Chapter 10: Prof. Wilson’s Study — Tuesday Afternoon
You sounded somewhat agitated over the phone," Prof. Wilson told Thomas. "I hope there’s nothing seriously wrong."
"Nothing outwardly wrong, I guess," Thomas answered without conviction, appreciative of the note of real concern in Wilson’s voice, "but inwardly I’m going through a crisis of faith. I’ve come to ask your help."
"If I can help, Thomas, I’m at your service. Tell me what form the crisis is taking with you."
"I’ve grown up as an orthodox Christian," Thomas answered, "and until recently I’ve never had any doubts except about details. Christian faith seemed to make sense of my community and give me the guidance I needed for life. But now everything is crashing down around me. It seems to center on the relation of faith in Christ and other religions. That’s why I’ve come to you. I’ve always believed that Jesus is the one way, the one truth, the one life -- the only path to salvation. That means that we need to try to win to Christ those who are seeking salvation in other ways. But now I just don’t know."
"What in particular has raised this question for you?"
"Chaplain Levovsky first raised it for me," Thomas answered. "She doesn’t want to limit God’s presence to Jesus and his followers. What she said seemed so loose I thought she was a heretic. But what has really thrown me is my meeting with the Buddhist fellowship. All they did was tell me their stories, just a couple of them. They turned to Buddhism because they couldn’t find what they needed in Christianity! I hadn’t thought much before of Christians being converted to other religions. I always thought of conversion as a one-way street. Eventually all would come to Christ. Now it seems that Buddhism has something to offer that Christianity lacks!"
"It’s a fine group of young people, isn’t it," was Prof. Wilson’s reply. "One can’t easily dismiss Buddhism as perverse or superstitious. There is so much wisdom there, so much knowledge of how to attain spiritual ends, so much saintliness."
"But if you think Buddhism is just as good as Christianity -- or even better -- how can you go on being a Christian?" Thomas wondered.
"I don’t know that I would want to say just as good or better," Prof. Wilson replied. "I’ve given up comparisons like that. But let’s let that pass for now. The first thing I want you to know is that the problems you’re struggling with have been important for me for a long time. The second thing is that we’re not alone. There’s a large literature written by Christian thinkers on this topic. You don’t have to give up faith in Christ in order to appreciate what is positive in other religious traditions."
Thomas brightened. He had read a little about this. At the time it meant very little to him. Perhaps now if he read some of the same essays again they would mean something. "Thanks! Can you tell me how you resolve the issue yourself?"
"There’s no simple once-for-all resolution, Thomas, but there is an ongoing discussion -- just as in every other area of the church’s life and thought. I can tell you a couple of things that have been helpful to me. I decided that one of the problems was the way we often pose the question. We ask, ‘Can people find salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ?’ And when we ask that, we suppose we know what we mean by salvation. In the background there is usually some idea of heaven and hell as places we go at death or at the end of history. We want to know whether there’s another way that leads to heaven besides our own system of belief."
"Yes, I guess that’s how I’ve thought of it. But how else can we raise the question?"
"Do you think the young Buddhists you talked with are looking for a way to avoid hell and get to heaven?" Dr. Wilson asked.
Thomas thought a moment. "I guess not. They didn’t talk about salvation or heaven and hell except as Christian ideas. Alice was looking for mystical experience, or something like that. Bill wanted a religion of tolerance and grace that is sensitive to all sentient beings. That’s quite different from what Christians mean by salvation, isn’t it?"
"Yes and no," Wilson answered. "Not all Christians are so preoccupied with life after death. Many care a lot about what happens in this life and believe that if we do what we can to serve God here, God will take care of the rest. But the basic point is that people are not all looking for the same thing, and different religious traditions have responded to and shaped different paths to different ends."
"You know, I like that better than the idea of different paths up the same mountain. I don’t know why, but I breathe more freely with your image. Maybe there is a sense, an important sense, in which Jesus shows us the one way to ‘the Father.’ Maybe Hindus and Buddhists are finding ways to something different!"
