One of my earliest schoolday memories is concern for pagan babies. We would have collections or be given little banks for the purpose of saving them one at a time. There might even be pictures or names we could relate to, sent to us by missionaries.
Some of us wondered what happened to all the countless children of the world who suffered, not only for lack of food, but for want of faith in Jesus. Limbo was proposed as an answer to our cares. It wasn’t heaven. But it was not hell. Small comfort for us would-be lawyers quarrelling over equity and fairness in the universe.
The problem was made worse by Bible history. All those heroes and heroines—Moses and Miriam, David and Ruth, Sarah and Noah—assigned to limbo? By high school I had uncomfortably added other names, from Socrates to Gandhi. And the sophistication of adulthood did not ease the irritation.
I eventually found myself team-teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy with Professor Albert William Levi, a brilliant philosopher, dear friend, and agnostic Jew. Although he valued much of what Christ said and did, he was not a follower. He appreciated believers but did not share their faith.
When we came to the last cantos of the Purgatorio and found the “earthly paradise,” my graduate students were upset that not only Virgil but Professor Levi as well could not pass into heaven. (Levi himself was not as concerned: “The earthly paradise is more than I might hope for, and what wonderful company with Plato, Homer, Cicero, and Virgil to boot!”)
Peter, after all, preaches in Acts that “there is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole world given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” And we have all been given the word that “unless you are born of water and the spirit, you shall not enter” (Jn. 3:5).
But what is the “rebirth”? And how is it that Jesus is savior of the world? Must the power of his name be constrained by our own hearing of it? Are our sacraments, our words, and our teachings the required condition for salvation, or are they the signs of the salvation Jesus has already won for us?
The Christian faith itself is a sign of what God does in us, rather than something we create as a requirement to meet God. We must not confuse the ontological reality of God’s providential love for us with the psychological reality of how we receive it.
Ontologically, there is no salvation outside of Christ. It is only by his being the Word made flesh, the Son of God, that we are all indeed made God’s children. It is by the fact of God taking our body, dying our death, and rising in Jesus that our destinies are forever changed. God now looks upon all human flesh and sees the face of the beloved Son.
Psychologically, we may not know such a wondrous thing has happened to us. But the only way to resist this fact would be consciously to reject its possibility.
Today’s Gospel has Jesus say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Could this be applied to all those who are not Christians but are nonetheless open to the fullest reality of Christ? Could it be that the way he leads them and speaks to them is through the very movement of the human heart itself, which has now been reclaimed by the heart of the Word made flesh?
At the bottom of our being is a hope for some unconstricted good that meets the hunger of our will. It moves in rhythm with the passion of our minds, insatiable for truth. The question every human faces is whether such hope and passion is groundless.
As for us who have encountered Christ, we profess in faith that the answer has been spoken in the Word made flesh. For those who have not met Christ, the task is to be faithful to the question of their hearts and hope that an answer is given. Christ is that answer, whether they know it or not.
My friend Professor Levi told me that, as much as he would like it, he had not been given the gift of faith. But he had been given the gift of our humanity, lavishly so—one shared with and transformed by Jesus.
And so, before he died, I asked this man of fine mind and great longing two questions: “Are you open to all the truth there is to be known? Are you open to all the good there is to be loved?”
“Of course,” he said. “How could I not be?”
That was enough to know that his heart would not stop at the earthly paradise. Not only was he a child of God. In his own way, he heard the voice of the Shepherd.