Anywhere in the world

Anywhere in the world, East or West, you can walk up to a stranger and say, “Let me show you how to be saved,” and you’ll be understood. You may not be believed or welcomed when you speak these words, but you will surely be understood. The fact that you’ll be understood should astonish you, but it doesn’t, because you’ve been prepared from childhood by a hundred thousand voices—a million voices—to understand these words yourself. You know instantly what it means to be “saved,” and it doesn’t matter in the least whether you believe in the salvation referred to. You know in addition, as a completely distinct matter, that being saved involves some method or other. The method might be a ritual—baptism, extreme unction, the sacrament of penance, the performance of ceremonial works, or anything at all. It might, on the other hand, be an inner action of repentance, love, faith, or meditation. Again in addition, and again as a completely distinct matter, you know that the method of salvation being proposed is universal: It can be used by everyone and works for everyone. Yet again: You know that the method has not been discovered, developed, or tested in any scientific laboratory; either God has revealed it to someone or someone has discovered it in a supranormal state of consciousness. Although initially received by divine means, the method is nonetheless transmittable by normal means, which explains why it’s possible for a perfectly ordinary individual to be offering the method to others.

But all this barely scratches the surface of what is meant when someone says, “Let me show you how to be saved.” A complex and profound worldview is implicit in such a statement. According to this worldview, the human condition is such that everyone is born in an unsaved state and remains unsaved until the requisite ritual or inner action is performed, and all who die in this state either lose their chance for eternal happiness with God or fail to escape the weary cycle of death and rebirth.

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Because we’ve been schooled from birth to understand all this, we’re not at all puzzled to hear someone say, “Let me show you how to be saved.” Salvation is as plain and ordinary to us as sunrise or rainfall. But now try to imagine how these words would be received in a culture that had no notion that people were born in an unsaved state, that had no notion that people need to be saved. A statement like this, which seems plain and ordinary to us, would be completely meaningless and incomprehensible to them, in part and in whole. Not a word of it would make sense to them.

Imagine all the work you’d have to do to prepare the people of this culture for your statement. You’d have to persuade them that they (and indeed all humans) are born in a state in which they require salvation. You’d have to explain to them what being unsaved means—and what being saved means. You’d have to persuade them that achieving salvation is vitally important—indeed the most important thing in the world. You’d have to convince them that you have a method that assures success. You’d have to explain where the method came from and why it works. You’d have to assure them that they can master this method, and that it will work as well for them as it does for you.

If you can imagine the difficulty you would encounter in this enterprise, you can imagine the difficulty I encounter every time I address an audience. It’s seldom possible for me simply to open my mouth and say the things that are on my mind. Rather, I must begin by laying the groundwork for ideas that are obvious to me but fundamentally alien to my listeners.

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