Drawing from the Well V: Salvation?

Five hundred years ago, it was Faustus Socinus, a Polish theologian widely considered to be the architect of modern liberal religion, who said that yes, Jesus saves, but not by virtue of his death. None of this “blood of the lamb” stuff. Jesus saves by virtue of his life and the moral and spiritual example we get from that. If we live like he lived and loved, then we are on the right path.

Furthermore, God’s goodness consists in allowing no soul to endure eternal torment and hellfire. The Christian Bible says, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” To this Faustus Socinus adds: everyone will experience this, not just some.

Salvation has meant this to religious liberals (to US), historically. Following Jesus’ example in our own lives, through works of justice and love. Trusting ultimately in God’s goodness to bring everyone into an afterlife of sweetness despite any failings and mistakes. Salvation as a here-and-now process, and salvation as an afterlife end-state.

But that was five hundred years ago. Where do things stand now?

At first glance, the answer is not easy. I mean, salvation talk is rare in these parts. Just how many times in this space in the past 50 years do you think people have been asked, seriously, Are you saved?

Are you saved, brother? Are you saved, sister?

The closest we might come to talking about it is in a humorous vein. One of my clergy colleagues likes to say, “I believe in Original Sin. The more original the better.” Another tells the story of receiving a certain gift from a member of her congregation: “Wash Away Your Sins” towelettes. The general instructions on the package read:

1. Carry towelettes with you at all times;
2. Cleanse thyself before saving others;
3. Stay alert to sins as they happen;
4. Approach sinner;
5. Offer-up a Wash-Away Your Sins towelette;
6. Remain focused and ready to do-it-again.

We laugh about all that earnest sin and sinner and salvation talk.

And what would Faustus Socinus have to say? How would we explain ourselves?

Well, part of the explanation would point to Faustus Socinus’ own theology and that of the long line of successors following him. It’s taught us something about God and something about ourselves: that God’s not a bully waiting for people to mess up so he can swoop in and crush us, and also that all people have inherent worth and dignity. Both insights are things we can’t be untaught. So of course we Unitarian Universalists are not going to be sweating bullets about our mistakes. Of course we are not going to be overly anxious about the eternal state of our souls. Why would we?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the originator of the Wash-Away-Your-Sins towelette idea was one of us.

And Faustus Socinus, it’s your fault! (THANK YOU!)

But another part of the explanation must be the distance we’ve traveled in five-hundred years, from a culture that rested in the certainty of one religious vision to our culture which knows many visions and has no collective certainty or common language. Five-hundred years ago, Christendom reigned. Yes, there were varieties of Christianity, but everyone still bowed the knee to Jesus Christ and the Bible. Now, the scene is firmly and thoroughly pluralistic. Many religions are known, and side-by-side with this is 23% of the American population who doesn’t identity with anything. Sociologists call them “nones” (not “n-u-n-s” but “n-o-n-e-s”).

Let me dwell on this last point at length. Once geographical borders were defeated by technologies of travel and communication, all sorts of ideas of salvation came up for grabs, from India and China and elsewhere. All sorts of visions emerged, together with terminologies that are intriguing to our ears. Here are just some of them:

From Hinduism, we learn that salvation is release from samsara, or the seemingly endless round of reincarnations that individual souls experience. Samsara remains firmly in place because of something called karma, which is an impersonal and universal moral law which states: Make a mistake, and you must pay. Karma ties us to earth; and so the way of liberation is to loosen the ties. Do that by pursuing one of the four yogas or spiritual paths; which one depends on your personality type: the path of knowledge, the path of love and devotion, the path of selfless action, and the path of psychophysical exercise.

For roughly 800 million people, this is salvation.

But now consider Buddhism and its Four Noble Truths teaching: (1) life is suffering, (2) suffering is caused by self-centered craving, (3) the nirvana experience extinguishes self-centered craving and thus suffering, (4) the way to nirvana is the Eightfold Path, which is a middle way between the two extremities of asceticism and hedonism. Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Follow the Eightfold Path, and it will take you into Nirvana.

For roughly 400 million people, this is salvation.

But now consider yet another vision: it comes from Taoism. The Tao in Taoism is the order and harmony of nature, and it is far more stable and enduring than the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human ingenuity. Suffering happens when people are out of sync with the Tao, and life is like swimming upstream; but when we are in sync, all is flow, we flourish, we are effortlessly beautiful, energy (or chi) pulses through us. Taoists call this state of being wu-wei (which means no-action, or action modeled on nature).

This is salvation, for 20 million people. Actually, for probably hundreds of millions more because the vision of the Jedi Knight that comes from the movie Star Wars echoes the Taoist wu-wei idea. Salvation is when you move through the world like a Jedi master.

This is just a sampling of alternate visions of salvation, coming from religions around the world. And then there are alternate visions coming from closer to home. In 1859 we saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Darwin’s thought in itself was complex and he saw room enough for God, but the main impression made on the public was a vision of reality that was stripped of anything supernatural. The purpose of life was survival of the species through procreation and also adaptation to a changing environment. Life is amazing in its diversity, but the struggle for existence is brutal and death is real and final. If salvation is anything, it is about living fully and richly in the here-and-now as well as leaving a generous legacy for future generations. The only immortality is an immortality of influence.

