Faith, Deeds and Salvation

Address of August 1st, 2010

Evil and Grace

One of the biggest divisions between conservative and progressive religious organisations is their approach to the idea of salvation. There are of course different ideas of what constitutes 'salvation' in the world's religions, with the panthesitically orientated religions of the Indian sub-continent, south and east Asia referring to an impersonal merging with the absolute; the notion of Nirvana, Moshka, Mukti found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism. In the monotheistic religions, Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam, salvation is associated with freedom from sin the communion with the individual with the creator with reference to deliverance and redemption. In theology, these disputes between different types and means of salvation is called soteriology.

In exploring these ideas there is also a need to strongly associate them with the idea of theodicy, that is divine justice, and the problem of evil. The problem of evil is a problem for many theists, especially those that assign absolute powers to their deity. In a universe that is under the aegis of an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, it seems improbable that there be evil and suffering in the world. Whilst some theologians, such as Platinga, argue that some evil is possible due to God granting the greater good of free will to human beings, the existence of "natural evil", or suffering, proves problematic with some making an appeal to supernatural speculations as a solution (e.g., bushfires are caused by demons), or, perhaps more troubling, that their God isn't actually benevolent.

Whilst on the topic of the supernatural, it is necessary to briefly comment on the concept of grace, and in particular sola gratia ("grace alone") and its reference to salvation in Christianity. Grace, to express simply, means that it is the will of God that determines individual salvation. With its origins in the Reformation, and most strongly espoused by Calvinists, they argue against the Catholic doctrine which stated grace had priority, faith and deeds were also contributing factors. In the sense of theological speculation, those that argued sola gratia were probably correct; of course if there is a supernatural divine power with an independent will, they can decide who will be in communion with them. But it is a rather un-nuanced point of view that claims that such an entity is so incomprehensible that neither belief nor good works can sway their opinion. Unitarian rationality surely must be posited here as an alternative; the creator did not provide us the means to discern right and wrong, just so we could ignore them.

The Conservative Catechisms

Indeed, the application of this naturalistic and rationalist principle can be applied against various forms of the conservative doctrines of salvation. Consider the alternative or complement to grace, that is, salvation through faith. Justification, God's act of making a sinner righteous, is granted to all who have faith through Christ's righteousness, excluding works, and starting from a supposition that all are fallen and sinful to such a degree that without faith, grace cannot be granted. Justification is considered absolutely foundational to, for example, the Lutheran churches who claim saving faith is the knowledge and acceptance of the Bible. In the Orthodox churches faith is an is considered an intuition, and in the Judiac tradition the most famous story is the Binding of Isaac, in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his own son. This is exemplary of fideism; the acceptance of a religious belief without reason or criticism. Again the rationalist criticism still applies; if one sincerely believes that the voice of the God in their head is telling them to engage in a immoral act, it is imperative to argue with that voice! Further, it would been indeed a morally dubious God indeed that would only offer salvation to those who, for example, accept the speculations of the Apostle's Creed.

So what of the alternative, the notion of deeds as the instrument by which one can achieve salvation? There is no doubt that there is a tension for the Biblical Christians here arising from a contradiction; In Ephesians Paul states: "For by grace ye are saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.", whereas in James faith without works is described as "dead", and it is noted that even demons have faith in the existence of God. James goes on to say: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." Importantly for the conservative theists, the quantifier "alone" is only used in the context of "faith" a couple of times out of some two hundred references. Thus there is a strong Biblical suggestion that faith and deeds, together, are instruments in salvation. This is also found in Islam, which argues for belief in the one God, Tawheed, but also directed acts that emphasis that belief, the mandatory acts of worship.

This serves as an example of the tension in all active and assertive religions based around what is effectively a medieval world-view. Jew, Christian and Muslim alike encounter a conflict whereby contemporary universalist standards of moral action differ from the contextually-bound divine laws of supposedly perfect and eternal sacred texts. Even the religious hermeneutic tradition which seeks to interpret sacred texts with reference to contextual expositions and universal orientations are still bound by the reference to the divine authority of the text. It would be difficult enough for a Christian to claim that the gospels are but a founding text that requires regular updates for new circumstances; it is next to impossible for the Muslim to say this about the Qu'aran. Further, when an emphasis on deeds and the laws of a sacred text are applied through a representative institution, the prospect of corruption becomes very high, well-known in the abuses in selling and granting indulgences.

In the Dharmic religions, the alternative metaphysic has a different conservative expression. At first glance, the principle of karma - like that of the Abrahamic concept of deeds - seems progressive. Karma claims that actions and deeds come with consequences, which seems to suggest that good deeds will generate good results, and evil deeds the converse. However, when tied to samsara, the cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation, it becomes a very conservative argument, suggesting that ones unfortunate social station is due to misdeeds in a past life. Similarly is the emphasis on escapism from the material world as a solution to dukkha, the suffering, anxiety etc that arises from existence. Rather than seeking to solve the problem of suffering there is tendency to avoid or - in the case of the Taoist religions - adapt to it.

Unitarian-Universalist Salvation

Conservative and traditional religious doctrines are poorly equipped to deal with the contemporary world. Their claim for an otherworldly salvation has little appeal, except in an existential sense of irrational hope, in a time when evidence-based knowledge has primacy through its successes. Likewise the status of their instruments of salvation, faith in divine texts in a time when the half-life of knowledge is measured in a handful of years, or deeds through the obedience towards laws proscribed hundreds of years ago based on such texts. Is it any wonder that such religions find themselves constantly backward looking, trying to replicate an ideal moral universe that never really existed, and is increasingly an irrelevant fetter on the liberating potential of technologies and internationalism. What possible future do these religions seriously think they have when the very self-transformation of the human species is being considered, not a wild science fiction speculations, but as a practical tasks to be completed within mere decades? And what of their appeal to God's grace? Can these people face their creator in all honesty and say "We failed to treat others justly, we failed to deal with the issues of suffering, we failed to deal with moral evil or natural suffering because that was against our fixed doctrine, against what we declared sacred texts, or was damaging to our institution?"

In contrast to these conservative traditions Unitarian-Universalism presents itself as a living religion, one that recognises prior material as part of the development and a contribution to the human spirit. It has no sacred texts, and avoids making creedal declarations on metaphysical claims. It is perhaps something of a marketing negative that we do not offer as part of our corporate package notions like life after death, heaven, communion with the absolute and so forth. But this orientation does offer a different type of salvation - and this is why reference was made to the problem of evil at the beginning of this address. Whatever the results of the theological and philosophical debate concerning this, there can be no doubt that moral evil and natural suffering does exist and as people on this earth solving that problem is real, practical, immediate task that requires direct action. Rather than waiting for judgement day, rather than speculating on the prospect of salvation beyond this world, a modern, progressive religion aspires to build heaven here on earth as salvation, and will achieve this through deeds for universal rights, and with faith in the potential of all realise this, once they have taken off the mental shackles of superstition and loyalties to imagined concepts. That is our faith, our deeds and our salvation.