Every religious tradition acknowledges that life is not what we would
like it to be, and offers means to make things all right. Over
centuries the hopes of humankind became gradually more idealized:
primitive religions seek a good life in the existing world, archaic
religions dream of a better life in this world either long ago or still
to come, and historic religions seek to escape life's limitations into a
PRIMITIVE SALVATION: AN UNBOTHERED LIFE
Primitive people accept the world as it is. Salvation for a primitive
person consists mainly of preserving the stable order of the world. The
original, proper tribal order is a bulwark against chaos. Magic can
guard against the intrusion of spirits. Some primitive religions believe
in an existence after death, but it typically does not occur to foraging
people that life after death could be better than normal life.
ARCHAIC SALVATION: AN IDEALIZED LIFE
One result of the more extensive knowledge of the world by town or city
dwelling archaic people is the development of idealized dreams about
life. Archaic society is more conscious that normal life is flawed than
primitive society. This belief is often illustrated by stories or myths
that describe an ancient time in which life was not flawed, until a
mistake or evil deed made the world the way it is. This idealized past
can be called a golden age. Archaic salvation sometimes
includes belief in a coming millennium, a future ideal world. An example
of this is apocalypticism, a belief that a sudden destruction of
this world-order will lead to a new, perfect world-order.
From Archaic to Historic Religion
The transition from archaic belief in an idealized physical
existence to a historic conception of salvation was marked by a middle
stage dreaming of a perfect paradise beyond this world (and a horrible
hell as the alternative). Eventually some historic religions sought
salvation by rejecting anything like earthly existence at all.
HISTORIC RELIGION: PERFECTION BEYOND THIS
Salvation through Cosmic Order
Some historic religions, Taoism in particular, do not look
beyond this world but instead find salvation from suffering through
conformity to the patterns of nature.
Heaven beyond Paradise and
Some historic religions eventually moved beyond the idea of a
paradise for the whole person, a physical paradise where the body and
spirit both existed. Instead, some historic religions began to perceive
matter and spiritual essence to be distinctly separate. This led to a
conception of salvation as a complete escape from material existence.
Salvation in India as Dissolution of the Self
The Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India have gone even beyond the
matter/spirit distinction. Both Hindus and Buddhists say that to achieve
salvation, one must escape not only from the material world but also
from individual selfhood. This escape leads to a peaceful fading into a
cosmic ultimate, free from having to be born again and again into the
endless suffering of normal life.
End of notes on Ch. 5