This is a response to The UU Salon July question of the month: Salvation. Who gets it, what is it, how do you get it?
I haven’t thought about salvation for perhaps 20 years. During that time, I’d joked about it, rolled my eyes over it, sighed deeply at the thought of needing it, but I hadn’t thought about it. I went through a brief charismatic Catholic stage in my late teens, which is a story in itself, but it was only during those years that salvation was a word that passed my lips with traditional religious (in this case, Catholic) meaning:
Salvation has in Scriptural language the general meaning of liberation from straitened circumstances or from other evils, and of a translation into a state of freedom and security (1 Samuel 11:13; 14:45; 2 Samuel 23:10; 2 Kings 13:17). At times it expresses God’s help against Israel’s enemies, at other times, the Divine blessing bestowed on the produce of the soil (Isaiah 45:8). As sin is the greatest evil, being the root and source of all evil, Sacred Scripture uses the word “salvation” mainly in the sense of liberation of the human race or of individual man from sin and its consequences. (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Okay, so that’s not how I would have put it then. I think I saw salvation as my ticket out of hell, a process paid for by Jesus’ death. Not that I had a firm vision of hell, since I never bought the fire and brimstone version. “Separation from God,” lurks in the recesses of my mind. I was told to be grateful to Jesus for this transaction, to repent for my sins, and to try to avoid sin. Thinking salvation seemed better than dying decades later with all this sin on my soul, I tried to walk a moral road. At that age, the big sins (at least in my Catholic school and charismatic youth group) seemed to be all sexual in nature. Convinced that pregnancy would ruin my future, abstinence from sex wasn’t a hard sell to me, but avoiding all the build up to sex (no french kissing and the like, for example. It could lead to, well, sex.) was a bit more challenging. I’ll not bore you with the ups and downs of that path (and, ah, the falls from grace were like those body-jolting drops from the first hill on a roller coaster), but suffice it to say, I saw salvation linked to saving sex for marriage, and perhaps to abstaining from murder and theft.
But what now? I’ve long left the Catholic church and Christianity and found the cornucopia of paths that Unitarian Universalism offers. My understanding of sin, evil, liberation, and God have all changed in the last 20 years, and my thoughts on salvation have done the same. I’ve explored Buddhist and Hindu thought, and done plenty of soul searching. Those studies and my present understanding of sin, evil, liberation, and God inform my response to the salvation question, so I’ll address those words first.
Sin: Through my Catholic education, I was taught that sin was anything that separated one from God. Even while in my most Catholic period (those late teens), I couldn’t see how eating meat on Fridays in lent or seriously good kissing accomplished this, thus my laxity on both fronts (along with very human appetites). Separation from God via harming another made sense, although at that point, the daily ways we do that eluded me. Sin is no longer in my lexicon. Separation from the divine is. When I disregard someone’s humanity and the divinity inside of them, I separate myself. When I judge another, thus pushing them away from a shared humanity, I separate us from one another and ignore the divinity in them. Compassion, loving kindness, unconditional love, and radical inclusivity bring us to union with the divine and, therefore, with each other.
Evil: During my charismatic period, evil was real, although it was often called the world. Satan was real, tempting us to sin and partake of the world (I guess he was behind that desire for all that kissing, etc.) I never developed a comfort with this personification of evil and temptation, and I remain uncertain about evil. Certainly evil acts occur in this world. They generally occur when we as individuals or as groups forget the divinity in each person. Simply put, when we forget all those others out there are humans (and therefore not really “other”), evil occurs. Evil occurs on individual and global scales, and we’ve all been perpetrators and victims of it.
Liberation: Freedom. Half my lifetime ago, liberation meant freedom from bondage, although my understanding of what bound people was limited. I understood, to some degree, how governments, hate groups, poverty, hunger, and the like imprisoned people. Mostly, I saw liberation as something needed by others. I understood the advantages I had as a member of the racial majority, who was well-educated, well-fed, and generally safe in a first-world country. Today, some of my definition of liberation would be the same, yet broader in scope. But now I see liberation also on a more personal level. Ego, as I see it and as many Eastern spiritual paths see it, is the illusion of self we create and protect. It’s full of our thoughts, reactions, experiences, and sense of separateness from what we see as other. When we shed this ego, we’re vulnerable. We’re also available to connect with the divine in others and ready for giving unconditional love (blog post on that topic coming soon). Liberation from ego leads to greater connection and compassion.
God: God needs a blog post of its own as well. My image of God moved from the old man in the sky, calling the shots, to a fatherly figure in the sky, intimately involved in human life, knowing every proverbial hair on my head. Come my 20s, God as an active mover in my personal life seemed improbable, and, frankly, undesirable. Free will seemed a primary gift to humans, and I spent many years wrestling with what that left God to do when not deciding what should happen to us humans. Five years back, I shelved God, or at least thoughts about the divine and what that means to my life and to the world. But the divine knocked. As I’ve mentioned in each of the above discussions, I believe deeply in the divine and its importance in our lives. Today, I see the divine as within each one of us, often buried under ego constructs and defenses, but in each of us. Just that belief instructs my view of how to respond to others and to treat myself. I also see the divine in the universe itself: from the nature around me to the furthest stars. We’re all bound up together in the divine, and opening ourselves to the divine is a step toward peace and love.
So back to salvation, which The Free Dictionary defines as “a. Preservation or deliverance from destruction, difficulty, or evil. b. A source, means, or cause of such preservation or deliverance.” This more secular definition does little for me: I prefer the Catholic Encyclopedia’s sentiments, although with my understanding of the terms in contains. To me, salvation is liberation from the ego and the reactions that arise when our ego fights to defend itself. Our separation from the divine in ourself, others, and the universe is what we need to save ourselves against. When we fail to love without condition, when we limit others, we fail to connect with the divine and limit the divine itself, as the divine manifests itself through our connections.
As individuals, we experience salvation as individuals when we connect with others, seeing the divine in them, no matter how deeply it is buried under ego constructs. As a human race, we find salvation when we bind humans together, looking past gender, race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, and political beliefs. When we act in recognition of our shared divinity — shared among all humans and with the universe — we are truly saved. Saved from what? From a lack of love and compassion, from the pain of separation. Saved from suffering now, however, and now is all any of us have.
Who is salvation for? Everyone. How is attained? Compassion, love, and respect of others. Can we all have it, regardless of our religious affiliation? I believe so. When do we have it? Now. It’s available when we open our hearts and drop our egos.