natural loses much of its validity. If Christianity is truly secular in the sense that it speaks of this world -- its humanization and redemption -- and not of another world, then the difference between Christian and non-Christian belief must be sought within the context of the secular.
Another contributory cause to the obsolescence of our traditional theology of religion is the new consciousness in modern theology, especially as expressed by Vatican II that all men of good will, even if they are atheists or non-Christians, could be saved: "Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace." 2 This statement applies to atheists. And, in a more general statement that would include members of so-called "natural" religions, it is stated: "This [i.e., the hope of resurrection] holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery." 3
Vatican II theology goes beyond traditional theology also in the fact that the salvation granted both the atheist and the non-Christian devotees of religion is not a "natural" salvation but the same salvation granted Christians.4 But what is most significant of all in this new statement of Christian theology is that it is maintained that non-Christians are saved precisely as non-Christians -- hence, the atheist qua atheist and the Buddhist qua Buddhist. Karl Rahner elaborates on this new position by saying that it will not do to reconcile the present statement with the pre-Vatican II statement by asserting that "before death these atheists become explicit theists on the level of their theoretical concepts and therefore are saved. For then these texts would simply be saying the obvious, namely, that an atheist can attain salvation if and insofar as he ceases to be one. Such an interpretation robs the texts of any serious meaning which would be worth the Council’s expressing." 5
The implication of this new theology is that we can no longer consider an atheist of long standing as either wicked or ignorant. It is implied that "there can be in the normal adult an explicit atheism of fairly long duration, even, indeed, until the end of his life, which still does not prove moral guilt,"6 presuming, of course, "that in his atheism he has not acted against his conscience." 7
From Vatican II theology, then, we can conclude that a non-Christian of good will even if he is an atheist could be saved and that the kind of salvation is not merely a "natural" one but the same as that given to Christians. It follows that somehow the non-Christian is in the order of grace; it follows too that atheistic humanism and non-Christian religions are not "natural," implying that they are outside the order of grace and redemption.
In terms of practical activity, the possible salvation of the non-Christian implies that secular activity understood as work in the world is not purely "natural," that is, nonsalvific, nor is the world hopelessly corrupt, as some brands of theology would assert, totally incapable of procuring salvation. On the contrary, secular activity is salvific, not only for a Christian but also for a non-Christian. Salvation of a non-Christian in the world and precisely while staying in the world implies that the world which God created is good as Scripture itself says and that this goodness is not purely a natural goodness but one that belongs to the order of grace and redemption. This conclusion is supported by the Scriptures in a passage that has often been ignored or forgotten by academic theology. Thus we are told:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men from one another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, "Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me. Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, "Lord, when did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothed you; sick or in prison and go to see you?" And the King will answer, "I’ll tell you solemnly, insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me."8
The important point in the passage, after making due considerations for the agricultural imagery, is the secular notion of human perfection (or salvation, to use a theological phrase) which consists in the performance of good deeds, in love for neighbor. Thus, it is not the assent to the truth of a set of theological propositions that is necessarily going to save one. The Son of Man does not hurl anathemas and excommunications to those who do not hold a given theological position. No, the one condition for salvation is how well we have performed our appointed work in the world -- in short, how human we have been. To be a Christian is to be human. And true humanism is not confined to juridical Christians alone, for the passage above says that all nations are assembled and from them those who have loved their neighbors are the true sons of Man.
From the point of view of a theology of religion, however, the passage quoted above provokes some important theological questions. Thus, what happens to the meaning of the term "faith" if an atheist without explicit belief in God, but simply by his good works, is saved? Perhaps the notion of "faith" has to be broadened as we intimated in the first chapter to include not only theistic faiths but non-theistic faiths. If this is correct, what is the content of non-theistic faiths? Do they include implicitly a belief in God? Are non-theists really krypto-theists? Another question is the meaning and importance of divine revelation. What happens to the theological view that all men are saved through Christ and through his revelation if an atheist is saved without explicit belief in Christ and his revelation? Perhaps, too, the notion of revelation has to be broadened to include also belief in the world. But does this fidelity to the world and its future implicitly include belief in Christ and his revelation or not? These are some questions that we have to reflect upon in determining the place of atheism and non-Christian religions in a theology of religion.
