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Prepositions and salvation.

The following article is in response to the article in our July 1992 issues by Richard J. Jones, "Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Kenneth Cragg on Islam as a Way of Salvation."

There is an old, well-worn story of a stranger in Ireland asking a local worthy for direction concerning "the way to Roscommon." He got the laconic reply: "If I were going to Roscommon, I would not be starting from here."

Christian converse about "interfaith," as in Richard J. Jones's article in the July 1992 issue, "Islam as a Way of Salvation," frequently assumes that "salvation" is the right, the agreed, and the proper denominator from which to start. Yet it begs many questions. For "salvation" is such an elusive term, and even if the parties accept it (probably in deference to our starting point), it connotes quite contrasted things. Nor does it greatly help to distinguish "cosmic" from "mundane," especially so if the former entails the further decision about "damnation" and whether and by whom it is incurred. Encounters have for too long been too much preoccupied with "Are there few that be saved?" and which "few" may they be?

Salvation in, for, by, of, from--the implications bewilder when we begin to think about the prepositions without which the word is vacant. Richard Jones reports Wilfred Cantwell Smith as holding that "to have faith is to be saved," and that "saving faith" is present in the very recognition of the "ought," even if the sense of obligation remains unfulfilled in concrete acts.

The rugged Epistle of James has a different view. To be sure, Wilfred Smith sees "faith" always a singular noun quite distinct from "traditional beliefs" through which its essential quality of "humane transcendent awareness" may be diversely expressed. In that way we could use "faith" as a verb and speak of "faithing" just as we speak of "hoping." Then "faithing" is the name of a universal human experience of ultimacy and obligation, in the sense that we should never speak of "other faiths" but only of "other folk." We could then perhaps coin "salvationed" and use it comparably of all participants in "faith."

Wilfred Smith's instinct to focus issues into terms is always salutary. Yet are the prescripts too sanguine, too intellectual? What if some in our time have contrived to live effectively without any transcendental awareness? Is faith really a universal experience? Or what are we to make of the forms of it that are too evident in zealotry, bigotry, assertiveness, and hardness of heart? Is everything that is "religious" thereby either admirable or desirable? If ugly manifestations are seen as emanating sinfully from a set of beliefs, and if "faith" is the language of which these are the grammars, what ought we to conclude about "salvation"? Do some believers stultify their faith by the very means in which they give it form?

It would seem that there has to be some transforming, revolutionary dimension to "salvation," a crisis element by which the self-question that is at the heart of it may be resolved. And let us not simply pose that self-question in terms of eternal destiny. There is more than enough to occupy it here and now. All that may be subsequent to time must be in the hands of the Eternal.

For the Theravadin in Theravada Buddhism, the jailer's question at the Philippian prison, "What must I do to be saved?" is setting individuality at the heart of yearning, when the true wisdom is that salvation comes only in seeing through the illusion of both individuality and yearning. To imagine a persona that might be "saved," and to think of this as "eternal life" for some immortal "me," is to start from where one can never arrive. "Salvation" from this perspective is not some remade "self" but an unmade "self" in the quest not for "extinction" (since there is essentially no-thing to extinguish) but for the attainment of "not-being" through dukkha to anatta through a register of inclusive transience into the bliss, at length, of the "desired undesiring."

If we want to use the odd word "salvific," it is clear that "salvifics" do not tally: indeed, they are totally at odds.

Not all moods of Buddhism, nor the diversities of Hinduism, are so decisive about "undesiring." Some struggle heroically, as does Raimundo Panikkar in his many writings, somehow to reconcile bhakti devotion to a personal "Lord" from a significant selfhood with the "oceanic feeling" of totally abated being, where "Thou" and "I" no longer have meaning. It would seem impossible to comprehend under the single term "salvation" such different readings of what can be saved and how and whence and whither. We can grasp the anatta, "nonself," concept by analogy with what Paul writes about idol meats and the "weaker brother." Truly the idol is a nonentity, and therefore all meats are clean. The free mind has no need to defer to notions that have no reality. Yet, for the weaker brother in his illusion idols are all too real and--given their reality--he must assume that the apostle is party to their acknowledgment. Therefore Paul will abstain from idol meats in deference to the deluded brethren until they can be undeluded. In respect of imagined selfhood, we are the "weaker ones" who proceed upon illusion. When we have become undeluded, we will cease to ask for a salvation, or rather we will be finding it only in surrender of our search.

The Semitic monotheisms are not caught in this situation, since they all proceed upon the essential clue of the "me-ness" of us all--its creaturehood, authenticity, responsibility, vocation, and destiny. "O God, thou art my God"; "The Lord is my shepherd"; "When you said to me: Seek ye my face, my heart said to you: Your face, Lord, will I seek."

Yet that divine/human situation is diversely comprehended by synagogue, church, and mosque. Judaism and Islam dispense with Christology-within-theology. Leo Baeck used to insist that "in Judaism there are no retailers of salvation." Ismail al-Faruqi coined the terms "peccatism" and "saviorism" to decry a theology of redemption. Both Judaism and Islam are text-oriented faiths assuming a human adequacy and competence to achieve a due order of life independent of divine intervention and "grace." Where their experiences seem to belie their assurance, the appeal must be to await a future when a true Sabbath will be truly kept and when Islam will be truly Islam.

There are, of course, vast questions here for the Christian measure of "salvation," necessitated by the radical Christian realism about our human capacity for wrong and our perversity over against law, and necessitated also as larger demands upon the resources of divine sovereignty and magnanimity. At the heart of Christian "salvation" is a divine kenosis, a redemptive self-expenditure of a God "who does not economize himself" but in shepherd character seeks and finds and saves. What is more unstinted in the divine responds to what is more necessitous in the human. Christian "salvation" locates itself in a representative encounter between what we can identify as "the sin of the world" and a suffering love that we can duly relate to the eternal mind. The place is the cross, where we come to God through and because of Jesus--this teacher, this master, this Christ--only because, as the event constrains us to believe, God is "come to" in him.

The "neither is there salvation in any other," however, is not some rigorous cornering of the means of grace, some perquisite of sole proprietors. It is eminently reproducible in "Christ-bearers" (not "anonymous Christians") who are ready to read the world as the arena of the love that suffers and join themselves with the forgivingness of Christ in every place. Yet that quality of "savingness" will always need the paradigm of the event to which the church witnesses, where warrant may be found for the risk in such a saving faith. That "God is Christ" cannot be proved, it can be trusted. At a bitter point in her often bitter quest, Virginia Woolf asked: "Why is there not a discovery in life: something one can lay hands on and say: 'This is it'?"

One way of identifying "salvation" is just such a discovery, a "This is it!" Faith can say this about this someone and this somehow meeting us, like food to hunger and love to its welcome. Only by the way it includes us might it be thought to be exclusive.

Bishop Kenneth Cragg, living in retirement near Oxford, England, is known for his studies of Islam and Christian witness in the Muslim world. His books include The Call of the Minaret (1956), The Dome and the Rock (1964), and Muhammad and the Christian (1984).
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Title Annotation:response to Richard Jones, International Bulletin, July 1992
Author:Cragg, Kenneth
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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