At the end of the day, we all, believers and non-believers, godly and ungodly, share a common humanity, and we all end up on the same path. This has many implications.
It is no secret that religious practice is radically collapsing across the secular world today. Those who opt out don’t all look the same, nor do they all share the same name. Some are atheists and explicitly deny the existence of God. Others are agnostics who are open to accepting the existence of God but remain undecided. Others define themselves as none; When asked what faith they belong to, they answer “none”. There are those who define themselves as Donners, done with religion and done with the church. Then there are the procrastinators, people who know that one day they will have to deal with the question of religion, but, like St Augustine, keep saying, “I’ll have to at some point, but not yet!” Finally, there’s this huge group who defines herself as “spiritual but not religious” and says she believes in God but not in an institutionalized religion.
We all know people who fall into one or more of these categories and worry about them. What can we do, if anything, to move these people to faith, religion, and church? What happens if they die in this state? Where does God stand in the face of this?
I suspect that God doesn’t very much share our concern here, not that God sees this as perfectly sane (humans are humans!), but that God has a broader perspective on this, is infinitely loving, and is patient in tolerant of our choices. Why? What is God’s larger perspective here?
First, the fact that our faith already baptizes those we love. Gabriel Marcel once said, “To say to someone ‘I love you’ is to say, ‘You will never be lost.'” As Christians, we understand this in relation to our unity within the body of Christ. Our love for someone connects him or her to us, and since we are part of the body of Christ, he or she is also connected to the body of Christ, and to touch Christ is to touch grace. Thanks to the miracles of the Incarnation, any sincere Christian can say, “My heaven is this or that particular person whom I love.” We called this “baptism by desire,” except in this case the desire for “baptism” is on our side , but still just as effective.
Next we need to realize that God loves these people more than we do and cares more about their happiness and salvation than we do. God loves everyone individually and passionately and ensures that no one is lost. Also, God is tricky! As good Christian apologists have always pointed out, God has His own plans, loving snares, and means of leading people to faith.
Also, God is infinitely patient. Putting piety aside for a moment, we could profitably compare God to a GPS (a global positioning system) given how infinitely patient yet persistent a GPS is in directing us. A GPS is built with the assumption that it will often not be followed and will need to make the necessary adjustments. We all know how this works. We are driving towards a destination and the GPS tells us to turn right at the next intersection. However, we ignore his instruction and drive straight through the intersection. A short silence, then, taking into account that we ignored its original instruction, the GPS says “recalculation” and gives us a new instruction to reach our destination. And it will repeat this cycle endlessly. A GPS, limitless in its patience, recalculates and gives us new directions over and over again until we reach our destination. It never gives up on us.
God is the same. We have an intended goal and God gives us constant directions along the way. Religion and the Church is an excellent GPS. However, they can be, and often are, ignored. But God’s answer is never anger or ultimate impatience. Like a trustworthy GPS, God is constantly saying “recalculation” and giving us new instructions based on our failure to accept the previous instruction. Ultimately, no matter how many wrong turns and dead ends, God will bring us home.
One last thing. Ultimately, God is the only game in town because no matter how many wrong roads we take and how many good roads we ignore, we all end up on the one, same, final, final road. All of us: atheists, agnostics, nones, dones, seekers, procrastinators, those who don’t believe in institutionalized religion, the indifferent, the argumentative, the angry, the embittered, and the wounded end up walking the same path toward the same goal—death . The good news, however, is that this final path leads to God for all of us, the godly and the ungodly alike.
Oblate Father. Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher, and award-winning author. You can reach him at www.ronrolheiser.com.