Without Salvation, Faith Has To Be More than Community [Questions That Haunt]

Without Salvation, Faith Has To Be More than Community [Questions That Haunt] May 10, 2013

This week’s Question That Haunts from Ben is pretty great:

If we take the salvation/eternity issue out of the discussion, what advantage is there to believing in God? Ideals like joy, peace, justice, love, beauty, and even community can be experienced, practiced, and enjoyed by atheists and Christians alike; these are universal ideals, and one does not have to believe in God to be happy or feel at peace. I’ve met many atheists who are MUCH more joyful, loving, compassionate, and appreciative of beauty than Christians. So, going beyond the evolutionary reasons for religion, if we’re taking salvation out of the equation, why should someone be a Christian?

And it drew lots of great responses, some of which I will quote in my own answer.

Let’s break down the question, first of all. Ben asks at the very beginning to take the “salvation/eternity issue out of the discussion.” I’m fine with that exercise, but we need to note right up front that it guts the question of meaning for most of the 6+ billion theists in the world. People believe in God, in large part, because of the salvific role that God plays (or gods play) in every religious system.

The second thing to notice is that Ben ties salvation and eternity together, almost as though they’re interchangeable terms. I admit that there are still many people to hold to Christianity because they don’t want to go to Hell when they die. But not only is that a fairly shitty reason to be Christian, it also ignores the much richer meaning of salvation in the Christian tradition. In Scot McKnight’s book, The King Jesus Gospel, he helpfully differentiates this by referring to the version of the gospel that focuses only on eternal life as the “soterian” gospel, and opposed to the the true salvation that Jesus offers. Or, in the words of commenter Ryan Miller,

Isn’t the whole point of Christianity salvation? Not in terms of being “saved” from “eternal fire” but in terms of being saved from bondage, shame, fear, injustice, and all the other hells around us all the time… so that we can become new beings and find our true identities to “save” this world and all of humanity with it, with God leading the way. Not with platitudes but with actual restoration?

Without salvation of any kind, I don’t think there is any point to Christianity.

So, that’s point one: salvation is more than your eternal destiny.

Point two is this: many of us (myself included) believe in God because we experience God. It’s what what Schleiermacher called the “feeling of utter dependence,” or, as stated by commenter Andrew DeYoung,

Though my belief in God and commitment to Christianity has often wavered, I’ve been unable to shake this bedrock belief that there is Something bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice, peace, life, and love. And for me, “God” is the best word I’ve found for that Something, and Christianity is what has helped me to experience it. It’s what I’ve got.

So, Ben, a lot of people say that the advantage of belief in God is that it makes sense of their personal experience of the Divine. Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche think that we’re deluded, as do Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. But in spite of their protestations, the vast majority of human beings who presently roam this planet experience something more than themselves, and they call the source of this experience, “God.”

Third: the advantage to belief in God is that it gives meaning to life. There seems to be something in most human beings that desires hope — it’s what has driven the career of my favorite theologian. And, without hope of something more than this life, life seems meaningless — maybe not to Nietzsche, but to most people. The aptly named Lana Hope wrote,

In short: if there is no God, then children who suffered cruel lives and died unmerciful deaths died in vane. In the end, their lives were totally useless. The idea of an afterlife means there is healing and more and better to come. I am not saying this proves God’s existence, but it comforts me.

Fourth, I agree with Jesse Turriit’s the aesthetics of theism, and more specifically Christianity, that draw me:

For me this question comes down to a matter of aesthetics. The reason I remain a Christian is because I want to live a beautiful life.

Judgments of beauty require an aesthetic, some criterion which separates the ugly from the beautiful. So in order to live a beautiful life you need some way to define beauty.

The way I found my aesthetic was by asking myself three questions: Who, living or dead, do I admire the most? What moves me to tears? What shakes my soul?

I’ve found that Jesus of Nazereth is my aesthetic. He’s how I define a beautiful life. I’ve noticed in my heart that every time a human action moved my soul or brought tears to my eyes that action reminded me of Jesus. And so, because I want to live a beautiful life, I follow Jesus.

I’ll take it in a different direction, though. The aesthetics of the Christian story attract me because they are reflective of my experience of life. Theism often doesn’t make sense to me — at least not the theism that posits an interventionist God — but Jesus almost always makes sense to me. And, as I’ve written before, the complexity of the biblical narrative matches the complexity of my experience of human life.

