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Chapter X: Persons and Salvation

In the views which question the final ontological status of our own existence the meaning and mode of salvation will be very different from all that arises in a context which accords us some distinct and genuine reality on our own account. The language and basic terms, and much in ritual and devotional practice, may be similar, and this is itself a major source of confusion. But the purport, in major themes and subsidiary nuances, will be very different. If present existence and all we feel normally impelled to believe about it is some kind of illusion or if our distinctness is questioned in some other way, then the main concern would seem to be to discover where the true reality and significance of our existence is to be found, either by appreciating better our identity with the one reality to which we belong, or by somehow achieving that identity more completely. Alternatively, there may be some other release, achieved by a discipline or effort of our own or as a gift or grace, by which we break out of the bondage of the world and our existence as it seems to be. There is at least some superseding of the mode of being we seem to have at present.

In some cases, in forms of Buddhism for instance, it may be peculiarly difficult to set out at all, even in outline, what the ultimate aim involves. It is a release, preeminently from pain and suffering though not in the normal way of ending suffering, of which nothing can be explicitly said beyond indicating the way by which it comes about. Only in the experience itself, and to describe it in that way may be inadequate, will some more positive indication be possible — enlightenment is its own light. One must sympathise in large measure with the reluctance to be more specific, for the more familiar insistence on some transcendent good or ground also leaves the nature of that ground a total or transcendent mystery. But we can say how we come to recognise that it must be and involve complete perfection, and obliquely we can get very much further. But what matters at the moment is that the release or enlightenment in question now not only eludes any characterization but seems to involve all that we now seem to be, and our world, only in some instrumental way to bring about the total eclipse or elimination of all that matters here and now.

When the familiar Buddhist talk of emptiness is qualified, as it often is, by the insistence that this emptiness is itself also fullness, we are brought closer to the notion of a supreme transcendent reality beyond our proper comprehension. But it still seems to be intended that the way we are, and our world, has no proper place of its own in any final resolution of our destiny, and indeed the word ‘destiny’ seems itself inappropriate — the Beyond is all in all. This is not relieved by any of the fine things that are affirmed about compassion and right living in the here and now, and the deep seriousness with which these are taken. Nor will it do to plead caution. For it is not just a case of not knowing precisely what we should say, either about the transcendent or matters in the here and now of present existence which are peculiarly hard to handle intellectually, such as our freedom or identity, but of finding concerns of this latter sort, and all they presuppose, of no significance and without a role to play in any consummation to which religions and other disciplines may lead. In the last analysis, the here and now, and what we are, drops out of the picture. This goes far beyond philosophical non-commitment and ambiguity. It is not understandable scepticism but repudiation of what we find significant at present, and of concern about understanding and directing this better, our being left with a mystery which does not take present things into itself at all in any final way.

What is at stake is whether the sort of existence we have now, and our understanding of it, has any part on its own account in any final reckoning. In some traditions, including the Christian one, it certainly has. What is important for us centres directly on what we are as persons and our personal relations to one another. This is a relationship, not a merger. But nothing of worth is achieved without it. A rupture of one relationship extends into others and may end in disaster. But it must also be clear how vital it is for a proper personal relationship that each one within it should be profoundly conscious of the other as other, respecting one another’s proper being and distinctness. This goes far beyond acknowledging differences of likes and attitudes. It centres on the way each member has his experiences as essentially private experiences of his own and meriting special regard on that account. This holds above all for our relationship to God.

When the ultimate end which religion posits, and within which we find the proper rationale of the varieties of outward practice and devotion, is found in a special personal relation, we need to consider very carefully how such relations are best sustained, and how they are marred and may be mended.

