“save, v.t. & i., & n. [verb transitive and intransitive and noun] 1.Rescue, preserve, deliver, from or from danger or misfortune or harm or discredit. . . . 2. Bring about spiritual salvation from, preserve from damnation. . . .”The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964.
“saviour: n. Deliverer, redeemer (the/our Saviour Christ), person who saves a State etc. from destruction, etc. (Middle English and Old French sauveour from Latin salvatorem (salvare [to] SAVE)The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964.
“After an age of wars and catastrophes Augustus [first Roman Emperor, 27BCE – 14CE] brought peace. He was a “savior.” There was no way to explain a power so prodigious without appeal to a divine. . . nature residing in the soul of Augustus. According to the customs of the time the feelings of the subjects had to find expression in divine honors. Thus the same reasoning that inclined to divinize Alexander and the Hellenistic kings worked to deify Augustus. . . . Thus Rome followed Greek precedents in this as in so much else, but with reservations and with distinctions of its own.”Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), pp. 207, 208.
“Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.”Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1754.
Rousseau’s opening line to his 1754 treatise is one of the most resounding open lines ever penned in world literature, ranking alongside Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” in A Tale of Two Cities. Rousseau gave us one the most succinct, pithy statements of the human condition that this writer and student of history has ever come across. It needs to be twinned with the Apostle Paul’s famous line, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” in Romans chapter 3, despite Rousseau’s animosity to Christianity. Paul authored many other like statements of our predicament to which we might refer. We recall a similar phrase from Kohelet in our previous series, “God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”
At the risk of over-generalizing, we can observe that every major extant belief system would hold some variation of the above diagnoses of the state of humanity. Hindus would define somewhat differently how they understand the “chains” which hold us in bondage and slavery, or the idea of “sin”, but they agree that we are in bondage. Buddhists would closely concur with the Hindu position regarding the fundamental human condition. Muslims and Jews would agree that humans are sinners, and that no one is completely free in will or in power to act as they ought, or as they desire if their moral awareness reduces the “ought” to irrelevance. Even modern and postmodern secularists concur that humanity chronically falls short of the ideals we (they) agree we should aim for in our society and in the stewardship of Planet Earth. Thus, we find the whole human race in agreement that there is a truly serious and perhaps critical gap between what our hearts and minds (and many would say our souls) tell us we were made to be and what we actually are.
As we look back through the five or so millennia of recorded history for which we have documentary evidence, we find that the awareness of this basic human failing and incapacity has been very much part of the human psyche in every time and place. It is often expressed mythologically, poetically, and imaginatively, especially before the innovation and invention of philosophy by those geniuses of the intellect, the ancient Greeks. The earliest formulations of this most basic of all dilemmas were often couched in dream, vision, legend, and myth, with reference to a break or disordering in relationship between humans and the higher order of beings who create and govern the cosmos.
Coupled with this awareness of humanity’s failure to be what it should be, or its lapse into disorderliness and misalignment with the created order (the “Fall” in traditional Judeo-Christian parlance), or perhaps some innate flaw in the original creation itself, was an equal awareness that we humans do not have the ability, and perhaps not even the will, to repair the breech or re-establish the order as it is meant to be. There is thus a sense of being liable to judgment or subject to the whim of supernatural powers for our collective flaw or failure to measure up. There is a sense of guilt and shame for having broken the world, so to speak.
We might (and usually do) now mock all this “superstition” and “theological mumbo-jumbo” as basic ignorance of the true facts about reality. After all, we now “know better” what the world is, what the universe is, how it really works, where it comes from, where we come from, etc. Nevertheless, at the very least everyone still realizes that Rousseau’s diagnosis is as right now as it was 265 years ago. And really, all the other formulations we referred to still sit in our gut. Things are broken and we don’t know how to fix them.
The current version of the apocalypse calling for salvation is the “Climate Crisis”. It is really not reasonable to deny that Climate Change exists. The compilation of several Mount Everest’s of data is conclusive that something important is happening to the earth’s climate at this juncture of its history. The debate is to what extent it is humanity’s doing. Rhetoric and screeching alarmism aside, the data is much less conclusive on that score. Besides, climate change has been happening since the creation of the world. Duh! Tropical conditions once existed in Antarctica and, clearly, seas once covered much of every continent in existence, as Marine fossils on the slopes of Mount Everest and high in the Rockies point out.
The current Climate Apocalypse, or any other immediate global crisis (e.g., Terrorism, drug plagues, AIDS, etc.) crying out for radical resolution aside, we as a species, and as individuals dependent for survival on our Planet’s hospitality, remain in the identical position of all generations since Nimrod (a real historical figure, by the way) promised the world deliverance sometime in the third millennium BCE. Over 5000 years, we have record of many promise-makers and claimants to Divine and semi-divine status offering themselves as the looked for saviours ready to make things right and save their people from their calamitous situations.
Pharaohs were the living “saviours” of the Egyptian people, incarnating the will of the gods to sustain the life-giving cycle of the Nile and the land. Each of the ancient “King of kings” of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and China called themselves “saviour”, “redeemer”, “Son of Heaven”, etc., granting order and favour from the gods to the peoples under their beneficent rule. Alexander took all the titles of the monarchs he defeated unto himself and openly proclaimed himself the anointed of the gods, the one come to save the world from disorder and usher in unity and peace. As Ferguson points out in our citation above, the Roman emperors each began their rule with proclamations from the Senate and themselves as the divinely appointed saviour of the peoples under their rule.
The Jews long expected the Messiah, the anointed and chosen one sent by Yahweh to right the world and usher in God’s rule over all the peoples, wielding justice and righting all wrongs, protecting the downtrodden and turning the earth once more into God’s beautiful garden with peace and plenty for all. Legends of such a one to come could be found in China and India and even among some of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (America). And Islam still awaits the Mahdi, the one sent as the final prophet-scourge who will punish all the blasphemous and the infidels and submit all the world to Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful (his two main attributes in the Quran).
Hinduism presents us with multiple avatars who are incarnations of Vishnu, the most compassionate and loving of their enormous pantheon of gods and goddesses, one of the three most important. In bhakti yoga (the road or way of worship and praise), such avatars come to remind us of our bondage and show us once more how to shed maya, the illusion and bondage of this world so as to achieve nirvana, union with Brahman, the One and All, the essence of existence itself. But avatars are not redeemers. They cannot take our place in the judgment. Each must find his/her own way out of the cycle of birth›death›rebirth until all negative karma has been purged.
Buddhism offers us the Buddha, the Enlightened One who teaches the path to escape from the ceaseless cycle of suffering, as Buddha defined the wheel of samsara, the cycle referred to above. But Buddha is not a saviour or redeemer either, but an exalted teacher and guide, showing the way to salvation from our bondage to suffering, not a substitute for us. Once more, the sufferer must find his/her own path.
But the greatest and most enduring claim to the role Saviour and Redeemer comes of course out of Christianity in the person of Jesus Christ (Yeshua ha-Mashiach).
Does the human race need a saviour? A redeemer? If so, in what sense? If not, why not? How are we to find resolution to our collective and individual inner sense of missing the mark, of disharmony, of dichotomy, of “brokenness” within ourselves and with the world we inhabit? Is any permanent resolution really needed? Is such a concept really practical or beneficial even to consider and discuss? Can’t we just get on with the business of “fixing things” by the tried and true methodology of logical reason applied via the scientific method?
Let us see where this takes us in the next few instalments.