“How Are We Saved?”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
I must confess, personally my mind does not want to consider Rebecca Parker’s hypothesis that rather than anticipating the Apocalypse, it has already happened. There have been some terrible things that have happened in our not very distant past and yet it’s hard at times not to imagine how much more terrible it could get. It reminds me of the classic line from Laurel and Hardy – “This is one fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”
But seriously now – ,this question which is fourth in my sermon series called Questions of Faith, this question, just “How Are We Saved?” is really kind of a perennial one. I think it has two major dimensions. One is how is the world saved, and second, how am I personally saved, as an individual.
All of the world’s major religious traditions hold the prospect that human beings can find a way out of the suffering, confusion and alienation that we experience in life. Although each of the traditions is distinctive despite their commonalities, there are basically three categories of human thinking about the religious question “How Are We Saved?”
One category of thinking is that we are saved as both a species and as individuals by living in harmony with the dynamics or laws of nature. The second category of human salvation has to do with ethical living. All traditions agree that adherence to a core of ethical values can effect a transformation of the human condition. The third category holds that right relationship with our creator God and each other will save us.
Religious doctrine about the source, nature and function of what has saving power for humans is referred to theologically as the area of “Soteriology” which comes from the Greek word “soter” which means “savior”. While Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism have more elaborate soteriologies, the other major traditions address the question as well.
For instance, Confucianism holds a classical Chinese view of human nature which is that people are naturally capable of choosing between either good or evil actions. The central concept is that we all have an innate capacity for moral improvement. Now the successor of Confucius, Meng Zi, took this original concept further with his belief that not only can we choose, but human beings are essentially good and naturally inclined to ethical betterment.
Even a later Confucian teacher who was more skeptical about human nature, Xun Zi said that despite human’s natural tendency toward self-centeredness, we can be taught through proper education to be more ethical in our choices. An interesting contrast that we find in Confucianism is that when people choose to act selfishly they hurt themselves and others but it does not damage the essential relationship between the human and the divine as other traditions teach.
While people can always have the opportunity to right their wrongs if they are willing to face the responsibility of neglected or sabotaged relationships, in Confucianism there is no notion of salvation or redemption as we find in other traditions but rather a focus on exemplary persons who serve as moral role models such as the Buddha.
In Buddhism discovering our own inherent Buddha nature is the way out of human suffering, while Hinduism provides many paths to an experience of oneness with God which is known as yoga or devotional practices. In Buddhism and Hinduism, salvation is seen in the simple sense of a release from the status quo that sees no antidote for human suffering.
In Christianity we find a doctrine of not only salvation but also redemption. It is said God sent his son Jesus to die and rise from the dead in order to prove human victory over both evil and death. In addition, believers not only feel “rescued” through the actions of Jesus but also embrace the concept that Jesus redeems them to a previous state of innocence which existed prior to humanity’s fall into sinfulness. This word redemption comes from the Latin to “buy back” which helps to explain the Christian concept. Buddhism and Hinduism, while having their own doctrines of Soteriology, do not share the Christian concept of reinstatement to a prior state as part of their belief systems.
In Taoism, all things exist naturally in a primordial harmony which is a balance between Yin and Yang forces at work in the world. When things go wrong in nature or human society, according to Taoists it is the result of disequilibrium between the Yin and Yang forces. Taoists acknowledge the human tendency to seek control and to attempt to dominate even nature, but they believe in the end nature will always restore a basic balance.
Interestingly, Taoists believe that humans are able to purify themselves of disharmonious qualities even to the extent that we can live eternally and join a Paradise of Immortals. They say a purified human can choose to die in a physical form but more often they find a substitute for the human body and slip unnoticed toward the external paradise. While some Taoists share this concept of immortality beyond death, as in the resurrection, there is no single savior recognized in Taoist thought.
Islam, like Judaism and many indigenous traditions, focus on a right relationship with the Creator God and with other humans. The Muslims are called to practice the Five Pillars of Faith – first acknowledging the one God and Muhammad as a prophet, then encouraging extensive daily prayer, giving to the poor, fasting during Ramadan, and pledging to make a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In a similar way, practicing Jews strive to preserve their community and do acts of justice making while honoring the cohesive force of Judaic law.
The religious question of “How Are We Saved?” is often tied to a sense of human survival against all that threatens to destroy us collectively and personally. We humans have always been at the mercy of the forces of nature and the frailty and foibles of human nature. Religious traditions offer us a sense of security and agency as we face any threatening circumstance that life brings our way.
While there is security in the effort to do the right thing and seek harmony with nature, some traditions teach that even the strongest and most pure of heart among humanity still need assistance from something greater than a human power. The word “Grace” is often used when referring to the superhuman or divine aid known as the power of salvation.
All of us know of situations where despite the fact we were aligned with the integrity of our strongest values, we have continued to suffer. We have been treated unfairly we have been at the mercy of poor health and mean-spirited people. The wrongs that have been done to us have not been righted. We are still vulnerable to doubt and heartbreak. We disappoint ourselves, and we are at times terribly disappointed in our fellow humans.
So how are we saved? We can know the beliefs that offer a sense of security and wisdom. And some of us have experienced the presence of some kind of grace in our lives during the hardest moments. Whether that was described by us as the presence of God, or simply something greater than us, such as peace, compassion or maybe even…Love.
Although there are many ways to look at the questions of salvation and redemption, all of us at some time or another have sought to be more of who we are. We’ve longed to become more whole, more balanced and redeemed not in the sense of being paid back but more like achieving our full value, of cashing in a coupon to reveal our hidden strengths and talents.
And a critical part of seeking wholeness, which is one way that we are saved, so to speak, is to heal the parts of ourselves and others that serve to hold us back and distract us with pain.
Rebecca Parker likes to refer to a phrase often used by a recent UU luminary, James Luther Adams. They remind us that “there is a love that holds us and will never let us go.” Whether this is a compassionate presence of the divine or simply the power of our guiding principles in life, there is a love that does not let us go, and never gives up on the possibilities of our being more whole, more healed, and even saved when we need it most.
“Once I was lost but now I’m found… How sweet the sound of amazing grace.”
May the power of love working in our world, in any and all forms, be the power that saves us one and all. Amen, Shalom, Namaste, and Blessed Be.