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a Unitarian Universalist kid, I vaguely remember hearing an old Unitarian profession of faith that has long since been superseded in liberal religion.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