What does salvation really mean?

17944-bright-red-heart-shaped-diamondThe word ‘salvation’ itself carries both the connotation of being saved from something and the connotation of being healed from something.  Western Christianity has tended to view salvation through the lens of needing to be saved from something.   The question is, what is it that we need to be saved from? And, what would salvation in this sense look like?

Richard Rohr, in his book, Falling Upward, points toward what this looks like when he says that religion, “makes the mistake of turning this into a worthiness contest of some sort, a private performance, or some kind of religious achievement on our part, through our belonging to the right group, practicing the right rituals, or believing the right things.”

When we understand salvation through the lens of worthiness, then we define it in terms of moral perfection.   Since moral perfection is impossible for human beings, this view of salvation tends to create theologies in which the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is a mechanism for filling in the gap between our unworthiness and God’s perfection.   This lens suggests that we must be saved from our own moral depravity.

When we understand salvation through the lens of private performance and religious achievement, we move away from any relational notion of salvation and presume that we can work our way into it, which usually implies some kind of religious superheroism or perfection. The result tends to be either a kind of delusion because we think we have worked our way into salvation when in fact we have not (because we define it too narrowly) or we convince ourselves that salvation is unattainable because we cannot seem to get to it, no matter how hard we try. This lens suggests that we must be saved from our lack of piety.

When we understand salvation as belonging to the right group or practicing the right rituals or believing the right things, then we turn salvation into a kind of mechanism or transaction that is really devoid of any real soulfulness.   This correct belonging, correct practicing, or correct believing don’t go deep enough. This lens suggests that we must be saved from false rituals or incorrect belief.

Each of these lenses tends to carry with it a certain conceit: they allow us to cast ourselves as the worthy elite or the religious elite or the in group, and they encourage us to think of our salvation as being over against someone else; that is, those who are not worthy enough, religious enough, or part of the in-group.   Of course, the flip-side of this is that we can decide that we ourselves will never receive salvation, because we will conclude, under the influence of these theologies, that we can never be worthy enough or religious enough, or that we just can’t really believe the right things or belong to that particular group.

It must be said that these understandings of salvation have tended to dominate Western Christianity, in particular. And, it must also be said that these lenses can be combined in various ways.  And, these ways of looking at salvation tend to foster a view of God’s love as conditional: God will only love you if you are good enough or religious enough or belong to the right group or believe the right things.

But what if we view salvation as not meaning that we need to be saved from something, but that we need to be healed?

The way this has been talked about theologically is that it is possible for human beings to find union with the energies of God, but not with the essence of God (this price of union is traditionally called theosis or deification), and is the view of salvation native to the Eastern churches (what today we know as the Orthodox churches).  Eastern Christian theology has always understood attainment of this union in a synergistic way: that is, it depends both on the movement of God and the movement of humanity.   It is interesting to note that some Eastern theologians have considered this union so fundamental that many have speculated that Christ would have come even in the absence of human sin – an idea that is almost inconceivable in the Western theological perspective.

Eastern Christian theology has tended to see human beings as suffering more from a disease of the soul rather than from moral failure or unworthiness. Where some Western theologians have gone so far as to suggest that the image of God as been destroyed in human beings, the East has always felt it was simply covered up, and could be found again if human beings worked to cooperate with the energies of God and move toward union.

This understanding of salvation in terms of healing also brings us to a view of God’s love as unconditional: God desires our healing, and all we need to do is choose to move toward healing.  It is a perspective on salvation that is more about grace than merit.

If we think of salvation through this lens of being healed from the delusion of the false into the authenticity of the true self (the image of God within us), then most or many of the problems of the “saved from” view of salvation are avoided.   Rather than understanding ourselves or others as “saved” or “not saved”, we can understand that, spiritually, we are all somewhere on a continuum of healing:  not completely ill but not completely well, either.   Thus, for each of us, our salvation is always in process.  And God wants the same thing for us all:  to be moving toward wellness of soul.

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