The S-word

As in “salvation.”

It’s one of those terms that can make a Unitarian Univeralist shift uncomfortably in his seat.

A while back, I wrote an open letter to my faith explaining why I wasn’t in the UU meetinghouse for a year now – and why I don’t think I’ll be back very soon. One of the reasons I gave was the chronic UU skittishness about salvation.

A few readers registered their disdain, and at least one insisted that a major tenant of Universalism is that souls don’t need saving. I don’t think that’s what Christian Universlism (which is the root theology of the the “universalism” in Unitarian Universalism) teaches at all. But that’s not the point.

If UUism isn’t teaching salvation, then it’s dead in the water.

I worked with a minister as a worship associate for three years, and she was careful to tell the committee that our job was to be interpreters of the congregation and for it. In other words, we were to relay the story of UUism to congregants in ways that would best open channels for communion with the sacred. The dialect spoken in each congregation was probably unique to each group, she said. For ours, it meant finding honest ways around deep and prevailing phobias around liturgical language. A lot of times, that meant being tutored on semantics. When that minister’s interim ended, she was still correcting me whenever I mentioned “the saving story of UUism.” She even asked that I reconsider using “the good news.” (This was tough for me, being a Baylor University graduate and a United Methodist for most of my life. The formal poetry of liturgy was and is a balm to my heart and mind.) When she thought our language would mash buttons and close people down, she’d ask us to find new words. It was a drill I didn’t like. “What in the bloody hell is wrong with salvation?” I’d ask. “Exactly,” she’d answer. (It turned into a private joke between us).

The repeated prickling at the word “salvation” in my “Dear John” letter was all the evidence I needed to give her the winning point.

What do I mean when I use the term “salvation?” I mean a soul-change. I mean a transformation. I mean redemption.

I happen to think those ideals are available to everyone who will submit their heart and mind to the work of change – with or without the blood of Christ. (Jesus is Christ to me. I also think he can be Christ to all – but he isn’t the sole path to holiness.) While I don’t think people need God to be good, I do think that religion is uniquely qualified to guide the humble toward redemption. Let’s face it; There aren’t many other spaces where we can profess our brokenness and still be invited to put our hands to holy work. The marketplace hints that our flaws are the source of all our shame (which might not be far off), but its promise is that we can buy our way out of them. (Feeling fat? Go on a pricey diet or get obesity surgery. Marriage not working out for ya? Buy a divorce. Feeling all alone?  Companionship can be yours – just get your credit card out.)

If UUs don’t think the faith has anything to say about  salvation — or redemption or transformation — then the Internal Revenue Service should revoke the tax-exempt status of every congregation with “Unitarian Universalist” on its shingle posthaste. And the good people in the meetinghouse should ask themselves what the heck they’re doing there. If they aren’t there for a chance at reforming their lives, their hearts or their communities, then why are they there at all? If we’re there to stroke ourselves, or to protect our comfort, then we’re not doing religion.

Religion leaves a beautiful open space for seeking — it’s OK to come into the meetinghouse and not know exactly how you’ll live out a life of faith – or an edifying ethical code. But to return week after week, thinking that grace and good work aren’t there to be claimed?

That, my friends, feels absurd.

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3 comments on “The S-word

  1. Robin Edgar (@RobinEdgar)
    August 22, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    “I do think that religion is uniquely qualified to guide the humble toward redemption.”

    Let’s face it Cindy. . .

    How many *humble* Unitarian*Universalists do you know? 😉

  2. January
    January 6, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    I am a UU who has felt the need to be ‘saved.’ By that I mean, I now recognize that I cannot do everything I need for myself by myself. It took a lurid addiction to crack cocaine for me to come to that realization. I was fortunate enough to find in a Twelve Step program the others who helped me. I will later this year celebrate my twelfth anniversary of recovery.

    However, I have not left the UU institution, blaming it for not providing what I needed. It might have, but I declined the referral it made to psychological counseling. I have participated in a considerable amount of such counseling in the course of my now long life. I may be wrong, but looking back I am not aware of any counselor who might have done for me what addiction followed by recovery did for me. The closest I can come to describing the process is that it resembles the healing that is required for combat fatigue–reliving the experience.

  3. Amy Zucker Morgenstern
    October 5, 2013 at 5:40 am #

    I think Unitarian Universalism has a lot to say about salvation, redemption, and transformation. Glancing through the comments to the post you refer to, I’m far from alone in believing that UUism must and does save souls. I agree with you that we human beings need them and that religion needs to concern itself with them. I’m fairly obsessed with them, though salvation is my least-used word of the three; perhaps that reflects my Jewish upbringing, since while you can certainly find the concept of salvation in Judaism, it’s not a term that gets an awful lot of play in that tradition. I’ve noticed how many of my favorite works of art are about redemption (and, closely related, conversion–not meaning from one denomination to another, but a conversion of the heart): A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Casablanca, Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, to name a few.

    I hope you have found a church that helps you to claim grace and good work, whether in or out of UUism.

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