is one of the major theological questions of religious life, though it may be stated differently from tradition to tradition.
In UUism, of course, the quick rejoinder is often "Saved from what?", for many of us don't feel a need to be saved from anything. And we're good with the snappy comebacks, particularly when asked a question that pokes us in the anti-fundamentalist nerve.
I happened to pick up a tract at the local coffee shop, awhile back, which gave this definition of salvation: "Salvation means to be rescued from sin and its punishment and set free to know, love, and serve God...Left to ourselves, there is no rescue and the justice of God requires our eternal damnation in the terrors of hell."
Leaving aside the obvious Universalist disagreement with the second sentence, let's think about the idea in more metaphorical ways.
There is a lot to be saved from in ordinary human life, which has a way of being convoluted and soul-wrenching enough to plow some pretty deep and unproductive furrows into our behavior. Abuse or neglect or lack of love or betrayal, self-doubt, fear----all of these are common to human living; chances are all of us have been abused or neglected in hurtful ways, we have lacked love, we have been betrayed, and the outcomes of these experiences can be paralyzing self-doubt, fear, and other unproductive ways of responding to life.
I've thought about salvation and have preached about it many times, and I keep coming back to this firm idea: no matter what one's religious path might be, what we need to extricate ourselves from is the fear that comes from the self-doubt created by that abuse, neglect, lovelessness, and betrayal that all humans experience.
I don't mean normal cautiousness, the kind that keeps us driving on the right side of the road or treating our bodies properly or taking care of our children and other dependents. I'm talking about the fear that keeps us from loving others, that prevents us from thinking critically about our beliefs and actions, that hamstrings our relationships, that makes us instill that fear in others, especially our children.
For many religions, fear is a tool---fear of loss of love, fear of hell, fear of death, fear of being caught, fear of divine retribution. These are ways the faithful may be kept in line, not motivated by a desire to offer compassion or assistance or love to others, but scared straight.
Me, I want to be saved from fear. I want to be saved from the fear that keeps me from acting in loving ways at times; I want to be saved from the fear of discussing my faith openly with others who I know do not agree. I want to be saved from the fear of changing my life's patterns so that my life is healthier, whole-er. I want to be saved from the fear of being old and sick. I want to be saved from the fear of ever so many things that keep me hamstrung in small and large ways.
And "what must I do to be saved?" Hmmm, that's a good question and I think the answer is in the very word. The word salvation has a very broad meaning, indicated by how many ways it appears in other related words: salute--to wish health for someone; salvage---to save from danger; salve---a healing ointment; salver---the tray used to present safe food to a monarch. Salvation's original meaning was to save from loss at sea. The Latin base word is "salvus", which means healthy.
In non-doctrinal terms, "salvation" means to achieve health. And the interesting thing is that no one can give us health; we have to take what we have and use it properly, change habits to address our weaknesses. We ourselves are our primary saviors. Another person might rescue us from drowning, but we are the ones who must carry on. Others can only do so much.
To be saved means to seek and achieve health, of body, of mind, and of spirit. And it means that we have the opportunity to model that salvation for others. We may enlist a Higher Power to help us in this journey toward greater health; some may not feel this necessary. But it has little to do, in my mind, with life after death---and everything to do with life in this life.
A related note: as I began to think about this topic, it occurred to me that many think UUism is in need of salvation and the salvation they have in mind is growth in numbers and influence. I wonder about that; I am more inclined to think that salvation of individuals, i.e., healthy growth in individuals, will inevitably lead to salvation of a religious tradition. Growth in numbers and influence seems to me analogous to the growth in wealth and power that motivates so many in our world today. Applying the lessons of individual salvation (seeking and achieving health) to a religious body might be a better thing to do.