“Good works are not the cause, but the effect of salvation.”
–Rev. Pitt Morse, Sermons in Vindication of Universalism
There is a common question asked of atheists and Universalists alike: “If you don’t fear God, why bother being a good person?” I’ve heard many answers to this, but it mostly boils down to: if you need fear to keep you from killing people, you are not really a very good person. Penn Jillette is reported to have even answered that he does commit all the murders and rapes that he wants, which is none.
Honestly, though, my answer is less boastful. I know I am loved by my Creator. I, in return, try to honor my Creator. Just as I would respect the friends my parents would bring home, or the acquaintances I am introduced to by my friends, I try to look at other people and see in them the part that God loves. I look for the humanity in every person, seeing that their life, like mine, is a struggle for acceptance, love, and a sense of worth. There are people who are broken beyond understanding, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, even the people billed in media and in history as monsters are just people who find themselves in situations that they cannot abide, doing the unthinkable out of pride, frustration, or misplaced sense of purpose and belonging. Their motives are all too recognizable, even when we can’t stand to admit it.
What they lack, that hopefully we do not, is a sense of purpose that includes all of humanity. They learned to separate people into “Us” and “Them”, with the first category being their community, as large as a nation or as small as their own self, and the latter group being seen as something other than them. The bigger there community, the better off we all are. My community is the whole world, and my “other” is only those people who exclude themselves, and even I have to believe that even they are redeemable.
My salvation in omnipotent love, able to overcome any flaw we pick up in our time on Earth, forces me, if I am honest, to see every other person as an equal. My salvation by infinite and inescapable love requires that I look for the humanity and divinity in every other person, and indeed, in every living thing. We are all part of one beloved creation, and it is our responsibility to create, within it, a beloved community where all things are valued and respected and conserved for the future.
The love that I feel surrounding me must be reflected, because I cannot contain it. I cannot accept it without also feeling a duty to share it. My salvation is the salvation of all people, and it compels me to seek out the divine spark in them. I do not do good because I want to earn the love of God, or because I fear divine wrath, but because I know I am loved and it makes me feel good. Love makes me want to love more, and to connect with people. As Rev. Morse said, salvation gives me a need to be a better person. It is a love that I know I don’t deserve, as surely as any Southern Baptist knows his inherent sin, or the cultural guilt of the Catholics or Jews. I am loved, none the less, and I want to be worthy of that love. The only way I can hope to feel worthy is to try to love like that.