Showing posts with label Sola Gratia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sola Gratia. Show all posts

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

John Rawls and Grace

I have recently had to attend several lectures on social and economic justice focusing on the thought of John Rawls, out of which I spun an essay on what a just distribution of income and wealth is. It struck me as I read his landmark work how much Rawls, though he stopped being a Christian as a young man, understood what Catholics think of as grace. John Rawls was an American political philosopher who really broke through a lull in Anglo-phone political (and moral) philosophy with his monumental A Theory of Justice (1971), attacking the reigning utilitarian approach to political philosophy in addition to the pervasiveness of moral non-cognitivism. When he died, aged 81, the world lost a truly immense philosopher.

The central issue I tackled in his work was this: what justifies, morally speaking, a distribution of income and wealth in a society? What makes it just? Rawls' argument begins by noting that we should not think that morally arbitrary things (whatever the person did not choose or earn for themselves) justly determine a distribution; we should not believe that being born into the right family means one should be wealthy, for instance, or the wrong family, and one should be poor. To put it more starkly, we do not believe a feudal system or a caste system is justified morally, at least not simply from the being-born-into point of view. It could, in principle, be advantageous for other reasons.

This would include, of course, not only what family one is born into, but also one's sex, race, religion, etc. There may be times these are morally relevant, but for the most part, these do not constitute a justification for one distribution of goods in a society: it is not right for the men in a society to earn more simply because they are men, for example. We think maleness and femaleness morally arbitrary, because one cannot pick one's sex or earn it.

However, there is something else that one was simply born with, that one neither chose nor earned: our talents. If Joe is intelligent, it is because he was born that way, or was nurtured that way. Even things we do consider to be morally relevant, like effort due to a hard working spirit, are no doubt largely due to natural and nurtured factors outside the control of the person. If what is not earned is morally arbitrary, then one cannot justify the distribution based on merit. For instance, the person born with a mental illness does not deserve to be dirty poor, since we do not think that the person deserved to be born that way.

Hence, whilst the distribution of goods cannot be made legitimate by naturally acquired privileges like being born into the right caste, it also cannot be made legitimate by other aspects of the natural lottery, like natural talents or propensities to work hard, study hard, etc. From these one can derive no merit, produce nothing that would count as desert (a fancy term for something deserved). To cut briefly to the chase, his second principle deals with this issue, combining equality of opportunity that is fair (similarly gifted individuals have the same chance of getting some opportunity, despite irrelevant differences) and the so-called difference principle, which says that social and economic inequalities are justified only if they are arranged in such a way so as to benefit the least advantaged group in society. So, as an example I have used a fair bit recently, it might be a good idea to pay doctors more (an inequality), since everyone benefits from having good doctors.

Rawls' conclusion aside, the point I want to highlight is his defence of the idea that everything is in the unearned basket. In part, this amounts to the saying that "it rains on the just and the unjust," but it goes further than that. Not only are the conditions the same for everyone, no matter the circumstances, which amounts to saying that anyone can get lucky, but everything is ultimately in the luck basket. Except, Christians do not ultimately believe in luck, either. We think that good things are a matter of grace - that is to say, they are gifts which are unearned, and hence we are not able to boast about them. When the rich little boy laughs at the poor little boy on the street for being poor, the child is doing something very silly: he is making his parents wealth into something that he earned himself, and therefore that places him above the poor kid. But we realize that, whether we concede that the parents earned the money or not, the child is not more deserving than the poor parents' child.

