This is in reply to some recent comments from this post about being saved.
What does it mean to be saved? What are we being saved from? Even after I concluded that Mormonism was false, I still believed in Jesus Christ for quite a long time and the whole concept of being saved was something I pondered. I never believed in hell as a physical place, lake of fire and brimstone, what have you. I believed in it as a state of separation from God, or as a state of realizing our unworthiness to be in God's presence. When I thought of being saved, I thought of leaning on Jesus to overcome the darker side of my human nature, tendencies toward anger, hatred, viciousness, revenge, etc.
Comments have referenced the tormented, angry, self-absorbed state of the damned. I believed that kind of existence awaited me unless I formed some sort of relationship with Jesus. So I tried. I really, really tried my damnedest.
Patrik posed the question that Pilate asked Jesus: What is truth? I'm gonna borrow a few lines from dictionary.com here. Truth is: the true or actual state of a matter; conformity with fact or reality. I tried to have a relationship with Jesus. I went to church. I read the Bible. I prayed for my heart to be in the right place. I prayed for God to fill me with faith. But even though I was trying to do all the right things, if I was honest with myself, the reality, the truth, was that nothing was happening. I wasn't feeling any different. I wasn't sensing any divine love in my life, just the human love that had always been there. But then I realized that I didn't need Jesus to be good or to be happy. I was okay on my own. Not being able to form a relationship with a non-existent being was not a reflection of any failure on my part; it was a reflection of reality, and that was the truth that set me free.
There was a reference to blaming others to justify one's own actions. Dinesh D'Souza seems to think this is a motive of atheism. In a recent address at Brigham Young University, he said: "How do you get out from out of the shadow of unceasing accountability, of unremitting moral judgement? Well, abolish the judge. If you can somehow get rid of God, then all his preachments and commandments become optional."
Let's examine my sinful life that I'm trying to justify, shall we. I've had a total one sexual partner in my life. So monogamy for the win. Yay me. But we didn't wait till we were married, so fornication fail. (Question: How do tribal societies who don't have governmental provisions for marriage get out of fornication? Or does Jesus have to pay for that too?) So now we have the piece of paper that magically turns sex into a beautiful gift from God instead of an abominable sin, but we've taken measures to ensure that we don't conceive any more babies, so there we fail by Catholic standards. If you want to go further into sexual conduct, for a Mormon, not much beyond kissing is okay outside of marriage, but I've known many Christians who think as long as you wait for marriage to have intercourse the other stuff is okay. And I know still other Christians who think sex outside of marriage is no big deal at all.
I drink coffee and the occasional glass of wine. Fine by mainstream Christian standards, but bad by Mormon standards, and Islam also frowns on alcohol. I like bacon so Jews and Muslims aren't happy there. I like hamburgers every now and then, so Hindus condemn me there. I don't observe any kind of Sabbath, bad according to Judeo-Christian tradition.
I don't pray or go to church, but I still strive to be honest, hardworking, kind, generous. I think anyone who knows me would say I'm a fairly decent human being, but there are still some of my actions, or lack of actions, that are "wrong" by some people's standards.
I think a better question than "what is truth" might be: What is sin? Whose standards do we follow? And the Bible (or any other "holy" book) is not a valid answer because no one can agree on which parts we follow and which parts we don't. Which brings me to the ethical standards that I believe in. It's fairly simple: Love is good; hate is bad. Alleviating suffering is good; inflicting suffering is bad. I think these are statements pretty much everyone can agree on, regardless of belief or lack of belief in a deity. How did I come to these conclusions? I observed what made me happy and what didn't. I feel good if I'm able to help someone out. I feel bad if I hurt someone's feelings, or if someone cuts me off in traffic and I lay on the horn and flip them off, it might feel good at the time, but I usually feel bad later. Seeing other people happy makes me happy. Seeing other people suffer makes me unhappy.
This is the stuff everyone agrees on. These are the rules that actually have legitimate bases and deserve to be followed and codified. The other stuff is arbitrary and makes no sense.
These standards tell me stealing is wrong, as is drunk driving, or murder or child abuse.
These are the standards I used to determine that homosexuality was not evil. It is not hateful. It does not hurt anyone. Stigmatizing it, on the other hand, is very hurtful. I agree with Christopher Hitchens' statement at the recent Intelligence Squared debate regarding the Catholic Church. He said: "Homosexuality is not just a form of sexuality. It is a form of love and it deserves our respect." Or this essay by Elizabeth Nichols from the November 2009 issue of skirt! She writes about meeting her sister's partner. Her sister said, "My soul fell in love with another soul, and we both just happened to be women." Some call that evil. I think that's beautiful. That brings tears to my eyes.
These standards tell me that making love to the man I love and share my life with before we had a marriage license was not a sin. At the time, I believed it was and thought my inability to feel remorse meant there was something wrong with me, evidence that Satan had hardened my heart. I prayed and prayed about it: "Help me repent. Help me have a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Help me feel Godly sorrow." Nothing. And how insane is it that I was trying to make myself feel guilty for something that I didn't naturally feel guilt for? Lack of remorse did not indicate something wrong with me; it indicated the invalidity of this "law" of chastity. What we did was loving. It hurt no one. The only bad things to come from not waiting for marriage were the artificial consequences invoked by the Church. And now, actually, I'm grateful even for that because it was the catalyst to getting me to question and getting me out.
Is inflicting pain on an innocent person really the best way to "save" us from the hateful side of our nature? Why is more suffering the price that has to be paid? And how does making someone else bear that suffering help us be better people? I agree with Mike's comments that the only reason to punish someone is to help correct future behavior. I think our legal system is broken, at least in part, because of this ingrained Judeo-Christian notion of having to "pay" for our crimes. Why is punishment a good way to pay? Why not restitution wherever possible? Why not more emphasis on changing future behavior? I'm not saying that there aren't some people who need to be in prison, but I think this notion of having to "pay" and "accountability, no matter what" often does more harm than good.
I also thought Mike had an excellent point about our ability as imperfect humans to forgive debts and misdeeds, but somehow omnipotent, loving God is powerless to forgive unless a price is paid. Does not compute.
Bottom line: There is right and wrong, but there is no sin. We will be happier if we cultivate the loving, empathetic side of our nature rather than the hateful, vengeful side; but we have the ability to do that ourselves and don't need someone else to "save" us. And all the nitpicky, random rules of religion are optional because people just made them up.
The truth shall set you free.