This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What does "salvation" mean?

Last night during my Intro To Orthodoxy class, a meaningful illustration occurred to me about the difference in how i used to conceptualize "salvation" and an Orthodox understanding of it.  

i guess i never realized it in such simple terms, but now it dawns on me that in my upbringing, being "saved" really meant virtually nothing more than "heaven-bound upon death."  'Getting saved' or doing what's necessary to be 'saved' or asking whether someone is 'saved'--all that really just meant something like switching from hell-bound or heaven-bound.  Thus, salvation becomes punctiliar--a point in time event sort of like buying your ticket to ride a train.  

Of course, some denominations teach that once you've got your ticket, there's no possibility of you getting off the train (apostasy); you will make it to the destination.  The CoC teaches the possibility of apostasy (and in some churches, even the probability of apostasy!).  So you do have to make an effort to stay on the train to make sure you eventually pull into heaven's station.  Nevertheless, salvation is still punctiliar and categorical in nature--you either have your ticket on the train or not. 

And all the scriptural metaphors for salvation are applied to that kind of conceptualization.  Getting your ticket punched is going from death to life, bondage to freedom, asleep to awake, etc.

The Orthodox conception of salvation is significantly difference from this punctiliar, categorical, "ticket-stamping" model.  

Last night the deacon teaching my Intro to Orthodoxy class mentioned that his father had been in a prisoner of war camp during WWII and often spoke of the day he was "liberated."  This idea of liberation sparked a comparison for me.

Imagine the liberation of a Jewish labor camp in Germany during WWII.  The allied soldiers entering the camp for the first time would've been shocked to see the condition of the individuals still alive in the camp.  Are the prisoners they find there dead?  Well, they're as good as dead.  The prisoners certainly can't liberate themselves.  They are like walking dead men.  They are skin and bones.  They are disease-ridden.  They're covered in their own filth.  They're bodies are so badly damaged that they can hardly engage in normal activities or even eat.  They are so physically damaged that they have even lost much of their mental wherewithal. 

What would it mean to 'liberate' these prisoners?  If the soldiers had a punctiliar, categorical understanding of liberation, the soldiers would remove the axis prison officers, unlock all the doors and fences, and then claim that the job is done.  But what would happen?  Most of the prisoners would still die.  Many of the prisoners don't even have the strength to walk themselves off the grounds of the camp.  Despite the absence of their axis captors, the prisoners would nevertheless be walking dead-men--as good as dead.  

What then would it mean for these prisoners to be brought back to life?  To be liberated from what they've been subjected to by axis powers?  Liberation or 'salvation' of these prisoners would not be punctiliar or categorical, but a process.  Over a period of time, the prisoners would need to receive medical treatment, given clothing, steadily and incrementally being physically trained how to handle healthy amounts of food consumption again, cleaned up several times, trucked out to stations where they can be reconnected to people they'd been separated from, taken back to their homes, etc. etc.  

It would actually be difficult to identify the precise point-in-time these prisoners were 'brought back to life' or 'liberated' because their resuscitation would be processional or dynamic in the nature of the case.  A number of events and treatments over a period of time would transition them from an existence qualitatively like death to an existence qualitatively like life.  

Orthodoxy sees salvation by Christ the same way.  Salvation is not like getting your heaven-bound-train-ticket punched.  In fact, for all we know, there are ticket-holders who aren't even in the Church.  That's not the heart of the issue.  The issue is transitioning people whose existence is qualitatively like death to an existence that is qualitatively like life.  And that transition is a process.  And it's mechanism is participation in the sacraments and community of the Orthodox Church.  

When i go to church or to confession or take Eucharist or pray--i don't do these things as efforts to make sure i don't lose my train ticket (the idea i was brought up with), and i don't do these things to prove that i have an irrevocably stamped ticket (similar to the teaching of impossibility-of-apostasy denominations).  Rather, those activities don't really relate to the train metaphor at all.  Rather they are like the treatments received by the labor camp prisoners.  They are the means by which God in Christ removes the damages and traces of a death-like-existence from me.

That is a very different, and frankly, liberating way of understanding what it means to be "saved." 

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