But this is not the only vision we get from science. Even science produces alternate visions. One of the ironic consequences of improved medical technology is a steady increase in reports of near-death experiences. Modern resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where you have increasing numbers of people who’ve been to the brink of death and then come back to tell an amazing story of detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light which is intelligent and compassionate and emphasizes that the purpose of life is love and learning. Study after study shows that these near-death experience elements are similar world-wide, irrespective of age, sex, ethnic origin, religion, or degree of religious belief. Studies also show that, following the experience, people go through a transformational process that encompasses life-changing insight, heightened intuition, and disappearance of the fear of death.

As for explanations of all this? Some scientists bank on purely physiological explanations. Cerebral anoxia, for example. Others, however, argue that these reductionistic explanations do an injustice to all the evidence, and they go on to affirm ideas that were pitched out with Darwin. These scientists are saying that there really is more to existence than our physical, body-focused struggle. That the body is like a TV, and when it is well-functioning, it channels the soul’s signal. When it breaks down, there is nothing, the screen is blank. Of course. But that doesn’t mean there’s no more signal. The signal still persists in a realm of existence too fine for our physical senses to detect. And that realm of existence says: the purpose of life is love and learning.

This is how far we’ve traveled in five-hundred years, since Faustus Socinus. Things like “Wash Away Your Sins” towelettes make us laugh, but for good reason. The singleness of Christendom has disappeared and has been replaced by a manyness of visions. Hinduism tells us that, yes, there’s such a thing as an afterlife but we don’t want that. We want to stop reincarnation and, through moksha, lose our unique selfhood and merge with Brahman. Buddhism and Taoism, on the other hand, have a more humanistic focus. Don’t wait for some afterlife to experience salvation. Here and now, learn how enter into the life divine. And then there’s science which, for the most part, has emphasized that humanistic focus; but then it’s also been a surprising source of evidence for a view of reality that echoes more traditional teachings about the afterlife.

Five-hundred years, and this is where we are. And what I want to say this morning is that, as Unitarian Universalists, all this diversity can be an opportunity for us. We can get beyond bewilderment. We can even get beyond the cynicism and apathy that multiple competing visions can lead to, a sense of “what’s the use?,” a sheer lack of caring about our spiritual welfare. What we can do instead, as Unitarian Universalists, is to simply indulge our intellectual curiosity. We take a balcony-view of the diversity—we just step back and look at it all from a larger perspective, and wonder about what we’re seeing.

And what we’ll discover is this. Names will vary (moksha, nirvana, wu-wei, Jesus) and ways will vary (the Four Yogas, the Noble Eightfold Path), but the constant and abiding theme is deliverance from a bad or difficult place and security/protection from harm. Deliverance and security. “Though I walk through the valley of death, You are with me. Your rod and staff, they protect me.” It’s in the 23rd Psalm and it’s everywhere: salvation sustains hopefulness; salvation keeps us fluid and flowing no matter what life brings our way. It’s even in football. It’s the great Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, who said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

Salvation is that: what keeps you getting up.

And we need THAT now more than ever. When you have thousands of children in Flint, Michigan, suffering from lead poisoning because bureaucrats wanted to save money; when you have United Nations peacekeepers in the Central African Republic raping and sexually exploiting the women and girls that they are supposed to be helping; when you have evil and suffering all up and down the scale (from the personal suffering we hold in our hearts to the collective suffering of a group or a city or a nation or a world or a polluted earth), there is no question about the need for salvation.

“It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

As Unitarian Universalists, it’s our privilege to choose the words and ways that energize us to keep on getting up. For some of us, a word like God energizes and brings us into a feeling of a larger life. For others, the word takes all the oxygen out of the room, oxygen that comes right back in when they talk instead of mindfulness meditation, or of the Goddess, or of being in nature. Religiously speaking, some of us are vegetarians; others of us are carnivores; and some are even omnivores. But we all know the sharpness of our spiritual hungers. We all know that. So our responsibility to our spiritual wellbeing is to pay attention to what fills us up and feels good and to partake in that. And, as citizens of a shared Beloved Community, our responsibility is to respect the hungers of others. To know that there’s enough to go around. If a plate comes around and it contains meat and you are a strict vegetarian, don’t fret. It’s your turn next.

And now here is a plate of soul food for you to taste and eat: a salvation story I’m going to end with.

It’s about Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a United States military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured more than twenty times by his captors, and never had much reason to believe he would survive the prison camp and someday get to see his wife again. But he believed anyway.

The story comes out in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. In the book Collins and the admiral are taking a walk together, and the admiral says, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Says Collins, “I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say,‘ We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

That’s the story from Admiral Jim Stockdale. Listen to the lesson. Salvation is both works and faith. Discipline to confront brutal facts head on; faith that you will prevail in the end.

Salvation keeps us fluid and flowing, no matter what. “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.” This is what Faustus Socinus was saying five hundred years ago, in essence, and we need to keep saying it today.