From where will our salvation come?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s remarkable how quickly my interest has shifted from the single question of whether God exists—or doesn’t ‘exist’—to issues of much greater, practical concern. This is not to say that the answer to the God question is irrelevant or inconsequential. In fact I think it is deeply consequential. It just isn’t ultimate in the sense of most important or the question at the bottom of all questions the way most theists (and many atheists) think it is. This in and of itself is probably worth a separate blog post: the theistic framework which has God at the center or the ‘bottom’ of everything such that if you drill down into something far enough you always get to God is something that ironically plagues the atheist community as well. The theistic recourse to “because God” manifests in the atheist community in a similar but opposite way. Every bad and horrible thing that happens in the world is “because (people believe in) God.” The advantage non-theists have is that they can potentially understand the God/religion question as something about mid-way down or close to the bottom but not the very bottom. Let me illustrate what I mean in the following way. Christians are concerned about salvation and the answer to how can we be saved is, by God, through Jesus. This is the final word.

If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9, NIV).

While non-Christians and non-theists will obviously balk at the answer, I want to argue that the question is one that concerns us all. As Neil deGrasse Tyson wittily pointed out, the earth is not in much jeopardy. It’s humans that should be concerned about their survival.

The question of human salvation is not ultimately about individuals living forever. One of the first things one must face as a non-theist is that eternal life is a fantasy. We are all afraid of dying. From the time we became aware of ourselves and aware that we would die, we have been creating myths about how might avoid the fate that confronts us all. Once we’ve gotten past the hard reality that we will all die, most of us are still concerned with the future of the human race and the quality of life we leave to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For atheists, we might say eternal life is not about each individual living forever but about the continued survival and improvement of human life into the foreseeable future. As I look around I see four primary narratives—four macro-explanations—for how we will survive as a species and make life better for more people and for future generations. They are, in no particular order,

  1. Religion
  2. Technology/Science
  3. Markets/Capitalism
  4. Democracy

God and Religion
These are the four primary meganarratives, as best I can tell. I’d love to hear if you think there is another one or two. The question is, from where will our salvation come? The Psalmist in the Hebrew Bible had this concern millennia ago when he wrote:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. —Psalm 121

I know for many of you this poem will sound super creepy. Who would want someone watching over you at all times? Is this some proto-Orwellian vision? In some sense, yes. Whether this vision is good news or bad news depends on who this “Lord” is. If you were fortunate enough to have a parent or parents who looked after you in a healthy way when you were little, this is the ultimate vision of the loving parent, who doesn’t let anything bad happen to you.

But I digress…this is the religious answer to the question, from where will our help come? How will the human race be saved? The religious answer has two parts. One, as in this text, God is humanity’s salvation. And as other portions of the Bible indicate, this salvation will likely be somewhere else or at least in an earth that been made over entirely from scratch.

If we come to the realization that there is no cosmic caretaker who will rescue us, we still face the question of human salvation (if you’ll permit me the continued use of that religious sounding word. I’m using it for a reason). This, to my mind, leaves us four (partially overlapping) options. I don’t have time or space here to explore these in depth. A brief word will have to suffice.

Science and Technology
The first alternative to religion is science and technology. When we give up faith in God, science is standing in the wings. After all, according to the popular narrative, it is science that has supplanted God and removed him (and it is typically ‘him’) out of the realm of reality into the pantheon of ancient myths. Science has replaced God. Things that we used to explain by appealing to God are now more than adequately answered by science. What this hyper-optimistic narrative typically fails to account for is the extraordinary global resurgence of religion and faith in the 21st century. Far from being supplanted, religion is still very much a factor in the United States and around the world. This narrative also fails to account for the ways in which science has failed to deliver on the promise of a humanitarian utopia.

Capitalism
Another contender for salvation of mankind is markets—specifically capitalism. The tired cliché is that a rising tide raises all boats. After the last Great Recession I think we are all a bit more skeptical of an economics of Endless Growth. Nor are we as easily convinced that most of the world even has boats and aren’t instead drowning in the rising tide. And yet in the world of politics, we are still confronted with the myth that capitalism, broadly speaking, will save us; that there are market solutions to basically everything. Like science, there is no question that capitalism has done much good, extended prosperity to vastly more people and improved the quality of some people’s lives. Capitalism drives innovation and creativity and has yielded many solutions to truly vexing problems. I suspect this will continue to be the case. But we are also faced with the stark reality of income inequality and the way that this dark underbelly of capitalism is actually threatening all those gains.

