Unitarian Universalism

Salvation

Jesus Christ came into the world to grant us salvation. We mortals must atone for our sinful natures. If we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, hie will forgive us our sins and bestow upon us everlasting life in heaven... During my growing up, this was my mantra.

I attended a school in the high Himalayas that commanded a stunning view of the snow-capped Kanchangunga range. Together with hundreds of other missionaries' children, I received a proper Methodist upbringing. I sang "Onward Christian Soldiers." recited the Apostle's Creed and heard the good news about God's mercy, how salvation is guaranteed to all who accept Jesus Christ into their hearts through baptism. I was indeed a true believer.

But that was long ago. Today as I think of salvation, the image of a risen Christ sitting at the right hand of God the Father dispensing life-after-death to the select few does not come to mind. Instead, I recall a group of teenagers in the wilds of northern Vermont, paddling their canoes down a turbulent, rock-strewn tributary of the Connecticut River.

These kids were campers, trucked many miles from the wilderness camp where Wini and I were co-directors. Plying the scenic waters of this historic river was great fun, a grand adventure for the youngsters reared in the over-protected suburbs of our great urban centers. They were on their own. Two counselors provided mature guidance - or so we thought.

Well, those same counselors committed a cardinal sin. They abandoned their assigned trip plan, striking out on a unfamiliar waterway with no map to show the danger spots. The carefree lark began to look like it might become a ghastly tragedy. In due course, our young, misguided adventurers, propelled by the mountain stream's raging white water, rounded a bend. Two men were standing on the bank waving their arms and shouting. Stop! Stop! Puzzled, the flotilla pulled over. What was the problem? The men pointed downstream. There, very near, was a huge problem - a foaming, roaring, deadly, 20-foot-high waterfall!

I regard these men's life-saving intervention as salvation, pure and simple. Did Jesus Christ, looking down from on high, perceive the peril and instantly send them to warn the kids in the very nick of time? Perhaps. But I am skeptical. I think it was dumb luck that preserved the group from the consequences of their stupid and sinful behavior. To this day, I shudder to think what could have happened. No doubt all those who plunged over that waterfall would have perished. It is awful to contemplate the resulting sorrow that would have spread far and wide among the families who had entrusted their children to our care.

Now if you have discerned in my tale an analogue to George W. Bush's war in Iraq, that's quite alright with me. But I suggest there's a deeper meaning. Our saviors were strangers, appearing as if by magic. They were probably trout fishing. Most importantly, they responded to the dangerous situation from a fundamental, humane instinct that is in every one of us. I bless their memory.

It seems to me that the self-righteous religious types who are obsessed with separating the true believers going to heaven from the infidels destined for hell have much to learn from these two guys. Salvation, my friend, is not pie-in-the-sky. Salvation is here and now. It springs from an inclusive, forgiving, peace-loving posture towards all humanity -- and its name is "humanism." Thank you.

Personal Gods

The best explanation that I have ever heard for why we humans continue to turn to religion is that religion helps us to be more human. We come to religion with questions about ourselves. Am I alone in this world? What is the meaning of my life? The paradox is that the answer to these questions that begin with the self, lies in reaching outwards, away from ourselves, towards "the Other." We reach outwards toward the Other, and some of us choose to call this other "god."

There is the God at the beginning of Genesis, who made all of creation with the utterance of a few words, "Let there be light." The God that Hindus call Brahman, whom we can only understand by trisecting into parts. That Chinese call the Tao. The Ultimate Reality. Eternal, infinite, and defying description, this is the God of Jefferson and Einstein, a transcendent God who began and sustains the Universe. The God we catch in glimpses when we gaze in wonder at Nature - moments when we make a connection with all of Creation, and are awed and humbled, buoyed and made euphoric by Its vast grandeur. This is God with a big "G."

And for some of us, this is the only God that makes any sense. How can anything less be called "God"? But this is not a god that we can pray to when our day has gone badly. This god is busy making sure that the stars stay in place and that water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius. We cannot envision that this god cares about us on a personal level any more than we care about a single skin cell on our left big toe.

A god who would care would be a "personal god." Someone who took an interest in our daily lives, someone that we can talk to, question, blame, forgive and be forgiven. This is the god of Abraham, who chose to favor him above all others. This is the god of Jesus, with whom he pleaded in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the god that Jesus eventually became for millions of his followers, including Martin Luther King Jr. - the god to whom Dr King would pray for strength and courage when in doubt and need. This is Krishna. This is Kali Ma, Kwan Yin, or the Virgin Mary. A patron saint, a bodhisattva, a totem, a guardian angel, god with a little "g."

I've been grappling with this idea of a personal god for some time. For me, it was not a concept that I could easily accept, and I imagine this to be true for many UUs. Spirit of Life?, sure, no problem. But people actually praying to a god by name, to someone, whom they think is listening, having a conversation, a personal relationship. It's downright anthropomorphic. Perhaps occasionally I've even been arrogant enough to imagine that personal gods were for people who weren't sophisticated enough to grasp the concept of God with a big "G." But what I couldn't dismiss so easily was the spiritual strength that people seemed to be getting from this relationship. These people were better people as a result, more human. What were that getting that I wasn't? Then last week, it suddenly came to me. They are making a connection with "the Other."

We become more human by reaching away from ourselves, towards the Other... Instead of thinking about our own wants and needs, we learn to think about someone else. And any time we reach outward towards one other, it helps us to reach out to all others. All that helps us to make a connection with the other makes us better humans, including our personal gods.

So what does this mean for us as UUs? Whether we are Christians or Pagans or Atheists, one thing that ties all UUs together is that we are all humanists. Whether you believe in God or not, big G or little g, the standard by which we measure ourselves is the effect we have on other human beings in this world. For Unitarian-Universalists, whether or not we have other gods with whom we commune, humans are our personal gods. They are the other, with a little "o" - a small bit of Other with a big "O," but on a scale with which we can relate. Humanity is grand, awesome, humbling, and impersonal. Individual humans are the ones whom we can talk to, question, blame, forgive and be forgiven. We all need personal gods with whom to connect.

Real Religion

From the beginning, humans, in attempting to cope with their feelings of fear and inadequacy, have turned to a multitude of supernatural beings - gods - to help fill their needs.

As the humans evolved, their gods changed too -- in form, in personality, in power, even in numbers. This evolving concept of the gods brought on the development of codes of conduct and forms of adoration and supplication, sometimes molded by humans to achieve their own personal or political aims. The term "religion" today usually refers to belief in the existence of a god or gods accompanied by adherence to pertinent codes, rituals and affirmations. But religion can also mean a system of beliefs, practices and ethical values for living - in short, a philosophy of life.

A great theologian once observed, "Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life - life of every kind, viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose; life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance." And, also from A. Powell Davies, "true religion says that there is nothing to be feared from anything whatever that comes from anywhere at all into an honest mind. The one thing to fear is the mind's dishonesty."

One's religion can be a way of life - a never-completed quest for truth; an emphasis on the good rather than the evil in the human potential; an effort to help rather than to hurt; a continuing awareness of the beauty, the mystery, the still unanswered questions in this wonderful world; yes, even taking the time to marvel at the wonder in the eye of a child as she watches a moonflower slowly open its petals at twilight and release its perfume; a living of life to the fullest, while striving, always, to be honest with oneself, down to the deepest reaches of the mind and heart.

That, my friends, is real religion.

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