Dilatato Corde 2:1
January - June, 2012
The Good Shepherd by Japanese printmaker Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)
The Good Shepherd by Japanese printmaker Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)


An American Muslim who teaches in a theological school in Iran told me that on one of his flights back to the United States the person next to him began a conversation that went something like this:

-I noticed that the book you’re reading is about religion. Are you, by any chance, a Christian?

-No, in fact, I’m a Muslim

-Oh, that’s too bad.

-Really? What’s so bad about being a Muslim?

-Well, Muslims are not saved, and so when you die, you’re going to hell.

-Really? Now why is that?

-Because you don’t believe in Jesus.

-But I do.

-But you don’t accept him as your personal Savior.

-Yes, I do.

-But you don’t accept Jesus as your personal Savior the way I do.

Although most Christians would probably not be quite as blunt or arrogant in a conversation with a non-Christian they had just met, that response does represent one understanding of what Peter meant when he said, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).

That understanding of Peter’s words, however, is mistaken. Peter is not making a statement about the place of other religions in God’s plan of salvation. He is simply explaining to those who were examining him that it was not he who healed the crippled man. Rather, that disabled person was “saved,” that is, healed, through the name of the risen Jesus, a name that, in fact, means “the Lord saves.”

But sadly, Peter’s words have been taken out of context and used to “prove” that if you do not believe in Jesus “the way I do,” you’re doomed.

No matter that Muslims venerate and love Jesus as one of the greatest of God’s prophets. They don’t believe in Jesus the way I do, and so they’re going to hell.

No matter that there are Jews who have the highest regard for Jesus as a teacher of the divine Law. They don’t believe in Jesus the way I do, and so they’re going to hell.

No matter that for not a few Hindus Jesus is an avatar, an incarnation of God. They don’t believe in Jesus the way I do, and so they’re going to hell.

No matter that many Buddhists see in Jesus one who is fully enlightened and regard his emptying of himself by freely laying down his life as the perfection of existence. They don’t believe in Jesus the way I do, and so they’re going to hell.

And no matter that there are many agnostics, and even atheists, who love their neighbor and work for social justice in a way that would put many Christians to shame. They don’t believe in Jesus the way I do, and so they’re going to hell.

Obviously, this is a rather crass caricature of what is called the exclusivist understanding of salvation. However, such a caricature may help to highlight the larger message of the Gospel: that God’s love is boundless, that God wills everyone to be saved, and that Jesus bore witness to this saving love of God by befriending prostitutes, tax collectors, and foreigners. Jesus’ inclusive expression of God’s universal love scandalized and continues to scandalize those who think they belong to an exclusive community of the saved.

Catholic theologians continue to search for a suitable way to explain how is possible to hold two positions that on the surface appear to be contradictory: on the one hand, our faith in Christ as the Savior of the world, and, on the other, the undeniable fact that most human beings are brought to true holiness by following their own religion.

However, this would not be the first time Christian theology has had to find ways of reconciling apparent contradictions. Thanks to the study and prayerful reflection of the Church’s theologians, we today are able to affirm that God is one and three, that Jesus is God and human, that Mary is virgin and mother, and that the Eucharist is bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ. Reconciling contradictions is nothing new for theology, and these apparent contradictions, which are sometimes spoken of as paradoxes, enrich our worship. Recall the opening hymn of today’s Mass,[1] for example, in which we called on Christ as Lamb and Shepherd, prince and slave, peacemaker and sword-bringer.

Dialogue, study, and prayerful reflection will, I believe, eventually show us how our faith in Jesus as Savior and Redeemer of all can be reconciled with acknowledging that God saves the adherents of other religions through their beliefs and practices and not in spite of them. But even before we arrive at that understanding, we can already give thanks that our Good Shepherd also has other sheep that do not belong to this fold, but do listen to his voice (John 10:16). God calls us all, Christians and those who are different from us, to become one flock, or, as Thomas Merton put it, "We are already one and we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. Whatever we have to be is what we are.”[2]

In his first letter, the Apostle John tells us that on the final day, when what we shall be is revealed, we shall be like God, for we shall see God as God is (1 John 3:2).

On that final day I suspect that we will see countless others who are also like God. That was the vision of Christian de Chergé, a Trappist monk in Algeria who had the highest regard for Islam and was, in turn, loved and revered by the Muslims who knew him and his community. On May 21, 1996, he and six of his brothers were victims of the political and religious violence that was ripping Algeria apart. Some of you may have seen the film “Of Gods and Men,” which tells the story of their decision to remain in Algeria in spite of the very real possibility that they would be killed, as so many others had been, Algerians and foreigners alike. In his final will and testament, composed a little more than a year before his execution, Christian wrote,

This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.[3]

Christian de Chergé was convinced that the Spirit of God creates communion not by eliminating religious differences, but by playing with them, delighting in them.

Maybe this image of a playful Holy Spirit will show us how the salvation we have received from God, through Christ in the Holy Spirit, is also offered to those who are outside our sheepfold.

[A homily preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B), April 29, 2012 at Saint John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. The Scriptural texts for the Liturgy of the Eucharist for that day are Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; and John 10:11-18).]

[1] “Christus Paradox,” Text: Sylvia G. Dunstan, 1955-1993. In Ritual Song: A Hymnal and Servie Book for Roman Catholics (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 1996), #699.

[2] (“Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism,” a talk delivered at Calcutta, October 1968, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1975 edition, appendix III, p. 308).

[3] Christian de Chergé’s Testament is readily available on-lin

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