Prof. Wilson was delighted. "Not many people get the point so quickly! Once I saw that myself, I felt I could study the world religions with complete freedom. I don’t ask by what means they try to lead people to salvation. I ask how do they describe the goal and then study how they help people toward it. Of course, just as there is variety among Christians, there is variety in other religious traditions. The overall picture is very complicated."
"Some day I must study that," said Thomas, "but right now it’s Jesus I need to understand. The other night a friend of mine was saying that Jesus proclaimed and foreshadowed the coming of the basileia, and that that coming is salvation. Would that be one of the Christian views?"
"Surely, and living in anticipation of the coming Realm of God is one meaning of Christian faith," Prof. Wilson replied. "That’s quite different from focusing on forgiveness of sin to be found through identification with Jesus’ self-sacrifice. And, of course, there are other Christian patterns. Few Eastern Orthodox, for example, would be comfortable with either of these."
"But if Christians don’t even agree on what the goal is, how can we talk about Christianity at all. Shouldn’t we always say ‘Christianities’?"
Prof. Wilson was not quite prepared for that question, but it seemed a good one. "We need to think of Christianity as more inclusive than any doctrine. It seems to be all those movements in human history that have been initiated by those simple but wonderful events in Palestine centering around the person of Jesus. The older I become the more I wonder at the enormous and diverse effects in human history that can be traced to the teachings, the deeds, the death, and the resurrection of that one man."
"I’m glad you mentioned the ‘resurrection."’ Thomas knew this was a minor point in Prof. Wilson’s comment, but he couldn’t let this opportunity pass. "I’ve always thought that the resurrection is the decisive proof of Jesus’ deity. But if so, it would seem to make the salvation effected by Jesus -- however we conceive it -- radically superior to every other human goal. Can you believe that and still be as appreciative of other religions as you have been?"
"You’re a sharp cookie!" Prof. Wilson laughed. "There is no doubt that Christians have often used Jesus’ resurrection as a proof of the utter superiority of our faith. Some Christians even denied the resurrection, not because they found it incredible, but because they found the implications drawn from it so offensive. That has been especially true of Christians concerned with the anti-Jewish character of so much Christian teaching.
"Just for that reason I have been delighted by the writing of Rabbi Pinchas Lapide. He’s an orthodox Jew with no thought whatever of converting to Christianity. But he believes Jesus rose from the dead -- quite literally, and supernaturally. He thinks that was God’s way of setting into motion God’s mission to carry Jewish truth to the Gentiles. The Jews didn’t need it because they already had it."
Thomas was astonished. A Jew could believe in the resurrection of Jesus and remain a Jew! "But what about Hindus and Buddhists?" he asked.
"They wouldn’t be likely to think of the resurrection in the same way Rabbi Lapide does. That’s partly because they don’t make our modern Western distinction between the natural and the supernatural. But in India stories of the extraordinary accomplishments of yogis are very numerous, and there’s quite a lot of evidence that many of them are true. If you’re brought up in that climate, you’re not likely to be incredulous about Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after his crucifixion. It would confirm that he was a holy man. It would not lead to picturing him as uniquely superior to all others."
"I can’t tell you how much better I feel for having talked with you," said Thomas with enthusiasm. "I’m beginning to see that I can be a Christian and appreciate other traditions at the same time. All these either-ors I’ve been living with can become both-ands. A week ago if I had heard these same things I would have been upset. But now it feels like the possibility of a new beginning. I’m impatient to get started."
"I’m grateful to you for coming, Thomas" Prof. Wilson replied. "I wish I could help you more on the theological reconstruction. Christology is not my strong suit! And we really don’t have any systematic theologians on our university faculty. But it occurs to me that Dr. Cynthia MacDonald might be a good person to talk with. She’s the new associate pastor of the congregation to which I belong. She really wants to be a professor, I think, but jobs are scarce, and a campus-related church was the next best thing. Anyway, she told me she’s interested in world religions, and I’m sure her degree is in theology. Actually, the senior minister, Dr. James Colletti, would be helpful, too. I seem to recall that he wrote a dissertation on Christology some years ago. What would you say to my inviting you and them over to my home one evening for theological conversation?"
"I would love it," Thomas answered gratefully.