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a Unitarian Universalist kid, I vaguely remember hearing an old Unitarian profession of faith that has long since been superseded in liberal religion.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.