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What’s Amazing About Grace?

Does God determine everything else, or can the actions of God also be determined, in some way, by created beings, such as ourselves? Can we (and do we) cause the transcendent First Cause of all things to act? If so, are we also first causes, in a qualified sense, and not just God’s holy sock puppets? And if we do have free will, but don’t start with a good will, how can God make us good without forcing the will so that it is no longer the will? How can God save us without breaking us?

Christians have debated these and similar questions for many centuries, but those who are non-religious and the irreligious face some surprisingly similar challenges. To see the parallels, imagine replacing the word ‘God’ with, for example, a supreme ruler — an individual or perhaps a small and tight-knit technocratic guild. Imagine also that this supreme ruler happens to be all-wise and wholly untouched by vice (we can be creative in thought experiments). Should anyone else then get a say in how society works, especially if no one is as wise and virtuous as the leader? Under these circumstances, is power better concentrated or diffused, given that most people make mistakes in using it? To put the question another way, should society be like a perfectly designed and operated machine, or like a garden that includes spontaneity and voluntary action, even at the risk of snakes breaking in and spoiling things? Presented in this form, what may seem like an exclusively theological issue is also a political one, and the approach taken in one domain may influence attitudes in the other.

Although these debates are ancient, and important for atheists as well as theists, they have arguably become harder and more intractable in recent centuries. The image of the machine versus that of the garden helps to pinpoint part of the reason for this change. For the ancient Greek philosophers until the end of the Middle Ages, the root metaphor of the world was usually organic, inspired by living and growing things. With organisms, there are many distinct kinds of causes at work, cooperating unconsciously towards a goal. But with the development of mechanical clocks and the success of early modern science in explaining the orbits of the planets by simple laws, the root metaphor of reality became that of the machine in a Cartesian box-like space. Although there may be a vast number of causes at work in certain machines, they are all basically the same kind of thing in this worldview, namely variants of pushing and pulling, or what Raymond Tallis has described as “causal oomph!”

This worldview shapes our imaginations at a deep level, even when we think we understand that causation is not, in fact, wholly machine-like. Machines don’t usually work well when parts start acting spontaneously. Machine-thinking therefore instills a prejudice against the idea of secondary causes in nature. This picture of reality therefore leans toward perceiving or investing all causal power in God (in the theological context) or the supreme leader (in a political context). This concentration has the benefit of simplicity, but conflicts with the picture that emerges from many theological texts, including the Bible, in which human beings appear to be players in the various dramas and not just sock puppets. This approach also conflicts with our self-understanding, since we think we possess at least some freedom of action. As for attempts to create societies that are machine-like, with an absolute concentration of power, who would want to live in such a world, even under the most benign direction, if free will is non-existent, suppressed, or an illusion?

Machine-thinking also creates another set of problems, especially for debates within the framework of Christianity. One of the cornerstones of Christian doctrine is that salvation comes from God, not from us. What role then do we play in our salvation? If there is just one kind of cause, then the problem of the understanding divine and human contributions risks becoming a zero-sum game in which our contribution, if any, fills up a deficiency in God’s contribution, a little “oomph!” from our will added to a big “Oomph!” from God’s will. But this picture is clearly inadequate since it makes the human and divine contributions differ only in degree, not in kind, and does not provide a basis for placing the initiative with God. Nor does it even begin to address the problem of how to be saved if one’s will is not good to start with, if the causal “oomph!” of our wills has a taste for all kinds of things that pull us in wrong directions.

What about grace then? Many witnesses in the history of Christianity, from St. Augustine to John Newton, who wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” testify that grace is the ingredient missing from the interplay of God’s will and our wills. It is grace (whatever that means) that saves us, but how does this work, and how can we play any part in the process? Not only do we tend to will things that lead us away from God but, as St. Paul informs us, we cannot imagine let alone will what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). Whatever kind of non-coercive “Oomph!” grace provides to our wills, it seems that this gift has to be the result of God’s initiative alone, leaving the choice of who is or is not saved exclusively to God.

