It’s been a while since I studied theology in college. And I am wondering what theology departments are teaching these days. A colleague recently told me about a small, conservative Catholic college with which she is familiar.
At this college, one of the theology professors likes to illustrate salvation using the metaphor of Noah’s ark. There are safe places to be on the ark. And there are…less safe places to be on the ark.
Catholics, the professor teaches, are in the best part of the ark: a sort of lower, inner room with a supply closet. Because it is so low, it doesn’t rock much. There is comfortable bedding and sufficient food and water.
Next safest are Protestants. But next safest does not mean nearly as good. Protestants are somewhere upstairs, feeling the waves more, and sharing room and amenities with the animals. Like at the trough and all.
Upstairs from that is the Jewish floor. The Jews are inside the boat, which is what matters, but they sure have it rough. The wind and the waves really matter at that elevation. They feel seasick a lot.
Finally there are the Muslims, who are not really in the boat but just sort of on it. They get flung around in the open air by the storm. As often as not, they slide off the slippery deck and into oblivion.
(Notice: I said “finally” there were the Muslims. Buddhists, Hindus, and others went unmentioned. I suppose you are irrelevant once you are outside the Abrahamic trifecta.)
Listening to my colleague’s account left me stupefied. This bizarre variation on Dante’s circles, terraces and spheres officially qualified as one of the most dreadful things I’d ever heard. For a while I was in a daze, fixated on images of terrified Muslims tumbling into the sea.
There was so much wrong here, beginning with the notion of “being saved” as the ultimate point of spirituality and religion. A singleminded focus on your eternal home can sound lofty, even noble, but it easily degenerates into a kind of sublimated yet consummate selfishness. Have we forgotten that ”whoever wishes to save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35)?
The next problem is salvation as a matter of holding correct belief rather than living from right heart. Bruce Bawer provides an arresting summary of the implications in his 1997 jeremiad against fundamentalist Christianity, Stealing Jesus: “Satan strives to convince people that they need not embrace Jesus in order to be saved, but need only be good; thus Satan is, in effect, a force for virtue. To Jesus, by contrast, it is infinitely less important that people be good than that they accept him as their savior; Jesus is, then, effectively not a force for virtue.” The ark metaphor is but a Catholicized repackaging of the theme.
Yet the deepest problem is one of worldview. That is why all this is happening on an ark in the first place. The ark is what life means. Life, finally, is a treacherous ocean besieged by storms. You do not swim in it. You do not explore it, feeling the sun and spray, marvelling at all the colorful tropical fish. That is a fool’s errand: you need a boat, right now, and you need to get below deck pronto. Sharks and drowning await you otherwise. Life is about fear. And mind you, this option is actually tempting. We all know hapless people for whom freedom somehow leads to snake-pit after snake-pit in ceaseless succession.
But overall, there are richer possibilities in a worldview based on trust, in which God and the universe are fundamentally gracious, leaving you secure enough to take risks. The risks are still risks: sin and imperfection remain real. Waves do get high and sharks do swim. But grace is somehow big enough to handle it, allowing diverse people to blossom in their own ways as they each work out their salvation.
We must consider whether our religious lives are based on fear or on freedom. In so doing, we must remember: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). At the root level, fear is not our faith, it is not the faith of the Church, and we should not be proud to profess it.