Outside the Church There Is No Salvation

These words are an actual doctrinal statement of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox, and most conservative evangelical Protestant groups. First enunciated by St. Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd Century, they have been reasserted by many popes, bishops, and church councils. The kicker is that if you believe in the literal meaning of these words you will be a heretic, at least in the Catholic Church. The term “heretic” has a chilling resonance considering the old history of the church, but today all it means is that “you’re not one of us.” The point is that the meaning and interpretation of a doctrine can and does evolve as understanding grows. What is peculiar and funny about all this, at least for the Catholic scene, is that we never admit we made a mistake or even that we changed our understanding. You can never say that about any doctrinal statement. The words always stay the same; the old meaning/interpretation is thrown into an ecclesial closet never to see the light of day again, and a new meaning is trotted out. That closet has gotten quite crowded over the centuries!

Consider the following comments from the current Catholic Catechism:

“How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846)…. Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (CCC 846)).

But the Church leaves a kind of “backdoor” open. It points out that in fact all kinds of people can be “saved,” even those “outside” the Church. So the Catechism goes on almost quoting Vatican II: “This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

Frankly, as far as this goes, I prefer the wording of Kallistos Ware, bishop, monk and great scholar of the Orthodox Church:

“Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” (G. Florovsky, “Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church”, in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a “visible” and an “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.”

Ok, all this is surely an advance over saying that all non-Catholics, non-Christians are damned. But it still leaves the interreligious encounter in a quandry Over the years many theologians and religious thinkers have wrestled with the full implications of all these kinds of statements and doctrines and have not really been able to find a satisfying explanation for there are some real problems here. Some of the best thinking, like Karl Rahner’s, resulted in this notion of “anonymous Christians”— to put it crudely, every person is a Christian whether they realize it or not! It privileges the Church in a sneaky way of sorts and that offends adherents of other religious traditions. Imagine telling the Dalai Lama, “You know you’re really ok in our eyes because you really are a Christian deep down!” Well, Buddhists could say every person is a Buddhist whether they realize it or not and we would object to that probably! You can kind of see the problem with that approach. And most importantly that kind of approach avoids truly encountering what another religious tradition has to say about itself, about reality, avoids truly encountering the “otherness” of the other tradition and learning from it, etc. Another variant of this approach is to see various boundaries to the Church. First there is the very visible boundary of the Roman Catholic Church, then the further out boundary of being a Christian, and then an almost invisible boundary of all basically good people of good will, and somehow the Church in its wholeness encompasses all these boundaries, but Catholics will again insist that the “fullness” of the Church is only within the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. And the most crucial point of all this is that all other religious traditions are basically inadequate and will find their fulfillment when they enter the Christian fold in a very explicit way.

When Abhishiktananda first came to India, about 1949, and during the first few years there, he pretty much adhered to this theological view which was quite progressive for that day. With the arrival of Vatican II that became the standard interpretation of that doctrine, but Abhishiktananda was changing rapidly due to his openness toward learning from his Hindu brethren and especially due to his own religious experience in the light of the Advaita teaching of the Upanishads. James Stuart, a good friend and editor of his writings, had this comment about one of his essays: “In this article—a contribution to the Theology of Religions, a subject which deeply interested both him and Dr. Panikkar—he makes very clear his dissatisfaction with the widely accepted ‘theology of fulfillment’, which envisaged a final absorption or replacement of all other religions by Christianity. (This had been the assumption of his book Sagesse, which he later tried to tone down in its English version, Saccidananda.)”

By the late 1960s Abhishiktananda had turned the traditional position totally upside down. Now it was no longer the Church inviting Hindus(and others) to the fullness and fulfillment of their spiritual yearnings, but it was the Church and Christianity that needed that experience within Hinduism of Advaita and articulated so powerfully in the Upanishads, it was the Church that needed this gift from India in order to arrive to its fullness and true divine mission. Here is Abhishiktananda from a letter in 1968:

“As I am more and more persuaded, the salvation of the world and of the Church lies in realizing that fundamental experience of the human being, of which the best expression so far seems to have been given by the Upanishads. Any construction that seeks to be solid has to be built on this unbreakable block.”

And then from another letter the whole idea of conversion is jettisoned: “Only this month I have had with me a 22 year old student for his holidays. He comes to spend every holiday with me, and is like a son to me. It is marvelous to have such a deep and close relation with Hindus. But the further I go, the less I see how these real Hindus, despite their admiration for Christ, could ever enter into the framework of Christianity. I cannot see a single one of my friends, young or not so young, who could become a Christian. This sets a terrible theological problem, which begins to trouble our young theologians here. Living as I do more than anyone in both environments at the same time, I see less than anyone how to solve the problem.”

And of course the still more gnarly problem of the relationship of Advaita to Christian mysticism is even more intractable to any conceptual/theological solution. These two do not admit of easy reconciliation/formulation. Toward the end of his life Abhishiktananda believed that no “theology of world religions” could ever be reconciled with Christian claims and at the same time do justice to what these other religions claim. Comparing the words and symbols and concepts of each religion, while a worthwhile endeavor in at least appreciating what others are claiming, will never lead to that ultimate “common ground.” That common ground is an ultimately transcendent reality beyond all words and symbols and it can only be “realized” as a transcendent reality and for this we have this innate capacity that is open to that which is beyond rational, discursive analysis—in the Hesychast tradition this is sometimes called “the heart.” (Abhishiktananda, for example, was critical of his dear friend, Sara Grant, who had made a valiant effort to show the similarity between Sankara and Aquinas following the guidance of her mentor, the great Jesuit Sanskrit scholar De Smet.) Of course the scholar/intellectual who is learned in the claims and symbols of another religious symbol and who is also at the same time a true and devoted spiritual seeker within his own tradition will be in an excellent position to begin to evaluate the words and symbols of his own tradition in the light of that other tradition.

