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Path to Heaven

By Francis X. Hezel, S.J.

February 2010 (MC #80) Religion

Why This Topic?

As we age, many of us would like to believe that we've learned a few important things about life that might be helpful to others. There's a certain satisfaction in tabulating and codifying the wisdom we have acquired over the years, and even more in passing it on to others in the hope that they might avoid a few of the mistakes that we've made. Perhaps this explains the autobiographical turn that many of us take as our hair grays and vanishes altogether.

Since my hair is well on the way to vanishing and I have spent my life in church work, I would like to devote this issue to a reflection on the understanding of church and its mission and how this has changed during my own lifetime. Encouraged by the fact that the church is such a large part of life in any Pacific society, I offer this reflection without apology for any who may be interested. Those who aren't will soon put down this article anyway.

Normally we don't discuss religion very much in mixed company. Some may regard it as a personal zone that others should not intrude on. But in point of fact religion is a hot button topic-something that provokes strong feelings and can just as easily launch an argument as a friendly exchange of views.

Consider for a minute the wide range of reactions that the word "church" can provoke: a swoon, a stifled yawn, the abrupt and painful interruption in what just moments earlier had been a pleasant conversation. Depending on the individual, church can be understood as:

A bunch of hypocrites always preaching to us to behave, even as they sneak around having their own fun.... or living off the donations of the church members;

  • A tight little club with its strict rules and membership dependent on how well people follow those rules;
  • A society of goody-goodies, losers who know that they can't make it here and thus encourage one another's beliefs in life beyond to make up for what they're missing here on earth;
  • A tent to keep people out of the rain-safe from the sudden squalls and thunder showers that life brings;
  • A field hospital that tends those wounded in battle, or a shelter for the homeless that packs in wanderers who can't provide for their own needs;
  • A group of the chosen who, once their struggles here on earth are over, are destined to enjoy the full blessings of heaven.

By some the church is seen as the path to heaven. For others it is the road of delusion-the outcome of wishful thinking by people who must protect themselves against the threat of a meaningless life followed by a descent into emptiness. Let's explore the subject a little further in what follows.

My Church As It Was Back Then

Life seemed uncomplicated as a young Catholic in the 1940s and 1950s. For many of us who grew up in the 1950s and earlier, the church was a path to heaven. It was all so clear-cut then: truth and error, belief and non-belief, salvation and damnation. Life was framed in stark alternatives. You joined the church and subscribed to its doctrine, and would be rewarded accordingly, or else you opted out-even by joining another competing denomination-and were condemned to reap what you had sown. Even in the kindest of interpretations, you took a great chance of losing your soul.

The church represented salvation and truth. It offered our best chance of enjoying the blessings of the after-life. In other words, it was the path to heaven. We were confident that we had a lock on the truth and we wanted to pass it on to others so that they, too, could be saved. We worked at increasing the membership of our church so that others could enjoy what we had. As children, we saved our pennies and nickels to support missionary work in China and other far-off places. The priests and sisters in white habits (rather than the black habits we in the US were accustomed to seeing) who worked among people in these places won the admiration of us all. Some of us aspired to work in these same distant places bringing the people there to God-although not myself, oddly enough, considering where I've spent my life.

Of course, we Catholics believed that even those outside the church could be saved. Fr. Leonard Feeney, a priest who preached a rigorous interpretation of the old formula "Outside the church there is no salvation," was excommunicated during my high school years for denying the possibility of salvation for others. How could people be condemned if they did not know any better? We Catholics always held a doctrine of baptism of desire as an explanation of how those outside the church might be saved. But still, church membership was the norm for salvation. It was a lifeline thrown to those tossed around in the choppy waters of life.

