Showing posts with label grace. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grace. Show all posts

Thursday, 29 May 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part I: Grace

See Introduction here.

Whilst I think I came closer than most, it is hard to become Christian for purely intellectual reasons. This is because Christianity is not primarily about conveying a cognitive content; its message can only with approximations be put into propositions. Christianity has as its cognitive content Jesus Christ, and as any biographer knows, converting a person into words is not just difficult, it is impossible. For me, that non-intellectual reason was the central Christian concept of grace. I quoted the full transcript of the testimony I gave when I was baptised in a previous blog post, and a section of it I can transcribe here:

"There have been many times these past few months when the significance of grace has hit me – a power that reduced me to gasps and wowing. The universe is a rather large place, and I am rather small. So to have the same person who made all that existence has to offer care about me, was a laughable proposition. That the almighty God who powers the stars, upholds the world by His Word and keeps ever atom in place would care to know me? How silly!

Unless it’s true. I have a very hard time grappling with what it means to be forgiven by God sometimes. God actually knows me, and I thought that would be enough to put any sane person off! But instead of removing me, instead of deleting me from existence, that He would care so much for us that He would confine Himself to flesh, give us the everlasting truth and humble Himself further to hang helplessly and painfully on a cross? There are no words for that.

Well, that’s peachy. I think I’m great, and God thinks highly of me, too, right? By no means! Until I grasped that grace was required I am not worthy, I was not God’s own. And it has made all the difference. Grace sets the tone for everything I do. Grace properly understood, lights my day with the Lord, frees me from my transgressions, uncovers my wrongdoings and alleviates my worries. God’s gift in the death of Christ affects my life like no other event in history, because the death of God’s Son is not trivial.

And that would be enough. That would be more than enough. But it’s not all. Forgiveness bestowed upon me despite the blackness of my heart frees me from resentment against others too, for how could I hold their sin accountable if God does not consider mine? Brothers and sisters, if we would punish for a penny, why should God not punish us for the whole pound? I am forgiven, so I cannot help but forgive. I am loved, so I am to love. That is the Gospel in me."

That was quite an eloquent way of putting it, but I did not explain on that day the particular path that had led me to have, to this day, such a grace-centred approach to theology. At its heart, of course, it is because I experienced grace and found it to be a good of inestimable wealth. It is because I recognised a dual problem in myself: I did not do what I thought the right thing was, and so I needed forgiveness, and I did not think I was capable of doing the right thing - not because of physical incapacity (because "should" implies "[physically] can") but because I was weak of will.

My parents know I am fairly rotten in a moral sense because they have to live with me. Others, however, thought I was a decent enough person. This was no-where near enough, because I was not a decent-arian, I was a utilitarian. This is crucial to understand: utilitarians are often pressed with what is known as the demandingness objection, which goes that utilitarianism cannot be correct because it demands too much of people. As Famine, Affluence and Morality (a famous essay in applied ethics) argues, one cannot justify spending an amount of money on oneself unless one is improving one's well-being comparably to how much somebody else could benefit from it.

Let me illustrate this. I carry round in my wallet a card, a cut-out from the back of one of Caritas' Project Compassion donation boxes which tells me what money can do if donated to Caritas: $5 could buy a chicken for a children's centre in Mozambique to raise and sell for food, medical supplies and school uniforms. $10 could provide a family with a water filter to access clean, safe water and reduce waterborne diseases in Cambodia. And so forth, up until $250. Since the benefit someone else can get from $5 is more than I would get from, say, buying one of those ridiculously priced coffees with a macaroon on the side, it would be wrong for me to spend the money on myself, rather than donating it to the work done in Mozambique. Of course, there comes some point where spending it on myself really is better, but chances are that comes when I am spending the money on my survival, rather than my pleasure.

Yet, whilst I do not buy ridiculously priced coffees for simple lack of money in general, I would indulge other whims where I could. My conscience, informed as it was by utilitarian precepts, was aghast at this. Probably not as much as I should have been, because I had not realised quite how much utilitarianism demanded of me, but I was nonetheless horrified at my actions. The problem was that I felt powerless to change it. Not powerless in the sense that someone forced at gun point is powerless, but rather incapable because of something within. I have never found anyone else explain it better than my dear St Paul:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:15-19)

In becoming a Christian, then, I found the grace of God in twofold way: not only the forgiveness of wrongdoings past, but also the promise of transformation. The former is important, yet the latter is perhaps even more so, since without transformation the forgiveness would need to be replicated ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

It was equally important, and I think this is the major thrust of my thinking on grace, that it be entirely and wholly a free gift. Of course, if it is earned, it is no longer grace, but desert. Which is why St Paul also says: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Rom. 11:6) This, I think, is crucial. The Christian idea of grace requires a radical rethinking of what can and cannot be considered desert. Certainly, when Catholics talk about their own theological version of desert, that is, merit, they mean it in the way St Augustine used it, and the Council of Trent elaborated dogmatically on: "The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness." Or as the Missal puts it: "in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts." We see clearly how the Christian perspective on desert is that, in a way, it involves some doublethink. God must bestow grace in order that there be any good, and yet, God freely associates humans with the works arising from that grace, counting it as deserved.