Fifth, and finally, it’s about the community. A lot of commenters wrote about this, including Jonnie Russell,

Why? Because it affords you the best kind of community for making the world a better place. Say what you will (my much appreciated radical theology friends lurking in the background but failing to comment yet!), the intention of a/theistic conceptions of the Christian life, are attempts to retain exactly that feature–the community of God, bound by a common cause– that makes the religion so attractive. I do not think there is ANY historical or biblical reason for believing in God apart from a conception of participating in what God is doing in the world.

But I left this until last for a reason. I think it’s overplayed by old school Unitarian-Universalists and new school Christian a/theists. Community is important, to be sure, but a community that is not christocentric is not the church in any recognizable way.

I was talking to some Jewish friends last week, and we agreed that one of the biggest differences between contemporary Judaism and contemporary Christianity is that the former is home to many atheists, but not the latter. When a Christian forsakes their belief in God, they most often quit the church. That’s not the case in Judaism, wherein religious commitment also entails ethnic and familial commitments. The reason that atheists quit the Christian community is that, without Christ, the church just doesn’t have much to offer.

So, Ben, while your question is purely theoretical because there is no Christianity without salvation, it’s still been a great question, and I thank you.

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  • tanyam

    One of my favorite posts of yours ever. Thanks!

  • Craig

    It looks like two questions are getting run together: 1. Why believe in God? 2. What are the benefits of believing in God?

  • I am a christian for one reason only. I see how Jesus lived and to me he treated people exactly how they should be treated. So I do my best to follow in his footsteps. I don’t know how many of you may have watched the first Zeitgeist movie but they attempt to disprove Jesus’s existence. This made me question why it is I really believe Christianity. The answer I came to was because Jesus is the ultimate example of how to interact with other people. And this is true whether Jesus is real or not…even if the Bible is just made up stories the story of Jesus still gives us an example to follow. I don’t think there is a real advantage to believing or not believing in God (for the record I do believe in God). Belief is completely subjective and really makes no difference in the world. What does have an impact is how you live your life. And I would propose that atheists and christians alike would agree that the sick, poor and needy need help and love, and the rich and greedy need to be brought down a notch. You don’t need to believe in God to feel that way. You just need a heart and the ability to relate to others. There are a lot of people who believe in God and treat people like crap and there are a lot of people who don’t believe in God and treat people like Jesus treated people. Salvation isn’t something you believe in it’s something you practice.

    • Lausten

      “Real” atheists are to the Zietgeist movie as “real” Christians are to the Westboro baptists.

  • Rob Davis

    Tony, I’m not sure that your contrast here is helpful:

    Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche think that we’re deluded, as do Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. But in spite of their protestations, the vast majority of human beings who presently roam this planet experience something more than themselves, and they call the source of this experience, “God.”

    I think we can simultaneously think that religious people are deluded AND “experience something more than” ourselves. But, we don’t see the necessity of calling that experience or its source “God.” That might be helpful for some – many? most? – people, but, obviously, not all.

    And, I still think if you really sat down with every single person in the world who has decided to call the experience of “something more” God, you would not end up with the same “source” at all – you’d have the “vast majority of human beings who presently roam this planet” filling the concept “God” with very different content.

    I think this is an oversimplification of both those who see God language as helpful and those who don’t.

    • It absolutely 100% unshocking to me that an atheist-former-Christian lives with different assumptions about persons’ experience of the Divine than I do.

      • Lausten

        I love your response here Tony and completely understand
        what you’re saying. I hope you understand Rob. I would say it a little stronger, not just that you “might” find people have different experiences, but we definitely can verify that there are a multiplicity of experiences simply by looking at the variety of religions, not to mention poetry, philosophy, etc. Salvation is not universally sought, and even a case for a “vast majority” desiring it is weak. It is not just a matter of what Rob and I and few others here say, it’s a matter of just what the human experience is.

        You seem to be seeking a way for Christianity to survive in a pluralistic world. I’m not so sure taking this stand will help that happen.

  • I definitely like the appeal to aesthetics. It reminded me of a post I wrote a few years ago:


    • Richard, you probably subconsciously influenced me. Or consciously.

      • Rob Davis

        Umm..Jesse’s comment is creepily similar to Richard’s original post. Anyone else notice that?

      • That’s kind to say, but I think it is a move many people are making. I could have borrowed it from you. The quote you used from Jesse just reminded me of that old post of mine where I tried to work out a similar line of argument.

