Unsystematic theology: Salvation

Second in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Back when I was a Unitarian Universalist kid, I vaguely remember hearing an old Unitarian profession of faith that has long since been superseded in liberal religion. Written originally by James Freeman Clarke in the late 19th C., that old profession claimed that Unitarians believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever. I doubt many religious liberals would accept Clarke’s affirmation today, because second-wave feminism made us realize that gender-specific language doesn’t work. But the notion of “salvation by character” remains important for many religious liberals. Liberal religion wants to affirm that human beings are in large part responsible for their moral choices. We can choose to solve society’s problems, we can choose to address social sins; and when we choose to tackle social problems and social sins, we are exhibiting good character. Salvation happens through the conscious efforts of persons of good character.

Thus it appears that religious liberals link sin and salvation, where sin is understood primarily as social sin: we humans have to save humanity from social sins like racism, global climate change, and so on. If we think of religion as having both a horizontal dimension — relationships between human beings — and a vertical dimension — relationships between human beings and the divine — liberal religion characteristically emphasizes the horizontal dimension, and attenuates the vertical dimension of religion; so too with salvation. Many religious liberals do not affirm the existence of a divine being or beings, and for them the vertical dimension of salvation is vastly attenuated; salvation is a human responsibility, with a small vertical dimension insofar as humans respond to abstract ideals. Many religious liberals do affirm the existence of God, Goddess, or other divinity/ies, but they are very unlikely to say, “It is up to God [or whatever] whether or not the world is saved.” Religious liberals assume it is up to us humans, not a divine being, to solve problems.

All this seems to be generally true, yet at the same time I am aware of a fair number of religious liberals who would like to have a stronger sense of personal salvation: perhaps, these people say to themselves, it is not enough to try to save the world; we also long for personal salvation by character. There are quite a few religious liberals seeking personal salvation outside of typical liberal religious congregations:– these persons might save themselves from themselves by joining a twelve step group, or save their body and their sanity by taking yoga classes, or seek personal enlightenment through Zen meditation, or find personal salvation through books by Eckhardt Tolle or Marianne Williams — and so on, and so on. I have had religious liberals express their dissatisfaction with typical liberal religious worship services which address societal salvation by addressing social justice or political issues; these people have said to me that they ignore that type of sermon and focus on the music, or the prayer/meditation, or the moments of silence in the worship service. This split between the needs of many individuals for personal salvation, and the historic emphasis on societal salvation in worship, helps me to understand why the sharing of joys and concerns is for many religious liberals their favorite part of worship, for often the sharing of personal joys and personal concerns is the only place in liberal worship where personal salvation takes center stage.

Some religious liberals, a small but interesting minority, take great solace in the theological position of universalism. Universalism asserts that all persons will, in the end, find salvation. This assertion meets the religious liberal’s need for societal salvation — if all persons will one day be saved, that bodes well for society — and meets the individual’s desire for personal salvation. However, to assert a universalist theology requires you to assert a distinct loss of free will and agency, because universalism means you’re going to be saved no matter what. Religious liberalism is dominated by the understanding that individual human beings have a great deal more control over their destiny than is allowed by a universalist theology, so a universalist theology seems likely to remain a minority theology within religious liberalism.

5 thoughts on “Unsystematic theology: Salvation

  1. Bill Baar

    And those of us who don’t feel particularly guilty and in need of salvation?


    Note these
    from Rev Schade in Worcester on the 225th anniversary of his Church,

    From a church of their own, the people of this church were a part of a larger group that built Worcester into a wonderful and thriving city, with strong businesses, and churches, and clubs. Their goal was that Worcester’s institutions would be better than, or at least as good as, any city in the country. And for many of them, the First Unitarian Church was their spiritual home. The religion they practiced here urged them to keep their thoughts and hearts fixed on the highest things, to choose toward the good in every circumstance, and to trust in a benevolent God who oversaw their efforts.

    They were not radicals or reformers; they were builders and leaders. The purpose of a sermon at First Unitarian was not to encourage the listeners to rebel against the powers that be, but to urge those with power to use it responsibly and wisely and to understand the religious and spiritual dimension of daily life.

    Building institutions better than, or at least as good as, any city in the country a practical and doable task far easier than taking on other’s social sins (and the accompanying proposition “your bad, I’m not ’cause I’m a reformer” midset).

    We’ve lost that Worsecter Unitarian practicality and I think in part it’s because we’ve gone from building institutions to dealing with other peoples sinfulness and the social consequences of it.

  2. Victor

    I don’t think that most universalists today – and I consider myself one of them – would describe “salvation” as the act of a higher deity saving us from sin. Rather, opening ourselves up to different ways of thinking, getting in touch with our innermost thoughts and feelings, deepening our respect for each other and for our environment – that is what “salvation” means to me. The religion of Universalism saves us from ourselves, and, in that sense, we are all saved.

    So, if that’s what salvation by character means, then I’m all for it. Without this dimension, Unitarian Universalism would cease to be a religion, and would become, instead, a social justice program.

  3. Dan

    Bill @ 1 — Yes, indeed. I left guilt out of the above description of salvation because I think that most religious liberals feel as you do. I think most of us religious liberals feel responsible, but whatever guilt we may feel is not something we link to sin or salvation.

    Victor @ 2 — Yes, the vertical dimension is attenuated, to a greater or lesser degree, for most of us religious liberals. And I really like your description of salvation as opening oneself to the Other, and you make a nice link between personal salvation and societal salvation. Thanks for this nice amplification!

  4. MadGastronomer

    I like reading your take on these things, Dan, but I feel like use of the words “sin” and “salvation” are very Christian-based ways of framing the ideas you’re talking about, and when you keep referring to the mind-set you’re talking about as being that of liberal religion, it feels somewhat exclusionary to me.

    As a Neopagan, I’m very much a religious liberal in many ways, but words like “sin” and “salvation” have little-to-nothing to do with my religious understanding of the world. Is there possibly some other way to frame the ideas you’re talking about?

  5. Shawn Koester

    As a Christian Universalist with a unitarian Godhead, I largely agree with the Freeman Clarke affirmation. My only problem is with the language of “salvation by character” Salvation by character falls in the same class of “salvation by faith” or “salvation by works” In all three of these descriptions, people are meriting salvation. These systems say that if you believe strongly in the right things, or if you do a certain number of good deeds, or if you develop right character you are saved. But if you don’t meet the requirements of these systems, the person is damned. James Freedman’s affirmation of faith would better resonate with me if the language were changed to “salvation irrespective of character”. By making this change it affirms that salvation is unmerited, that is by God’s election rather than the original language of “by character” suggesting that it is a person’s free will or decision to be saved. I believe that we are called to be co-creators with God in transforming the human race into the human family, of realizing the Kingdom of God in our midst.

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