Lesson 5: What

This week I am posting an email from Lupe Andrade as the lesson. Although it is longer than my usual post, I think it is worth the read. Lupe is the former mayor of La Paz, Bolivia and has experienced life from a quite a different perspective than most of us. She writes “We have to ask more questions, seek larger answers, and ultimately, allow faith to work in and for us”…because Hell has lost most of its terrors, and Heaven seems to have lost much of its promise as well.

Dear Fritz,
I like the idea of talking about the of salvation, which is appropriate to all situations, rather than the when, which is a one-time thing, but I find myself full of questions, and with very few answers at hand. In general, I’m not too happy with modern-day usage of the word “salvation”. In medieval times, or in late 18th century New England, people believed in a tangible Hell filled with physical suffering and tortures, as well as in a sort of quasi-material Heaven, with rewards and delights (though not as blatant as an Islamic Paradise with bonus virgins). “Salvation” was understood as a real action from above, similar to being saved from drowning or from being burnt in a fire. “Snatched from the jaws of the Devil” was quite literal, resulting –one thought- in being catapulted into a higher bliss. Though this imagery persists in our times and minds, Hell has lost most of its terrors, and Heaven seems to have lost much of its promise as well.

So, what does “salvation” mean? What are we being “saved” from? What is the alternative, what is “damnation”? Is there a Heaven? Is there a Hell? What is their essence? Is an eternity of suffering something a compassionate God could inflict? Is an eternity of bliss earned or is it a gift? Simple Sunday-school answers are no longer adequate. Philosophy, psychology and science introduce new concepts that might alter the notion of responsibility for good or evil deeds –from genetics to neurology to trauma- so, how do we find salvation, what shape does it take, what does it entail?
For many preachers and modern sects salvation seems to mean becoming included in a sort of “righteous club”; getting a guarantee of being right-er and all around superior to those outside the pale; becoming better off than the masses of the un-saved. I have seen too many of those who proclaim Jesus as their “personal savior” use that personalization as an instant feel-good recipe that allows errant conduct to continue under a religious guise. This is clearly false. But then, what is “real” salvation?

As for salvation in our times, it seems to me that in your lesson you paint a picture that comes close to a Platonic ideal community, a sort of Utopian paradigm, a life where people are faithful to their spouses and are good parents and concerned citizens. This is an admirable goal, of course, but not achievable for all. Life in today’s world can be hard, unforgiving. Homes and communities where meals are assured, where the water of life, “bright as crystal” flows unhindered exist, of course, but they are scarce, an achievable reality only for a few, the privileged few. The rest of the world is less blessed, more concerned with survival. If sitting around a Thanksgiving table with family and friends (a tradition I love and admire) is symbolic of salvation, what about the starving and homeless in Haiti? And yes, I know that sharing poverty, splitting a crust of bread, is a blessed, heroic virtue, but is it salvation?

Even where abundance exists, it might not last for long. Water is scarce in our days and becoming scarcer; two-thirds of the people in this planet cannot have plentiful meals (some have never had a plentiful meal) and things look like they may become even more difficult for nearly everyone, with rogue weather, conspiring with droughts and uncontrollable floods to bring more hardship to more areas. And, with global warming, these almost “Biblical curses” may be unleashed anywhere, even in the heartland of what seems to be today’s most favored nation. So, faith and good works notwithstanding, will this be salvation?

To go back to what we are being saved from through faith: if Hell is hunger and thirst and suffering and disease and murder, and torture and rape, millions are in (undeserved) African Hell, or have lived and died in Cambodian or Burmese Hells. Would they have been “saved” from such a fate if they believed in Jesus? No, of course not. That is not the cause of their suffering. There are other forces at play.

So what is salvation? What are we to be saved from in these modern times? Is there a hell at all? Is it a palpable Hell of the here and now? How do we merit heaven? How can we -comfortably eating and living safe lives and writing emails, earn an eternity of joy when so many others suffer?

So much for salvation-by-the-book. The question becomes different when brought to an individual plane. If salvation means emulating Christ’s generosity of spirit, if salvation means striving to become better persons every day (without actual need for martyrdom), if salvation means opening one’s eyes to what can be done to make our surroundings better- really and effectively, not just with a sop to a favorite “charity”…. then maybe salvation for the individual might also mean saving humanity through millions of individual efforts. Or can that “salvation” be something else, larger even than that?

Maybe, to arrive at an answer for salvation, we need to talk more of damnation. Not pitchforks, devils or the fires of hell, but of active condemnation of what is evil for all times and what is evil for our times- not just killing and torture, not just war and mayhem, but things like daily mindless pollution, blatant waste, indifference to others, cruel displays of wealth in times of hardship for the world; forcing people to give up their dignity through hardship and want.

I recently saw an American “millionaire” on television, showing off a purple macaw “worth 40,000 dollars” and “one of only 50 left in the world”, blithely uncaring that he had just removed that precious macaw from the gene pool, making its extinction more likely. Joan Rivers was ogling this “millionaire” for his $175,000 diamond-studded watch, his wife’s ivory necklace (a million dollars, he said), and his general bad taste. Is he to be saved, or doomed? Bad taste is not a sin, of course, but abetting killing elephants for ivory, or buying smuggled macaws, or killing sharks for Japanese gourmets are surely sins. Heated pools where nobody swims, watered lawns where nobody walks, private golf courses where nobody plays could be considered damnable, as well. Or not? Doesn’t there have to be an evil intent, not just evil use? So what damns, and what saves?

All this is not to negate faith. Far from it. These are questions from an unquiet soul. Faith has to exist, but perhaps in a wider climate, a more embracing view. We have to ask more questions, seek larger answers, and ultimately, allow faith to work in and for us. A wise friend said to me recently, speaking of similar issues: “…between believing and not believing, it is better to believe; it helps us to live.”

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