Why God produces a non-homogeneous distribution of talents and natural virtues is not something I am going to discuss at present, and I am far from sure I know the answer at all. What I will note is the relevance of this to the area Christians speak of grace the most, and that is in salvation. If Rawls is right and our talents, natural propensities to work and so forth, really are a result of a natural lottery, then the same can be said for our moral goodness. This is quite a radical idea, but it is essentially what Catholics have always said: that humans are not naturally capable of merit, because the capacity to do goods naturally is unearned. If they are good, then they became good by some means outside of their control. Good is clearly still better than bad, but it is clear that our natural virtue is outside our direct control. In short, with regard to God, there is no right to merit, because we receive everything from God (cf. CCC 2007). However, Catholics do believe in merit. I think the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it best, when it says:

"The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.
" (CCC 2008)

Like Rawls conclusion, this more theological line of thought's conclusion also has political consequences, no doubt, but the discussion of those is not my aim here. I want to draw two conclusions: first, that Rawls' argument about the natural lottery and its inefficacy of legitimating a particular distribution of goods can be similarly applied to the case of meritorious actions, and it hence has soteriological consequences. Secondly, and more generally, this view of goods as being entirely unearned should colour our daily lives, as we digest that great truth implicit in the assertion of John, when he says:

"No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven." (John 3:27)

Whilst Rawls may have lived most of his life as a non-Christian, but his former student was correct in noting that Rawls had "an unusually strong sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’"

Friday, 9 August 2013

Time in the Evangelical Church

This is part II of a four part series. The others are (in order): Road from Unbelief, The Road to Rome, The Road Ahead.

It seems the case to me that even the most rationally inclined people have some reasons for their religious or irreligious position which goes beyond the purely logical or rational. Individuals simply do not exist independent of emotional, cultural, existential or other extra-rational factors. As an atheist, my position was intellectual but also useful, simple and easy, in addition to a certain feeling of rational snobbery that underlies believing that I had freed myself from humankind's religious yoke. This post will hopefully give an overview of my experience after sixteen months in the Evangelical tradition and what meta-rational reasons I encountered for being a Christian.

I had finished the previous part with new-found belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and how that led me to think I could aptly be called a Christian. However being a Christian, as anyone well knows, is rarely defined by "belief in the resurrection" - it is a position that has far more labels than that, and indeed by some people, even belief in the resurrection is not crucial to Christianity. Yet I would find it very difficult to believe in the resurrection without calling myself a Christian of sorts. I set about finding an explanation of why God would perform this miracle that made me Christian.

I made two mistakes which I recognize in hindsight: the shock of this belief made me throw all my rationality into the air for a moment, and I became a young Earth creationist.I also became a believer in biblical inerrancy without any other reason than that Jesus (who I now believed to have been resurrected) seemed to be revealed in the Bible.

The first rash belief I left within a week - the week of Easter 2012 when I visited Beulah for a rock climbing festival. I dropped it not so much because I came to the conclusion that the relevant texts did not prescribe young Earth creationism - after reading some more of the Bible I will quickly come to hold the view that science is perfectly legitimate, in line with most Christian denominations (see here) - but because I went about my day and found too many facts that contradicted that belief. Though I had rashly come to this belief, the burst of "maybe everything I know is wrong!" was quickly put down by reality. I hope readers will be understanding with my blunder: revolutions in world-view tend to have the effect of producing bizarre beliefs, and I am grateful that my error was short lived in light of the mind-boggling senselessness of young Earth creationism when it comes to reality. For my Christian brethren who disagree with me on this point, it is important to note that when somebody like myself comes to believe a proposition - in this case, "Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead" - by empirical means, one would be denying the very foundation of one's belief in that proposition if one then went on to deny empirical means. So any believer who believes because of historical evidence must in turn believe the truths discovered through scientific evidence, lest an incoherence be brought about.

The second belief is one I still hold, in some form, but the problematic bit is the phrase "without any other reason." I believed in what I would find out to be called sola scriptura without any epistemological warrant other than the view that since the scriptura talked about Christ, it must be right; a clear fallacy. About eight months later I would write about what I had come to think the real foundation for knowledge in Christianity is in the blog posts here and here (a position which I kind of retain, but with much more sophistication and without certain elements).

Nonetheless, those two issues aside, I thought that the central idea of Christianity was the forgiveness of sins because of the penal substitution of Jesus on our behalf. I got this idea in primitive form from a Pentecostal-Charismatic church (called "Hope Church") that I attended for a few weeks, and in a more elaborate form from Unichurch, which I almost accidentally walked into, in a sermon on Romans 3. I raised a question to the pastor there which would become a prominent issue on my mind a few months later, but I let it rest with "wait for Romans 6" at the time.

