I took a taxi to a doctor’s appointment in Double Bay a few years ago. As so often happens in Sydney, the driver had an accent and I asked him where he originally came from. “Yemen, twenty years ago.” We chatted about how great Australia is then I asked him if I could ask him a serious question. “Yes, of course.” I asked him if he experienced prejudice against Muslims here in Sydney. “Sometimes but those people don’t know what they are doing.” He had a forgiving attitude towards people who didn’t wish him well. I told him I was a Christian and that we both worshipped the same God, meaning God the Father. He agreed. When we reached the destination, I tried to tip him and he refused. Pointing at his heart, he said our conversation had been enough gift.
The same God?
Perhaps it shocks you when I say the Muslims and Christians (and Jews for that matter) all worship the same God. Actually I’m just following Jesus’ example when he said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Woman believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem.” [John 4:21] We Christians believe in the Trinity and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit and God the Father are one God, and three persons. Jesus / God is including the Samaritan woman (someone outside the boundaries of orthodox religion, Judiasm in this case) in the act of genuine worship. It seems clear to me therefore that Muslims who worship One God are included in Jesus’ prophecy.
Why do we Christians find this so hard to accept? There is a long history of enmity among the three religions who worship the One God. (Just as there is a long history of enmity among the different branches of the Christian religion.) The Muslims call Christians ‘infidels’ and Christian think of Muslims as people who don’t acknowledge the truth about Jesus. Yet the taxi driver and I both readily admitted we worship the same God. Are we woolly-headed or naive? Is it my duty to convert him so he believes in Jesus? Many Christians say “Absolutely! Otherwise he won’t get to heaven” and base this on biblical verses such as “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” [1 John 5:12]
The man from Yemen and salvation
As a very simple definition, being saved is being found worthy to live with God forever in heaven. God alone decides who will be saved, balancing his justice and mercy. God will decide whether the man from Yemen is saved. To say that God cannot save the man from Yemen is to deny God’s infinite love and power. The church nurtures and sustains the faith of Christians and is our mother and our teacher, for which we must be forever grateful. The Catholic Catechism puts it this way: “We believe the church as the mother of our new birth, and not in the church as if she were the author of our salvation.” [Catechism, Article 169] So salvation is a mystery lost in the depths of God and not some automatic entitlement of Christians, who must strive to be saved even though they are members of the church. If we Christians must strive to climb the mountain of God, so must every human being. Which leaves the question about the man from Yemen and salvation.
The most honest answer I can give about his salvation is I don’t know. Only God knows. But I hope the man from Yemen is being carried in God’s hands, and somehow I believe that he is. Years ago I was very worried about a man who was dying and wasn’t a practicing Christian. I was very anxious about what I must do to “save” him. I went to church and heard the story of the Roman Centurian who came to Jesus to get his help for his sick servant. When Jesus turned to go to the Centurian’s home and see the servant, the Centurian said these famous words, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus was amazed and said, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. . .” [Matthew 8:5-13] After hearing this, I suddenly heard very clearly, “Don’t worry, I have this man in my hands” and was very peaceful after that.
I think that my experience says that if we are meant to be involved in someone else’s salvation, God will let us know and also tell us what we must do. If we feel urgency to save people, we must pray so that we can distinguish our own ideas about what obligations we have as a Christian from what God’s is calling us to do in his plan of salvation. As I talked with the man from Yemen, I felt his faith and peacefulness as a servant of God the Father. Must the man from Yemen be baptized to be saved? The Catholic Catechism puts it this way: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” [Catechism, Article 1257] In other words, if God called me to bring the man from Yemen to the Christian faith, to “assure his entry into eternal beatitude” [Catechism 1259] I must cooperate with God’s grace to do that. But he is in God’s hands and God can find his own ways to bring him home. I assume for many Muslims and Jews (and other good people without faith in the one God) that is within his merciful and just plan of salvation.