The beliefs were spelled out clearly enough and were not subject to change. The shorthand version of these beliefs was to be found in the Creed, but any one of them could be expanded upon at great length. There were theological treatises written and whole courses given even on a subject as clouded in mystery as "the four last things:" death, judgment, heaven and hell. The moral code, founded in the Ten Commandments, was also clear, even if it cascaded into hundreds of rules that derived from these commandments. The rules were detailed and precise, and they left us with little doubt as to what was sinful and what was not. The Sacraments, which represented the key elements of church life and liturgy for Catholics, were the normal channels of God's grace in our lives. There may have been other ways in which we felt God's love, but they were extraordinary channels and lacked the status of the Sacraments.

We Catholics had our distinctive features, differentiating us from other Christian denominations. We made the Sign of the Cross before we prayed, we venerated statues of the saints and lit candles before their altars, we made novenas and said the rosary, we knelt in church, and we once abstained from eating meat on Fridays. These were not by any means the heart of our beliefs, but they marked us as quaint in the eyes of non-Catholics. But aside from these special features, we knew who we were and what we were about. We knew who made us, why he made us, what distinguished us from the rest, and why we could be sure we were right. There wasn't much room for doubt, or even ambiguity, in the church in which I was raised.

Encounters with Life

A month after graduating from high school in 1956, I entered the Jesuit seminary in Poughkeepsie, New York, with the intention of becoming a priest. During my early years of studies we wore black suits and clerical collars, a uniform that was distinctive and divisive, I soon learned. On a train from New York to Baltimore one spring afternoon in 1963, I was led to a seat in the dining car across the table from a middle-aged man in a grey suit. He glanced up, took one look at his table companion in clerical dress, lowered his eyes and ate in complete silence. I fidgeted through the entire meal. I wondered what to say and was unsure whether the man would even deign to answer me if I said anything. A few years later I had just the opposite experience on a plane to Buffalo. Even before I had buckled myself into my seat, the elderly woman next to me began gushing about the priests she had known and telling me in great detail about the private devotions that were such an important part of her life. Having identified me as a priest from my collar, the woman was ready to talk my ear off about religious matters, while the man in the train wouldn't even look at me. Was the world I was entering as a priest one really as divided as this? Would it ever be possible for me to speak to both fellow believers and those who had no use for my church?

I remember putting this to the test not long afterwards, perhaps 1972 or so, when I walked into an impromptu party at a friend's apartment in Honolulu. Since we seldom wore clerical dress by that time, I felt confident that I could join the conversation freely without provoking the usual instantaneous for-or-against reactions that had always bothered me. As I entered the room, a young American woman seated on the floor was busy reciting to a Melanesian man all the damaging effects that the church was having on his culture and the other cultures in the Pacific. The church was allying itself with foreign interests, running roughshod over local ways to serve its own interests. It was propagating fear and guilt where formerly there had been none. The church-not my church, but any church-was nothing better than a dark cloud hanging low over the islands, smothering the natural joy and spontaneity of the people. She was singing an old song that I had heard many times before, usually from people who were mouthing what they thought they had learned in undergrad Pacific history courses. I wanted to reply to her objections, but I couldn't bring myself to do so. Ironically, I had come to the party confident that I would be able to engage just about anyone, believer or skeptic, but here I was frozen out of the conversation once again.

Underneath her tired old complaints there was something that bothered me. Perhaps it was the unspoken objection to the church's sense of certainty that she seemed to be raising. Probably it was her assumption that my Jesuit colleagues and I would almost certainly have the same destructive effect in Micronesia, however lightly we hoped to walk in a culture that was not our own. Certainly it was the way she belittled foreign missionaries, the white-clad figures I had learned to admire in my earliest years of school, for bringing death rather than life to the lands they were evangelizing. Despite my strong resistance to the speech she was giving, I couldn't help wondering whether there might not have been just a grain of truth in what she was saying.

I may have once thought in terms of stark contrasts, but my introduction to island culture was undermining the simple beliefs I held. My understanding of basic concepts-personhood, autonomy, family, social obligations, even truth and justice-were all being challenged by my experiences during those early years in Micronesia. The mysteries of island culture were throwing me off balance, even as they suggested to me that the world was much more complex than I thought.

