I would like to engage in a bit of speculative theology. That is, to look at what might be consonant with our faith, but isn’t necessarily thought of in that way.
Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” I would like to propose (based on something I read a while ago, source unknown; if you know it, please let me know!) that this is a potential positive point for inter-religious dialogue. Jesus does not say that no one can go to God except through him. Of course, we equate the two, since God is the Father. But let us see if there isn’t a little bit of wiggle room in that distinction.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) in his 2005 book Truth and Tolerance pointed out that when Christianity sought to dialogue with the surrounding Greek culture, it did not do so through the Greek religious system of Zeus & Co., but through Greek philosophy: the search for truth and the relationship of “the one and the many.” Human reason had reached the conclusion that there could only be one ultimate source of existence and truth (“the One”), and that this ultimate source mediated itself to us through human reason and the discernible reasonableness and order of existence (“the Logos”). There were some important differences, which led to some important clarifications (the early ecumenical councils, and the errors they rejected, many of which have come up again and again, and are out and about again today).
But the god of philosophy was an entity, somewhat like the Force (that was one of the differences, and it’s popular today). Christianity lended to this god his personhood–His will, His love, His desire that all would know truth, and relate in the proper way with each other and with the One, so that there would not be strife, but harmony. This totally made sense to the Greeks: if the philosophical god was indeed the source of creation, of course it would have personhood, and will, and love (they wouldn’t be in existence if they weren’t first in the source). And so the love affair between faith and reason (Fides et Ratio) began.
So Christianity–Jesus in particular–came to show that the Greek “True God” was not just creator, but Father. He was (is) God of Light, God of Truth, God of Majesty, but He was (is) also God of Love, God of Consolation, God of Hope. And Jesus, his Son, came to reveal the Father to all people, that they might have life and have it abundantly. Because living in the Truth is the best way to live. To strive to grow in relationship with God, in imitation of His Son is to “have eyes to see” the “really real” (super-natural) beyond and partially manifested in the sensible world.
Jesus also fulfilled a multitude of biblical images, even if only after they had been properly understood in hindsight. But the understanding by those who knew Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Messianic expectations knew that he had done his job, even if the humble Suffering Servant was not the way they had expected. Still–he had reopened the locked gates of paradise, he had undone the sin of Adam, and through the Sacraments, especially baptism, he had given humanity participation in his life in intimate union with the Father. He not only did all that, but also continues to do that, through the Holy Spirit, continually pouring divinity into creation (and humanity), opening our eyes to see with faith what is beyond the visible, and opening our hearts to share in his grace, and to live as He would have us live (playing well with others).
The Church, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) of the Second Vatican Council, in paragraph 14 starts drawing concentric circles of the “catholic unity of the people of God… indeed the whole of mankind, for all men are called by the grace of God to salvation.” It begins with those in full communion with the catholic Church, then our Christian brethren, then our Jewish “parents in the faith,” our Muslim “fellow children of Abraham,” outward to globally encompass “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (LG 16).
Those in the fullness of unity with the Catholic Church, into which Jesus infused all the means of salvation in its founding, have the most responsibility to spread the truth through word and example (Lk 12:48). Those who are further from the Church–those of eastern religions, pagans, agnostics, atheists–are not necessarily closed from salvation. It’s bizarre to say that God willed to create India, or China, fill them with billions of people (over hundreds of generations), culturally isolate them from Christianity, then send them all to hell for not being Christian. We don’t believe that. We believe that whatever good is in their religion and in that culture is salvific–capable of leading to salvation. Heaven is not closed off to them.
The closer one is to Christ and the fullness of His revelation of God as Our Father, the easier it is for him or her to seek God’s grace and attain salvation. The further we are from Christ, the more difficult it is for us. The one, holy, catholic, apostolic church is not just the surest way to God–but through Christ it fully reveals who God is: Father. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“There is no salvation outside the Church” doesn’t mean only Catholics go to heaven. It means that it was Jesus alone who has opened the gates to paradise, nirvana, fulfillment, wholeness. So if anyone is capable of getting to heaven, it is only by virtue of Jesus Christ. But does one need to explicitly know that to be “saved?” All people can know God as his or her religion (or lack thereof) communicates some limited truth of what and who God is. The extent to which they are true (convey elements of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church) is the extent to which they are good. Christianity is thought to be bad because bad Christian witness points to a god who is far inferior to the True God as revealed by Jesus. And God even as partially revealed by pagan religions is more true than a false understanding of God obliterated by a bad Christian witness. There are pagans and atheists who have a firmer grasp on God (in rejecting the false God of a bad Christian witness) than some Christians (who have in their own minds or “tradition” so distorted God that it hardly resembles the revealed God). For example,it is reasonable to reject the hateful god of the Westboro Baptist Church.
God, the lover of His creation, is calling all his children, scattered throughout the world, to Himself. He perfects our vision and thought. He speaks into our heart. Yet, unfortunately, one cannot deny the reality that people sometimes do not know God as he fully reveals Himself…because they do not want to. A true knowledge of God makes demands on us–especially the admission that we ourselves are not God, and we cannot simply choose however we want to. Even the Ancient Greeks knew this; yet somehow, we don’t. This blindness has led many to abandon their Christian upbringing, often under the motto, “I’m a free, independent thinker,” but translates to its source, “Non serviam.”
Those in religions and cultures further away from Christ have less means of salvation and more problematic hurdles to overcome. Even though salvation is still possible, we are called to evangelism because God wants to remove all the obstacles from our path, so as to purify error from the religions and philosophies of all human cultures (as Christianity did from the beginning with the limitations of the pagan Greek world). Even though salvation should be relatively easy in long-standing Christianized societies, many have fallen away because of bad Christian witness and the increased influence of secularism and sin, and so we are called to the New Evangelization. Evangelization is to attempt to remove the splinter in our brother’s eye; the New Evangelization is to first remove the plank from our own eye.
This is not to say that all religions are just as good as another, or as long as someone is a good person, that’s good enough. The meaning of life is to get to the top of the mountain–unity with God, our source (Alpha) and goal (Omega). There’s only one path up the mountain–to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Each person’s religion and philosophy serves them as a map to the path to the top of the mountain. The better your map, the more direct your path and the more likely your success (if you follow the map!). If your map is very different than the reality of the path, it might be some pretty flowers, but you’re not as surely going to be where you need to be. There are different places from which to get your map, but the surest source is from the person who first came down the mountain and made the path.
My attempt is to offer a potential understanding of Jn 14:6 that helps us reconcile the truth that Jesus is the only way to the Father, with the reality that there have always been and are vast numbers of people who have no idea of Jesus (who came to reveal to us the Father–the full revelation of who God is, and the relationship He seeks with each of us, His children) yet they show the fruits of a faith in God partially revealed (perhaps worshiped through another name, or as multiple gods, or a supernatural force present in nature, etc.), through human culture, tradition, and religion, which virtues of one seeking God and living in harmony with the wisdom and love of “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” This is certainly not to fall into the errors of indifferentism, syncretism, or relativism, but it is to offer an aid by which we can show–like St. Paul in the Aeropagus–that we have the name of the unknown God of their faith, and he wishes us to seek Him among the voices clamoring for your attention; to seek his love, especially in your suffering; to seek His call, especially in your despair, and that while He is Our Creator, he offers to us the intimacy by which we dare to say, “Our Father…”