Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori weighs in on issues of salvation and evangelism in her most recent column for Episcopal Life, expanding on statements she has made in interviews with the media.
Is baptism necessary for salvation? Theologians have wrestled with this in a number of ways and made some remarkably gracious and open-ended responses. Vatican II affirmed that salvation is possible outside the church, even though some statements by Roman Catholic authorities in years since have sought to retreat from that position.
Karl Rahner spoke about “anonymous Christians,” whose identity is known to God alone. John MacQuarrie recognized the presence of the Logos or Word in other traditions.
When we look at some of the lives of holy people who follow other religious traditions, what do we see? Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama both exemplify Christ-like lives. Would we assume that there is no grace present in lives like these? A conclusion of that sort seems to verge on the only unforgivable sin, against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:30-32).
If I believe that God is more than I can imagine, conceptualize or understand, then I must be willing to acknowledge that God may act in ways that are beyond my ken, including in people who do not follow the Judeo-Christian tradition. Note that I include our Jewish brothers and sisters, for Scripture is very clear that God made a covenant with Israel. That covenant was not abrogated in Jesus. Scripture also speaks of a covenant with Abraham that extends to his offspring, including Ishmael. Our Muslim brothers and sisters claim him as their ancestor. In some way, God continues to act in the tradition we call Islam.
Well, if God is already at work in other religious traditions, why would we bother to teach, make disciples or baptize? The focus of our evangelical work can never be imposing our own will (despite the wretched examples of forced conversion in the history of Christianity), but there is a real urgency to sharing the good news.
Can you imagine not saying to another, “Let me introduce you to my best friend. I think you would enjoy getting to know him”? We are certainly not loath to do that when it comes to the latest movie or book or restaurant we’ve enjoyed, and unless we are leery of sharing, we will not stay silent long.
We’ve argued before that those who say the Presiding Bishop’s views on salvation are outside the Christian mainstream seem to believe that the Catholic Church is outside the mainstream as well. She makes that case indirectly here herself. Note especially the reference to Matthew 12, where she gently but firmly suggests that it is her Bible-quoting critics who have misread the Scriptures and are flirting with the unpardonable sin.