Prepositions and Salvation

By Cragg, Kenneth | International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Prepositions and Salvation


Cragg, Kenneth, International Bulletin of Mission Research


The following article is in response to the article in our July 1992 issues by Richard J. Jones, "Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Kenneth Cragg on Islam as a Way of Salvation."

There is an old, well-worn story of a stranger in Ireland asking a local worthy for direction concerning "the way to Roscommon." He got the laconic reply: "If I were going to Roscommon, I would not be starting from here."

Christian converse about "interfaith," as in Richard J. Jones's article in the July 1992 issue, "Islam as a Way of Salvation," frequently assumes that "salvation" is the right, the agreed, and the proper denominator from which to start. Yet it begs many questions. For "salvation" is such an elusive term, and even if the parties accept it (probably in deference to our starting point), it connotes quite contrasted things. Nor does it greatly help to distinguish "cosmic" from "mundane," especially so if the former entails the further decision about "damnation" and whether and by whom it is incurred. Encounters have for too long been too much preoccupied with "Are there few that be saved?" and which "few" may they be?

Salvation in, for, by, of, from--the implications bewilder when we begin to think about the prepositions without which the word is vacant. Richard Jones reports Wilfred Cantwell Smith as holding that "to have faith is to be saved," and that "saving faith" is present in the very recognition of the "ought," even if the sense of obligation remains unfulfilled in concrete acts.

The rugged Epistle of James has a different view. To be sure, Wilfred Smith sees "faith" always a singular noun quite distinct from "traditional beliefs" through which its essential quality of "humane transcendent awareness" may be diversely expressed. In that way we could use "faith" as a verb and speak of "faithing" just as we speak of "hoping." Then "faithing" is the name of a universal human experience of ultimacy and obligation, in the sense that we should never speak of "other faiths" but only of "other folk." We could then perhaps coin "salvationed" and use it comparably of all participants in "faith."

Wilfred Smith's instinct to focus issues into terms is always salutary. Yet are the prescripts too sanguine, too intellectual? What if some in our time have contrived to live effectively without any transcendental awareness? Is faith really a universal experience? Or what are we to make of the forms of it that are too evident in zealotry, bigotry, assertiveness, and hardness of heart? Is everything that is "religious" thereby either admirable or desirable? If ugly manifestations are seen as emanating sinfully from a set of beliefs, and if "faith" is the language of which these are the grammars, what ought we to conclude about "salvation"? Do some believers stultify their faith by the very means in which they give it form?

It would seem that there has to be some transforming, revolutionary dimension to "salvation," a crisis element by which the self-question that is at the heart of it may be resolved. And let us not simply pose that self-question in terms of eternal destiny. There is more than enough to occupy it here and now. All that may be subsequent to time must be in the hands of the Eternal.

For the Theravadin in Theravada Buddhism, the jailer's question at the Philippian prison, "What must I do to be saved?" is setting individuality at the heart of yearning, when the true wisdom is that salvation comes only in seeing through the illusion of both individuality and yearning. To imagine a persona that might be "saved," and to think of this as "eternal life" for some immortal "me," is to start from where one can never arrive. "Salvation" from this perspective is not some remade "self" but an unmade "self" in the quest not for "extinction" (since there is essentially no-thing to extinguish) but for the attainment of "not-being" through dukkha to anatta through a register of inclusive transience into the bliss, at length, of the "desired undesiring. …

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