Chapter 2:<I> </I>What About Salvation?

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 2:<I> </I>What About Salvation?

Every man and every woman wants to be whole. That is the secular way of saying that every man and every woman wants Salvation.

Salvation, as an English word, is derived from a Latin root that means "health" or "wholeness," and health or wholeness, this desire to be all of oneself in the fullest and richest possible sense, is native to man. It seems to me that often we who are Christians, and perhaps especially those of us who are concerned to preach and teach the Gospel, have let words become a positive barrier to meaning. Frequently, words change their significance as the years go by. Often they become tarnished; very frequently they are misunderstood -- and then they act as barriers to meaning rather than conveyors of meaning. This, I think, has happened with the word Salvation. Certainly there can be no doubt at all that for a great many of our fellow Americans, when the word Salvation is said, they think of hitting the sawdust trail, responding to the invitation to sit on the mourners’ bench, or responding to the goings-on of Billy Graham or one of his predecessors. Sometimes they think that Salvation is a sort of fire-insurance policy which guarantees that we shall not have a rather warm future beyond death. Very infrequently do our fellow citizens, even Church people I think, grasp the rich and full meaning of Salvation as the Christian tradition has understood this term. "What must I do to be saved?" means, "What must I do to be well, to be healthy in my total personality, to be a whole man as God intended me to be." When we put it in this way, we see its vital significance, even to those who have, as they think, no interest in, or concern for, the Church and its teaching. Every man and every woman wants to be whole.

As it stands, unfortunately, you and I and all our fellow men are not whole. We are sick. We are unwell. We are disordered and disintegrating personalities. It does not take much introspection to understand this, to see it for oneself, to recognize the horrible fact that man is not well. He is not well physically much of the time, but this is not so important a fact about him as that he is not well spiritually; and by this I do not mean that he is unwell psychologically, that he is neurotic or that he has gone beyond neurosis into psychosis. When I say spiritually I mean that in his relationship with the sources of his being, with the things that ultimately and finally give his tiny existence meaning, he is unwell. He is maladjusted to Reality with a capital "R." Sometimes people have not liked to admit this. They have thought that they were in pretty fine condition. They have disguised from themselves their spiritual disease. But I very much doubt that in this day, save among the very few people who manage to live in splendid isolation from the world in some kind of private ivory tower, people are really as self-satisfied as that.

The world is at sixes and sevens, and we shall all confess that things are not as they ought to be, even under the best human administration, so far as the "world-affairs" side of life is concerned. It is not indeed a political matter at all. We have seen perfectly well that all the increase in technical devices, all of the improvements in circumstance which are made by governments and other human agencies, simply do not accomplish our Salvation as a society; and the reason they do not accomplish our social Salvation is that the fundamental trouble with us is not that social matters are all askew but that our personal lives are in a state of bad health. You and I are why the world is all mixed up. Surely we realize this, or we ought to. Improvement begins at home, like charity. The attempt to blame society, under whatever form of government, party rule, or social pattern, for the ills that afflict us is one of the most absurd attempts at alibi-ing oneself out of difficulties that the ingenious and sinful mind of man has ever devised. The trouble is with us, with you and me. We shall never have social health until we have personal health. We shall never save men in society until men personally are on the way to Salvation as the children of God. That is the way things are.

We were created in what theologians call the "image" of God. Alas, the fact is that in us, without exception, that image has been so blurred, dimmed, and damaged that it is often hardly recognizable. The image of God in man is man’s capacity to relate himself meaningfully, freely, and with complete devotion to God Himself, but you and I have managed so to harm this capacity that it is almost impossible for us to make any strides whatsoever towards that relationship with God our Creator.

Some think this is a very pessimistic point of view. Some feel that man is able under his own steam to make meaning for himself. But it is my suspicion that the people who say this, and usually say it rather glibly, are people who have not bothered to look very deeply into their own lives. They are often quite charitable toward themselves, although they tend to be a little cynical about their neighbors. It is easier to see sin in the person next door to you than it is in your own heart. We men are very well gifted with this kind of dishonesty.

But those of us -- and today they are legion -- who have dared to face the facts are crying like the man in Acts: "What must I do to be whole?" It is to people like that, who are facing the facts, that the Christian Gospel speaks with high meaning. The old-fashioned evangelist had a saying that it was only to a person convicted of sin that the word of reconciliation could come. I think this is profoundly true. The only people who can be saved are the people who know they need Salvation. That is why the very first step to any adequate understanding of what Christians have meant by Salvation is an honest look at ourselves. Granted that we have done this, we can then begin to see why the affirmation that "while we were yet sinners Christ died for us," speaks right to our condition.

