Andrew Sullivan draws attention to polling showing that relatively few people answer affirmatively when asked if this statement reflects their own personal view: “My faith or religion is the only true path to salvation, liberation or paradise.” Of people in all the countries polled, the only people who poll over 50 percent agreement are Saudis and Indonesians — and in Saudi Arabia, a stunning 25 percent disagree. In the US, only 32 percent agree with this statement.
In truth, I couldn’t agree with this statement, as worded. I believe Orthodox Christianity is the fullest expression of the true path to salvation, liberation or paradise. But I don’t agree that only Orthodox Christians will find their way to salvation. My view is that God may save anyone, but that if anyone is saved, it is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through the mercy of God the Father, who, in his infinite wisdom and compassion, may choose to extend it to those who confessed Christ imperfectly, or who didn’t confess him at all. That, by the way, is the official teaching of the Catholic Church. It’s not the same thing as universalism, which holds that everyone will be saved, no matter what.
This question, also asked by the pollsters (see the pdf here), is better at drawing out these subtleties: “My faith or religion is the only source of ultimate truth, but those who do not share it may be saved, find liberation, or reach paradise.” This comes closer to my belief, but still, the question is problematic. What do they mean by “ultimate truth”? I’m sure they don’t mean “complete truth,” because hey, what about science? I’m sure they’re getting at sources of metaphysical truth, but still, the question is not as precise as one wishes it were.
There is a third option on this poll: “My faith or religion prevents me from knowing with any certainty whether anyone will be saved, find liberation, or reach paradise.” Well, this is mostly true as well for me, and also for Catholics who adhere to Church teaching. We may know only a few of those in heaven; we canonize them as saints. But no Catholic or Orthodox believes that only canonized saints are in heaven. And we are not permitted to say that anyone in particular is in hell. We just don’t know for sure, and it’s presumptuous to say.
My overall point here is that this poll is not a reliable guide to what and how people believe, in terms of comparative religion, as it seems to be. I do think it’s generally accurate in its finding that Muslims worldwide are far more committed to the exclusivity of their faith than are Christians, and that Christianity is far less strong in Europe than in other regions. But this is surprising?