There is a belief among certain religious people that all humans are bad. So bad, in fact, that God will only salvage a small remnant of them. The rest, it is believed, will be condemned to eternal punishment and destruction. This belief moves many of its followers to go door to door, urging those who are lost to join the ranks of the saved before it is eternally too late. I have on occasion invited some of these people into my home out of courtesy and out of a desire to be a good neighbor. I discovered, however, that they desired neither to engage in neighborly conversation nor listen to my beliefs. They had but one agenda: to rescue me. In a way, I have to admire such folk. I have to give some credit to those who believe so strongly that all of humanity, save for a handful, is rushing toward annihilation and are willing to give of their time to rescue even a soul or two. So why do I feel so frustrated when they leave? Why do I refuse to invite them into my home anymore? Shouldn’t I feel grateful, like a person who has just been alerted that the theater is on fire and been given directions to the nearest emergency exit?
Perhaps I do not like being told that I have it wrong. But surely I would not be so proud as to refuse a warning of impending disaster, would I? And so I listen attentively for a time to their message, my mind racing to analyze the similarities to and differences from my own beliefs. I ask questions but, in all honesty, my questions are more to discover inconsistencies in their system of beliefs than to gain an appreciative understanding of their theology. Yes, I must confess, I may be a bit prideful in thinking that my spirituality is superior to theirs.
That said, I still resent – resent is too strong – I am irritated by being treated as a lost soul and not valued as a neighbor. When someone intrudes into my life having already concluded that I am in serious spiritual jeopardy, having no regard for my deeply held beliefs and even less interest in me as a person, I feel insulted. To presume that I am living in spiritual darkness is quite a damning indictment, especially when the person making the blanket judgment has not even taken the time to learn my name! Perhaps if I sensed that the person at my door had a genuine interest in me, not as a disembodied soul or a prospective recruit or a decision to be tallied, but in me as a human being, I might feel somewhat more receptive. I might even feel pleased to see him if I knew that he saw value in my thinking and enjoyed engaging in authentic discussion about each others’ unique worldviews.
Actually, I understand quite well the thinking that drives the “witnesses” who come to my door. I was raised on it. Not in a cult that believes only 144 thousand predetermined souls will make it but in a much more mainstream church that believes in the total depravity of man. I know the scriptures that have been woven together to form this theology. I know, too, the teaching that good deeds are insufficient to save us. I would be presumptuous to challenge such time tested tenets of orthodoxy. What I also know, however, is how it feels to have someone at my door presuming that I am lost unless and until proven otherwise. I also know how depersonalizing and demeaning it is to be treated as the object of someone’s mission.
Is it too generous to assume that all humanity has been created in the image of our Maker, that all of us – no matter how twisted or pathological or wrong thinking – all of us have planted within us an innate desire to become all that we were created to be? What would we lose by assuming that God is steadily at work within each of us – even the most broken of us – nudging us, sometimes even pushing us toward motives and behaviors befitting His special creation? Is bedrock orthodoxy weakened by presuming that each person, though fallen and flawed, feels at some level drawn toward his highest and best purposes? Or by looking for, encouraging and reinforcing all that is good (dare I say Godly?) within an individual? Doctrinal positions aside for a moment, would we not see our neighbors in a much more affirming light if we were to look for the expressions of the Divine imprint in their lives?
Perhaps there is a time to be divisive, to differentiate sheep from goats, to determine who’s saved or lost. I suspect that time is somewhere in the future, reserved by the One who knows the hearts of men. In the meantime, since we see now only in part and that through a lens skewed by our histories and traditions, I am choosing to ask my fellow travelers: “Where are you on your spiritual journey?” At the very least, I may keep from alienating my neighbors. At best, I may encourage someone in a Godward direction. Or maybe the best will prove to be the discovery of new and wondrous ways in which our God reveals Himself as both Creator and Redeemer.