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Saved From What? – 5/4/2014

A man sits marooned on a desert island. It’s the sort of island that you can only find in cartoons: a patch of sand barely big enough for him and a single palm tree. His hair is ragged, his beard has grown out, and his pants are frayed – clearly, he has been trapped on that tiny island for quite a while already. All around in every direction, there is only the open sea.

Except that for one lone figure, approaching that tiny speck of land. His body is half above the waves, as though he is walking up out of the sea floor. He wears a blue suit and a square haircut, and holds a book in his hand. Greeting the cast-away, the stranger launches into a well-rehearsed spiel. “Good morning! Could I talk to you for a few moments about your salvation? Not from this island of course.”

This is the Sunday edition of the newspaper comic Bizarro from several months ago[i], and if I were a lot less concerned with copyright than I am, I would have included this image in your order of service. And if I were just a little bit more mischievous than I am, I would have directed you to contemplate it for about twenty minutes in lieu of today’s sermon. But instead I will say a little more on the topic of salvation.

Salvation is a central idea in the Christian tradition, and living as we do in a society, and in fact on a planet, where Christianity predominates, many of us think of salvation as being the chief concern of all religions. There are different understandings of how people are to be saved, and what they need saving from, but the same general idea persists. There is something bad or dangerous inherent to the human condition, and each religious system offers its own particular way out. For orthodox Christianity, salvation means redemption from sin: to be freed from a base and fallen state and made pure in order to receive eternal life. That’s the sort of salvation that the desert-island evangelist in the comic appears to be peddling.

Our ancestors, particularly on the Universalist side, took issue with this way of looking at the world. First, they couldn’t make any sense of the idea that some people are worthy of salvation and some aren’t. We heard about the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou and his metaphor of the muddy children earlier. Here are his exact words on the subject:

“Your child has fallen into the mire and its body and its garments are defiled.  You cleanse it and array it in clean robes.  The query is, ‘Do you love your child because you have washed it?  Or, did you wash it because you loved it?’”[ii]

Second, and this is one of many places where the Universalist and the Unitarian branches of our family tree start to sound very similar, comes the trouble with the idea that human beings are inherently sinful to begin with. The orthodox view holds that people are born bad, and that evil comes to us more naturally than good. Our forbearers were the sorts of heretics who could not abide this low view of humanity. Human beings are capable of great evil, yes, but we are also capable of good and show that capacity with great frequency. To say that we are wicked from the get-go is a harsh and irrational judgment against infants who have quite literally done nothing wrong.

But it is the third challenge to the orthodox idea of salvation that is most relevant to that comic strip, and to our discussion this morning. I believe, in fact, that it is the most currently important of the three heretical attitudes towards salvation we’ve inherited, because it is the one the world needs most right now. The idea that most people are going to Hell and the belief that babies are born sinful are both still out there, but their popularity has waned over time. The average conscience recoils from them, so their champions have a harder time selling them now than in ages past. But the third issue is the one that was likely most obvious to you when I described the desert-island tableau: there are real and immediate dangers that ought to come before obscure points of theology. If you want to talk to me about saving my soul, when my body is literally stranded and starving to death, your priorities are catastrophically misaligned.

Our theological ancestors responded to a world that was obsessed with the afterlife – who was going to get there, and how, and what they were going to find when they got there – by turning around and facing in the opposite direction. They determined that their faith needed to be about this world, not some other one. They did this for different reasons, and that variety is something that is still with us today. The ardent Universalists believed with absolute confidence in a future life where all people would dwell eternally in the presence of an infinitely-loving God. Rather than making them ambivalent about what happened in the comparatively short waiting period before death, their belief made them determined to reform the mortal world: to end war, to establish justice between people and nations, and to build the Kingdom of God on the model of the Christian Gospels. Others, among the fringier Universalists and the Unitarians, either professed uncertainty about the afterlife, or grew to doubt its existence due to a lack of empirical evidence. This similarly animated their determination to make the world a finer place. Whether or not Heaven and Hell were real destinations, they were certainly metaphors for the things we do for or to each other here on earth.

This brings us to our theological present, and a Unitarian Universalism which includes Christians and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews and a very large number who do not carry any secondary label. An atheistic materialist and a believer in a benevolent and loving God are both equally welcome here because both sets of beliefs, if practiced with compassion and sanity, yield the same consequences. Our disparate theologies point toward a shared vision of a world made whole. Whenever I preach a sermon on a single theological term like this, I always want to offer you a working definition for it – not an exclusive one, but one you might be able to use, by the light of our tradition. The understanding of salvation which is centered on this world then, is anything that protects, rescues, or restores a person or people from great danger or harm. We do not need to be saved from cosmic sin, but we do need saving from the evil we do to each other and ourselves, both the personal wrongs made of rage, hatred, or fear, and the structural injustices built up in our society over centuries.