Many of the people I came to know in the islands were devout Catholics in a way that I could identify with from my past: the daily rosary and the genuflections in church and the other forms of piety that recalled my younger days. But there was also a group of Westerners with whom I dealt from time to time. They were academics, mostly historians and anthropologists, persons I met at conferences and corresponded with; many of them I could call my friends. They would have described themselves as agnostics, individuals who were not especially interested in searching for the divine. Yet, they were good people, as far as I could tell, following their instincts and leaving a trail of kind deeds behind them. They may not have dashed off to church on Sundays, but they were decent people who could not by any stretch of the imagination be called "lost souls." Wasn't it possible to imagine that God was working within them just as intensely, although perhaps not quite as explicitly, as in the women who padded their way to church every afternoon to say their rosary?

When the Walls Come Tumbling Down

As a high school senior I was first introduced to the work of Graham Greene, a British novelist who delighted in exploring the mysteries of God's ways in the world. What are we to make of the adulterous husband in The Heart of the Matter who takes his own life to spare his wife the pain of knowing that he has betrayed her? What about the drunken Mexican priest in The Power and the Glory who has had a child by a woman he once lived with, but who walks straight to his own death at the hands of anticlerical authorities in responding to a call to bring the last sacraments to someone in dire need? Were the adulterous husband and the whiskey priest saved or lost? Who is saved and who is not? Is there any way we can really tell?

Life is not always what it seems, I was learning with each passing day. I was still as convinced as ever that we need a path, something to guide our steps, although it seemed that many of those who strayed off into the woods were somehow able to keep stumbling forward. I began to wonder whether we speak with far more confidence than is warranted when we talk so glibly about God and his plans for us. Perhaps the certainties that we cling to are more of our own making than of God's. What makes us so sure that we can chart the patterns of a faith summons by God? Must the faith response always take a form that we can recognize as such? Perhaps there are many "faith" paths to God. We speak of mystery so often in our sermons and theological writings, but we are often very quick to rationalize the mystery when we meet it.

Then, too, there was the question of how to react to the adherents of non-Christian religions. One evening in 1968, I was chatting with a Muslim student staying in the same dormitory as I on the University of Hawaii campus. As our conversation turned toward religion, he told me that he was taught that infidels like me had no place in paradise, but he had always felt there must be more than one path toward Allah. I chuckled and told him that in our theology he would be called an "anonymous Christian"-one who might shun churches and regard Christians as "infidels," but who in the deepest part of his heart was prepared to welcome Christ. In our encounter with one another, we both had to find room in our scheme of salvation for those who were searchers but did not share our particular religious beliefs.

My own certainties were being tempered by exchanges with conversational partners: not just the pious faithful, but people like my Muslim friend and my social scientist friends as well. I had always looked kindly on such people and easily found a place for them in my theological universe. Greene's novels taught me years before that the world was much less tidy than I had thought, and my encounters with others-the devout and the not so devout-were repeatedly driving that point home.

The old barriers were breaking down in all sorts of ways. Even in the islands, which had always been strongly split along religious lines, a new ecumenical spirit was emerging and making it easier for Catholics and Protestants to find common ground. I found that I could work as easily with Protestant church leaders as I could with those from my own church. Our theologies might have differed at points, but we were united in our commitment to helping people deal with real life issues. Of course, other lines were blurring too. The exuberance of Pentecostalism was finding expression even in Catholicism by the early 1970s, so that the handclapping, loud singing, speaking in tongues and other features that we once associated with fundamentalist churches was to be found in some of our own Catholic communities in the US as well. Meanwhile, Catholics were became increasingly split into right and left, progressives and conservatives. The world wasn't just divided into those of us who were Catholics, those who recognized Christ as God but belonged to other denominations, and those who remained, for one reason or another, on the outside looking in. The borders everywhere in the world were becoming increasingly blurred.