There is a limit to what can be said in a positive way about the maintenance of personal relations, mainly because they are personal. There is also a great variety of them, ranging from those that are institutionalized, like marriage or our professional dealings with one another or services we render, to pure friendship. Advice may be given, sometimes on a professional or public basis, about all these in some ways. But, in the main, a truly personal relationship must be maintained from within itself according to the precise sort of relation it is. We can, however, say some things in a cautious and qualified way. A personal relationship is not usually well maintained without special attention and heeding. It may be crude and insensitive to say it must be ‘worked at’, in the parlance of today, and it may be too precious or romantic to say that it must be cultivated, like a garden. In our closest relationships there is much that we can simply take for granted, and it could be counter-productive to fuss too much in such matters. But there can also be thoughtlessnesss and too much taking for granted. Without proper heed, and with too much taking for granted, a relationship may, for all that matters in it, just wither away or become merely formal.

This may be very true for those with whom we have little regular contact, just as it has happened also that some of the deepest friendships have been maintained in correspondence. But whichever way this goes we need to be reminding ourselves in active thought from time to time about those of whom we are fond when they are not near to us. This is not affected by the way some deep attachments have survived, strengthened even, in times of enforced severance as may happen in wars. But it is hard to see how this could be achieved without constant thought of a loved one. The same holds when friends have died. They continue to influence us, parents for example, mainly in a dispositional way. It would be unusual at least to have our parents in our minds all the time. But it is not likely that they would continue to affect us dispositionally if there were no occasions when we ‘summoned up remembrance’ of them ‘to the sessions of sweet silent thought’. The manner of all this is extremely variable and personal. But without some heeding, as circumstances allow and require, a fine relationship may come to be of no account.

A further prime condition for the maintenance and health of a personal relationship is that we should continue to act in the spirit of it. Even if some lapse or betrayal is concealed from those whom it might grieve, the strain upon the relationship from the side of the defaulter itself could be great and might make the whole meaningless for him. There might of course be justification for some deviation. A relationship should not become rigid or so despotic as not to allow for innovation or genuine difference of taste or conviction. The limits of its tolerance will vary according to its nature and circumstances. But there will be limits, some more sharply defined than others. To violate the spirit of a relationship, especially in some matter vital to it, is at least to impose a heavy strain upon it, and may prove totally disruptive of it, even if it survives in some formal way.

These conditions are pre-eminent in the case of religion. The relationship with God is a special one, not only because of its prime importance, but also because God has no visible or bodily presence such as sustains our ordinary intercourse with one another. As some of the most devout people testify, the reality of God can very easily become dim or his presence remote. Much in the normal ways of our life goes on without him, and the worshipper may find himself in that respect little different from his agnostic friend. He cannot modify this directly or change the main conditions within which we live and operate. But for that reason he needs to busy himself all the more with the practices which most conduce to the sense of the genuineness and presence of God. Without such renewal a religious awareness may become dead or formal. Who is unaware of that? This is not the place to consider closely what practices, of prayer or meditation or of practical service in the spirit of worship, are most appropriate or effective. Here again there is much reason for variety. But, if we need ‘to work at’ other relationships, all the more at this one.

The suspicion is, not surprisingly, raised in this context, that the purported renewal is just a mood induced artificially, some sort of contrived wishful thinking. It is not easy to dispel that suspicion, least of all from the minds of those who remain religiously unaware. The faithful are themselves prey to it often. But there is much to which we have recourse to conquer this, including the reflections which prompt the recognition of the transcendent, together with further thoughts about the warrant we have for the intervention of God in our experience and in the course of things — and how best to discriminate and appreciate what is true and sound. But sustaining thoughts of this kind itself requires meditative practice and extends into it as much in due course for the simpler sorts of piety as for the intellectually more alert. Prayer and meditation are rarely as simplistic as they may seem to the outsider. But I must content myself here with the general insistence that proper religious awareness needs to be renewed and confirmed, and also refined, in the devotional and other practices most appropriate to it.

