This could be taken as a remarkable statement to make as a Christian pastor. But I don’t wish for a world where everyone converted to Christianity. This isn’t because I don’t want everyone to be saved, it’s just that I don’t think being a Christian saves anyone. If we are to meaningfully talk about salvation, that must involve the work of God in the world and the cooperation of human beings in that effort.
To talk about the question of salvation, we have to ask what we need to be saved from? Anyone could make a list of the problems of human existence. Our inability to live well together being a top candidate. Racism, gender discrimination, and violence could be another. The concentration of wealth where most of the world’s population don’t have enough to live on while the top 1% owns almost half the world’s wealth.
But then there are other problems of a more existential nature. The lack of meaning in some people’s lives. The need for community, support, and the feeling of being included and valued as people is another. The need for growth, intellectual and moral is an important one. The need for love, to receive and give that to one another. The need to do valuable and meaningful work and the desire to see one’s efforts make a difference and impact others.
Salvation, in such an account, would seek to address these sets of concerns. The solutions to them are hardly unitary, even if we are using a single word to describe them. In this, salvation would be a catch all phrase for all the many efforts, events and situations that could be in a position to contribute to the good in life. Given the problems and solutions we could envision, it should be clear that no one religion can solve them or save us though each could contribute to a solution.
In that, various religious and secular traditions have developed a language to take a hold of the world, sometimes, in ways that let us get a handle on the problems of human life. To even ask the question of salvation, for instance, is to ask a question developed in the western monotheistic traditions. But what each tradition has developed, as a response, is different. They are each attentive to certain issues, given their histories, the cultures they developed in, etc. Like the use of language, they open up and close off ways of viewing the world.
In such a view, one would not wish for a single religion, anymore then one would we wish that we could all speak of Esperanto. We would lose too many resources, too many rich ways of describing, seeing, and living in the world, if we were to lose our languages. The same, for me, is also the case with religion. In that I take religious pluralism, to be inherently an important asset we have as humans. It means we have a variety of ways of engaging the world that is had because of that pluralism.
Since there is a debate about what constitutes fundamentalism, let me add my contribution. There is the definition of the fundamentals, as developed by conservative Presbyterians in the debate they had with the modernizers in their day. There is the broad use of the term we use today to describe anyone who is dogmatic, which can include atheists. Others reject that term, assuming it must refer to those who would kill and die for their beliefs. I’d want to broaden or narrow the term to the belief that the world would be better if everyone believed exactly like me.
I found it interesting that when Christopher Hitchens was presented with the question of whether everyone should be atheist, he rejected it while Richard Dawkins affirmed it. In my definition, Hitchens would not have been a fundamentalist, Dawkins remains as such. Depending on how you answer that question, a lot is revealed, regardless of your religious and political perspective. If a new mosque, temple, church, humanist society is built in your town, do you wince and wish it was otherwise? Or do you have hopes people will find the connections they are seeking?
With such a view, evangelism takes on a different meaning. Now some have redefined it, to include the original meaning of the term, good news, evangel. That is, when we seek to bring good to the world, when we seek to make God incarnate in the world, then we are engaged in evangelism. I shouldn’t say some people, it actually resembles the answer I helped craft to our Presbyterian Synod when asked about evangelism as it relates to my campus ministry. That is not itself a bad answer.
It’s just not a complete answer. For one, I keep on posting about liberal Protestantism and the viability of Christian faith. That has something more it to than simply spreading good news, though I do take it as such. It’s also because I want others to consider whether the church could be a plausible path to express their religious hopes and values. It’s because I think, for myself and hope for others too, the Christian faith has an important role to play in addressing the problems of human life. To be honest, I’d like to see more people find their way into mainline churches.
But I don’t want people to come who have found a meaningful and valuable way to commit to the question of human good as found in other communities and traditions. I don’t want the local rabbi to leave the work he’s doing in his synagogue, for instance. And when I see teens organizing atheist student groups, against great odds, I want to cheer them on. I go to Josiah Royce, who argues that we can recognize commitment, loyalty, to a cause and be heartened by that even if the context is a different one then where we would express that same kind of loyalty.
I think William James adds something when he speaks of live options. Live options are plausible choices we could make, including of religious identification, depending on our own histories, the contexts we find ourselves in, etc. To be faithful to what we understand is the best in life means we have varying live options, while others are closed to us. I may have thought of converting to Judaism while in college but Hinduism was not a consideration. It’s too culturally other for me to even begin to consider it in fair what less plausible way. Growing up in Montana will do that to folks.
In that, given people’s individual histories and situations, the Christian faith could be an open option or not. If not, they should seek what they understand is the best. But I think, for those who an open liberal Christian faith is a plausible option, I want to remove as many barriers that would preclude them for considering such an option. So I’d want to add that to evangelism as well. Not converting folks or pushing them from one religion to another. But removing barriers that allow people who would seek a liberal and open faith the possibility of considering, the mainline church.
In such a view, removing barriers (which I hope these articles and my work in campus ministry does) becomes a way of doing evangelism. But not because I want everyone to be Christian, nor because I take it as a task to convert people. But rather because there are those, who could find a self authentic expression of faith in the Christian tradition, if such an option is made available. In that, opening up the tradition to others, could become an important task for religious liberals.
What kind of barriers exist? The anti gay position of much of the church for one. The identification of Christianity with reactionary politics is another. Lots of liberally minded folks never get to consider the church because the social context we face in the US pushes against that, from both left and from the right. The question of science and the status of religious claims is a barrier. Gender discrimination is another. I think the gift of liberal protestantism to the Christian tradition is the way that these barriers are being tackled to open the tradition up, even if not everyone sees us as a gift.
This is the view that under girds my work in campus ministry. Social justice work, which can be good news for folks. Interfaith work, which opens up a range of live options for people as they consider what an authentic life looks like for themselves. And Christian work, which can open the door to a progressive faith that had never been opened before. I think all three go together and need not contradict each other.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at Ecumenical Campus Ministries at the University of Kansas.