The personal wrongs often distract our attentions and our energies from structural injustice, and if we are going to be about the work of salvation in this life, in this world, we cannot settle for that. The form of racism made out of bigotry and slurs and violence is vile, but if we focus only on this we ignore the form of racism built into housing policies, banking practices, our education system and our courts. Misogyny by direct aggression, open contempt, and sexual violence or the threat thereof is a poison and even were it to disappear entirely, it would not erase the long-established biases against women and their bodies and their choices that come baked-in to our economy, our institutions, and even our families. Homophobia and transphobia may have their ugliest face in rates of assault and murder, but legal and social mechanisms that protect quiet bigotry and enforce a sub-human valuing of life have as much power to kill, or more. When we talk about saving the world, it is not simply from individual villains: it is from the broken and distorted way in which the world itself has long been ordered.

Our values are particular, but we are not alone in them. A focus on the here and now is not unique to our movement. Most religions have some tension between this world and otherworldly pursuits, and all of them have some voices or factions who want to address the immediate needs of the present. Judaism and Islam are each less concerned about danger to the individual soul than most of Christianity has been for most of its history. Imagine a dial with this life on one side and a future life on the other. Most forms of orthodox Christianity would rate at about 80% future life/20% this one. Judaism would be roughly the opposite: 20% future life/80% this one. And Islam would be right about in the middle, 50/50. The Jewish parallel to Christianity’s salvation has always been liberation in the here and now; freedom from bondage and return from exile of one sort or another. In the Christian tradition, the Liberation Theology of Latin American Catholicism and the Black Church in America and the Christian Dalits of India are all responses to the immediate needs of people living in an abject state of oppression, and all build on those same ideas of liberation found in the Hebrew scriptures.

A favorite quotation of the liberationists and our own Christian ancestors is the famous passage in the Gospel According to Luke in which the teacher Jesus describes his mission: “to proclaim good news to the poor…liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to set free those who are oppressed.”[iii] This is itself a rewording of a passage from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who declared his calling to be “a herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded heart, to proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned, [and] to comfort all who mourn.”[iv]

In Islam, we find an influential saint named Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, an ancient resident of the city of Basra, in modern-day Iraq. She is said to have been seen one day running back and forth across the city, carrying a burning torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked what she was doing, she announced that she was going to set fire to Paradise and pour water onto Hell – as soon as she could find them. If she could do this, she hoped that people would begin to make their decisions according only to their goodness, how much help or harm they did to others, rather than out of hope for reward or fear of punishment.

In the native religions of India – Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – one of the ways for interpreting salvation is as freedom from suffering. There’s a story from the Bhagavata Purana – a Hindu holy book – called the liberation of Gajendra. Ganjendra was an elephant to set out to cross a river. On his way to the other side, he stepped near a crocodile who bit down on his leg with its mighty jaws. He struggled but was unable to free himself. In desperation, he reached down into the mud and plucked a lotus flower before raising it over his head and trumpeting. Vishnu, one of the chief deities in Hindu cosmology, heard this offering and accepted it, releasing Gajendra from the crocodile’s grip. This scene, an elephant standing in a river, bitten by a crocodile, raising a lotus in offering to Vishnu is a very popular and important image in Hinduism. Not unlike that first image we began with, it illustrates an important theological problem. In this case, the problem that not all of the evil, injustice, and suffering in the world can be overcome by our sheer will or effort alone. Sometimes, we need to ask for help, even when we might not have any reason to expect that help is coming.

The great Muslim mystical poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote,

There is no salvation for the soul

But to fall in love.

Only lovers can escape

Out of these two worlds.

This was ordained in creation.

Only from the heart

Can you reach the sky:

The Rose of Glory

Can grow only from the heart.

Rumi was a great advocate for love, but his meaning for lover was someone deeply in love with the divine. This might be expressed through a deep and profound connection with another person: a sibling, a spouse, or a friend. But it could as likely be practiced through chanting, meditation and prayer: connecting directly to the spiritual source. The awareness that the world of the here and now is what needs saving – from us, for us, and by us – is liberating: no metaphysical original sin hanging over our heads. But it can also be demoralizing: if God has hands to work in the world, they are our hands, and the hands of everyone else on earth. That’s a lot of hands, but there are days when they don’t feel like nearly enough. We need to know where we can find the small salvation – salvation in the sense of a salve, a balm to soothe and refresh – that we need in order to continue working towards the larger effort of our salvation as a species. Religion – ours and everyone else’s – has a dual role: to center and multiply our energies on the salvation of the world we live in, and to soothe and restore our weary spirits when the weight of that world grows too much.

So returning one final time to our opening comic: perhaps that man in the suit with a bible and a square haircut has a small point. He is still ignoring the profound and obvious need of the cast-away, even though he can clearly do something about it (how did he get to the island in the first place, after all?). But if his faith is something that has nourished him in the wilderness, or gotten him through even one hard night, then I can understand and empathize with the impulse to share it. We all need love and meaning and wonder and hope enough in our lives to carry is through – anything that can do that for any of us is worth at least exploring. But let us all determine first, before we rush to share our spiritual treasures with someone new, to bind up their wounds enough to listen, relieve their grief enough to see, and to help rescue their bodies before making a bid for their souls.


[i] The comic can be seen on the blog of its creator, Dan Piraro, here:

[ii] Hosea Ballou, from his most famous work, A Treatise on Atonement

[iii] Luke 4:18

[iv] Isaiah 61:1-2


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