Old Testament Jewish religion is a religion of salvation – a particular kind of salvation. It sees God as the saviour of the Jewish people, delivering them from slavery in
, leading them from the desert to a homeland in Egypt Canaan, saving them from dissolution during the Exile in , and maintaining their identity under successive imperial powers. As Jews, the first Christians were naturally imbued with the idea of religion being centrally about salvation, so Christianity too is a religion of salvation; it offers to ‘save’ us. But from what? Certainly not from the kind of worldly dangers that beset the Jews of Old Testament times; the church, despite a persistent tendency to think quite literally of itself as the successor of the Old Testament Jewish nation, knows that the salvation it speaks of is a spiritual salvation, not a worldly one. So the usual Christian response to the question of what Christianity offers to save us from is ‘from our sins’. But I wonder whether ‘sin’, at least as it is usually understood, is really what you personally feel you most need to be saved from. Babylon
Traditional church teaching maintains that as descendants of Adam and Eve we can’t help doing things that offend against the rules laid down by the God-out-there, the Creator and King of the Universe, but that because Jesus was sacrificed on the cross God is sufficiently mollified not to want to punish us eternally for our disobedience, and what’s more the Holy Spirit will enable us to at least cut down on our disobedient behaviour and enable us to lead fulfilling lives here-and-now. Of course that bald account can be endlessly elaborated, amplified, explained and qualified; but I wonder whether many of us could really say, hand on heart, that we literally accept such an account however thoroughly re-worked. It seems to rely on a view of God that Jesus himself tried to get away from; it asks us to accept a curiously primitive and mechanistic idea of what Jesus did on the cross; it assumes a belief in a life after death that many people find unpersuasive; and it seems to think that the chief challenge in our lives is how to obey God-given rules. All this may have been where the earliest Christian writers were, but it is not where most of us today are. Consequently, the account of salvation it purports to offer is neither believable nor desired.
And yet there are things that we really do need to be saved from. One is our pre-human past. Eve and Adam were, mythologically speaking, the founders of humanity as we know it; their curiosity and adventurousness led to developments of which they could have had no conception, including our appreciation of spiritual values. Both Genesis and evolutionary science acknowledge that spiritually-aware humanity is built on earlier foundations. We know that sometimes features of those pre-human foundations show through in human behaviour. As a species, we are continuing to evolve, or, to put it another way, we are on the way to a new kind of life; we still need some of the features that predominated in our distant ancestors, even as we can see that others have really had their day and can now be left behind. It’s worth thinking about which is which, at this particular stage of our evolution. I’d certainly include violence for its own sake, irrational greed and non-consensual sex among the features that can be left behind. But we don’t always find it easy to leave them behind; that’s what I mean when I say that we need to be saved from our pre-human past.
One way that’s been tried as a means of escaping our pre-human past is the discipline of keeping rules that forbid obsolete pre-human behaviours. But it’s not really by keeping rules that we can escape our past; lilies of the field aren’t trying hard to stop being the plants from which they evolved. Our escape can only be definitively achieved by wholeheartedly embracing the positive things about being human. Unfortunately, some of us find it hard to do that, mostly because we find it hard to see clearly and relate fully to the personalities which animate the people we meet. That’s to say, we find it hard to love them. Our usual solution is to retreat into a less-than-optimally-human present. We may strive to survive more or less successfully in the human world, not necessarily by keeping rules, but sometimes by busying ourselves with activities that enable us to engage with other people without thinking of them as lovable individuals, or simply by avoiding other people as much as possible. But as a way of life such stratagems are a poor second-best, a second-best we surely want to be saved from.
So if we need to be saved both from obsolete pre-human behaviours and from taking refuge in a less-than-optimally-human present, what means of salvation are available? Being human means that we are capable of understanding, and, where understanding is unavailable, of faith. And it is understanding and faith that are the means of our salvation, because they tell us who we are and where we came from; they suggest how we can connect with other people and the world around us; and they offer us a vision of what our futures could be. Whatever offers us an account of our origins, our relationships and our aspirations fulfils this function of religion. It is less the explicit content of those accounts that matter than the fact that because they are offered to us they prompt us to refine and test our own sense of who we are, how we relate and where we are going. Such accounts, religious or not, also give us symbolic languages in which we can express, celebrate and communicate our understanding and faith – which is the purpose of the bald account of Christian teaching I gave earlier. To say ‘I am saved’ is one way of saying that I know enough about myself, about my surroundings and about my aspirations to give me confidence to live a full, happy, makarios life in the circumstances in which I find myself. To say ‘Jesus is my saviour’ is to say that it has primarily been by meditating on his life and teaching that I have come to understand the spiritual significance of this knowledge. And if it doesn’t mean that, what, really, can it mean?