A philosophical note before I continue: as an atheist, I had been convinced that the only basis for morality in a secular framework (I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to think of what a non-secular framework might bring) was utilitarianism, and I still think this is the case. So I was a utilitarian, and as a relatively reflective utilitarian, I had noticed a problem: if the morally right action, and hence the obligatory action, was that one which maximized the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then the biggest problem I had was not that some of the outcomes were against my moral sensibilities, but that I did not do those actions which I believed.

It is a classical "problem" in utilitarianism that the obligations placed upon the utilitarian to act morally are enormous and go beyond what most think to be reasonable demands. Consider this: if I like ice-cream, and the ice-cream costs two dollars, may I buy it? No, because two dollars could save a life, and if not a life, then contribute towards much more happiness elsewhere. It is immoral to do anything that would not maximize happiness, and it usually turned out that what I wanted to do did no such thing. Yet I bought the ice-cream anyway. As an atheist, this is an incongruence, but as someone who now believed in the existence of God who cares about each person, who cares what I do...well suddenly I am in a bit of a pickle. For I have done wrong, and that has consequences.

It is sometimes said that modernity and post-modernity had done away with the idea of universal sinfulness in humankind, but I was convinced, since I seemed to able to indulge in my own pleasure and not able enough to live out the weighty demands of doing everything for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (some include animals and other sentient beings), that I at least was sinful. Which means that one of the core tenets of the Christian faith, which is that Jesus Christ came to address that very issue of sin in me, was not only sensible but also my only hope. If I was to have any hope of being in good standing with this God I had discovered, then he was going to need to forgive me.

Within this utilitarian framework, I therefore understood grace: I cannot be good enough to deserve favour with God,  I cannot claim that I have rights before God - I cannot even say I satisfied the minimum requirements of the moral law! Now, God's moral precepts are not explicitly utilitarian, but the notion that the demands of the moral law are the very maximum one can give meant that I was necessarily incapable, had I sinned even once, of being in good favour with God. Had I done everything correctly, were it even possible to never err in my deeds, I could merely claim that God should not punish me.

Throughout the almost one and a half years in the Evangelical church that I have spent, there is one thing that I hold to be both self-evident, undeniable and irreplaceable: sola Gratia. The Evangelical church has taught me much theology, many Reformed doctrines, pointed me often to the Scriptures, and yet that phrase, "by Grace alone," necessarily remains at the core of my Christianity, the condition without which none may plead for the mercy of God. What may we say before the throne of God when he asks "why should I let you into my Kingdom"? Kyrie Eleison! Any other answer is futile.

To finish, having read enough of the Bible to figure out conclusively that baptism was highly important, I pushed to be baptized, which happened on October 28th, 2012, at the UQ swimming pool. By that time, I could approve of the bolded parts of the Nicene-Constantinople creed (which is an expanded version of the Apostle's creed - both have a distinctly high Christology in light of the battle against heretical Christology):

I believe in one God, the Father almighty,

    maker of heaven and earth,

    of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

        the Only Begotten Son of God,

        born of the Father before all ages.

    God from God, Light from Light,

        true God from true God,

    begotten, not made, consubstantial
       with the Father;

        Through him all things were made.

    For us men and for our salvation

        he came down from heaven,

        and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate

        of the Virgin Mary,
        and became man.

    For our sake he was crucified
      under Pontius Pilate,

        he suffered death and was buried,

        and rose again on the third day

        in accordance with the Scriptures.

    He ascended into heaven

        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

    He will come again in glory

        to judge the living and the dead

        and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

        the Lord, the giver of life,

    who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

    who with the Father and the Son

        is adored and glorified,

        who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic,
     and apostolic Church.
    I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins
        and I look forward to the resurrection

        of the dead and the life of the world to come.