Abhishiktananda’s “solution” is that, for example in the case of Hinduism and Christianity, followers of each way dive deep down within each tradition, within the words and symbols of each tradition, going “all the way” to the ground of their religious tradition and then they will be able to look each other in the face and recognize that “smile” which is truly beyond all words and symbols and doctrines—like the smile of the Buddha which so transfixed Thomas Merton on his trip to Asia. That means “the mystic” has priority over the theological/religious intellectual—but not the “monopoly” in religious encounters. And so of course the real “dialogue” will only take place between people of deep experience who are witnesses of the depth of their own tradition. (Of course Abhishiktananda would also say that at least for the Christian what he/she learns from his fellow Hindu will make this “journey” ever more “powerful”—freeing it perhaps from being absolutized in the Semitic-Greco terms of Christian tradition.) This does not please the theologians for the very dynamic of their profession is to analyze religious concepts. This does not please church officials for it seems to bypass their authority. This does not please the average church goer for it seems to complicate what he/she had learned in a fundamental catechism/evangelism class where the Mystery of God has the stuffings knocked out of it. So it does not please anyone! Except the true mystic who simply seeks the Mystery which dwells in his/her heart.

So here is an extended quote from Abhishiktananda from early 1973, less than a year from his death:

“What a purification from all attachment is this meeting with the East, which compels us to recognize as namarupa all that previously we considered to be most sacred, to be the very Truth contained in ‘words’…. Later we have to be able to recognize the value of the namarupa, no less than we did ‘before’, but we have discovered another level of truth—the blinding sun of high noon. Our time is one of those without precedent in the history of the world, when the worldwide coming together makes us clearly see that we ourselves and our whole tradition and every tradition are essentially conditioned. Every religion is rooted in a culture, beginning with the most primordial and hidden archetypes which necessarily govern its view of the world. All that is citta [thought] is namarupa. And every namarupa has to be laid bare, so that the satyam [Real] may be unveiled. What a savage but marvelous purification! No longer even to say ‘I am’, but to be it to such an extent that the whole being ‘exudes’ it…. And then we have understood. We find ourselves once more Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, for each one has his own line of development, marked out already from his mother’s lap. But we also have the ‘smile.’ Not a smile which looks down condescendingly from above, still less a smile of mockery, but one which is simply an opening out like the flower unfolding its petals…. When religions are too close, like the Muslim, the Jewish and the Christian, we look for common denominators. But when the fancy takes us, we can equally well make an eclectic Hindu-Christian system…. Then we realize that on the level of the namarupa no comparison is valid. Religions are grandiose dream-worlds. But be careful not to call them dreams from the point of view of a dreaming…. The man who is awake marvels at the dream; in it he grasps the symbolism of the mystery. He knows that every detail has its significance. The only mistake is to want to absolutize each symbol. And the difficulty is that no deep ‘drive’ can be expressed without symbols. There is no religion without a culture. There is no Christ, if he is not linked to a time, a place, an ethnic group.”

So the real problem from the Christian standpoint is that we absolutize the normal and inevitable specific symbols and language of that transformation from the Semitic beginnings of Christianity, that specific time and place of the Middle East to its inculturation in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity. What many of us wonder is do we really need to ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE simply repeat that language. In other words, is the language of the Fathers of the Church to be absolutized to such an extent that we cannot find other expressions that come from other cultures and religious experiences as the reality of Christ comes to these cultures and religious consciousness. What if that religious experience is truly authentic and leads to good and holy lives, does it not lead to some kind of “explosion” (as Abhishiktananda loved to put it) when it meets the Christian complex of concepts and symbols? An explosion where all concepts and words and symbols, on both sides of the encounter, are shattered and remain not the same. The interesting thing is that in this encounter both sides are really shy about this, really apprehensive about such encounters, Buddhists and Hindus just as much as Christians.

Before I sign off, just a few notes:

First of all, note that there are three important words in that doctrinal statement I quoted: “outside”—a problematic word to say the least; “church”—a loaded term with many “trap doors”; and “salvation”—my favorite word here and I believe the one that needs a whole treatment on its own because I think it is greatly misunderstood and misapplied within Christian circles. More about that later.

Secondly, I have emphasized the Christian-Hindu encounter and the writings of Abhishiktananda (whom I believe is one of the most important Christian spiritual writers of our time). But what about Buddhism? Many Christian monks have been attracted to Buddhism because their own tradition seems to stifle the “mystic journey.” Many others have delved deeply into Buddhism because on the surface it seems to present less doctrinal challenges to Christianity than say the Hinduism of Advaita Vedanta. But I think that is a surface evaluation. In reality I think Buddhism presents an incredibly more difficult and more comprehensive challenge to Christianity. To simply borrow from Buddhism a “contemplative style” of living or to take up simply some techniques of meditation is not to do justice to the depth, the complexity, and the comprehensiveness of the “Buddhist Way.” It is much more than a mere “science of the mind/consciousness” as some Christians and even many Buddhists claim it is. Maybe we shall return to this later!

A happy New Year to all, and a Blessed Epiphany. Now for your homework: what do you make of the Three Wise Men coming from the East to worship the Christ child?

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