Grace forgives, justifies, sanctifies, and all this completely freely. In a shortened form, I had already discussed this in Time in the Evangelical Church. Perhaps some would think that such a high view of sin and grace, with such a strong sense of culpability, would lead me to affirm with Martin Luther the doctrine of sola fide, with its essentially cognitive sense of faith. However, I was convicted of the fact that grace required something of me, not so much in return so as to repay a debt, for I knew that such a feat was not even possible to contemplate, but merely as a response to grace and of grace.

In other words, I was convinced that grace came as a package deal, and that if I was not transformed, nor was I forgiven. Bonhoeffer, in a book I discovered later (and wrote about here) writes of the fake sort of grace, "cheap grace":

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself."

It is entirely true that in a more complete sense, it was the challenge of John Henry Newman that led me to become Catholic. Still, in a smaller sense, it was that I was only really being fed cheap grace as a Protestant, yet affirming costly grace in my innermost, that led to my openness for me to explore what I then thought of as the most distasteful form of Christianity, if it could be called that.

This doctrine of grace has, I think, powerful implications. It means I can write posts like "Loving the Lovely and Unlovely", which certainly sounds nice, but is really based on the premise that when one is loving another person, one must reject all notions of desert, ignore whether the person could be said to "deserve" love or not. This is simply based on the conviction that God loved me, and I did not deserve it, so I cannot count desert as relevant for someone else. It affects my political philosophy, where again I consider grace to be a central and guiding principle, and why I can write with general approval about the philosophy of John Rawls, or at least his second principle of justice, and link this directly to grace in the aptly titled essay "John Rawls and Grace." It has many other implications, and in fact, I think that because "God is love", grace lies at the very heart of who God is, not just what God does.

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.’"

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Who Goes to Hell?

Whilst Hell is not talked about that often in contemporary Catholic circles, it is important to the Church because it was important to Jesus. In fact, Jesus speaks more about Hell in the New Testament than anyone else. The usual blame-carrier for anything unpopular, Paul the apostle, never uses the term and rarely refers to the concept. And lest one think that that "dreadful" Old Testament must go on and on about Hell, I remind that Hell is not even really in the OT. Prior to Jesus, there was no properly developed understanding of what the justice of God entailed for the unrighteous. This does not entail that they did not believe in something that has now been developed into what we call Hell, but nonetheless, the Old Testament rarely speaks about the afterlife in any notable detail.

Hell is, however, a rather uncomfortable topic for a lot of people. Many have even objected that the existence of Hell would constitute evil on behalf of God, and that if God is good, Hell must be empty. This is rejection outright of the concept of Hell is not within the realm of possibilities for Catholics. Even so, embedded within the Christian tradition there is the hope that everyone would be saved, that no humans would be in Hell.* Until the 20th century, that view was peripheral, and the dominant view (championed by St Thomas Aquinas, among others) is that the saved are actually not that great in number.

I will not make any estimates about numbers. Simply as an aside, I note that I do not believe, as has become popular since Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner, that we have reasonable hope that everyone will be saved. I do not deny that there may be hope, but I do not think such a hope is reasonable. I am particularly cautious of that idea because it leads easily to an assumption of universalism, it may contribute to an understanding of Christ that leaves him deficient of any redemptive or salvific message, and in turn that the Gospel and its missionary corollary be corrupted. These are not by any means necessary outcomes of the inculturation of this "reasonable hope" of universalism, but they seem likely.

In practice, any discussion of that sort must come after one answers another question: Who goes to Hell?  Or its complementary: Who goes to Heaven? The answer is, I think, remarkably simple. There are two sorts of person that go to Heaven: anybody who has lived a perfect life, and anyone who has been forgiven for the imperfections in their lives. Or in other words, you either do nothing wrong, or you get forgiven for what you did do wrong. Both sorts of people are, in principle, possible, but the former does not obtain in reality. So everyone else is in the category of having done something wrong, and so needing forgiveness for it. Forgiveness from where, though? Here things can be complicated, because wrongdoings affect at minimum two people, and involve the wrong-doer, a third.