Karl Rahner proposes a solution to the foregoing questions by explaining that non-Christians who are saved are really anonymous Christians and that their beliefs are really implicitly Christian.9 I feel, however, that this way of categorizing them fails to give due respect to their intelligence and their freedom of conscience. I do not believe that they are saved as implicit Christians or as krypto-theists (at least, for the atheist). Let me elaborate on my position.
The central message of Scripture on salvation is that for a man to be saved, he must learn to love. This is also the basic teaching of all humanisms and non-Christian religions. Essential to the notion of love is union, which in its fullness means unity with oneself, with fellow men and with the world.
In Christianity, the perfection of man through love is understood and comprehended in terms of the category of the covenant. In its widest meaning, the covenant is man’s union with the whole universe. In the scriptural view, the covenant is essential to man’s very existence and fulfillment:
For the Israelites, one is born of a covenant and into a covenant, and wherever one moves in life, one makes a covenant. . . . If the covenant were dissolved existence would fall to pieces, because no soul can live an isolated life. It not only means that it cannot get along without the assistance of others; it is in direct conflict with its essence to be something apart. It can only exist as a link of a whole, and it cannot work and act without working in connection with other souls and through them.10
The essential meaning of the covenant, then, is union of man with nature, with others. If we compare this view of human perfection with Marxist humanism, we will be surprised to find out that although a different vocabulary is used by Marx, the same idea and insight on human perfection as union is expressed:
[Marxism] is the return of man himself as a social, i.e., really human, being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development. Communism as a fully-developed naturalism is humanism and as a fully-developed humanism is naturalism. It is the definitive resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man. It is the true solution of the conflict between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution.11
Thus, for Marx, a fully developed humanism is a naturalism which means the union of man with man and with nature. Where the Scriptures speak of union as a covenant, Marx speaks of it as a society, a communism, and of man’s essence as social. Where the Scriptures speak of man creating a covenant and being born into a covenant, Marx speaks of man producing society and being produced by society, as we note in the following passage:
As society itself produces man as man, so it is produced by him. Activity and mind are social in their content as well as in their origin; they are social activity and social mind. The human significance of nature only exists for social man, because only in this case is nature a bond with other men, the basis of his existence for others and of their existence for him. Only then is nature the basis of his own human experience and a vital element of human reality. The natural existence of man has here become his human existence and nature itself has become human for him. Thus society is the accomplished union of man with nature, the veritable resurrection of nature, the realized naturalism of man and the realized humanism of nature.12
An important observation to make here is that both the Christian and Marxist views of humanization are to be accomplished at some future date and are the result of human creativity. Both views portray what man will be or ought to be -- hence, both are eschatological, to use a theological phrase. Both, too, are naturalistic, in the sense that human fulfillment is not something to be attained in another world but in the future. With regard to Buddhism and most Far Eastern religions, it is common knowledge that they are naturalistic, since human fulfillment for them is attained through oneness with nature.
To come then to our original question of determining the relationship between Christianity, on the one hand, and the various forms of naturalistic humanisms and non-Christian religions, on the other, perhaps the scriptural category of the covenant might prove helpful. By using this mode of thinking, we might say provisionally that Marxists, Buddhists and Christians belong to various covenants or "societies" (understood as a belief, as the context of one’s supreme valuation) and that all these covenants or "societies" are various formulations of what it is to be Man; hence, they all participate in the ultimate and future goal: Man.
Is there a foundation in the Scriptures for speaking of various covenants? As we noted earlier, salvation is understood in the Scriptures as the formation of covenants.13 Scripture notes various forms of covenants: the covenant with creation and with Noah, the Abraham covenant, the Mosaic, Davidic, and Christian covenants, and finally the eschatological covenant. Each covenant has its own character, requirements, laws and prescriptions for rational human behavior and perfection. Each one demands fidelity and obligation for continuance in it.
So that we can assign the atheist or non-Christian a proper covenant, let us consider briefly the character of each covenant. The first covenant described in detail by the Scripture is the covenant with Noah. This covenant is one given to all creation; hence, offhand, it seems the most appropriate dimension in which to situate the atheist. Therefore, let us study it in greater detail, Genesis describes it thus:
And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying,
And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;
And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.