This has relevance to all proper forms of religion, and the study of religions shows how pervasive devotional practices are, ranging from the most complex to the quiet of the Quaker meeting. But I venture to submit also that, when a religion centres on a relation of what, in essentials, we are now to God, by contrast with aspirations which seek to lift us beyond our own finitude, all practices will take a peculiar and, if only it were better realized, exceptionally demanding form, in the cultivation and sustaining of an essentially personal relationship. Everything will be found to turn eventually on such a relationship, even the more remote reflective considerations, including the initial sense of the transcendent. To maintain the relationship as a genuinely personal one has very demanding requirements of its own, in devotion, thought and conduct. It may be that in our under-estimating this lies much of the explanation for the decline of religion in our time, though there are many other factors here arising from the vast complexities and changes of circumstances to which adaptation is not easy.

But just as a personal relationship needs generally to be sustained and renewed in actual thought, and thereby be more deeply and securely founded dispositionally, so also there is need to conduct ourselves generally in the spirit of it. And this has also exceptional importance in religion. Opinions will differ as to what right conduct is required in religion, but there will also be wide general agreement. To persist in violation of this requirement, in deliberate contravention of what seems right, is to seriously weaken the relationship and eventually put it in peril altogether. This has been much stressed already. But we may also note now that, even when wrongful conduct and attitudes of mind are due to error of judgement or ignorance, it may still be so much out of accord with what our fellowship with God requires as to be gravely damaging to it, notwithstanding the centrality of what we do of deliberate intent.

How it comes about that some enjoy the finest assurance of the being and presence of God while others, including genuine and concerned seekers, remain wholly unfulfilled in this way is part of the general problem of evil and the seeming injustice in our fortunes. We can provide some of the immediate reasons for agnosticism or of factors which dispose men to it. But why, in a final account, things should work out in this way, remains deeply problematic for us. This is intensified by the fact that divine disclosures often come unheralded and not always to the more determined seekers, notwithstanding that we are urged to seek. There is much that we can do to put ourselves in the way of religious insight, we can heed the appropriate scriptures and other means of spiritual discernment. But we cannot command insight in this or other regards, there is a gift and something is seen. Divine revelation is thought to be pre-eminently a giving, and how some seem to be more favoured, in this as in other ways, in a world which is the concern of all-embracing love defies exhaustive comprehension by us. Faith has managed to bear this strain and we are not concerned with this particular issue in this study.

It remains that fellowship with God, and with one another in the bond of his love, is, on a Christian view, the appropriate destiny of all, notwithstanding that it is not explicitly realized for many in the present existence. My concern now is with the damage to such relationship, even to the potentiality of it as yet not awakened, which is done above all by deliberate betrayal which turns our hearts and minds away from the world as it really is to private and subjective intimations of what counts for us and the numbing of genuine involvement. How destructive this can be of aspirations besides religious ones, how wrapped we can be, in our formal sanity, in a cocoon of madness, has been noted already. It is to the destruction so engendered, involving an insensitivity to divine matters which we induce in ourselves, that the redeeming work of God is directed. He finds his way into blunted sensitivity and unconcern. Whether some point is reached where retrieval is impossible is a hard matter for us. There is much to suggest that this may be the case, and if so a God of love can hardly retain in being what is of no worth to itself or God, and yet it is also hard to believe that the resources of God are not such as to ensure eventual triumph, now or in some hereafter however remote.

It may be asked here — Why should not a life deprived of the light of God’s love and the infinite riches of his being not retain all the same much that is splendid and of inherent worth? The answer is that it does. Religion as such is not everything. It has already been noted that we perceive, and respond to, what is of worth in itself independently of special religious insight, and also as an ingredient in that religious awareness itself. But awareness of God is also inchoate in all appreciation of our finitude and creates a hunger for itself which our other achievements are well set to deepen. Life does not stand still. We reach for new horizons, our interests expand, but it is hard to see how they can do so increasingly without expanding into consciouness of God, a transcendent source of all, which give our other concerns a new character, a wholly new dimension — unless this locution has been too staled by loose usage to be meaningful. At some point, I submit, our interests curl back on themselves and pall, without the transmutation which religion makes available. Other sustenance intensifies the hunger which goes beyond it.