Continuing the Search

Shortly after I moved to Pohnpei in 1992, a small group of Micronesians who called themselves "The Searchers" began to meet every few weeks in our conference room. This group, most of whom were Catholics, raised telling questions about religion and life as we explored dimensions of our faith beyond what they had learned in religion class during school days.

One of the subjects discussed, as I recall, was Scripture. Was the Bible true? In what sense was it the word of God? Like so many others, the members of this group had assumed that "true" meant literally and historically factual. But if this were the case, how are we to reconcile the inconsistencies between different parts of the Bible, not to mention the obvious problems in reconciling some biblical passages with science? Naturally, the discrepancy between the account of creation in Genesis and the scientific theory of evolution came up for discussion. Some held strongly to the literal interpretation of Genesis, although most of us agreed on a different understanding of the truth of the Bible. The books of the bible were written by people who were offering their own faith testimony in God, but in their own terms and through a form of expression that might not have represented the factual story exactly as it happened. We could all agree that God created the world, even if many of us wouldn't subscribe to the proposition that it was done in six days; and we could all agree that creation was good, even if later marred by humans. The truth in the Bible was there, but layered under figures of speech that could sometimes disguise it.

Another topic that came up was whether people achieved salvation through their own good life or simply through faith. Faith or works, to use the old theological terms? This was a subject that Catholics and Protestants had fought over back in the days of the Reformation, although the differences seemed to be resolved now. No one today, Catholic or Protestant, believes that humans can save themselves through their good works, for salvation is a freely given gift by God. But most of us believe that faith, too, is a freely given gift. And if some people in the world have not been given faith, how can they be held responsible for a gift never received? Were these people to be judged in terms of their lives (in other words, their "works") or the faith that some seemed to be seeking but were denied? Could it be that everyone, no matter how distant they were from the church, was given some window of opportunity to make a faith response to the Lord through their lives? Was the term "faith," like the biblical "truth," something that hid behind different disguises?

These friends with whom I met regularly were not the only ones struggling to find answers. There were searchers everywhere, I had long come to realize. Oddly enough, some of the best religious conversations I had during these later years were in bars, or at least with a drink in my hand. It was in talking with non-believers, like the self-described atheist who left his evangelical church at the age of 16, that I was challenged to plumb the depths of my own faith. By the end of our three-hour conversation on whether God truly exists or is just a figment of the human imagination, I was convinced that he would have been happy to have found conclusive evidence for the faith that was long absent from his life. Yet, at the end of it all, we could only agree that I had my story and he had his. Mine supported my faith, while his did not.

At times my encounters with others took a very different turn, however. Once on a flight from Honolulu I was seated next to an evangelical who explained that in order to be saved persons had to say yes to Jesus in faith. But how could people who had never heard of Jesus say yes to him? I objected. After all, a great majority of those in the world knew very little about Christianity. Here was the old question once again: What would become of the earnest Jews and Muslims, the Buddhists and Hindus and Confucians, the animists and tribal peoples who had never been exposed to Christianity? For that matter, what about those former Christians who reacted against the faith of their families because of damage done them when they were young, or perhaps due to their misunderstanding of the faith in which they had been raised? He had no answer to this question, but I did. He was right in expecting of people a test of faith, but his notion of how this faith might be expressed was far too limited.

I believed in a God, who in Jesus had taken a human face, but who might show himself in a great number of other ways to his people. I was convinced that those we would term "good" were not just faking it. The goodness came from someplace deep inside them, from a place that had already been touched by God. Why couldn't these people "say yes to Jesus," as my evangelical friend would have put it, through their heart, even if they might never be able to do so on their lips?

In Defense of the Spiritual

In recent years some of us have developed almost a gag reflex to the word "spiritual," especially when it is used by people who claim to have no religious affiliation but who immediately afterwards use the word to describe themselves. For some of us it had come to mean a nod in the direction of the mysterious in life, but an unwillingness to commit to any religious group or to any set of beliefs. Some people, myself included, thought of "spirituality" as the last line of defense for people who would like to be regarded as serious seekers for the transcendent but don't want to be bothered doing much searching. We often dismissed them as persons who took the easy route rather than the steep path upwards, the path that didn't make any great demands on them. "Religion Lite" is what some religious leaders called it.