And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off anymore by the waters of a flood; neither shall there anymore be a flood to destroy the earth.
And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
I do set my bow in the cloud: and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.
And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:
And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.
And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.14
The salient features of this covenant are: 15 (1) it is unilateral in character, (2) it is universal in scope, (3) it is unconditional and everlasting, (4) no formal or particular commandment is required as in later covenants as a condition for the bestowal of grace, and (5) there is no formal response or ritual required of man to be in the covenant. All that Noah is asked to do is what any man would do on the occasion of a deluge: gather his family and animals, birds and creeping things in specified number so as to insure the continuation and renewal of the earth. Through this cooperation in the building of the new earth, all those in the ark were redeemed.
We need not believe in the historical factuality of the deluge, of the ark, and of the command to get into the ark the male and female of each species, for these are merely a literary way of speaking in keeping with the times. But the central point of the revealed message is man’s obligation to be faithful to the earth, to build it and care for its future.
Before we relate atheism to the foregoing covenant, let us briefly review the character of the succeeding covenants. Compared to the Noah covenant which was universal in scope, being given to all creation, the Abraham covenant which followed it was particularized, being given to Abraham and his seed. Here, there is a greater gratuity of grace and sovereignty of bestowal, resulting in greater spiritual relationship with a corresponding demand on a formal response to enter it. A defined ritual, that of circumcision is given as a sign and means of entry into the covenant, and formal obligations are needed to keep the covenant.
After the Abraham covenant came the Mosaic which is a fulfillment of the former (Ex 2:24; 3:16; 6:4-8; Pss. 105:8-12, 42-45; 106:45). Compared to its predecessor, the Mosaic covenant is still more particularized, for it is given to a specific people, the Hebrews. Here, there is a still greater bestowal of grace, greater holiness which requires greater fidelity to the covenant expressed concretely in a promise of obedience to God (Ex. 24:7), and the obligations of the covenant are formalized into the Mosaic Law.
The Davidic covenant is more a transition and link between the Mosaic covenant and the covenant in Jesus than a new stage. Its ultimate reference is messianic (cf. Is. 42:1, 6; 49:8; 55:3, 4: Mal. 3:1, Lk. 1:32, 33, Acts 2:30-36); it portrays the covenant form as the "Servant Lord."
After the Davidic covenant we have the Christian covenant established and instituted by Jesus and prolonged in his pilgrim church. And finally, there will be the eschatological covenant which marks the fullness of salvation history in which the Jesus of the incarnation will be the cosmic Christ, the Son of Man, the Second Adam; and the pilgrim church will be the New Jerusalem, present man will be a new Man, a new people. The new or eschatological covenant is the covenant of the fullness of time, the consummation of the ages (Gal 4:4; Heb. 9:26); it is everlasting (Heb. 13:20; 12:28). The new covenant does not destroy the previous ones, but rather brings those earlier bestowals of grace to their fullest gratuity and manifestation (Gal 3:17-22).
Paul identifies the eschatological covenant with the covenant of Jesus, and in a sense this is correct, for Jesus is a manifestation of the Messiah. Another reason for this identification was the belief in the imminent coming of the Messiah. But with our knowledge that the Second Coming is still to come and that the covenant in Jesus is still in process of being fulfilled, it is more appropriate to situate the new covenant, along with the new creation, new Jerusalem, new heaven, new people, new earth, at the eschaton. This is not to deny that the new covenant is already present in earlier covenants, but this presence is germinal and inchoate, not only in the covenant of Noah, Abraham and David, but in the present Christian covenant in Jesus. In relation to the eschatological covenant, all these covenants are old; but in another sense, since the eschatological covenant is contained in promise and inchoately in these previous covenants, we can speak of them as somehow new. Therefore, it should be not only the Christian covenant that is spoken of as new but also the other covenants. But this manner of speaking is really inaccurate and should be discouraged, especially when used to apply to the Christian covenant, for in the light of the eschatological covenant, the present Christian covenant is not yet new. The use of the term "new covenant" by the early Christians was based on the faulty hope that the Second Coming or parousia was imminent and that consequently the present covenant was practically the covenant of the parousia. We should likewise discourage the use of applying the term "old" to the covenants previous to the Christian one, since these other covenants, as was noted earlier, are everlasting in character.
