We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, March 28, 2014

Which Salvation?

Is salvation individual or is it collective?  In the vast majority of American churches, this question does not even arise.  We are individually saved or damned.  The Bible, however, presents a mixed picture.  In the Old Testament, salvation is collective although individuals can be and often are found wanting.  The concern is with the people of Israel, the nation.  In the New Testament as well, the question of salvation is mixed.  The Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, for example, reflects a collective view of the Kingdom, that is the salvation hoped for in the coming age: give us, forgive us, rescue us.  In the gospels, Jesus is intent on forming a new community that will be the seed for the salvation of Israel.  His focus is on that coming but somehow already present Kingdom, and while he certainly realized that there were those who could not enter the Kingdom even they were more of a group, the hypocritical ruling elite, than actual individuals.

All societies have to work out a balance between the individual person and the collective society, but in general even in our day Asian societies tend to lean toward overt emphasis on the importance of the collective.  Ancient biblical cultures were still less overtly individualistic than are modern cultures, especially in the West.  Salvation, thus, was also much more a matter of the collective society individuals lived within, be it the tribe, the nation, or the church.  Jesus' conception of the Kingdom reflects that balance that leans toward the collective.  We may go to heaven or hell individually (for those who believe in that sort of eternal judgment), but we will enter the Kingdom together as the whole of the human race.

The real point here is that salvation is a complex and nuanced question, much more so than is widely acknowledged in churches today.  It is not only a question of "am I saved," but also one of "are we saved."  And there is no question that the spiritual well-being of the church we attend has a direct bearing on our own spirituality—at least for those who take their faith and their community of faith seriously.  So, if we see salvation as being a state in which we currently live and not just a future destination then it is as much collective as it is individual.  That is to say, the "I" and the "We" in salvation are always in play, always a concern, and always to be taken into consideration.  Amen.