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God Squad: Reasoning with a hard-liner on 'salvation'

In a previous answer to a question, you advised a reader who was being "witnessed to" at work. I agree that we should witness without belittling anyone. I don't agree, however, that there are many paths to salvation. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Religions that teach their followers to worship anyone else other than Christ are teaching false doctrine that will allow many to spend eternity in hell. This isn't a popular view, but it is biblical and true. - B., via e-mail

I appreciate the power of your faith. However, yours is not a compassionate faith, and you must accept that fact as the natural consequence of your version of Christianity. Here are just some of my reasons for humbly and respectfully declining your brand of fundamentalist Christianity as the only path to salvation:

I can't believe Gandhi is rotting in hell. Any theology that teaches this seems to me incomprehensibly blind to the moral virtue of non-Christian people.

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner formulated this intuitive truth in his idea of "anonymous Christians." An anonymous Christian, he wrote, is someone who lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity.

Let's say a Buddhist monk, who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God. I'd describe this monk as an anonymous Christian. So, if I hold that everyone depends upon Christ for salvation, and if at the same time, I hold that many people have never recognized Christ, there remains, in my opinion, nothing else but to take up the postulate of an anonymous Christianity.

You could learn from Rahner; his idea gives you a way to both affirm the exclusive power of Jesus for salvation but also affirm the exemplary lives of faith lived out by millions of pious non-Christians.

The Bible is not self-verifying. Just saying the Bible is true doesn't make it true. The various claims made in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament may be true or false, but they need further nonbiblical, rational proof.

The miraculous claims of the Bible (virgin birth, resurrection, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.) may be true or false, but there's no proof for their truth outside the biblical text. They remain articles of faith. They shouldn't be demeaned or rejected out of hand, but they cannot be presented as obvious truth just because they're recounted in the biblical text.

To criticize a person for not accepting miracles that contradict reason, as if they were as plain as the nose on my face (which is fabulously plain), is intellectually feeble and spiritually childish.

I'm not arguing that miracles are false or true, but that they remain deep mysteries of faith and should never be trotted out as "Exhibit A" in proving the case for faith.

Your stark separation of salvation by works vs. salvation by faith is very much in dispute within Christianity. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone, or sola fide in Latin, was one of the main ideas of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. It separated Christians, with Protestants who endorsed sola fide on one side, and Roman Catholics and Eastern Christianity on the other side, who believe that faith is perfected by works.

Your sola fide theology is a little sandy. Works are the way we not only talk the religious talk but walk the religious walk. Works may not be enough for Christian salvation, but they are surely in the mix.

It's not your job to tell people they are damned. God didn't put you in charge of dispensing salvation tickets (I would have gotten the memo). God put you on Earth to witness to your faith by keeping your heart open.

My best friend, Father Tom Hartman, believes Jesus is necessary for salvation. I don't, but we've spent our lives joyously working together for harmony, acceptance and understanding between peoples and faiths. We've done this by focusing on the parts of our faiths that embrace the same moral teachings of love, justice and charity.

Our core belief is not that we're all the same, nor that we all must believe the same things. We know a lot about how we're all different but not enough about how we're all the same.

If you focus on the parts of your faith that let you meet others who don't share your faith but are trying to do God's work in our broken world, you'll both gain a friend and become the best possible witness to your powerful faith.

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