In the light of the debates now raging among Christians regarding how to respond to people of other faiths Pope Francis gives us here a short video in which he expresses his heart and personal hope.
Many evangelicals will see this video and conclude something like the following: “Pope Francis believes all people are brothers and sisters and thus he believes all will be saved by God regardless of their life and faith. Therefore, it makes no real difference whether or not the church does evangelization and mission since ALL people who are sincere in their faith will be saved in the end.”
Am I right or am I wrong in the way in the way I state this conclusion?
I think I am right. I know this is how I would have heard this message twenty years ago. So, my next question is this: “Does this make me a pluralist (or liberal) who denies John 14:6 or sees no urgency for sharing the good news and making disciples of Jesus?”
The problem lies in the meaning of all the words and ideas presented here by my comments. The Catholic Church is neither pluralistic nor is it devoted to universalism. It confesses the Christian faith in God the trinity and in Christ the Son. It believes the core teaching of the historic Christianity. Pope Francis not only believes this as a devout Catholic leader but he believes it because he is a Spirit-filled “evangelical” preacher of the good news of Jesus. Search for his Spanish-speaking videos on YouTube and you find his preaching of the gospel. You can see and hear the gospel through this brother and feel his great passion to lead people into the personal knowledge of Christ. Those evangelicals in Latin America who know him testify to his making disciples by preaching the gospel for many years.
Thus, here is my conclusion: “Might it be that somehow we are not hearing one another in these debates about religions?” Or, perhaps, we are saying something like this: “We are quite sure (in a modernistic and philosophical way) that we know who really is denying the faith, thus we (I/you) know who is finally faithful.” We know the judgment before God judges!
I would like to suggest that Pope Francis is saying the following:
- We are all seeking God in our own way. We must respect one another and seek for love as the very basis of all life-changing faith and life together in our troubled world.
- There is truth in all expressions of faith. Regardless of how much, or how little, error there is in various claims to divine revelation there is some/much common truth. This varies among the great religions of the world.
- Religions are not “good and evil” per se. People are good and evil by their actions and by how they express whatever faith they have.
- We must respect others and not attack their faith claims (as if this is true biblical evangelism) even if we think that they have not yet heard the final revelation of God given to the world in his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.
- The world, in its present state of conflict and war, needs to see and hear people of various religions expressing love and respect for one another. Christians can and should take the lead in this matter.
- We are all “children of God” in the sense that God is our creator and to God we will all answer for our lives. He is the judge, not me and not you.
The greatest illustration of what I have in mind here occurs in Acts 17. Here we read (and please read the words slowly and carefully and note my italics in the text where both truths I am stressing are made):
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
What Pope Francis is not saying:
- He is not saying that the biblical statements about Christians being “brothers and sisters in Christ” should be denied or rejected. The bond we have, which is rooted in the incarnation and experienced by the same Holy Spirit, is one of paternity and supernatural birth by the Holy Spirit.
- Christians know the One who reveals the Father perfectly and finally.
- Christian faith and baptism are unique to those who have received the light of God given to them in Jesus Christ.
- Christians are to share this good news of Christ with the whole world.
- Christians should not deny one iota of their confessional and biblically-rooted faith.
Finally, the questions in all of this debate come down to one: “How will we live our faith before a world that has gotten smaller and smaller and thus learn to truly love our neighbors, not just respond to other religions and religious people in fear? Can we totally embrace the love given to us in Christ without insisting that others are confused and in the dark and we are always in the right because we are in the light?” Humility and contextualization call for a better way forward. I am persuaded that it will be hard for us to find this way in our present atmosphere of terrorism and fear.
The truth has not changed one iota but the world surely has and many of us do not grasp what this actually means as we live in love with our neighbors. May God help us do better at this task in 2016. I believe the way forward is in respectful dialogue rooted in love. A great deal of everything else we have to say is worth deeper conversation and much better listening.
For further reading I suggest the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.