Epiphany and the salvation of those who don't identify as Christian

January 4th, 2019

The ever sagacious Orthodox scholastic David Bentley Hart released a fascinating translation of the New Testament in 2017.* His rendering of Matthew 2:1 sparks our attention as we approach the great light of Epiphany: “Now, Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days when Herod was king, look: Magians arrived in Jerusalem from Eastern parts….” Magians? We’re apt to hearing “wise men” (ESV etc.) or, as in the CEB, “magi”; “Magians” we’ve never met before. Hart provides a footnote in explanation.

The Greek magoi , Hart maintains, “is a word that never merely means ‘wise’ or ‘learned’ men.” In later usage it will come to mean “sorcerers,” but in the first century magoi are “men of the Zoroastrian priestly caste of the Persians and Medes, largely associated in the Hellenistic mind with oneiromancy and astrology….” We learn a lot here. The Magians who come to worship the Christ child are Zoroastrian priests. More, they’re associated with oneiromancy — or divining the future through interpreting dreams — and astrology. Whether Matthew takes them to have one or both of these associations, both are prominently on display in Matthew 2: the Magians, of course, follow the star and, moreover, immediately after the Magians depart, Joseph is warned in a dream by the Lord’s angel to flee with his vulnerable family to Egypt.

We have stars, we have dreams, we have Magians.

But here I want to focus on the religion of the Magians in relation to human salvation. The Magians, not Jewish to be sure, but rather Gentiles, “the nations,” though priests of a faith not Israel’s, are drawn by the risen star (2:2) of the Christ child, already prophesied to be “God with us” (Mt. 1:23).

They’ve been drawn to worship the incarnate God, having only seen his risen star, and ignorant of his name, his teachings and his own rising.

Some early and medieval Christian theologians and mystics have had theologies articulating the salvation, not only of those who in this life are visibly and explicitly members of the church, but of all. (Augustine, of course, was explicitly not one of these; and it was the aging Augustine’s interpretation of Paul which Luther and Calvin followed.) Yet the 20th century has arguably seen the deepest probing of this mystery specifically in terms of the way in which those who do not identify as Christian, or dogmatically affirm that Jesus Christ is the savior, might yet actively respond to Christ. We’ll briefly look at two: Karl Rahner (1904-1984) and Dorothy Day (1897-1980).

Here’s the view of Karl Rahner, perhaps the greatest Jesuit sage-theologian of the 20th century, in a nutshell.**

[M]any have already encountered Christ who did not know that they had grasped the very one into whose life and death they entered as into their blessed and redeemed destiny, that they had encountered the very one whom Christians correctly name Jesus of Nazareth. Created freedom is always the risk of the uncalculated which, whether one attends to it or not, lies within the object of choice which is seen. Something absolutely unseen and something wholly other are not appropriated by freedom when it opts for something definite and something limited. But something unexpressed and unformulated is not therefore also and necessarily something absolutely unseen and unsought for. Now God and the grace of Christ are present as the essence of every reality we can choose. Therefore it is not so easy to opt for something without having to do with God and Christ either by accepting them or rejecting them, either by believing or not believing. (227-28)

In short, Jesus Christ is at the heart of everything, and is the divine and human grace on offer in every choice a human makes. Hence, folk who don’t know anything historical about Jesus, or who have the dogmas a little or a lot wrong, or who wind up in Bethlehem by following an enticingly luminous star, may well still choose and trust in Jesus in any and (potentially) every one of their free choices. This is Rahner’s famous doctrine of “anonymous Christianity,” and it has been a lightning rod in subsequent theology.

How’s Rahner imagine this happening in relation to the spiritual practice or attitude of the agnostic believer?

Consequently, anyone who, though still far away from any revelation explicitly formulated in words, accepts his existence in patient silence (or, better, in faith, hope and love), accepts it as the mystery which lies hidden in the mystery of eternal love and which bears life in the womb of death, is saying “yes” to Christ even if he does not know it. For anyone who lets go and jumps falls into the depths which are there, and not only to the extent that he himself has fathomed them. Anyone who accepts his humanity fully, and all the more so of course the humanity of others, has accepted the Son of Man because in him God has accepted man. And if it says in Scripture that whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law, then this is the ultimate truth because God himself has become his neighbor, and hence He who is at once nearest to us and farthest from us is always accepted and loved in every neighbor. (228)

The acceptance of one’s existence in “patient silence (or, better, in faith, hope and love)” sounds a lot like the essence of contemplative prayer (or, in the English idiom of Vedantists and Buddhists and mindful secularists, “meditation”). But whether or not it takes place in a formal spiritual practice, Rahner thinks the grace of such acceptance is universally on offer. And note, for Rahner, how the accent falls on active love, still in the idiom of acceptance: one fully accepts not only one’s own humanity but, all importantly, the humanity of one’s neighbors, the existence of others. For God, as Rahner reasons — I told you he’s a sage — has become a neighbor and, in an essential sense, every neighbor (cf. Mt. 25).

When we turn to the doctrine of the journalist and communist-turned-Catholic Worker Dorothy Day, we find a view consistent with the basic shape of Rahner’s teaching, yet with an eye and a heart attuned particularly to principled atheist communists who take the side of the poor.*** “Often there is a mystical element in the love of a radical for his brother, for his fellow worker” (7). She continues:

[The mystical element] extends to the scene of his sufferings, and those spots where he has suffered and died are hallowed. The names of places like Everett, Ludlow, Bisbee, South Chicago, Imperial Valley, Elaine, Arkansas, and all those other places where workers have suffered and died for their cause have become sacred to the worker. You know this feeling, as does every other radical in the country. Through ignorance, perhaps, you do not acknowledge Christ’s name. Yet I believe you are trying to love Christ in his poor, in his persecuted ones. Whenever men have laid down their lives for their fellows, they have done it in a measure for Him. This I still firmly believe, even though you and others may not realize it. (7)

For Day as for Rahner, the human who does not identify as Christian, and who does not knowingly intend to love the neighbor as Jesus Christ, yet who, nevertheless, truly loves the neighbor in a way that, as Rahner puts it, fully accepts her humanity, is paradoxically both loving Christ in fact and even “intending” (Day) to love Christ. Intention may proceed in intellective darkness after an unformulated and uncomprehended but nevertheless intended object: Christ in one’s brother, Christ in one’s sister, Christ in the poor — Christ as the neighbor. For both Day and Rahner, response to the grace of God is always a thoroughly christological affair — Jesus Christ truly is the mediator of all this — even if those who receive and respond to that grace haven’t the slightest notion of it. Day, utterly correctly, ascribes this to a “mystical element,” and Rahner has precisely worked out a theological and metaphysical articulation of this, shall I say, mysticism of the intentional and agnostic love of Jesus Christ: the incarnation means that there is finally no difference between responding acceptingly to the full humanity of any neighbor (even oneself) and responding acceptingly to the full humanity of God.

The pagan Magians: astrologizing followers of the risen star, agnostic but intentional worshippers of the risen Lord. 

*David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale, 2017).

**Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, William V. Dych, trans. (New York: Crossroad, 1999).

***Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, Robert Ellsberg, ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983).

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