Let me put it this way. A friend for whom I have a great regard said some while ago: ‘I would just not wish to live for ever’. We can all sympathise with that. There is nothing more daunting, indeed forbidding in one way, than the thought of living on for ever. But ‘for ever’ is itself not quite adequate here. This is not to beat an easy retreat into ambiguity, much less the facile reductionism which treats all talk of eternity as some reference solely to a special feature or quality of the here and now. There is a Beyond which transcends our understanding, and whose inexhaustible richness transmutes our other concerns. It does not eliminate what we are but puts us in life-enhancing contact with a reality by which our mode of being and our interest lose the surfeit and frustration of our normal immersion in passing scenes and alternating moods. This may or may not be timeless, but the hand of time will not be as heavy upon us as it is now, we shall be caught up in that which surpasses it.

The maintenance of this contact, in a life-sustaining personal relationship, is what mainly concerns some religions, notably Christianity. In our deprivation of it lies the main source of the deepening of all other failure of proper involvement in the world as other than ourselves. It leads to sterility, frustration, debility and despair — a sense of insanity at the heart of things; and the more sensitive we are, and the bolder our aspirations, the deeper is the sense of futility and meaninglessness at the centre. The shutters close on the enervating inwardness to which we withdraw, and while this may not be immediately evident to ourselves, there is no lack of evidence of the sense of desolation with which the realization dawns or the pain of the knowledge of how much we have furthered this deprivation by our own rejection of the proper demands of the world upon us.

The remedy for this situation, on a theistic view, is not in escape or dissolution of our finitude, but in transmutation; and this comes about by the way God finds ways to renew the sense of his presence, in the mediation of varieties of our experience and, above all for Christians, in the giving of himself by God in Jesus of Nazareth. There are many ways of understanding this central Christian affirmation. On a monistic view, like idealism as instanced earlier, a simplification is possible on the basis of there being some measure of divinity in all of us — that is more complete in Jesus. But this is far removed from the normal Christian understanding of Incarnation which takes God, in his full transcendence, to be strictly present in Jesus, notwithstanding the fully human nature of Jesus, with all the limitations which that implies. The difficulty is intensified if one stresses, as I have done, the strict distinctness of each individual consciousness — and that must certainly not be surrendered. But there is also a compensating easement if one considers carefully what becomes acceptable, though not properly comprehensible, in the light of a proper appreciation of what transcendence fully involves.

There is much in the mystery of the being of God, his eternity for example, which presents insuperable difficulties for our attempt to provide an exhaustive rational explanation of it. In that way we may find, in having to recognise the being of God as a supreme transcendent reality, that if the evidence about the historical Jesus defies explanation, as I believe it does, in any final way without the supposition that God himself is here fully present, then we must accept that with the pious agnosticism which is appropriate to it. It is in the encounter with God in Jesus in this way that we break out most signally from the desolation of confinement to a world centred on ourselves; and at some stage, now or hereafter, the triumph may be so complete that no reversal or further lapse is possible. We would in that case, have a ‘holy will’ and enter into the marvellous riches of unclouded awareness of the presence of God, presumably also in modes of our existence which go far beyond what we can properly anticipate now. Whether this involves also some possibility of a final collapse into a distintegration from which nothing can be salvaged remains, as was noted, a moot point, though I remain sceptical about it. But the most that I am venturing to insist upon here is that the relevance of the idea of salvation, and the means of achieving it, must be understood on the basis of what we find significant in personal relationships and the ways in which they are marred and mended. To go further into doctrinal and theological matters is beyond the scope of this study. But there are two further observations I wish to make.

