What do you think of when you hear the theological term “Salvation?” For many people it conjures up images of an angry God deciding which humans are holy enough to enjoy heaven and thus spared the eternal torment of hell.
Have you ever been afraid you were not “Saved” and if so, how did that make you feel? In Unitarian Universalism, we don’t believe in hell or eternal damnation and punishment, so what might being “saved” look like for Unitarian Universalists?
Unitarian Universalists believe that everyone is “saved.” This means everyone, not only people usually condemned to hell by others but people who may be perpetrators of unspeakable crimes and even politicians you vehemently disagree with about each and every issue. What might being “saved” mean in a context that truly includes everyone, no exceptions?
The Unitarian part of our heritage has proclaimed “Salvation by Character” ever since Rev. William Ellery Channing promoted the idea in the early 19th century as an alternative to being saved by the blood sacrifice of Jesus. Channing argued that how we act and who we are matters most of all. It’s important for us to deal with what we now commonly call our “issues” or “baggage.” By addressing our imperfections, failings, ignorances, and shortcomings we improve ourselves, and by extension the world, as much of the world’s hurt and pain is caused by people dealing with, or more often not dealing with, their personal hurt and pain.
Quaker pastor and theologian Philip Gulley is one of the more vocal contemporary champions of universal salvation and salvation by character. He writes that salvation and being saved is a process. “Salvation,” says Gulley, “is growing up, growing wise, and finishing the job. It is becoming whole and healed, and realizing our connections. Every now and then we catch a glimpse of it.” Channing, I assume, would agree.
Perhaps this is a better way to look at the idea of salvation because even though we do not need saving from an angry God, there are indeed many things throughout the course of our lives from which we need saving. At one time or another many of us would like to be saved from emotional distress, illness, economic worries, ignorance, hatred, violence, and abuse. Many people need to be saved from religion itself as religion is for many people a cause of emotional and spiritual, if not physical, abuse. In these situations, Philip Gulley’s idea of salvation as process seems helpful. If salvation is in deed a process of growth, education, healing, and relationship, then in a very real sense we “save” ourselves and each other, in glimpses, over and over again.