Yet, every now and then you would find one of these self-described "spiritual persons"-usually someone who would never dream of attending church-who could recount a moment in which they had an experience of what I would call religious awe-looking at stars in the evening sky, standing on the shore gazing out to sea, peering into the eyes of a child. The person would tell you how they were transfixed while time stood still and a deep sense of peace or self-awareness filled them. They weren't doing any thinking, perhaps there was not even a strong emotion at first, but at the end of the experience they felt a wave of satisfaction and confidence wash over them, as if they had glimpsed first-hand the top of the mountain that we were all climbing.

These experiences of theirs, which they described as quietly moving, reminded me of experiences that I myself had enjoyed at times. Once, many years ago, on the back of a pickup truck headed for Xavier High School, I remember that my heart was flooded with peace and time stopped. For ten minutes-or it could have been longer-I could only let the strong sense of peace envelop me. There was no explanation for it that I could find other than to call it a gift of God. Was it possible that these other people who spoke of similar experiences were being touched by the same God I thought I was feeling? Some of these people apparently were experiencing moments of profound inner peace-the kind that religious people recognize as the apex of spiritual life.

Meanwhile, life was becoming simpler for me. Many of us once equated religious faithfulness with keeping our doctrine untainted and our souls unsullied-at least as far as that was possible. We were to keep the faith and the commandments, honor the doctrine and live by the rules. In time, this faded. Not because we no longer had concern for faith or morals, but because we came to understand that these things were really only a means to an end. What is the importance of any of this, after all, if it does not translate into developing a deep and loving relationship with the Lord?

Here again our eyes were being opened to the understanding that this relationship with God could be cultivated in many ways. Despite our fear that many people were taking the easy way out by dropping the religious in favor of what they called the "spiritual," experience was suggesting that it wasn't so easy to shrug off the God who had wormed his way into the core of our being. Perhaps we shouldn't dismiss too lightly those people who claimed to have embraced the spiritual.

Accordingly, I once again resolved to maintain a conversation with anyone and everyone who was willing to engage. If people wanted to talk about the "spiritual" in their lives, the least I could do was listen. The poster that I kept on the wall of my bedroom proclaimed "The Whole World Is My Parish," and I hoped to take those words seriously.

Back to the Church's Role

It might seem that a person who was getting used to finding signs of the divine everywhere might have less use for a church than before, but this was not the case for me. Indeed, my church had become more important to me than ever before. It was a path-my path-to God. If offered a well-ordered approach to life and our search for God. Yet, it was clear that the vision of the church and its mission that I had grown up with needed to be expanded.

Perhaps the church was not the only path to God, as some of us had grown up believing. It was not simply the Ark of Salvation, a boat that all had to pile on if they wished to be saved. I would have been happy if our church had been everyone's path to God, but it appeared that would not happen anytime soon, and maybe never. Even so, the church had to speak to the whole world, those who were religious and those who were not, of God and his love for all. The church had an important function as a sign, a beacon to others-a summons to all to behold God's loving work in the world.

The church, then, had a two-fold mission. It must help its own members grow closer to the Lord, even as they remain searchers, never self-satisfied, never smug in their assurance that they have a tight lock on the mystery of God. But the church also had to be a light for all peoples, a witness to the saving love of God that somehow spoke to those who might not have believed in that God. The church's mission was universal, and its message was that God was alive and well and at work among his people.

In caring for its own, the church is required to speak to its own members in its own language-the language of doctrine, ritual and devotion in keeping with its tradition. It speaks in biblical texts and salvation history that others outside the church might not care to learn. It must nurture its own members' faith and devotion, the head and the heart, with the means at its disposal. This might be through the smell of incense and the flicker of candles for Catholics, or it might be through the silence of the barren meeting hall for Quakers, or anything in between. It can be through litanies and devotion to the saints, or it might be through the thunder of shouted Amens and loud gospel music, depending on the tradition. Its members surely have a right to expect at least this much of their church.