In the interest of unity and ecumenism, the eschatological covenant should not be called Christian such that non-Christians who attain it are called implicit and anonymous Christians, even if, in the belief of Christians, the Omega is the cosmic Christ. The reason is that the cosmic Christ is wider than Christianity, wider than the Scriptures, and wider than the Christ of Christian theology and belief. The Omega is not the sole goal of Christians but of all men. It is necessary to delimit the term "Christian" (which after all is not even scriptural) to those who accept the Christ of Christian belief and the Scriptures and as understood in Christian theology. Christ, however, is wider than what has been said of him in the Scriptures. Christ is not the sole possession of Christians or of Christian revelation. If what we say is correct, it is possible to be a member of the Christ-Omega without being a Christian implicitly or explicitly.
With regard to the question whether an atheist is really a krypto-theist or not, a similar solution proposed above could be employed. Thus, an atheist could accept the Absolute Future or Omega and thus be saved without being a theist. For the Absolute Future or Omega is wider than theism. Theism is a particular cultural and religious formulation of the Absolute. The denial of this formulation is a relative atheism without implying also the denial of the Absolute. Thus, Buddhism has a formulation of the Absolute that is not theistic. And so is Marxist atheist humanism a non-theistic formulation of the Absolute. Therefore, if the Absolute Future or Omega is wider than the theistic formulation of it, the acceptance of Omega is not necessarily to be a krypto-theist.
Let us now attempt to complete our formulation of a theology of religion. We suggested that in order to include non-Christians in it, the scriptural category of the covenant could be most helpful and enlightening. Thus, in terms of this category, all men of good will would belong to some covenant. What must now be shown is that to belong to a covenant is to belong to the order of grace and redemption and not to the order of nature. If we can show this, then it is possible to see how a non-Christian could be saved. Furthermore, if we could show that a non-Christian belongs to a covenant distinct and separate from the Christian covenant, then it is possible to see how he could be saved without being an implicit Christian.
That the category of the covenant implies the order of grace and redemption and not some mythical order of nature is clear from the Scriptures. Thus, it is within the covenant that one attains salvation; outside it is spiritual death.16 The basic message of the covenant is salvation, "that God is willing to set his covenant partner in a shalom status."17 When the prophets elaborated salvation history they gave as decisive points the formation of covenants.18 Thus, for the Scriptures, God’s covenants with men are always sovereign administrations of grace and of promise, specifically redemptive in purpose.19
All the covenants are in or belong to one single process of salvation history; hence, they are all in the order of grace and redemption. Even the creation covenant is thus in the order of grace, contrary to Catholic scholastic theology which sees the order of creation as belonging to the cosmological rather than to the redemptive or soteriological order.20 A Scripture scholar contrasts the scholastic and the biblical view on creation in this way:
The logical structure of Scholastic theology has assigned to the treatise on creation a place which has led us to regard that divine activity as cosmological rather than soteriological. Accordingly, it comes as something of a surprise to find a theologian like Paul describing Christ’s redemptive work as a "new creation" (2 Cor 5 :17). At best, we think it an arresting metaphor expressive of the novelty of the Christian order.21
The Old Testament views creation as soteriological or redemptive:
Because they were accustomed to consider cosmic origins as the beginning of the salvation-history, the later OT writers found it quite natural to express the eschatological salvation of the "last times," the climax of Yahweh’s interventions on behalf of His chosen people, as a second and more marvelous creation. The view of Deutero-Isaiah is that Yahweh will work Israel’s definitive salvation as creator (Is. 43:18-19; 48; 6 ff.; cf. also Is. 65:17ff.), for the reason that God’s creation of the universe is thought of as pertaining to the same theological category as His covenant (Is. 52:15-16; cf. also Is. 66:22). This conception of creation as a saving event is, I believe, the basis of the biblical view that the eschaton must correspond to the beginning, that eschatology, in other words, is determined by protology or ktisiology.