A complete philosophy of forgiveness would be too long at this point, so I am going to simplify things somewhat by talking only about sin, and not wrongdoing in a larger sense. At the end of the day, all wrongdoing is sin, but the term sin singles out that it is an offence against God. This is why when King David kills Uriah after committing adultery with his wife, Bathsheba, he can still write that line in the psalm "against you alone have I sinned." The word sin singles out God as the party wronged.

Only sinless people enter Heaven. One can be sinless because one has committed no wrongs, or sinless because one has been forgiven. Since the wronged party when considering sin is God, it is God who must grant that forgiveness. Neither the forgiveness of some third party, nor a conscience that is clear, is sufficient. God must forgive, and God alone.

Now, it is central to Christian thought that God has done what is required to combine justice and mercy, to be both completely fair and still forgiving. Whilst it may seem simple at first, there are complicating factors in combining the two: for instance, in many cases, to forgive appears to mean that one no longer holds the forgiven party as guilty. On the other hand, to be just appears to mean that people must get their due for their wrongdoings. One would not consider a judge just if they forgave a murderer in a courtroom - the judge's job is to pass the sentence the murderer deserves. Nonetheless, if momentarily we skip over the brilliant solution God gives in Christ, the point remains: despite the necessity for justice, God offers forgiveness to everyone.

Forgiveness is, however, a transaction between two parties. It is a gift, and hence forgiveness has only truly been gifted once it has been received. Therefore, until the sinner has accepted forgiveness, they remain in their sins. As seems fairly obvious, the condition for forgiveness to be accepted is contrition, being sorry for one's wrongdoing. Exactly how much of that needs to be something felt and how much needs to be something acknowledged mentally is an interesting question (one that Catholic penitents often seem to ponder), but not important for the point I am making. Finally, it is important that the wrong-doer accept forgiveness as it comes from the wronged party. While this seems like a minor point, in real life situations, issues such as stubbornness or pride might push someone to, despite being sorry, not want to accept forgiveness. When one accepts forgiveness, one has to recognise the wronged party as exercising a certain power over oneself. Originally, this was the power of justice, and in forgiveness, it is the power of absolution. Both must be recognised: receiving forgiveness entails that one acknowledges that one has done wrong and is hence sorry, and acknowledges that the wronged party had the power of justice, the right to give what is deserved - and yet that, in forgiving, one exercises instead an act of absolution. In short, for the gifting of forgiveness to happen, the wronged party must offer it, and the wrong-doer must receive it, particularly admitting to their fault and acknowledging the forgiveness as it is, coming from the wronged party.

Ignoring the difficulties (philosophical, theological and practical) posed by mercy and justice combining, this is fairly analogous to how we forgive in our daily lives. I want to draw attention to one point about being sorry for something: not only is it the recognition that one ought not have done (or should have actually done) that thing, but it must be clear to the sorry person that their action was wrong. They cannot simply be sorry "that you feel that way."

If what I have said so far is broadly correct, then we know what the second class of people who enter Heaven is: sinners who have accepted forgiveness. Moreover, we know what forgiveness means from the point of view of the wrong-doer. We hence know what it means for someone to go to Hell: they are a sinner who has not accepted forgiveness. That is the crucial point: forgiveness is open to all, and anyone who goes to Hell has not accepted it.

What sort of person would not accept forgiveness, free as it is? There are many reasons that one would not accept forgiveness, or grace, as it is often called by Christians. They might not be sorry for what they have done, they might prefer to excuse themselves and hence not consider themselves as wrongdoers at all, they might not see an action as wrong anyway, they might not want to accept forgiveness from God. There are countless others.

God allows us the free choice of accepting or rejecting forgiveness. Precisely because the decision is now in the hands of the sinner, of people like myself, we are the ones that decide whether we go to Heaven or Hell.** So ultimately, the person who goes to Hell is the person that wants to go to Hell, that prefers Hell to Heaven.

I recommend The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, a novel that describes some of the different ways one might prefer Hell to Heaven. Novels that describe theological points really are much more of a strong point for Lewis than his apologetic material, and this is one of his better ones. I think he is right when he depicts Hell as a gloomy place where nobody likes, much less loves, each other. Everyone is just a miserable individual, and the particularly bad people get as far away as possible from everyone else. A few people get to visit the outskirts of Heaven, where the reader gets a glimpse of why they ended up in Hell. Lewis is masterful at creating the characters, and I do him disservice if I try and summarise them, but he has the same sort of people in Hell as I have explained would be there: people who will not accept forgiveness, for instance, because others who are "worse" are also forgiven, like the man annoyed that there is a murderer in Heaven, but his "lesser" wrongdoings got him in Hell.