Firstly, it is very easy to travesty or parody the central Christian affirmations, and it is, alas, such travesties that have been largely presented to those outside the Christian fold, including people of other faiths. The crudest, but also the most familiar, is in terms of retributive punishment and the vicarious bearing of it on our behalf by Jesus. For those who fail to come within the ambit of this transaction, including babes and those who have never heard of Christ, there would remain eternal torment as what is fitting for them to suffer in consequence of some contamination with sin as it affects our nature regardless of deliberate determination by ourselves. What is truly amazing is that variations on this theme have been very extensively a part of Christian thinking down the ages, and are still not unknown. There are, indeed, passages in the Bible which may be interpreted in that way, but they have either to be taken out of context or without recognition of the development in our understanding of the ways of God as this shapes itself within our limited grasp and faculties at particular times. Notwithstanding colourful metaphors, like that of the sheep and the goats and other ways in which the teaching of Jesus was articulated in idioms and ways of thought familiar to his hearers, there seems to me to be nothing further removed from the mind of Christ than the notions of vicarious punishment and eternal torment — or indeed of any pointless torment at all.

The best thing to do with the purported scheme of salvation in terms of retribution and vicarious suffering, notwithstanding the vast place it has had in traditional Christian thought and theology, is just to abandon it altogether. But the alternative is by no means a finite reductionist view, whether or not other secular disciplines are invoked. Reconciliation is a costly business, and we must not repudiate the risks that are involved in our being the creatures we are with our astonishing prospects. That there is a ‘price to be paid’ seems to be beyond doubt, and I do not think we have to look very far into what we are like at the secular level to have fair intimation of what would be involved in such terms in the mending of our relationship with God as with one another and the establishing of us in that state of blessedness in which there is no clouding of the vision of God, or any falling away.

To that peculiar blessedness a vital contribution will be our having lived as creatures capable of falling away, and having extensively done so. The reclamation will not be in taking us out of that status, but in a victory from within it which also in due course takes us beyond it enriched in the knowledge of the conditions in which the victory was gained, ‘while we were yet sinners’ — and all it cost to God.

My final point concerns our essentially social situation. I have been concerned throughout with individual salvation, and that is what I think salvation is in itself, the reclamation of persons or, in the traditional terms, the saving of souls. But it was also indicated earlier that we are bound to function in a social context. We draw upon our immediate social environment and contribute to it, and this in turn owes much to a network of social relationships within our own community and beyond it. The fulfilment of each, and our own spiritual health in some ways too, depends on right relations to those with whom we have most to do who are dear to us, and also on our role, as recipients and contributors, within the general fabric of our society. The soundness of our social existence is affected profoundly by the quality of life and character of the individual members of society, and this will turn much also on the extent to which their lives are shaped by the healing influence of the love of God at work in our lives in the ways indicated. Spiritual health is a prime condition of the health of society.

For the Christian the fullness of the redeeming work of God is found in Jesus, and for that reason the relevance of the Christian faith to urgent social concerns of our time is profound. The solution to social problems and the formation of the wisest policies contain much that is not explicitly religious; we cannot count on our piety to settle all problems for us. We must have secular wisdom as well, but that can be deeply affected also by religious insight and experience and by the quality of life of members of society. We cannot be at our best in our social existence if our own aspirations are warped by the absence of the sort of fulfilment and direction that relates to our deepest personal needs. The reclamation of society is bound up with the reclamation of persons, and this for the Christian comes supremely in the presence of God in Christ.

In the turbulence of our world today we find, on the one hand, massive extensions of good-will and concern, together with spectacular practical service. But, on the other hand, much of this is brought to nought in practice by upsurges of violence and ruthless barbarous cruelty. There is no simple way to account for this, but, if the themes I have been defending are sound, one is disposed also to think that there was perhaps no time in the history of the world when there was greater and more urgent need to proclaim and commend, with all the refinement of our understanding today, the Gospel which speaks of our hopes and destiny in the fullness of our fellowship with God and one another made possible by the supreme self-giving of God — and the healing power thereof.

A further work will go more exhaustively into the theological questions involved here.

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