Creation as redemptive or soteriological is a view that is continued on into the New Testament, as Stanley shows:
What is true of OT literature holds good also for that of the NT, in which the creation-theme is pressed into the service of soteriology. In fact, it may be asserted that the concept of the "new creation," together with its counterpart, the idea of regeneration or birth anew, forms the most apt expression of the salvation revealed in Jesus. Paul portrays the Christian who has, through faith and baptism, found a share in Christ s redemption, as a "new creature" or "a new creation" (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17), while the notion of "rebirth" is found applied to various aspects of Christian salvation in a series of NT writings (Mt. 19:28; In 3:3 ff.; Eph. 2:4-6; 1 Jn. passim; I PT 1:3, 23: 2:2).23
It is not only because creation is seen as a new creation that it belongs to the order of grace, but also because it is a type of baptism (which is obviously a redemptive term):
When we turn to a consideration of the OT images exploited by the NT writers in their endeavor to describe the baptismal mystery, we find that in their works they lay under tribute almost all the great gesta Dei in Israel’s salvation-history; the creation, the deluge, the promise to Abraham with its sign, circumcision, the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert, the covenant established through Moses, together with the poignant presentation of it in the prophetic writings as Yahweh’s espousals with His people.24
The passage just quoted also shows that the deluge (which initiates the covenant with Noah), the covenant of Abraham, of Moses, and so on, are all in the redemptive order, being various types of baptism.
It is clear then from the Scriptures that the category of the covenant is a redemptive category and that one who is in a covenant belongs to some order or dimension of grace. We might recall what we said earlier: that each covenant has its own specific character and requirement both for entry into it and for persevering in it. Our next step is to situate the different types of believers by assigning them to appropriate covenants.
In assigning the proper covenant to various groups of believers, we find no difficulty in seeing that Jews belong to the Mosaic covenant and the Christians to the covenant in Jesus. They have their respective revelations, manifestations of Yahweh, responses or faiths, commandments, morality and rites and sacraments. But when we come to assigning good atheists, Buddhists and Moslems, etc., to their proper covenant, we encounter some difficulty. However, it is not crucial for our purpose that we assign them precise covenants. God who gives the grace knows the dimension and order of grace they are in. For our purpose, it is sufficient that we are able to establish that outside the Mosaic and Christian covenants are other covenants established by God within which non-Jews and non-Christians could be saved and perfected without their necessarily accepting the Jewish or Christian faith, following its rituals, commandments and source of revelation. Nor is it necessary that we restrict the number of covenants to those mentioned in the Scriptures. For God could have made other covenants, not only with Noah or with Abraham, but also with other great religious men through whom non-Christian religions were derived. It is not necessary to go into a precise and detailed study of the origins of non-Christian religions. We will leave this task to historians of religion. From the theological standpoint, it is sufficient to say that followers of these religions could be saved because they are covered at least by the universal covenant given to Noah, a covenant given not only to all men but also to all the infrahuman levels of reality.
For the atheist, we intimated earlier that the covenant of Noah is the most appropriate context within which to situate him. In this covenant, no awareness of God is required, since it is a covenant made also to the infrahuman levels of creation. No awareness or intelligent understanding that there is a covenant or that one is making one is needed; no response is asked, no formal commandment is demanded as a condition for the bestowal of grace and redemption. All that is required is to cooperate in the continuation and preservation of life for the sake of the future of the new earth, in the case of man, and, for the infrahuman levels, merely to continue to reproduce and thus preserve, prolong and create life.
