I often come across the assumption that I view my religion as a vehicle—the express train to Valhalla. This scenario proposes that I am concerned chiefly with my personal salvation and am obedient to the laws of my faith for that reason alone.
To be fair, there are believers who are chiefly concerned with their personal salvation. It is of such deep concern because there are a number of sectarian groups that stress the idea that one must be right with God in order to go to heaven and so a great deal of importance is attached to knowing what one must do to be right with God—to be saved. Growing up, I encountered a number of suggested formulas for this: faith + grace = salvation; faith + works = salvation; faith + works + grace = salvation.
These have loomed so large historically that believers have been considered apostate or even heretical for adhering to a particular formula. Blood has been shed over the creation of these doctrinal statements.
I can understand the impulse to set up such formulas. It makes it easy to know with certainty that you’re right with God. It might even enable you to know if another believer is “right” simply by knowing if they believe a particular, doctrinally correct formula. You can know, theoretically, if you or a fellow believer is heaven bound by simply getting the answer to one simple question: “Are you saved?” Meaning, are you doctrinally correct?
This ostensibly takes the guesswork out of salvation because, as one Christian minister of my acquaintance told me, it’s impossible to know if you’ve done enough good works or loved others enough to be saved. Therefore, salvation surely must depend upon something quantifiable.
Now, I say I’ve encountered these formulas, but I find them remarkable for two reasons:
- They are not held universally by believers even in the one faith we tend to associate with the question: “Are you saved?”
- They are not taught as formulas (or vehicles) in the various scriptures.
Religion—whether we’re discussing Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or the Bahá’í Faith—suggests that the believer’s spiritual state (their readiness for “heaven”) depends on their behavior, which is a reflection of their inner spiritual state and—dare I say it?—their inner virtues. Christ, for example, ties eternal life (that trip to “heaven”) to obedience.
“No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. …This is what I command you: Love one another.” (John 15: 13, 14, 17)
He repeats this combining of obedience and love several times for emphasis.
My pastor friend had a great deal of trouble with this verse because it put the emphasis on behavior (obedience) and on an intangible (the love in a believer’s heart).
“How obedient do I have to be? How much love is enough?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but why do I need to know? My concern is to do my level best to obey and love.”
For the record, other Prophets / Avatars have said something similar:
“Not by the Vedas (Scriptures), or an austere life, or gifts to the poor, or ritual offerings can I be seen as thou hast seen Me. Only by love can men see Me, and know Me, and come unto Me. He who works for Me, who loves Me, whose end Supreme I am, free from attachment to all things, and with love for all creation, he in truth comes unto Me.” — Bhagavad Gita 11:53, 54
So, far from being a vehicle that seals your certainty of going to heaven (however you define that), religion to most of the religionists I know isn’t a vehicle we’re in, but a road we’re on. Faith is as much a process as it is a quality one has or an emotion one feels. At the risk of being misunderstood, I’m going to borrow a word from the Qur’an to describe this process: jihad.
Yes, I know it’s been co-opted to describe terrorist activities, but I’m using it in the original sense of the word. In the context of faith, jihad means to “strive in the way of God”. In other words, to put yourself on the road and strive day by day until you reach the end. A believer can’t be certain that “heaven” (which most believers I know understand as as spiritual state, and not a physical place) lies the end of his particular road, or if he’ll take a detour somewhere along the way. And there’s no way to count instances of obedience or even love that add up to “I’m saved”, or to point to a particular doctrine that spells “salvation”.
So . . . if the certainty of heaven isn’t the big prize for all religionists, why obey any commandment?
The Bahá’í sacred texts explain it this way:
“Worship thou God in such wise that if thy worship lead thee to the fire, no alteration in thine adoration would be produced, and so likewise if thy recompense should be paradise. Thus and thus alone should be the worship which befitteth the one True God. Shouldst thou worship Him because of fear, this would be unseemly in the sanctified Court of His presence, and could not be regarded as an act by thee dedicated to the Oneness of His Being. Or if thy gaze should be on paradise, and thou shouldst worship Him while cherishing such a hope, thou wouldst make God’s creation a partner with Him. . . That which is worthy of His Essence is to worship Him for His sake, without fear of fire, or hope of paradise. Although when true worship is offered, the worshipper is delivered from the fire, and entereth the paradise of God’s good-pleasure, yet such should not be the motive of his act.” — The Bab
While there are believers in every faith path that confuse the goal with the results of striving for the goal, it’s certain that all believers don’t do that. To a great many of us, religion is not a means to a self-exalting end, but a process by which we can become more fully realized human beings.
Next time: Pie in the sky by and by…how religion encourages us to think about the there and then instead of the here and now.
Maya Bohnhoff is a professional writer who lives in San Jose, CA.