There's the man who is unwilling to let go of some character trait that is no longer acceptable in Heaven. There is the artist who would not accept that she is not held in glory and fame if she goes to Heaven, who denies she should be subject to God, given she is so talented an artist. There are some more eye-brow raising characters: there is the woman who will not accept forgiveness because she thinks she has been wronged by God in allowing her son to die, and will not enter Heaven even though her child is there. There is the "liberal" bishop, who could not accept that he ended up being wrong, who lives in self-denial about Heaven and Hell actually being "literal." Lewis' characters are richer than I have presented them, and I really do recommend reading The Great Divorce.

The preceding has hopefully given some clarity as to why I am not a universalist, someone who believes that Hell is empty. I hope that it does turn out to be empty, but I think I hope in vain, because there seems to be a wealth of people who are unrepentant, who would rather anything but communion with God, anything before actually accepting forgiveness. Those are the people, in summary, who I think go to Hell.

* It is a set doctrine that the devil goes to Hell, and all Satan's demons. So whilst I may slip into the language of saying "Hell is empty", I really mean that Hell is empty of humans.

 ** Alarm bells should be ringing in the ears of Christians with that sort of statement, and someone like St Augustine of Hippo is glaring at me from on high. I think that statement is, in a general sense, quite misleading. It reeks of semi-Pelagianism. I contend that who decides what is entirely a matter of grace, as would St Augustine. I can still make that sort of statement because I think that, despite it being entirely in the hands of God, it is God who causes us to freely choose to accept or reject forgiveness. The end result is what I have said, though: the person who goes to Heaven is the one who decides to accept it, and that decision is free. All the complication arises because we have no experience whatsoever of any agent being caused to freely choose something. We normally presume that if it is caused, it is less free, and that if it is free, then it is not caused. This is simply not correct in this case. Predestination and free will remain difficult to combine.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Cheap Grace and Catholics

"Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the Church," Bonhoeffer opens. "Our struggle today is for costly grace."

In reading that famous opening line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's now-classic Discipleship, I knew I was in for a book that would not let me remain unchanged. It is the nature of the hearing of the Gospel, that once the essential content of the kerygma has been heard, there comes about  an eschatological event, where one can heed the call to "drop our nets", or leave as the young rich man does - sad, though still in full possession of his riches. The call of Jesus - announced through the proclamation that Jesus has conquered death for the forgiveness of sins, and is Lord of all, inaugurating his kingdom through the ministry of the Church - precipitates a moment of decision. Precisely because the call requires an answer, it cannot leave the person unchanged.

This is standard Christian theology, clear in practice from even a fairly superficial reading of the gospel accounts and the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel polarises people because it confronts with a decision. What I have learnt from Bonhoeffer is not that discipleship demands change, but that it is precisely grace that demands change. We Catholics have a wealthy tradition of avoiding polarisations of things which must, even paradoxically, unite - faith and reason, faith and works, free will and predestination, Christ being human and divine.

Yet I wonder whether our modern Catholic has not fallen into precisely the trap of seeing grace as sharply distinct from obedience to the call of Christ. Perhaps this is because we have taken grace to mean cheap grace, which really is antithetical to discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes lucidly about what distinguishes cheap and costly grace:

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself. [...] Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

On the other hand: 

"Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him. [...]

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it cost people their lives; it is grace, because it gives them their lives. It is costly, because it condemns sins; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son – “you were bought with a price” – and because the life of God’s son was not too costly for God to give for our lives. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God."

We Catholics know this, so much do we understand (it is said) that grace is costly, that we fall off the other side and require more than just belief, adding works to "faith alone". That is the claim made against us by some Protestant groups. "True," they might say, "we recognize that this is not official Church teaching, that Catholics do believe in grace alone" - but, they hasten to add, "the average Catholic believes in works-righteousness." I disagree. I see the average Catholic - the "practicing" one, that is - as having accepted grace, but not costly grace, only the cheap variety. The average Catholic who goes to Mass seems to have "forgiveness of sins as a general truth [...] God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God." This is not to say that they are all like that - far from it!

This proclamation of cheap grace seems like the only thing that might attract the masses, the only way to effectively evangelise. Precisely because it denies the centrality of the call to discipleship, because it ignores the cost of responding to the call of Jesus Christ that is intrinsically linked to the Gospel, it is not the true Gospel. Cheap grace replaces Jesus with an idol, a god made in our image, who justifies all our wrongdoings because this idol is really our own self-forgiveness. It underlies the Catholic denial of the sacrament of reconciliation with the line that "God forgives me anyway", it is that absolution without personal confession. The Catholic who is scared of a fellow sinner in the confessional, and so chooses to go "to God himself" has denied the complete otherness of the true God, the holy God, and has replaced God with the grace that they bestow upon themselves.

