Monday, January 23, 2012

Salvation vs. Growth

Over the next few weeks I will be going through my "drafts" folder and rescuing articles that I had started, but never finished. (Or perhaps I'll just put them out of their misery.) Here is my latest attempt at cleaning up these unwieldy folder.

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A long time ago, way back in the ancient eternity of January of 2010, I wrote an article in which I said, "Now there's a theme for another article", and then promptly forgot all about it. Which article? Oh, sorry. It was called "The New Guilt". And no, I don't feel the least bit guilty about taking so long to write this one. I knew I'd get around to writing it eventually.

What was it?

Well, dear Reader, it was just a simple observation I made a while ago that seemed to  catch a few of my friends by surprise. I realized that there are two broad categories into which most religions seem to fall: those that are primarily concerned with salvation, and those that are more concerned with spiritual growth.

What do I mean by that? Well, I'm sure you can guess.

There are many faiths out there who seem to believe that salvation is like an on/off switch. You are either saved, or you're not. You either go to heaven, or you miss out. (Those that have purgatory try to find a middle ground to please those that are more liberal in their beliefs, but it doesn't change the underlying strata of their belief.)

There are other faiths that believe that it is all about growth. Whatever we do, they say, should lead us closer and closer to our Creator, without ever letting us think that we will get to the end of that journey.

Catholicism, for example, would be of the former, while the Baha'i Faith would be of the latter.

As I'm sure that we are all aware of the underlying concepts involved with salvation, I won't dwell on it too much here. A short bit. That's it. Most of this will be about the idea of spiritual growth.

Here's the bit about salvation.

In the salvation religions, there tend to be two different models. The first is that of a balance. At the end of your life your good deeds are put on one side of the balance, and your bad deeds on the other. If your good deeds outweigh your bad ones, you go up to heaven. If the bad deeds weigh more, you go the other direction. The question of absolute equality came up, what if they are exactly in balance, and that led to purgatory, a place in between. Of course, this has been modified since then to a place where you are purged of the bad deeds so that you are able to go up more pure than if you still had all those bad deeds weighing you down.

The second model is that any bad deed, even a single one, brings you down to the nether places, and that you require the intervention of a saviour for your good deeds to be worth anything. In some instances, just accepting that saviour figure allows you to go up, regardless of your actions.

In some ways, Santa Claus is the perfect figure to fit into this model. He watches you throughout the year and judges whether you've been good enough, or not. If so, you get presents on Christmas.

This is a lot like the salvation concept, in that you get judged throughout your life and if you've been good enough, you get a gift at the end.

 But me? I prefer the growth model.

For starters, it's not as judgmental. It also mirrors physical reality a bit more closely.

When we are in the womb, we are growing our body, even though we don't really need it there. There is not much to grab, yet we still grow our hands. There's not much to see, but we have to develop our eyes. What we hear is quite minimal and distorted, but we still build our ears there in the womb. Of course, we don't have to. We can live in the womb quite happily without any of those. But if we don't grown them, then we will suffer difficulties in this world, after we are born.

It would be very easy to jump to our moral behaviour, at this point, and talk about how we grow our spiritual limbs here, and use them in the next world, but let me step back a moment.

In the womb it is our growth that triggers all sorts of further development. It is when we bump into the uterine wall that the growth of our limbs and nerve-endings is triggered. It is when we grow to fill our available space in the womb that the birthing process begins. It is exactly each time that we meet our imposed limits that transformation to the next phase of our development occurs.

Once the basic outline of our body has developed, and we have reached the maximum capacity of the womb, we are born. And then we are just a baby. We need to grow and develop in this world. We have to achieve maturity.

When we are in this world, life starts out very easy. As we begin to explore our surroundings, we can't really get in a lot of trouble. It isn't until we're about 2 that our explorations can become dangerous, and our parents stop us. This is the root of the problem with the "terrible twos". It is really the first time in most people's lives that they are told "no". But it also when we really begin to learn about exploring our limits in the world.

Aside from the occasional reprimand by our parents, this is also a fairly easy time in our life. We don't get into too much trouble, although we may inconvenience our parents a bit. Or a lot. (Or a phenomenal amount. I still thank my Mom for letting me live through that time.)

It isn't until we really begin interacting with other people that the challenge occurs. This is when we run into the limits of our moral development. We need to learn to work on, and practice, our virtues if we want to get along with others. We don't need to, but we find life far more fulfilling if we do.

I say that we don't need to because there are many examples of people who don't who end up living very "successful" lives, in that they are wealthy and have all the trappings of society that they could want. But I would argue that they are missing out on the important growth aspect of their spirit.

In the Baha'i Faith, we don't talk a lot about heaven or hell, except as referring to them as nearness and distance from God. Instead, we talk a lot more about growing ever closer to our Creator.

Our life, and our spiritual development, is not about yes/no, or right/wrong, or success/failure. Instead, Baha'u'llah uses the idea of crisis and victory. The crisis here is when we reach our imposed limits. The victory is when we overcome those limits and move on to our next stage of development.

Throughout the Baha'i Faith we find this concept, this movement away from dichotomy and on towards process. It is far more difficult to grasp, but it sure seems to work a lot better.


  1. I like it.

    I just wrote recently along the same lines -

    I would suggest there is a middle ground between on/off and growth - punctuated equilibrium like. Stages of growth and periods distinguished from others. In terms of physical growth infancy is not like adolescence....

  2. Thanks for this post. I'm considering becoming a Baha'i and this sort of thing is very helpful to me.