Rabbi friends of mine tell me that it's possible to convert to Judaism, but they remind such potential converts that they're really better off staying what they are. Jews are supposed to abide by the whole Torah, after all, while gentiles are only subject to seven general laws which cover everyone else.
According to these rabbis, you don't get anything special from God for being a Jew. God doesn't love you more than others, and you don't get any special benefits. What you get are increased responsibilities!
Pope Francis took it from another angle on Vatican Radio on Wednesday. The Pope not only asserted that atheists can do good things as well as Catholics can, but they must do these things, he said.
“All of us have this commandment at heart: Do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not (a) Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must.”
What struck people was not that Francis was calling on atheists to do good, but that he said atheists were capable of doing good. It seems a small step--most people have been at this point for quite awhile--but this kind of generosity toward "the other", from the Vatican, is nonetheless refreshing.
That, however, was not really Francis' point. Sure, atheists can do good, and what's more, we all better get crackin'. As he elaborated:
“This commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
He is looking toward a "culture of encounter". Back in the 1950's, this is what Paul Tillich called the "method of correlation." He took it to mean the "encounter" between the religious and the secular world, each one open to the other, interacting with each other.
Francis' "encounter" centers on ethics--doing good. The religious and the non-religious share life on this planet. We can all make the place better. As the United Methodists say, "Doctrine divides. Service unites." May this "method of correlation" and "culture of encounter" bear more fruit.