Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Who's In Heaven?

As Saint Peter ushers a new entrant around his orientation tour of heaven, the inductee is urged to be quiet as they pass a room filled with people. “Why the hush?” the newbie asks. “Those are Baptists,” Saint Peter explains. “They think they’re the only ones here.”

But most believers—including Baptists—are more broad-minded than that, according to new research. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently asked Americans of varied denominations to respond to the statement: “My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.” Among Catholics, mainline churches, evangelical Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Moslems, a resounding majority affirmed there may be many routes to salvation.

Only Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses fit the stereotype of the joke—clueless that there might be other residents of heaven.

America’s Founders would be pleased. Tom Paine likened God to a father with many children. To honor him, his offspring might bring many gifts—one a fragrant bouquet, another a beautiful poem—and the Father would be equally pleased with all these offerings. But God would delight the most, Paine asserted, in acts of charity and justice.

Thomas Jefferson agreed with what he said was the philosophy of the Friends. “I believe, with the Quaker preacher, that he who observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven as to the dogmas in which they all differ.” Creeds might divide humankind, but on the fundamentals of ethics—don’t lie, don’t steal, share with your neighbor—all great religions were united.

The news that 70% of all Americans agree there are many roads to redemption is good news for a world too often torn by sectarian strife. Perhaps we can learn to live together after all; faith can be a cohesive, rather than a divisive force among us.

If there is a heaven, I’m sure that Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders are there … and that they must be smiling.

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