living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

The meaning of salvation

with 4 comments

I was asked by a friend recently what I mean when I make use of the term “salvation.” At the time I was rather surprised, not at the question, but rather that I had been caught talking about salvation. It’s one of those terms that recovering evangelicals tend to shy away from due to its tight association with what they’ve come to see as a fairly cheap idea of “getting saved.” But as I reflected on it, it became clear to me that my dissertation work is really aptly characterized as a project on salvation, or soteriology (in big-word-talk).

ImageSo what do I mean by salvation? Here’s a brief attempt for your consideration: Salvation is that event or process in which one is both made fully aware of the limits of life, and yet, rather than turning back into some form of intoxication, denial, or rebellion, one experiences oneself as “accepted” or “held in being” in such a way that the limits of life cease to create anxiety, and therefore compulsion. Salvation is thus freedom to embrace one’s limits and the courage to engage life to its fullest. The one who experiences this salvation most radically is the one who is able to choose their own death for the sake of life. I think here of, for example, Thich Quang Duc. Surely, such acts could be done in the confidence of some reward in the hereafter, but this is not what I have in mind. I am thinking rather of the sober acceptance of life’s limits with no further guarantee beyond it. It is the freedom to live into the true, the good, and the beautiful for their own sake and not to be deterred by our existential fears, e.g., the loss of money, the good opinion of those you care about very much, personal comfort, or even life itself.

This, I think, gives fresh meaning to the old question: “are you saved?

Written by Alex

May 8, 2013 at 1:08 pm

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  1. While I agree with you that “salvation” is best described as coming into awareness of the limitations of life, I do not believe that includes a permanent cessation of anxiety or the experience of being “held in being.” I do not think that that state is sustainable within the human condition. Rather, we phase in and out of the experience of being out of place (whether that is experienced as anxiety or love or boredom, etc). We become discordant with existence and harmonize over and over again. These discordances are just as necessary as the harmony they produce. We can do neither perpetually, but shift in between.

    Bryne Helen Lewis

    May 8, 2013 at 5:18 pm

  2. Well put, Bryne. This is a nice addition. You touch on a theme I’m going to be working on developing, namely the paradoxical dimension of salvation. As paradoxical, the experience of being utterly abandoned is, in some sense, essential to the the sort of being “held in being” that I’m interested to articulate.


    May 8, 2013 at 6:05 pm

  3. For me, what is interesting in your question, is what role can traditional Christologies possibly play in this necessary tension? I grew up believing that Jesus saved you from the fear of death. I’ve now grown into the belief that regular confrontation with non-being is necessary for human development and meaning. Jesus, in the sense I grew up with, would then be an obstacle to developing as fully mature human beings (and sadly, I think that this is often the case).

    Although I don’t have much of a personal stake left in reconciling these two thoughts (my faith is far more philosophical than theological these days), I wonder, given the strenuousness involved in opening to effective crisis, if the role of Jesus is not to alleviate the confrontation with death, but to bring it closer to us. Like a shortcut in the process. Honestly, I think religious practice in general offers the possibility of precipitating and stewarding these confrontations, although I find it rarely lives up to its potential in this regard.

    Bryne Helen Lewis

    May 8, 2013 at 7:49 pm

  4. Yes yes, you are definitely onto something! This can be gotten at a number of ways, but one way that I’ve found helpful is Tillich’s concept of “rationalization.” On his view (which shares a number of affinities with Jung), religious symbols (e.g., traditional Christologies) are always in danger of losing their symbolic character and becoming rationalized. That is, rather than using the structure of existence to point beyond itself to the depths (abyss/ground, that which is essentially mysterious), they cease to point beyond themselves and instead remain as more structure. The symbolic dimension of the concept of eternity becomes endless time. Heaven is a place with a chair on which Jesus sits next to the Father, etc…

    The reason I bring this up is because rationalization is what happens when either the limits of life have not been squarely encountered, or when they have been encountered and were deemed too frightening, thus, instead of living in the courage of faith, we cling to images of more structure. In effect, we deny life’s limits. This is the sense in which traditional Christologies can become obstacles. They become immortality programs with all the unsavory implications that follow.

    Your comments on the potential of Christology to be a sort of shortcut I find very interesting. I’ve recently begun participating in contemplative prayer… an act I see as deeply connected to my own working Christology… and also an act that is designed to bring one closer to the confrontation with death. It is, in effect, the process of living one’s own death and therein paradoxically finding life. I’ll be doing a lot more thinking along these lines in the years to come. I have a paper for the national AAR in February that I need to write on the topic. Towards that end, along with Tillich, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Benedictine monk, Sebastian Moore (and by extension Ernest Becker).

    P.S. the Gschwandtner text has been a great source. Thanks!


    May 8, 2013 at 9:46 pm

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