These "good news" of cheap grace is not only the mortal enemy, as Bonhoeffer says, of the true Church, that community of true Christians, it also sickens that sociological group we also call "the Church." What Bonhoeffer writes of the Lutherans in his own time is true of Catholics now:

"But do we also know that this cheap grace has been utterly unmerciful against us? Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organised churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquiered too cheaply? We have away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations, we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what was holy to the scornful and unbelievers. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard. What happened to the insights of the ancient church, which in the baptismal teaching watched so carefully over the boundaries between the church and the world, over costly grace?"

I had the opportunity a few months ago, and also just last week, to participate in that ancient liturgy, which still conserves that line reflecting the Church as distinct from the worldly. Before the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the call is heard "The doors, the doors!" Those who were not baptised into the People of God must have left, and the doors shut, for they could not even participate from afar in that holy treasure the Church has, her only treasure: Christ incarnate. Those who wished to participate in that greatest of gifts must first renounce Satan and receive Baptism, be born anew into the People of God. This was how the early Christians responded to their Master's command that they not give what is holy to those who are not fitting to receive it. (Mt. 7:6) But we do not now consider that grace to be something for which we must renounce that which is antithetical to God.  We have cheap sacraments - all welcome! We have cheap grace, and it rots us from within.

Worst of all is that, if the average Catholic has only cheap grace, that most addictive of substances, we have lost sight of Jesus. Set aside that, from a sociological perspective, the good news of cheap grace gains few converts because it does not allow for the working of the Holy Spirit which necessarily changes a person, and so the official numbers dwindle. Cheap grace separates us from Jesus, not only because it is not the grace bestowed by Jesus, but because when that cheap grace justifies our sin, we are hardened into disobedience. That cheap grace which does not challenge our actions merely blesses them, and so we are estranged from the call of Christ to follow him.

If we are to become disciples of the Risen Lord, we are to become disciples of costly grace. For it is only when we find the pearl of great price that we are willing to sell everything we have to obtain it.

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.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Baptismal Testimony to Grace

Whilst considering how to write "The Road from Unbelief", I trawled through some of my older discussions of the topic, and I found this, which I thought I should make public once again:

Only one person here knew me before I came to Christ, and even then, not very well. It may surprise you, then, that I can count my Christian time in months, not years. I don’t have very long now to tell of how I came to where I am today, but it is important nonetheless that I testify as to how God’s Gospel has worked in me.
The death of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a trivial matter, but I never heard about it. So what, I would ask, if a man died on a cross two millennia ago? Many people did. Growing up in Spain, and as far as I was concerned, Christianity was useful for two things; the free periods the non-religious got at school and the frequent holidays in veneration of all the saints. Church was the building down the road with a bell-tower to chime on the hour and tell me what time it was. I was allegedly surrounded by 99.8% Christians, but funnily enough I only ever met one, and he complained about getting forced to go to mass on Sundays.
A few things happened, which I will later recount, that completely changed my world-view. There have been many times these past few months when the significance of grace has hit me – a power that reduced me to gasps and wowing. The universe is a rather large place, and I am rather small. So to have the same person who made all that existence has to offer care about me, was a laughable proposition. That the almighty God who powers the stars, upholds the world by His Word and keeps ever atom in place would care to know me? How silly!
Unless it’s true. I have a very hard time grappling with what it means to be forgiven by God sometimes. God actually knows me, and I thought that would be enough to put any sane person off! But instead of removing me, instead of deleting me from existence, that He would care so much for us that He would confine Himself to flesh, give us the everlasting truth and humble Himself further to hang helplessly and painfully on a cross? There are no words for that.
Well, that’s peachy. I think I’m great, and God thinks highly of me, too, right? By no means! Until I grasped that grace was required I am not worthy, I was not God’s own. And it has made all the difference. Grace sets the tone for everything I do. Grace properly understood, lights my day with the Lord, frees me from my transgressions, uncovers my wrongdoings and alleviates my worries. God’s gift in the death of Christ affects my life like no other event in history, because the death of God’s Son is not trivial.
And that would be enough. That would be more than enough. But it’s not all. Forgiveness bestowed upon me despite the blackness of my heart frees me from resentment against others too, for how could I hold their sin accountable if God does not consider mine? Brothers and sisters, if we would punish for a penny, why should God not punish us for the whole pound? I am forgiven, so I cannot help but forgive. I am loved, so I am to love. That is the Gospel in me.