Yet, the church must also look beyond its own congregation to those outside its confessional boundaries, even to those who seek no church at all. To address this wider audience, the church must use a different language; it must speak in the common currency of kindness and love, something that is understood by all people everywhere. If the church is to speak to the world of God's love, it must do so with signs of love-the care of the poor and concern for the needy of all sorts. It must provide help where this is most urgently needed, not simply in ways that are "safe" or convenient. Hence, the church in some countries supports shelters for the homeless and opens soup kitchens for the hungry. The equivalent in the islands may be basic schooling or first aid or public education where there is little or none. The church only fulfills part of its mission when it tells people that they need salvation, terminating the conversation with those who refuse to buy into its program. Where are the striking signs of disinterested love, the signs that all people can recognize as good, no matter how shrunken their soul has become?

Church: A Help or a Hindrance?

Mother Teresa, in her life of service to the destitute on the streets of Calcutta, offered a sign that has touched millions around the world. Even Malcolm Muggeridge, a curmudgeon with a deserved reputation as a skeptic, was impressed with the woman's selflessness-so much so that he filmed a documentary about her and converted to Catholicism. Mother Teresa's life remains a witness to the Lord she served. The same can be said of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who volunteered to take the place of one of the men chosen to be executed in a Nazi concentration camp. Although less well known than Mother Teresa, he is another striking sign of disinterested love. There are countless other religious figures whose lives have testified to their faith in a way that can be easily understood even by those who do not share that faith. These people, like the church that nurtures them, brighten the world and give it hope, offering a hint of the saving presence of the Lord. This personal witness raises questions about life and its meaning, challenging individuals to confront themselves on these questions, even if they may never line up at the church baptismal font.

Yet, it's only fair to admit that the church has also been a counter-sign for many throughout the ages. In the Crusades the church pitted itself against Islam, just as a few hundred years later Protestant and Catholic churches took up arms against one another. This has led to the charge by militant atheists today that the fruits of Christianity are in reality not the love and peace the church proclaims, but intolerance and war and destruction. All of us are aware of occasions that our church has appeared to put its own interests first, conveying the impression that it is mainly concerned with taking care of its own. Yet Jesus offered healing of body and soul to outsiders-Syro-Phoenician women and members of a Roman household, not to mention the thieves, prostitutes and cheats at the fringe of his own society. We might ask whether such marginal people have a claim on us today, as they did on Jesus.

One recent visitor to the MicSem website railed at what he called "churchianity"-the substitution of the church itself for Christ as the object of veneration among Christians. The authority system and church structures, he complains in his postings, seem to be valued more than anything else. He might have added a dozen other charges-the arrogance of the church at times, its stubborn refusal to listen to the voices of its members, its needless exclusion of outcasts in the interests of doctrinal purity, its seeming obsession with its own order at the expense of a broader mission, and so forth All of these are reasons to consider the church more an obstacle than an aid.

Clearly the people who make up the church are a mixed lot-saints, sinners and every shade in between. Even the ones we call "saints" might not be faultless when we subject them to closer examination, just as those called "sinners" are not without their redeeming qualities. Real people are always a strange mixture of the good, the bad, and the in-between. So is the church that is formed of such people. It's silly to expect the church to be bathed in soft white light, elevated high off the ground somewhere near the realm of the angels. We are humans. We are wanderers, sometimes making our way through tall grass, but always searchers looking for the way back to the path marked out for us. While conscious of our weakness, we are also aware of our mission-to proclaim to all people that God's love is at work in the world just as it is in the hearts of all of us.

We are certainly not the ones empowered to command the sun to rise over the earth, but at least we can "let our little light shine," as the gospel song goes. We can do so in the hope that the world might be a little brighter for this and that the image of the Lord we serve might appear a little more sharply.

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