    • Craig

      Richard, you suggest that Jesus defines your aesthetic. I’d suggest that your aesthetic and moral sensibilities are doing a lot of work in defining your Jesus.

      • Rob Davis


      • I admit that is likely true. But I’m also pretty sure the causality is going in the other direction as well. I don’t visit a prison because I think it’s a kick. I go because of Matthew 25. I don’t sit with the homeless and hold my nose because I find the situation aesthetically pleasing.

        I’m following a teacher, a master…a Lord, if you want to use religious language.

        • Craig

          I agree that your conception of Jesus influences your behavior. I would regard your actions towards the prisoner as morally, and perhaps even aesthetically, pleasing.

          But suppose the prisoner asks you why you responding to her needs. You might answer, “Because Matthew 25 requires me to.” Alternatively, you might answer, “Because your needs matter.” Do you not find the latter answer at least as attractive (morally/aesthetically) as the former?

          What is attractive, as I see it, is your regard for the prisoner and the homeless person–not so much your regard for the New Testament. Insofar as Jesus is attractive, he agrees. And insofar as Christians recognize this, they emphasize the New Testament passages in which they can find such agreement.

          • Again, I would never say it isn’t all mixed up and mutually reinforcing. But the part I think that is missing, by focusing on reasons, is the formative and developmental aspects as to how my regard for the prisoner and homeless person emerged in the first place. It emerged because of my exposure to Jesus, over many years.

            Relatedly, the aesthetics of Jesus are hard–very, very hard in my experience. So there is a real sense where grit and obedience are needed on the front end so as to soften the heart and to create the affective capacities. And a lot of this has come, in my own biography, by exposing myself to Jesus–over and over and over and over–in liturgy and the gospel proclamation so that something like Matthew 25 finally penetrates my thick skull and calloused heart.

            • “And a lot of this has come, in my own biography, by exposing myself to Jesus–over and over and over and over…”

              Um…I hope ya’ll take that the right way. 🙂

            • Craig

              I can see how your personal experience, as described, would reinforce your faith. What would you say to those who have had the opposite experience with the faith, namely that of submitting at the front end with grit and obedience only to find later (perhaps very much later) that it has led to something quite ugly?

              • Well, if it’s the ugliness that I think you are referring to–the toxic stuff we see in Christianity all around us–then I’d simply stand in solidarity with your rejection of all that. I’d be your supporter.

                And I think I am a supporter. I don’t think I’ve ever said a bad word about atheists. But I’ve said some awful things about Christians…

                • Craig

                  So following Jesus is like following questionable advice. It sometimes leads to beauty and goodness; it sometimes leads to ugliness and toxicity. Taking a step back, perhaps we could both agree that following Jesus isn’t–generally speaking–morally or aesthetically attractive.

                  Here is what I suspect. Those of the faith for whom following Jesus has led to beauty rather than ugliness fall into two groups: those who bring good moral and aesthetic sensibilities to their interpretation of the faith, and those who are just lucky.

  • Darrell Muth

    I agree neither salvation nor community, …. nor a sense of belonging, nor acts of justice, nor personal peace or world peace etc good enough reasons for this faith you speak of

    I think the Westminster still sets the benchmark

    1. What is the chief end of man?
    Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.


  • Mr. Rundquist

    Thank you Tony. This helps to reinforce my thoughts, along with your other writings.

  • SD_Pagan

    “Isn’t the whole point of Christianity salvation? Not in terms of being
    “saved” from “eternal fire” but in terms of being saved from bondage,
    shame, fear, injustice, and all the other hells around us all the time…
    so that we can become new beings and find our true identities to “save”
    this world and all of humanity with it…”

    Just to clarify my own ideals as a point of order before proceeding, I am a Panentheist that utilizes a Celtic centric Pagan spirituality rooted primarily in a reverence for Nature, sometimes also referred to as “Earth Centered Spirituality”.

    With regard to the concept of salvation, being loosed from the chains of bondage, shame, fear, etc… which I regard as mental constructs within one’s own mind, can’t an individual achieve their own salvation? Seen as such does it not become possible, if we are beings with free choice, to be able to change one’s mental perspective to free one’s self of these limitations; in effect setting oneself free without the external factor of a supernatural being performing the salvation? My contention is that Christianity does not have a lock on salvation.

