What Now?

Illustrations by jozefmicic

A Practical View of Salvation

They are some of Paul’s best lines: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do.” Whatever any of us thinks of some of his other ideas—including his conclusion to this letter to the Romans that “sin living in me” explains it all—many of us experience similar frustration. The question then becomes: what now? How can anyone navigate the distance between intention and result?

Pursuing that question often leads to yet another: why? At this point in their thinking, people of a certain cultural background may find themselves in the company of a couple of familiar abstractions: sin and suffering. Though they go by their Christian names, a certain family resemblance pegs them as cousins, though even sin and suffering themselves can’t tell us for sure how many times removed each of them is from whatever their original ancestor may have been. Despite their closeness, they continue to jostle for first place in the history of human troubles.

Questions about what causes pain and how to respond to it arise early in life and are answered late, if at all. Years ago, we picked up a first-grader who had been absent from our carpool for a while with an ear infection. The child of Christian Science believers, she answered our general questions about the state of her sore ear with an air of certainty: “It was human error,” she repeated. Whatever she may think now—living on another continent and a convert to another religion—as a young child she seemed relieved to have found an answer.

Some Quakers continue to grapple with why, and some of the tradition-inclined find confidence in the doctrine that Jesus suffered in humanity’s place in order to successfully placate an affronted deity. At the other extreme are Friends who find the idea of a well-meaning young man being tortured to death according to a divine plan simply horrifying.

Those Friends are left to address the issue of guilt without a redeemer’s help. One doesn’t have to live very long to watch fashions in handling guilt come and go, and unless your philosophy succeeds in erasing it completely from consciousness, guilt persists.

Some might say Friends like it that way. I remember overhearing a conversation at a Friends General Conference gathering as a large group of us were heading toward the dorms after a plenary program about Indigenous people in North America. Some listeners had wept.

“That’s what I like about Quakers,” a young woman behind me said to her companion. Her tone was sarcastic. “Whenever you’re around Quakers,” she said, “you can count on seeing them wallow in guilt. They just love feeling awful,” she concluded, with a bitter laugh.

Is she right? To the extent that she may be, let me say in our defense that it’s not just masochism or useless self-loathing that fuels our collecting things to feel bad about. Maybe it’s really ardent hope for the future, fueled by indignation in the present.

Maybe, out of all the elements of Judeo-Christian thought that have fallen away with time, nontheist Friends like me are left with the perennial enchantment of the idea of the Kingdom of God on earth. The feeling that things could be a lot better and that they really should be a lot better is hard to give up. So we haven’t given it up. Whatever the explanation, the world does feel “fallen” away from what it might be. Some people throw up their hands and rely on platitudes like “Life’s not fair,” but not most Quakers. They’re out there trying to repair the world.

Many contemporary Liberal Quakers, it seems, shelve questions of why when sin and suffering come onstage. Instead, they address the question: what now? They think, but they also do something.

A while back, I sat out a kerfuffle in my local meeting by attending a Presbyterian church. It’s the denomination of my youth, and since I’m a joiner by nature, I wanted to join. What stood in my way was having to say that Jesus was my savior. I suppose if I thought I needed a savior, culturally at least, Jesus would be the one. But I didn’t think I needed a savior, because of my aforementioned disgust with the idea of blood atonement. Still, I wanted to go all in during my sojourn in that friendly, welcoming church by joining.

Finally, I saw an opening. It came during what I facetiously call “The Theology Hour.” That’s the time, starting usually at about 2:30 a.m., when I wake up to worry. If, as is usually the case, I don’t have a family member or friend who is currently in trouble, my mind flies straight to the meaning of life.

I remembered the required religion course at my secular college, where one of the questions posed was this: “If your tradition advocates salvation, what are you saved from and what are you saved for?” I realized that having Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and his perplexing parables stowed deeply in my mind sometimes saves me from doing destructive things and inspires me to do good things. To some extent, early, intense exposure to Jesus’s teachings solved Paul’s thorny old problem for me, and without the bloody crucifixion. Bingo! I saw my way clear to join the Presbyterians. (But not forever. I slipped back into my meeting easily. The clerk hadn’t done anything about my resignation letter because she hoped I’d be back eventually, and she was right. Thanks, Cyndi!)

My point in this digression is that my version of salvation turns out to be practical rather than theoretical; everyday rather than special; progressing rather than complete; and tentative rather than certain but nevertheless, fundamentally important. Though relying on old biblical wisdom literature does affect what I think, its more profound effect appears in what I do or don’t do.

Many contemporary Liberal Quakers, it seems, shelve questions of why when sin and suffering come on stage. Instead, they address the question: what now? They think, but they also do something.

Usually more practical than theoretical, they come up with American Friends Service Committee and Friends Committee on National Legislation and Quaker Earthcare Witness, and all the other unnamed tries at setting things right, or at least closer to right, during our little lifetimes. We may laugh about all those acronyms and about our do-gooder approach to life, as a way of acknowledging its imperfection as a solution to sin and suffering, but it’s our way; it’s what we do. It’s love not so much explained as made visible.

The harmony implied in the word “atonement” needs instruments and voices that keep the music going. To press the analogy further, there is, on one hand, the miracle of the composition, the musical score, and for a few aficionados, its existence may be a joy in itself. But Friends’ specialty is in the performance, even though once is never going to be enough.

Ann Birch

Ann Birch is a community college reference librarian living in El Paso, Tex., where she is also clerk of the local Friends meeting. One of her short stories appears in the July 2022 "Mistakes" issue of The Ocotillo Review.

1 thought on “What Now?

  1. Jesus’ contribution to our salvation from wrongdoing and shame was not from being some kind of sacrifice to God-imagined-as-angry. [I’ve read that “God’s Wrath”‘ is a mistranslation of a concept more like “the melting heat of God’s ways of ‘reforming’, ie recasting us.”, which doesn’t mean that’s necessarily easier on us-all — but which I do find helpful.] What Jesus did that made his teaching widely available was to follow his leading all the way to risking and thereby losing his life.

    The thought we can somehow overcome the world’s evil via our own thoughts as to how we might somehow be able to fix it all… Is that really “practical”?

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