A holy priest from Italy was on a visit to the American southwest and had to pass through Las Vegas on his way to a retreat in the desert. When his hosts showed him the multisensory bonanza of vanity, greed and fantasy that symbolizes Sin City, the priest offered this simple response: “My God, these people are all 30 seconds away from salvation.”
Any of us who have ever watched a television commercial can relate to the priest’s observation. The 30-second spot has been described as a “mini-drama of sin and salvation,” hyping the latest products that can save us, promoting the happiness that comes with deliverance and preaching what we must do to be saved.
Everything from Smirnoff to Starbucks, Volkswagen to Viagra, Amazon to AT&T. Along with advertising, corporate logos are our cultural icons that point us toward what can make us feel better, look better and live better. They occupy the American popular imagination in ways that reveal a deep lack of humanness about what occupies a significant space in the spiritual imagination of Christians – namely, salvation.
All around us are outward and visible signs that tap in to the inward and invisible human yearning for happiness that runs deeper than the word “happy.” And yet, many definitions of salvation today would have us deny our humanity rather than trust it as the source and center of Christian faith itself.
“When it comes to salvation, the Lord’s Prayer should usurp the Sinner’s Prayer.”
Ask many self-professed Christians today what the purpose of salvation is, and a high percentage of the responses would likely involve something about eternal life and going to heaven in the afterlife. This is a radically individualized notion of salvation stripped of its value to what it means to be human in the here and now. If salvation is to be relevant for the ways we live our lives and follow Jesus, we need better definitions than this. This is where progressive Christians and progressive churches need to find their full-throated spiritual voice about what God’s saving grace means.
From the 1st century to the 21st century, Christianity’s gift to the world is salvation with skin on it. This is the genius of the Jesus movement, which celebrates the miracle of materiality that God loved human beings so much that God became one through the blood, bones, flesh and face of Jesus. The 2nd-century wisdom of St. Irenaeus magnifies this miracle even more: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Salvation worth its spiritual salt ought to concern itself with what it means to be fully alive human beings. Can we fill the void of relevance that exists about the meaning of salvation that can lead us to being more fully alive human beings?
Almost 60 years ago, world-class theologian Paul Tillich was struggling with a similar question. He asked if it were possible for words like salvation, Savior and saving to be saved themselves.
Tillich’s struggle is my own. My version is wondering whether salvation in this time of our lives and the life of our times can communicate something infinitely important to us beyond the cringe-worthy question that has dominated this topic (and provides the perfect way to make a total stranger feel as awkward as possible at a dinner party): “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and do you know you’d go to heaven if you die tonight?” A shorter version is simply, “Are you saved?”
Other than “Have you finished your homework?” this was the question I was asked most as a child of the church and a son of the South growing up in Tennessee. It was this same question that I was also taught by my church to ask others, even though I intuitively felt that based on the Gospels, Jesus was less concerned about salvation as a postmortem project and more concerned about teaching and preaching the kingdom of God that is here and now and among us and within us.
Salvation “Jesus style” promised aliveness, forgiveness, healing and wholeness in ways that are profoundly personal and deeply human. And yet, even today I can get the “spiritual twitches” when I hear the word “salvation,” because it has for too long been defined in narrow and judgmental ways absent of the radical humanity vested in it by virtue of the Incarnation.
It’s time for that good and godly word to be rehabilitated.
“Salvation ‘Jesus style’ promised aliveness, forgiveness, healing and wholeness in ways that are profoundly personal and deeply human.”
So, my fellow progressive Christians and churches, let’s talk about salvation as Jesus modeled it. God’s cosmic salvation in Christ cannot continue to be reduced to a formulaic question that equates saying “The Sinner’s Prayer” with having eternal salvation and a signed, sealed and delivered eternal life insurance policy. If this is the dominant and deepest meaning of salvation available, it’s enough to make me want to quote a favorite Seinfeld catchphrase, “Yada, yada, yada.”
The Christian explanation of the incarnation is meaningless if salvation is relegated to spiritual abstractions or abstract transactions between Jesus and God.
Jesus’ rendition of salvation was far more expansive. It centered on transformation instead of transaction. Rather than escaping hell after death, Jesus shows the way to eliminate hell on earth. Rather than show the way to get people into heaven, Jesus shows the way to get heaven into people. It is another way of saying what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When it comes to salvation, the Lord’s Prayer should usurp the Sinner’s Prayer.
American Jesuit theologian Roger Haight supplies a working definition that illuminates this more Lord’s Prayer-centered and down-to-earth salvation. He writes, “Salvation may be understood as a condition of being united with God, and in and through God, a being united with other human beings and at peace in one’s existence.”
This definition complements the Latin word salvus from which we get the word “salvation.” Salvus can be translated as “sound,” “whole” or “well.” Said aloud, the first syllable is “salve,” like salve for a wound.
To be united with God and with others is to be whole. To experience oneness and wholeness is for our way of being to coincide with God’s way of being as revealed in the fully human life of Jesus. Healing and aliveness and unification with God, with self and with others surely is a longing at the heart of our human experience and surely a longing in the heart of God.
Salvation as healing and wholeness comes as close as Jesus’ declaration that “the kingdom of God is among you.” It is the air you breathe. If you were a fish, it would be the water you swim in. As Jesus said to the rich and corrupt chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”
Come to think of it, maybe Zacchaeus himself was 30 seconds away from salvation. What if we are, too?