09/21/2010 10:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rethinking Salvation: A One-Time Personal Event or a Continuous, Collective Effort?

"Then they cried to the Lord in their afflictions,
And He saved them from their distresses;
He sent His Word, and healed them,
And delivered them from their corruptions."
--Psalm 106:19-20

As I have hoped to indicate throughout these sequential blogs -- though surely you must have suspected this business already -- our lives are riddled with death.

The good news -- which, presumably, you also already have gathered -- is that even this death is potentially infused with life. In fact, awareness of infusion is surely the difference between those of us who are fully awake and those who remain, more or less, slow-witted sleepwalkers; this is the substantive difference between, say, the quick and the dead.

For a good while now, this has informed my developing sense regarding that moment in the Nicene Creed when we collectively confess our faith, saying, "He will come again to judge the living and the dead." I no longer think of that creedal proposition as asserting that the Christ is coming to mete out life or death, but rather asserting that His coming will discern and announce which of those conditions each of us has already chosen, already owned. He does not condemn us to death, but He informs us if we are dead already.

It may be fair to say, moreover, that while all of humankind continues by grace to derive its very life from God, only some of our dim crew happen to notice, and only they are in position to benefit fully from the fact. "For to live carnally minded," Saint Paul writes, "is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace."

Life, no less, with peace in the bargain.

Over the years since my leaving home for college (more precisely, since my belated discovery of the fathers and mothers of the Church first nudged me to the East), salvation itself has come to mean something larger to me, something fuller, both more substantial and more immediate.

For the monks on Mount Athos, salvation -- or, better, "being saved" -- does not have to do with a discrete and isolated instant of conversion; nor is it a matter of our cinching a done deal. The more traditional understanding of salvation indicates our continual moving toward and into a continuously thickening reality. Those of you who remember C.S. Lewis's beautiful little book The Great Divorce will have a likely image to accompany this vertiginous prospect of a thickening reality and of the human person shifting from airy shadow to illuminated substance.

Salvation is the ongoing process of our being redeemed; it is our recovery from our chronic separation from God, both now and ever, and it includes our becoming increasingly aware of Who our God is. Our miraculous salvation has very little to do with the popular notion of "dying and going to heaven," and has far more to do with finally living, and with entering the kingdom of God, here and now, partaking of His endless life, here and now.

Here again, Archimandrite Sophrony of the Holy Mountain comes to us with keen insight: "The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards, but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his very nature, he is called." Conversely, the essence of salvation lies in our leaning into that eternal Divine life, and our thereby being in position to derive endless life from our mystical, but nonetheless palpable, connection with the God Who Is.

The monks and their Orthodox traditions have insisted, from the earliest writings on the matter, that this calling and this salvation belongs to all of humankind, not just to those relatively few who acknowledge membership in the Church. Of course, the Orthodox fathers and mothers would be quick to insist that the most trustworthy and most satisfying road to full participation in the saving life of Christ is revealed in the traditional teaching of and participation in that One, Holy, Orthodox, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; they are also fairly unshakable in the conviction that the One Body -- that is to say, Christ's Body -- is synonymous with that self-same Church. We acquire our salvation through our partaking of that Body, regardless of our meager apprehension of the matter.

Bishop Kallistos Ware famously parses this mystery when he writes, "We can say where the Church is; we cannot say where she is not." As our Lord Jesus Christ tells the earnest and anxious Nicodemus, like the wind, the Spirit blows where it wills.

As I now see it, salvation has come to mean deliverance, and deliverance right now, from the death-in-life routine that we often settle for, the sleepwalking life for which I, and maybe you, have often settled in the past. My beloved Saint Isaak of Syria offers firm support to this vertiginous phenomenon:

The man who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and hour, and hereby is made immortal. "He that eateth of this bread," [Christ] says, "which I will give to him, shall not see death unto eternity." Blessed is he who consumes the bread of love, which is Jesus! He who eats of love eats Christ, the God over all. ... Wherefore, the man who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, he even now breathes the air of the resurrection.

Moreover, while salvation necessarily happens to persons, it is not to be understood as a merely personal matter.

I continue to enjoy, and enjoy repeating, the surprising response that a monk at Simonopetra gave to a man who, thinking he had come to evangelize the Holy Mountain, interrupted us to ask the kind father if Jesus Christ was his "personal savior."

"No," the smiling monk said without hesitation, "I like to share him."

Thanks to the long-standing tradition that monk manifests, I have a developing sense that salvation finally must have to do with all of us, collectively, and that it must have to do with all else, as well -- all of creation, in fact.

It turns out that I am not alone in my thinking so.

My reading in the fathers and the mothers of the church -- assisted by my discovery of what I would call rabbinic, midrashic Bible-reading -- has me thinking that all of creation is implicated in this phenomenon we variously call salvation, redemption, reconciliation. Like the late theologian John Romanides, I suspect that our saving relationship with God is quite specifically "as the Body of Christ"; our salvation is not a discrete, individualized, private bargain struck, but comes by way of our continuing participation in Divine Life, as a member of a Holy Body that is at once both alive and life-giving.