Richard Finn OP reflects on the nature and scope of salvation in the first of the series of talks ‘Faith for Busy People’

Creator of the stars of night.
Thy people’s everlasting light.
O Jesu Saviour of us all,
Regard thy servants when they call.

Thou, grieving that the ancient curse
should doom to death a universe,
hast found the medicine, full of grace,
to save and heal a ruined race.”

The advent hymn, conditor alme siderum, which dates back at least to the 7th century, has in common with many others a rich language of redemption and salvation. These are words highly significant within the Christian tradition, and yet largely opaque for those outside that tradition. Perhaps many Christians have only a partial grasp on what is meant by speaking of salvation, of Jesus as Saviour. The evangelical Christian sees in Christ the Divine Son whose death has paid the price of her sins. The liberation theologian sees in Christ the champion of the oppressed. Do they share a common understanding of salvation? The Fundamental Constitution of the Dominican Order defines as our mission the salvation of souls, but how is that to be understood? In short, What does ‘salvation’ mean, and who needs it? To take the last question first, Christians would reasonably say that there are two prime candidates for salvation: the Jewish people, and the human race, which is in each case something more than an aggregate of individuals. Since the latter includes all of us, let’s take that as our starting-point.

We might be tempted to start with the grievous mess we’re in, and say that salvation is whatever’s needed to get us out of it. It is certainly hard to underplay the extent of the evils and suffering that beset us, as individuals and as societies. We might consider:

  • The scandal of so many malnourished men, women, and children across the globe, estimated at something like eight hundred and seventy million in the period 2010 to 2012.
  • The persecution and displacement of so many Christians from the Nineveh plains in Iraq – with around one hundred thousand at Ainkawa, in Erbil.
  • The suffering wrought by the ebola virus in West Africa, where fatalities are now put conservatively at over five thousand.
  • A political economy that in September of this year consigned some twenty-four million people to unemployment within twenty-eight European countries.
  • Or the 3.7 million criminal offences recorded by the British police in the year ending December 2013, no less than 1.5 million of which were classified as violent crimes.

There is no doubt that many of these besetting evils interlock and share causal histories: the death rate from the ebola virus in West Africa is explicable partly in terms of the relative poverty of the region, the rudimentary nature of its healthcare, and this is in turn linked to political instability, the legacy of recent wars and an older colonialism. But is there a common root to all these different political and economic woes, disease, and crime? If so, what is it? One highly influential answer in the twentieth century was advanced by Marxists, and with it a secular version of salvation: put in its simplest form, evils arose overwhelmingly out of the alienation of workers from the means of production, and salvation lay in proletariat revolution.

As Christians, we have long had another and larger story to tell, recognized in Sacred Scripture. The opening four chapters of Genesis, read in the light of the Holy Spirit, tell through the juxtaposition or composition of two myths how God gave life to the first human beings. I use myth here in the sense defined by Mary Midgely: ‘Myths are stories symbolizing profoundly important patterns, patterns that are very influential but too large, too deep and too imperfectly known to be expressed literally.’ Made in the image and likeness of God, enlivened by his breath, Adam and Eve can speak with God, enjoy His friendship, and share in His rule of the created order, both by naming the other animals, and in their own obedience to His commands. Adam and Eve are, if you like, the mythical prototypes; they stand for the first members of our kind – where that is a species with a given nature – as that kind was meant to be in every generation within God’s created order, and as blessed by Him. That last point should perhaps be emphasized.

We have an image or outline of human flourishing under God, not of a human nature abstracted from God’s loving presence. God already graces them with His presence. In their garden or ‘paradise’, a word deriving from the Persian palace gardens or pleasure gardens, Adam and Eve are free to delight in the many good things God has made. They enjoy rude health without so much as a fig leaf to keep out the cold; and, as the fig leaf reminds us, they are free from shame, without its social distance or awkwardness. They are free to be sociable; they have no reason to hide from each other, or from God, or from themselves. As understood by St Thomas, this was possible not simply because God has given them and us a human nature capable of sociability, indeed designed for communion, but because God preserved the first fully human beings from natural harms, including the potential for disorder and inner conflict given by our instinctual drives and emotions. Reason does not automatically inform and moderate our appetites. Salvation, we can say, is first the restoration of this original state of a blessed nature, the way our kind was meant to live from the beginning. It is at once a state of psychological, physical, and social integration, of individual well-being within the common good. It is desideratum because without it there is no lasting happiness. There can be no human happiness, no heaven, against the grain of human nature, nor without the presence of God gracing that nature.