It is hardly my purpose here to enter into a discussion of ways of honestly facing oneself. But there is one thing which has always seemed to me the most devastating judgment ever made by any man upon himself. That is to look at the Cross, to see there what most people of good will are prepared to admit -- human life at its best and finest. Of course, this is not all that Christians believe, or even the major part of what Christians believe, about Jesus Christ; but for our purpose, it is enough now just to admit at least that much, to see here life given in love to the point of complete surrender of self, to agree that the ages witness that this is healthy life, this is wholeness, and then to turn to oneself and ask the very simple but very searching question, "How do I measure up to that standard?" I think that the answer of any honest person will be, "I do not measure up to that standard at all. My selfishness, my concern for place, my pride, my unwillingness to give myself -- all of these so powerfully affect my very being that I am forced to say, ‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man.’" There are many other ways in which this kind of judgment of self, with the resulting conviction of sin, unhealth, may come home to us. This one seems to me, for people who profess and call themselves Christians and who are to some degree influenced by Christian ideas and symbols, the most striking and terrible.

What we need, then, is wholeness that will replace our brokenness, health that will drive out the infection of self-centeredness in us, power that will make us function like men rather than as sophisticated but not really very smart animals. We need Salvation; every man needs Salvation.

Now there is only one way in which personalities can be made whole, and that way is by falling in love. I do not mean by this the sort of thing the motion pictures portray; I do not mean the sentimentality of "soap-operas" on radio or television. What I do mean is that our greatest Salvation is found when we extrovert ourselves, when we turn our attention and give our whole concern to some other person, in caring for whom we find our health and our joy.

Just ordinary experience makes that perfectly plain. Have you ever watched a member of your family who has fallen very deeply in love? There you see the way in which a life which may have been disorganized, self-centered, thoughtless, and indifferent to others finds a center in which it can discover the meaning of existence, presented in the object of affection. But what is much more important, we see how one can commit oneself with a splendid throwing-away of the narrowness, pettiness, self-seeking that dogs our lives. This is what a Scottish divine once called "the expulsive power of a new affection," by which we are redeemed from the sort of self-centeredness that gives us our sin.

So through the history of the human race, men have sought that with which they could fall in love. They have tried to commit themselves to all sorts of things, gods and half-gods, which they think will serve the purpose of saving them. The trouble with most of these gods and half-gods is that they are not adequate to the job. A human object of love may serve for a while, but unfortunately the mortality rate is one hundred per cent. Even our best friends may let us down. There is no guarantee that any human will be ‘‘without variableness nor shadow of turning." It is only Reality, the ultimate and final Reality of God, which is a safe object of love.

Or look at it another way. We are maladjusted; we do not get on well enough with our friends, colleagues, business associates. We know this and we seek right adjustment. The psychologists have understood this for a long time. Unfortunately, many of them have said that all we really must do is to become adjusted to the society in which we live and then we shall be well, since health is a relationship between us and our environment. One is inclined to say that anybody who is well adjusted to contemporary society is by definition very maladjusted indeed, because contemporary society is as mad as a coot and is something to which nobody ought to be adjusted, even in this land, not to speak of others which may be less fortunate than ours. There is only one Reality to which adjustment may be made with security and safety. That is our final environment, the One in whom "we live and move and have our being," the One whom we call God. To be adjusted to Him is to be adjusted to that which is; and all other adjustments are only to that which seems to be.

The Christian Gospel proclaims -- because you and I are not able of ourselves to help ourselves, because our mundane loves will not really make us whole, because our adjustments to temporal realities will not save us -- that God has acted for our health, to give us a way to be well. For myself, I do not think that this is the only reason for what we call the Incarnation. It seems to me that even if men were not sinners (an almost incredible thought!), still God would have brought the world of human affairs into such a relationship with Him as in Christ He did do, so that He might crown His many comings and revealings and workings among us by this supreme and definitive act. The fact is, however, that we are sinners, and that therefore it is medicine that we need; and in Christ, so Christians believe, God has provided the medicine of mankind.

There have been many theories as to the way in which, through Christ, we may be made well. Some of them are a little difficult for modern ears, as, for example, the ancient theory that man, having been sold to the Devil, must be brought back by God; and so God paid a price to Satan. Many of our hymns reflect that theory; if we take them seriously and symbolically but not literally, we probably do no harm to ourselves, although sometimes we do not edify our non-Christian friends. Sometimes the theory of the way in which we are made well through Christ has been put in terms of the honor of God having been offended by the enormity of man’s sin and the consequent necessity for some compensation to be made to God’s honor. This is a feudal conception which did very well in the Middle Ages but is hardly intelligible to us today.