    As a Panentheist Pagan, I believe that there is a creative force or energy that pervades the entire universe, and potentially encompasses it entirely; however I do not necessarily believe this force must be intelligent. As a pragmatist I also don’t believe in supernatural explanations of any god, gods, or goddesses, and prefer to turn to science, rationality, and empiricism for explanations of the natural world and universe. It is at the same time important to understand the limitations of science as only being able to explain that which can be measured, meaning that science cannot explain everything.

    I think that it is possible to interact with this immeasurable force in order to experience what many cultures and belief systems refer to as divine or transcendent, via mechanisms such as prayer, meditation, magic, yoga, chi-gung, etc… (which I happen to view as essentially the same thing with different names and specific practices depending on the originating culture).

    I think that interaction with this immeasurable force can be a method for opening one’s own mind to the possibilities of salvation, however it is incumbent upon the individual to make the leap to set themselves free of their mental bonds.

    So to sum it all up, each person chooses whatever metaphor works for them in order to interpret that feeling of a divine, transcendent, or eternal state, but it is ultimately up to each individual to find a path to set themselves free.

    • NateW

      Matt — Thanks for your thoughts. I would agree that “being loosed from chains of bondage, shame, fear, etc…” by changing one’s own mental constructs is the end of most religions, but would push back against saying that this is the case with Christianity. In the person of Christ we don’t see someone who uses certain techniques to free himself, but, radically, we see one who gives himself away entirely to others, one who voluntarily gives up his own freedom from bondage, accepts an unjust, naked, shameful, terrifying prisoner’s death, and calls all who desire to follow Him tofollow in His footsteps.

      “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25

      Being set free isn’t the end result, its the first step. To be able to give yourself up, to give up your own rights, your hope of peace and fulfillment, in love for your enemies runs counter to every natural instinct in us. The only thing that can enable us to do this is an encounter with the divine grace of God, through the form of Jesus Christ resurrected within the love of another person following in Christ’s steps.

      If you’ve ever seen Les Miserables, Jean Valjean’s conversion is a perfect picture of true Christian salvation. Valjean does not use certain techniques to reframe his own mental constructs, nor does he set out on a lifelong quest to gain his freedom, rather he is transformed in an instant by the grace of god embodied with in the merciful action of the priest. He is set free from his old way of being, his old self, not by his own power at all, but purely by the grace of Christ manifest in the priest. Further, his life afterwards is anything but peaceful and sublime, as he repeatedly gives up his own well-being, his own freedom, in order to do for others the same thing the old priest did for him.

      In short, the salvation of Christ can’t be construed as a blissful state of personal fulfillment that is attainable by rational thought or intellectual understanding. It is purely the gift of god, apprehended by one person when manifested in the active, sacrificial, love of another.

      Christian salvation then isn’t the promise of fulfillment and freedom from pain, but rather is bound up in faith that from our own ashes, as we sacrifice for others, all of creation will be renewed and raised into unity with Christ. It is not an escape from suffering, but rather the end of the need to escape from suffering.

      Again, thanks so much for your thoughts. It’s always great to hear different perspectives. I just thought I would try to share a little of my perspective on Christ. I hope that it is a blessing to you!

      • SD_Pagan

        “Matt — Thanks for your thoughts. I would agree that “being loosed from chains of bondage, shame, fear, etc…” by changing one’s own mental constructs is the end of most religions, but would push back against saying that this is the case with Christianity.”

        Many cultures share the concept of sacrificing oneself for the good of the tribe / nation / collective / other or enemy. Above I addressed the concept of personal salvation, but there is also the concept of collective salvation, which you addressed in your response. While each specific religion would need to be individually examined to determine what the “end” of that religion may be, I assure you that there are others that go beyond the attainment of personal salvation as the end result.

        The examples I can provide from personal experience pertain to modern European centric Neo-Paganism (Wicca, & Druidry), as well as Native American (Lakota Sioux), and Buddhism (Western Interpretations). These belief systems incorporate a concept of balance not just within oneself, but in communion with others, with nature, and with a higher power sometimes named, sometimes not (depending on which specific tradition being examined).

        The concept of Karma made popular in the west by sixties hippies, has been present within Buddhism for longer than Christianity has existed, since the Buddha predated Jesus by about 500 years. Karma is simply an expression of the interaction with this higher power / immeasurable force where one ultimately is punished or rewarded based upon their actions with others and with nature. A simple misconception ordinarily made concerning karma, is that there is artificial motivation to do good things in order to receive a reward, rather than doing something for the simple fact that it is the right thing to do. The reward interpretation is a very narrow minded application of the wider concept within karma that is based upon the principle of “Do No Harm”.