Democracy
The final contender for salvific worldview is democracy. The notion here is that democracy is far and away the best form of government humanity has ever conceived of. Its roots go back centuries and when it has operated at its best, violence has gone down, people experience the benefits of freedom and self-actualization that we all intuitively long for. The unfortunate thing is that some people in power feel that if we could just install democratic governments around the world we could end global conflict and usher in an age of peace.

It is worth noting that these “gods” overlap. This is not monotheism. In fact, some of these are very cozy together. In middle America, for example, God and capitalism are practically business partners. I’ve had church members get more upset if I question the “invisible hand” (tell me that’s not a religious notion) of capitalism than if I question the utility of prayer. Capitalism and democracy are also symbiotic. Sadly, the power of money frequently corrupts democracy and it morphs into oligarchy, nationalism, and militarism. God fits comfortably in this mix as well. I’ve had church members get more upset when I moved the American flag from the front of the church to the foyer than when I moved the pulpit and the communion table to a different location. I’ve had church members send me irate notes when I’ve criticized American militarism and called our 4th of July celebrations liturgical, complete with processions (parades), displays of power (fighter jet flyovers), sacred texts (Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights), reverential awe (hand over heart), and recitations of our fealty (‘I pledge allegiance…).

There are a couple of things that are very interesting to me about all of this. First is the realization that there are so few candidates for ‘savior’ and none of them is fairing very well. The second is our need, as a culture, for a big story about how we can be saved from ourselves. The focus on salvation at all is in some ways a survival instinct but it’s also to stave off accusations of nihilism. It is possible that we cannot be saved from ourselves? Many feel that climate change is already too far down the track to be significantly changed. The Ebola outbreak that has all the world on the edge of its seat is legitimate cause for despair. The continued violence between Israel and Palestine, the brutality of the Syrian regime and our America’s perpetual struggle with race so clearly seen in the gunning down of 18-year old Michael Brown by a police officer, remind us that utopia is not close at hand.

What are we to do? My question at the beginning of this year was that if I remove God and traditional religion as the source of salvation for humanity, what is left? My own experience of Christianity was that it was a force to balance and keep in check our naïve optimism about technology, science and capitalistic markets. How can we sustain movements of peace and justice such that they are an actual force for good in the world? How can people be motivated when they are being anesthetized by technology and bought off by capitalism?

I have heard many people who have transitioned out of faith—especially those who have transitioned out of progressive Christianity—speak of the loss of community and the need to form communities as replacements for church. As a pastor for many years I experienced the power of community to provide social support and bonds of friendship. This is vitally important and I have been encouraged to experience a growing number of secular, humanist gatherings that provide this very thing. But the issue that confronts us with the loss of communities of faith is not just the social and personal value of community but the power of people organized to create a more just and equitable world.

There is an enormous risk in writing this post. I have opened several cans of worms and left many lines of thought unfinished. If your goal is to poke holes in my analysis here, there is plenty of space for you to do that. Have at it. What would be so much better for me would be for you to read closely and try to discern my intentions and then help me build on this. I’ll leave you with these questions.

Our world is both beautiful and dangerous; inspiring and terrifying. We must revel in the beauty and drink in the wonder while working to counteract evil with love. Forgetting fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christianity and it’s obsession with dogma and so forth, how will we build sustainable communities of resistance that light a candle in the darkness? It does no good to deny the darkness by entertaining myths of progress that are just as fanciful as myths of divine beings. If we’re going to be rational, let us look at all the facts and realize that we are just as in danger of being colonized by narratives of technological or economic progress as we are narratives of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. I want to live, and live fully. For me that means facing the reality of the world head on, in all it’s beauty and horror. How we will draw strength from the beauty in order to stand against the horror, together? For me, liberal/progressive theology provided the narrative for just such a life together. I miss that more than anything. Thus far I have encountered secular groups that are very good at celebrating life. Others are very good at celebrating science and technology. Both of this are wonderful additions to my life—elements that were sorely lacking in my experience. But I am concerned that atheists and other non-theists are so concerned about weakening their position that they have a hard time acknowledging that the myth of progress is also running out of gas. Where to from here?

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About Ryan Bell

For 19 years Ryan Bell was a pastor, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. In March 2013 he resigned his position due to theological and practical differences. As an adjunct professor he has taught subjects ranging from intercultural communication to bioethics.
Currently he is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape in the United States and blogs about that experience here at Year Without God.


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