I myself do not have any theory of what we call the Atonement. I prefer to take all the theories and look at each as a way of stating something of importance in terms appropriate to the day in which various people have lived. I presume that if we were to find some metaphor that would do the job for our own day, we should probably want to turn to the hospital and speak of the "Great Physician," or we should want to go to the psychiatrist’s clinic and speak of the "Healer of our Spiritual Ills." But it seems to me that all of these are of slight importance in comparison with a simple fact of experience: the observable truth is that men and women who have really let themselves go -- committed themselves, turned from self-centeredness outwards, looked to, and centered life in, Christ -- have, in fact, become different from the run-of-the-mill type of men and women.

They have indeed started to be "saints." That is what all of us are meant to be. One is a little afraid of saying this, because most people think of saints as anemic human beings who inhabit bad stained glass windows. But a saint is simply a healthy person. And since I began this answer by some exercises in word derivation, I will go on by saying that in German, for example, as in French, the word for saint means "whole," or "hale," or "healthy." It means a well person. A saint is a man or a woman who is open to the inrush of the healthy life of God. A Saint is a person who -- in the trite and often repeated remark of the little girl, thinking, I suppose, of the stained glass window -- "lets the light shine through." By letting the light shine through, by being the instrument or vehicle for some Power or Force not of oneself, one is delivered from the appalling self-centeredness which is the fact of our sin. "There is only one sadness," said the French writer Leon Bloy, " -- not to be a saint."

The only really tragic thing in life is to be a self-centered, narrow, proud, possessive, "holding-on" kind of person. The only joyful and great thing in life is to be a person who is so open to Reality, so adjusted to that which is, that the whole of one’s life becomes a vehicle for the charity of God. I said the charity of God; for Christians that means Jesus Christ. God sent Him forth as that One who takes away our sin. We could not find the way, but as Saint Augustine said, the way has come to us and all we have to do is to walk in it. Christ is the way.

Salvation means that you and I and every son of man may be given healthy lives, rightly adjusted to the things that are, and delivered from allegiance to the things that seem to be. Salvation means that we who are unwell in our inner spirits may have the healthy life of God’s charity, which is Christ, poured into us through our discipleship, our prayer, above all, our Communions; and may live whole, healthy lives in Him. Salvation means that we are delivered by this fact from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, because our final treasure is placed where moth and rust cannot corrupt.

There is one question which may come to the minds of some of you. If this be true of us who are Christians, or if this may be true of us, what about those who have not heard the Christian Gospel? What about their Salvation? There are two things only that I should wish to say: One -- that you and I are not competent judges of anybody’s life, save our own. We do not know to what degree those who have not heard of the Christian Gospel may in their own way have responded to whatever of God they did know under whatever disguise God chose to use in coming to them. The second thing is that this statement in no way modifies our responsibility to share with all men everywhere what, if once we have been grasped by it, is for us saving truth, truth so important that it is unthinkable that we should let anyone through our failure go without the privilege of hearing and accepting it.

Sometimes people have asked the question this way -- "Who is in Hell?" My own answer to this has always been, "When you wake up there you will be surprised to find who is absent." It is not for us to make any such judgments. There is a lovely medieval legend that Judas Iscariot once gave a cup of cold water to a thirsty person, and that simple act of out-goingness was enough for God to use to bring him eternal health. And yet Salvation is not an easy matter, so we cannot say with confidence that everybody has it or will have it. Look around you, look inside you, notice the ill health, the dis-ease which is the token of the disease. We are not permitted to judge lest we be judged; but of ourselves surely we can say, "I am sick, I need health. By God’s grace this health has been made available to me. I have been accepted just as I am. All that remains for me to do is to accept with my whole heart and life the fact that I have been accepted. Then I shall be well and my life will be on the way to increasing wholeness here and now, and beyond death by God’s re-creating act to all eternity in His presence. Yet I must decide, I must say Yes, I must use all of the means, all of the ways that are at hand. I cannot put this off. God’s grace is my responsibility; and even then, at the end of my days -- because I know how prone I am to love my disease, to like being sick, to enjoy being a spiritual hypochondriac -- I must always remember that by my own decision I may refuse health." That is why, from his first day until his last, a Christian must say, "God be merciful to me a sinner," and must admit that he has done the things which he ought not to have done, left undone the things which he ought to have done, and has found health only in God; to whom, by His mercy, may we all cleave, and so ever find His health in us.