Incidentally, it seems odd to us, because of our hellenically influenced understanding of a covenant as similar to a legal contract, that God could be making a covenant with the infrahuman levels, or making one with a man who formally and explicitly affirms that there is no God. But one has to understand the meaning of a covenant biblically. Thus, the Genesis account (9:9-17) shows the essential nature of a covenant according to the New Bible Dictionary:
[It] shows us more clearly than any other instance what the essential nature of a covenant is, and it advises us again how alien to the covenant-concept is any notion of compact or contract between two parties. The thought of bilateral agreement is wholly excluded. The keynote here is: "And I, behold I, am establishing my covenant with you" (Gn. 9:9).25
Thus, we see that for the minimum requirement of a covenant, it is sufficient that God establishes it; the covenant need not be bilateral. It must be emphasized, however, that a unilateral covenant is not the ideal one, that a response would make the covenant union more intimate and the graces derived from it greater. With the minimum requirement for a covenant, even material creation can be covenanted. St. Paul shows this possibility implicitly when he says that even material creation is groaning and is in travail until now to be redeemed. Now, if redemption is through grace and grace is attained only through some covenant union, then creation, too, needs some form of covenant to be redeemed. With regard to the atheist, it would seem that he conforms to the minimum required of a man to be in a covenant. For the atheist sincerely committed to his world-view which bids him to work for a better world, to promote equality among men, to destroy alienations of all sorts, is like Noah and the men of his time who tried to preserve their world from the evils of their time (symbolized by the deluge) and to create a "new life" on earth. Just as for the men of Noah’s time this was all that was required, so for the atheist, fidelity to the world and its future seems to be all that is required.
But no man today should presume to think himself saved who does the minimum, for each one must believe and live according to his "lights" given him through tradition, education and his own intelligence. Thus, it is possible to attain a higher level of covenant relationship through an explicit affirmation of God present as Ground of the evolving universe, or, as the Scriptures would say, as manifested through his handiworks in creation. This view is quite traditional. However, for traditional theology, this knowledge is purely natural knowledge, and to support this view, the passage in Romans 1:18, which states that the Gentiles can come to know God from creation, is used.
The question on the possibility of natural theology is a much discussed point in academic theology. The answer to it depends on one’s definition of natural knowledge of God. Let me define here what is meant by natural knowledge without necessarily implying that some theologian accepts this definition. Thus natural knowledge of God implies two things. First, it means that this knowledge is not salvific, that it is not "supernatural," that is, that it is not in the order of grace or of redemption. Second, it means that this knowledge is attained by unaided human reason.
My position on the question of the possibility of the natural knowledge of God and of natural theology is negative. However, this denial does not imply that knowledge of God through creation is also denied. What is being denied is that this knowledge is natural. By saying this I do not mean to imply that there is no difference between knowledge of God through creation and knowledge of God through the Old and New Testaments. There is a difference, but it is not the difference between natural and supernatural knowledge. For we have already shown that creation itself is part of the redemptive or soteriological order. Therefore the knowledge of God derived from creation is salvific and redemptive, even if this knowledge is not as explicit and as elaborated as is the knowledge derived from the Scriptures. The passage of Paul in Romans must be interpreted within the scriptural view (which was certainly the view of Paul) that creation is in the soteriological, not cosmological order. We cannot impose a hellenically influenced philosophical framework to the understanding of Scripture. In fact, without this a priori framework it would be possible to see from the text that for Paul the knowledge of God through creation is a redemptive knowledge, since, if the loss of this knowledge and the failure to accept the law written in the heart result in a loss of grace and condemnation (Rom 1:18; 2:14-16), then the converse must be true, namely, that the possession of this knowledge means the possession of grace and therefore salvation.
The denial of natural theology is not fideism, for we are not affirming that knowledge of God is through the Scriptures alone or through faith alone (that is, as opposed to knowledge from the world). We accept knowledge of God from the world, but we claim that this is not natural or cosmological knowledge or "proof" because there is no cosmological order distinct from a redemptive order, since creation itself is in the redemptive order.
