The late Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, struggled with a question that a lot of Christians have struggled with: what does God do with good and compassionate and decent people who don’t go to church? Are those folks rejected by God, will they be punished by God? Will they be sent to hell by God? And if so, how are we to reconcile these people’s manifest goodness alongside our conviction that God is just? Isn’t God punishing those good Muslims or Hindus or atheists wrong?
Rahner’s solution was to come up with the notion of the Anonymous Christian. The Anonymous Christian is someone who doesn’t know about Jesus or maybe even someone who does know about Jesus but who refuses to worship him, but whose life is so congruent with Jesus’ teaching that we recognize the work of the Spirit in them. Such a person, Rahner suggested, meets the test for being a Christian whether they know it or not, whether they want to or not.
The Anonymous Christian is a notion that has been critiqued pretty broadly by people who are Christians but who aren’t anonymous about it. On the one hand, there is a camp that says that nobody gets into heaven without accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour, that to fail to do so, whether by ignorance or by choice, is to head down to the road to damnation. This theology was pretty widespread pretty recently – my Mom says that, as a young nurse, she and her colleagues were trained to do emergency baptisms on dying or stillborn babies – and it continues to have a lot of traction with a lot of Christians today.
I will show my hand right now and confess that I don’t have a lot of patience for this argument, for the simple reason that it makes God into a psychopath. If God is so small and so petty that God is dooming people to eternal punishment for failing to worship God, then you and I actually moral duty to refuse to worship God. We have a Christian duty to refuse to worship God. This fear-based picture of God is a fundamental rejection of the promise found in 1John that God is Love, a fundamental rejection of the Gospel. It is in no way the basis for a good or generative or life-giving church.
On the other hand, the opposite hand, there are folks who argue against the notion of the Anonymous Christian because they feel that it shows an absence of respect for the faith of people who aren’t Christian. What Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Atheist, these folks ask, would want to be called an Anonymous Christian? Or sometimes they will phrase the question the other way around: would you, as someone who goes to church, someone who is a Christian, want to be called an Anonymous Jew or an Anonymous Muslim or an Anonymous Hindu or an Anonymous Atheist? Wouldn’t you find that label incoherent or inappropriate or even offensive?
For a while, I found that argument pretty persuasive. And thus I concluded that Rahner’s concept of Anonymous Christianity was at odds with genuine respect of our neighbours, at odds with Jesus’ command to love our neighbours as ourselves. But more recently – particularly as I have visited Mosques and Jewish Temples and experienced a connection with the people whom I met there – I’ve been less sure that I accept the premise of this argument:
I’ve asked myself: Would I actually be offended if someone called me an Anonymous Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Atheist?
Well, it depends. I would be offended if what someone meant by those words is that I don’t really love Jesus. But if what someone meant, instead, is that I was the sort of person who really got what religion was about, what life was about, what love was about, if they meant that what they saw in me was someone who was living in a way that was congruent with their most cherished and beloved values – well, that wouldn’t offend me in the least. In that scenario, I would be delighted for someone to call me an anonymous version of the identity that the claim for themselves.
Indeed, that might be the highest praise that one person could give to another.
Today we encounter Paul in Athens. He is standing on an elevated parcel of land, what is sometimes known as Mars Hill because of its traditional connection with the God, Mars, and he is speaking to a substantial crowd.
he praises the gathered people,
How religious you are in every way.
And then he talks about touring the city and finding one altar or shrine after another. Until, at last, he came to an altar dedicated to an unknown God.
Paul tells them that he knows the God of which this altar speaks.
Paul’s speech is lengthy (this is the second week in a row in which the lectionary gives us what amounts to a full-on monologue). And it is an amazing speech. Viewing it today through the lens of Rahner’s concept of the Anonymous Christian, it is amazing me all the new.
Notice that in this entire speech, Paul never utters the name “Jesus.” This is a fascinating example for us as Christians. Maybe this is a challenging example for us as Christians. Because it seems to me that when many or most of us speak of evangelism, one of the big things that we mean by that word is uttering the name Jesus early and often. Talking about Jesus a lot is pretty much what every evangelist who has ever knocked on my front door has door has done. But Paul – who is kind of big deal within the church – gives us an evangelical example in which he does something quite different.
What Paul does here is to engage in what scholars call inculturation: he talks about the Gospel by using the language and imagery and the symbols of the people with whom he is talking. In doing so, he displays immense respect for the people to whom he speaks. And he also dramatically ramps up the likelihood that they will be able to hear him and understand him.
Listening to Paul talk about Jesus without saying the name Jesus, I am reminded of Richard Rohr’s advice that names like “God” or “Spirit” or “Church” are placeholders: they are symbols that point at something deeper and bigger. Thus, Rohr goes on, only use these names if they are freeing and life-giving to you. If the word “God” is incoherent or meaningless to you or to the one whom you speak or, worse yet, if the word “God” is representative of anger or fear or violence or anti-intellectualism or bigotry to you or the one to whom you speak, then follow Paul’s example and use another word.
Throughout his speech, Paul assumes that the Athenians are already in relationship with God, that they already know God. When he speaks approvingly of their religiosity, when he says that the altar to an Unknown God is naming something true and real, he moves away from an imperialistic or a paternalistic understanding of faith, whereby it is his job to bring the one truth to the ignorant or wayward. Instead, Paul allows and indeed celebrates the possibility that even as he has something to teach the Athenians, he also has something to learn from them. That, maybe, even as they are Anonymous Christians he is an Anonymous adherent of their faith.
The problem with the second critique of Anonymous Christianity – the one that says that Rahner’s notion is disrespectful to Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Atheists – is that it inadvertently perpetuates the damaging notion that the great faiths or value systems of the world are in competition with one another, much like competing businesses, each trying to attract the most customers, so that our goal as church is to get people to shop with Jesus rather than shopping with someone else.
This way of seeing reality – which we could expressly crassly by saying “My God is real, yours isn’t” – is actually at odds with monotheism, with the promise that God is One, that God is in all things, that all human bodies are temples of God, that the whole earth is full of God’s glory. It is at odds with our conviction that what we proclaim here is the deep and eternal truth and, therefore (and again, here is Richard Rohr), that if it is true here and now, it must be true always and everywhere. Paul says as much. Listen to his words, listen as he speaks of the God who made the world and everything – everything – in it, the Lord of heaven and earth. Listen as, using his audience’s own holy texts, Paul proclaims the good news:
We too are his offspring.
In God we live and move and have our being.
In other words, all of us are children of God. All of us were created by God. And at the end of our days, God will welcome all of us home.