        The concept of “Do No Harm” is the unifying concept I have found that ties together many different belief systems regardless of tradition specific practices, ceremonies, and theological beliefs. My experience with Neo-Pagan belief systems incorporates a concept called “The Rule of Three”, simply stated it goes: “Ever mind the Rule of Three. Three times what you give returns to thee. This rule well you must learn. You only receive what you earn.” Where like karma, it is not simply based on actual actions, but also the motivations behind those actions. A wider examination of the beliefs also uses concepts of balance and harmony between people, nature, and the universe / higher power / etc…

        I have also found that the Lakota Sioux are a monotheistic culture in a manner similar to Judeo, Christian, Islamic systems, but with significant emphasis on the concept of balance and harmony among people, the land, and the Great Spirit. They also have an interpretation similar to karma and the rule of three, and Jesus’s rule of love thy neighbor.

        Another concept present within most of these belief systems is the concept of a soul or spirit within each person, and all living things, as well as moving throughout nature and the universe. Because of the soul or spirit within each person, there exists a link to the higher power / universal force. It is this bridge that ties together all of creation and is the entity upon which karma or divine interaction has the ability to occur.

        The act of “salvation” within these other belief systems lies in the ability to attain this balance within oneself, achieving unity with the higher power and all of creation. I do not say that this is not hard to do; quite honestly it is incredibly hard. However, once realized it can occur within an instant. Much as you stated that belief in God and acceptance of Jesus is not something practiced, is it just done. However, I would contend that true acceptance is extremely hard for many people to come to within Christianity, and has a correlation in the non-Christian sense of trying to achieve balance as I previously described.

        My goal is to provide some insight to other belief systems, and to convey the idea that the end goal as you stated is to “end the need to escape from suffering.” My contention is that there are many roads one may walk, and many of them can reach the same destination. It is possible for people of differing metaphysical beliefs to coexist and share common goals and ideals. As a Pennsylvanian living abroad I think the founding principle of Philadelphia as the “City of Brotherly Love” is an excellent ideal to strive for, and one that can be realized as long as acceptance and tolerance of differing beliefs is supported through dialog.

  • Hi interesting question and answers. Perhaps avoiding “loneliness” is one more reason to believe in God. We individually seek out companionship. Collectively as humanity, it is nice to think we are not alone.

  • Cole J. Banning

    I think these are essentially right, especially Tony’s first and second points. I think there is a certain amount truth to his third point, but too often the assertion that “Life is meaningless without God!” becomes little more than a tired trope wildly out of touch with the actual lived experience of real atheists and agnostics, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it retired.

    I mean, it’s certainly true that religion, pretty much by definition, structures our experience (both personal and communal) in a way which provides meaning. But I do think we need to recognize that belief in God isn’t strictly required for that to happen–and even if it was, we’d only be left with yet another version of Pascal’s Wager.

  • This is well-stated and well-teased out.
    In reference to Ben’s question, I’d suggest that those joyful, loving and compassionate atheists DO believe in God, even if they don’t articulate that belief. Likewise (in my humble opinion) those who “believe” in God, and use their beliefs to justify murder, hate and bigotry, are functional atheists, no matter what they say they believe.

  • Gary Held

    I enjoyed wrestling with this post. However “the advantage to belief in God is that it gives meaning to life” is problematic. This statement appears to say without God, life is meaningless. This is certainly debatable.

    And then there’s also this, which you quoted approvingly: “In short: if there is no God, then children who suffered cruel lives and died unmerciful deaths died in vane. In the end, their lives were totally useless. The idea of an afterlife means there is healing and more and better to come.”

    But as I see it, if this is true, that if there is no god then children who suffer horribly and die unmerciful deaths have lived and died in vain, it doesn’t stand to reason if there IS a God it changes anything for these children. After all, for many theists (and Evangelical Christians particularly), if said child was born of Muslim parents, her suffering here on earth would be followed by torment in hell. God + afterlife = “healing and more and better to come” only if you believe in a certain _kind_ of God and a future redressing of the wrongs of this life. But as soon as one assumes the existence of that kind of God, the questions then circle back around to why such pointless suffering and death happens in the first place.

  • John Rigler

    So why can’t there simply be a place for atheists in the Christian church like there is a place in the Jewish tradition?

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  • matybigfro

    David Bazan consider’s himself a non-practicing evangelical?