Restoration to that natural and graced state – the state theologians traditionally labelled ‘original justice’ – is needed of course because the Creation story is inseparable from that of the Fall. In listening to the serpent, Adam and Eve look to secure their own good independently of God, and in wilful disobedience to his command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The result is disaster. They experience shame, and hide from God. Questioned by God, they separately prevaricate, shifting the blame away from one to the other, and to the serpent. They have necessarily lost God’s friendship, and find themselves expelled from the garden, exposed to toil, suffering, and death. Nor does the myth stop there. We should include within it the story the murder of their second son Abel by their first-born, Cain. The ensuing conversation between God and Cain, and Cain’s prevarication – Am I my brother’s keeper? – together with his subsequent banishment from God’s presence, these events mirror in the myth God’s earlier judgement of Adam and Eve.

How has the Church understood this part of the story? Here, too, Adam and Eve are the mythical pattern of our own sinful pride and alienation from God, with the violent consequences of such alienation to be seen in the fratricide that swiftly follows; the plight of the first family after the Fall is essentially our common plight now. To say only this would leave much open. But, as interpreted by the Church in the light of St Augustine’s dispute with Pelagius, Genesis reveals us as inheriting from our earliest ancestors a good but flawed nature. In the absence of original justice our drives are fatally conflicted, destructive of our well-being and selfhood, all this despite their fundamental aptitude, and our very best intentions.

Augustine was led to specify something of the damage by his reading of other Biblical texts, this time from the New Testament. St Paul had written to the Christians at Rome that ‘as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Rm 5: 19), while he had taught the church at Corinth that ‘as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22). Augustine read these and other passages in St Paul’s letters as teaching that Christ’s death was necessary for the salvation of all from sin and death. This implied that all are born into the world inherently prone to sin. Put differently, we are all born with a will that is inadequate to the demanding love of God and neighbor. This is what we mean by ‘original sin’. As such, we are unfit in our natural state for the life of heaven constituted by that love. We might desire its happiness in the abstract, but in practice we wouldn’t wish to pay the full entry price of unfailing love. Unless death or grace intervenes, original sin leads inexorably to personal sins. G. K. Chesterton said of original sin that it ‘is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved’ – validated, as he saw it, by so much human history and misery. The key point is that because it is our very nature that is lacking, not up to the job of living in charity with God and neighbour, that salvation can only come from God. Fallen humanity cannot right itself unaided.

So, salvation is first the repair of our damaged selves such that we are capable of willing the good and exercising the virtues proper to our human flourishing in this life and the next. Heaven from this perspective necessarily includes the resurrection of our bodies to eternal life, not simply the post-mortem survival of the soul. Second, because sin brings a guilty estrangement from God, salvation must include our redemption from the aftermath of sin. We need forgiveness, atonement, all that belongs to our justification by grace.

What, then, of Israel? As I noted at the beginning, Christians also hold that the Chosen People is also the particular object of God’s salvation. The Old Testament repeatedly tells the story of how God will keep his promise to Abraham in raising up for him a host of descendants. In keeping with the Mosaic covenant, the Scriptures hold out the promise of a people reunited in its observance of the Law, holy before God, an exemplar of His righteousness. This is the hope kept alive by the prophets, a hope that is increasingly trained on the birth of a Saviour. These two objects of salvation, the human race, and the Jewish people, are not alternative or mutually exclusive candidates, because the salvation of Israel will turn out to be means to our own rescue. We shall no doubt hear more about this in subsequent weeks, but the key point is that both find their salvation in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

If we return to the salvation of the human race, it is to be achieved by our sharing in the faultless, graced, humanity of Christ. We receive something of His inspired mind, His large heart, so as to share His purposes and way of life. But, once we consider the holy humanity of Jesus Christ, the glory which is His by virtue of His Passion and Resurrection, and which He desires to share with us, we arrive at a further depth to our salvation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, adoption in Christ as sons and daughters of the Most High, our entry into the supernatural life of the Holy Trinity. Salvation doesn’t simply reverse the Fall, but raises us up to a previously unimaginable fullness of life. Heaven from this perspective includes the beatific vision. Which seems a hopeful point at which to pause and invite comment and questions.