Salvation, Transformation UU-Style

Our discussion on the debut of the VUU (the CLF sponsored gabfest and hangout) this morning turned for a while to the question of salvation.  Like what do UU's mean by salvation?  Why can't we use that word? (Keith Kron reminded us that one reason may be that it freaks a lot of UU's out).

If you're going to talk about salvation, you need to think through your soteriology:  by what and from what are we saved?  Or more broadly, from what unsatisfactory state of being to what more satisfactory state of being does the spiritual move us?

It is my opinion (and the comment section below is for your opinion) that UU's operate along a "virtue-based" system for moral theology.

A virtue based moral theology says that the best I can hope for morally is that I have habitual ways of acting that are morally appropriate.  There are no rules or principles that can be fully defined in advance
about what is good.  The most that I can hope for is that I have the habit of seeking the good in every situation.

Take Justice as an example.  An authority based moral theology would say that what is Just is what has been laid out in authoritative texts or sources.  What do the 10 commandments say?

A principle-based moral theology would say that we can start from a basic definition of justice and deduce what is just in any situation by figuring out how to apply that principle to the particulars of the situation.  The Law is a principle based system of morality.

Virtue based morality says that justice will be what just men and women decide it is in the heat of the moment.  What matters is whether the people involved seek justice and are willing to engage with it.  Sometimes stealing a loaf of bread is unjust to the baker; sometimes, as when a hungry parent steals it to feed the children, it is a just act.  A just person will be able to tell the difference.

Liberal Christianity, the root stock of Unitarian Universalism, is a reinterpretation of Christian theology in the light of human agency.  Contrary to Calvinism and more extreme versions of the doctrine of Original Sin, liberals believe that people are capable of choosing and doing good.  We, by and large, do not believe that it is only when we turn our will over to God, or God's Son, or God's Indwelling Spirit, that we can do good -- and that is essentially God within us that does the good.

But do we do good?  Obviously, only some of the time.  Some do fairly consistently; others, not so much.  Why?

Some develop the habits of seeking the good that can be done, and others do not.  It is the observation that some people develop virtues, and others do not, or develop different virtues. It is a question of character.  And character is not an innate part of personality, but can be built and developed.

So the transformation that I think we are look for is the development of our characters.  And we develop our characters by building our habits of virtue.  It is slow and uneven work, and we make a lot of mistakes and have to forgive ourselves and begin again.

Concretely, I believe that when people find our religious community helpful to them, it is because we inspire them to commit themselves again to virtues that are important to them and us.

We help them recognize where they have fallen short; we encourage them to own it and to forgive themselves.  We inspire them to begin again.

Salvation is a lot like sobriety in our soteriology.  Day by day, step by step, building another set of habits.  One day at a time; keeping it simple.  And one day, you realize that your life has been saved.

Now, I think that there are specific virtues that important to the liberal world-view, while others are not.  Liberals see openness as a virtue; there are those who value loyalty to tradition more.

Talking about those virtues are for another day.


  1. These are very good thoughts on what salvation would mean for UUs. Since I'm very influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition, my main comment would be that this is quite consistent with how Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics understood what our goal should be. But the Greek word arete that we translate as virtue could also be translated as excellence. So this virtue of character is not only moral will, good intentions, and courage, but also skill, common sense, and prudence. And the Greeks would also argue that this virtue or arete leads to happiness, so this is not a boring, joyless exercise.


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