We also deny the second sense in which natural knowledge of God and natural theology are understood, namely, that unaided human reason is de facto able to attain to a knowledge of God. We deny to unaided reason a knowledge of God not only because there is no cosmological order from which this knowledge is derived, but also because God is not an object that can be attained through a logical process of reasoning. All true knowledge of God is attained through divine initiative, through God coming to meet reason. Reason meets God only because God has decided to manifest himself through his works, through other people, through involvement in righteous causes, through religious literature, and so on. We do not infer God; we encounter him. And in this encounter, I do not set the time and place of meeting; God does. Thus all knowledge of God is gratuitous. The so-called "proofs" of St. Anselm and of St. Thomas are not logical proofs attained by unaided reason. They are mere elaborations of the intellect of a knowledge attained by faith. Their context is a fides quaerens intellectum (or the context of faith), since for Anselm his ontological argument was given to the monks at Bec for their meditation (exemplum meditandi ratione), and for St. Thomas the "five ways" are to be found in his dogmatic work, the Summa Theologiae.26
If a knowledge of God is necessary for salvation as Paul says, how can the atheist of good will be saved? The knowledge of God that Paul speaks of is not necessarily an elaborated knowledge, a "theistic" formulation such as is found in the Scriptures and in Christian theology. It is more of the sort that the Athenians of Paul’s time knew without their knowing it, so to speak, and hence an unknown God. From the evolutionary framework, we can explain this knowledge by saying that the mere affirmation of the world and its future, which is the extent of the atheist’s faith, implicitly includes the Absolute Future or Omega, for the acceptance of the future of the world by working for its attainment is an implicit acceptance of Omega. This is not a krypto-theism, for, as we said earlier, the Omega is wider than theism, and therefore could be accepted by the atheist without implying that he is implicitly a theist.
One last point before we conclude this chapter is the question whether revelation is necessary for salvation. If so, it would seem that the atheist does not have any type of revelation. How then can he be saved? The presupposition in the objection is that the atheist lives his life in the natural order in which there is no "supernatural" revelation. But we have shown above that the world, or, if you will, the order of creation, is really in the order of redemption. Furthermore, creation is revelation. This assertion might come as a surprise to one who believes that revelation is synonymous to the spoken Word of God. But, again, this is a hellenically influenced view of revelation. For the Scriptures, not only the spoken Word but also the deeds of God are revelation. Revelation is a recounting of the gesta Dei, the salvific events of God in history. Creation is the first salvific event of the redemptive process, and hence is revelation. Thus, the acceptance of the world in the sense of being faithful to its present state and its future possibilities, working for its betterment and perfection, is an acceptance of revelation, at least in its minimal degree.
1 Karl Rahner, "Atheism and Implicit Christianity," Theology Digest (Feb., 1968).v.47.
2 See "Constitution on the Church," section 16, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. W. Abbott (New York: America Press, 1966), p. 35.
3 See "Pastoral Constitution," section 22, Abbott, op. cit., pp. 221-22.
4 See "Decree on the Missions," section 7, Abbott, op. cit., p. 593. See also comment of Rahner, art. cit., p. 47.
5 See comment of Rahner, art. cit., p. 47.
6 Ibid., p. 45.
7 Ibid., p. 46.
8 Matthew 25:31-40, in The Jerusalem Bible.
9 See article cited.
10 See Walter Eichrodt, Israel and Its People (Copenhagen, 1926), p. 308.
11 See his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar Publ. Co., 1961), p. 127.
12 Ibid., p. 129.
13 G. Kittel (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1964), p. 267.
14 Genesis 9: 8-17.
15 See The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Grand Rapids:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1962), pp. 264-65.
16 Pedersen, op. cit., p. 308.
17 Kittel, op. cit., p. 122.
18 Ibid., p. 111.
19 The New Bible Dictionary, p. 98.
20 Our attempt to show that the creation covenant is in the order of grace is important for our purpose, since we shall show later that an atheist of good will could appropriately be situated within this covenant.
21 David Stanley, S.J., "The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism; An Essay in Biblical Theology," Theological Studies, 18 (1957), p. 179.
22 Ibid., pp. 179-80.
23 Ibid. p. 180.
24 Ibid., p.178.
25 See pp. 264-65.
26 It might be further urged against our denial of the possibility of a natural knowledge of God that Vatican I holds that reason can come to know God (see Denzinger 1785, 1806, 2145). For example, it is stated that "Deum rerum omnium principium et finem, naturali humanae rationis lumine e rebus creatis certo cognosci posse" (D 1785). However, from a study of the commentary and deliberations of the Council, we find that what was being emphasized was that human reason was structured to know God, for its denial would imply the impossibility of knowing God at all. How reason comes to know God has not been defined by the Council. Gasser points out that the Council has left two things open: (1) how God is known from created things, and (2) how God’s existence is demonstrated. The term "demonstration" does not mean logical inference, but must be taken in the sense of "cognition" in D 1785. But the latter term precisely has been left vague by the Council (See Collectio Lacensis 7, 121).