A still from the videos on the YouTube channel on “Special Divine Action” developed by a project at Oxford University.

A still from the videos on the YouTube channel on “Special Divine Action” developed by a project at Oxford University.

These problems and others suggest that we need a radically different way of thinking, and a good place to start is to change the way in which we picture these matters in our imaginations. As a special divine action, grace is an unmerited gift from God. But it is not something merely external to us, like a divine “Oomph!” that just happens to energize some souls and not others. In Christian theology, the various names and types of grace share one key idea: a second birth into a new and holy life. And here organic metaphors, notably the parable of the sower told by Jesus Christ (Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, and Luke 8:1–15), help to break the deadlock surrounding the question of how this new life gets started. A piece of ground (representing human nature) cannot produce a plant by itself: the initiative come from the sower (representing God). On the other hand, the manner in which the ground receives the seed is crucial to whether or not the ground produces a plant. All the ground needs to do is to cease to resist the seed, and a plant will start to grow. Applied to the questions about the role of the human will, and borrowing an idea from the philosopher Eleonore Stump, we don’t have to begin with a good will; all we need is to have the will in a “neutral position,” to cease to resist grace.

What about the human will when the life of grace has begun? Here again it may be helpful to change metaphors from those of machines. In the amazing new life of grace, a human being participates in the life of God (2 Peter 1:4), becoming an adopted child of God, addressing God personally and calling God ‘Father’ (Matthew 6:9-13). In this life of grace, we address God as ‘I’ to ‘thou,’ as St. Augustine did in his famous prayer, “Late have I loved you.” Rather than thinking of divine will and human will as independent steering wheels, operating in a machine-like Cartesian box, the root metaphor here is joint attention or shared awareness of shared focus of persons, oriented towards friendship. Does a parent cause a child to act, or a child cause a parent to act? The parent has authority, but if one thinks in mechanical terms of trying to find the initial “oomph!” that triggers an interpersonal action, the question is faintly ridiculous. As any parent with a child knows, or anyone who has experienced deep friendship and love with another person, it is not exclusively one will or the other taking the initiative, but more akin to a game or to a dance.

Discussion Questions:

1. If the will needs to be in the “neutral position” to cease to resist grace, what might, in practice, lead us to be in neutral as opposed to being hostile?

2. If the relationship between nature and the life of grace is like the ground and the plant in the parable of the sower, can anything stop the life of grace once it has started?

3. Does the picture of human beings in relation to God that emerges from the organic image of the parable of the sower, as well as the ‘I’-‘thou’ relationship expressed by St. Augustine, have implications for the political organization of society as well?

4. Christians have long wrestled with another problem associated with that of grace and free will, namely predestination. Can an organic metaphor provide a new way of thinking about this issue as well, given that a plant grows towards a final flourishing, and is, in this sense, “predestined” while it is alive, without a guarantee that it will reach this final state?

Discussion Summary

The article “What’s Amazing About Grace?” attracted five thoughtful comments and questions. Their quality implies a good deal of interest in grace, but a lack of knowledge of the landscape of ideas and the debates about grace, whether traditional or contemporary.

The questions raised stimulate and coalesce around the following:

  1. How does the life of grace get started? What role does the recipient of grace play in the initiation and cultivation of this life? Are there non-religious parallels?
  2. What are the distinctive perspectives and categories of grace, especially across the porous division of approaches that generally characterize Catholic and non-Catholic ways of understanding these issues?
  3. What does it mean to cease to resist grace by having the will in a ‘neutral position’ (see Stump, AquinasChapter 13)? Is this a helpful theological proposal for understanding the role of the recipient? How can a ‘neutral will’ be understood, in a typical life or in a situation of atypical psychology? What do psychology or neuroscience today suggest about the possibility and meaning of a neutral will?