More and more, I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian moral life is the role of active, moral effort.
By this, I’m talking not only about the mental/psychological task of working hard at discerning what is ‘right’ or ‘God’s will’, but particularly the gritty, tiring, laborious work (but not ‘works’ – read on) doing God’s will. Training yourself to do acts of love and service instead of (at best) nothing at all or (worst of all) of acts of harm and selfishness.
Not surprisingly, if you know me, I’m finding N.T. Wright just brilliant on this. Video here. Book I’m currently reading here. He helpfully navigates the territory of the debate concerning how we develop Christian character, and particularly the question of the role of our own moral effort in this process. Is it a matter of simply trying hard enough (to make yourself good enough), as comes through in popular portrayals of Christian faith (based no doubt on a lot of actual teaching/instruction)? Or is it a matter of resting from any trying at all, and simply waiting on God to empower, motivate and enable you, as comes through in not a few reactions to the former? Wright argues persuasively and thoroughly that it is ‘neither/nor’. He makes clear the ‘both/and’ view expressed by Paul and the rest of the New Testament. Both my own moral effort; and God’s enabling presence alongside and underneath me.
As usual, the worldview one is working with is everything. And here the tension between monistic and dualistic frameworks are evident. If reality is, at utter rock bottom, essentially one thing, then it’s hard to have any sense of both/and. And if reality is characterised by not only a relational duality, but a dualism where the two ontological realities are fundamentally opposed to and detached from one another (i.e. the Creator is not involved within creation at all…), then this both/and is just as impossible. Indeed, much modern naturalism has simply cut the strings of an ‘unnecessary’ deity who had been ‘kicked upstairs’ by 18th century Enlightenment philosophy. We inherit much of this naturalism today, as we breathe the air of an intellectual (and epistemological) tradition that fails (or refuses) to see any trace of God in the world, and strips it of its title ‘creation’ and calls in ‘Nature’ instead, leaving us with an utterly God-less view of the world.
This general (and powerful) shift in popular imagination (and let’s be honest, at the level of ultimate reality, it’s a matter of imagination, not observation) has fed into the particularly Christian (and biblical) debate about how we should picture this both/and of God’s work and our work in Christian living.
I think metaphors are the best we can do, often. And perhaps multiple metaphors are needed to capture this. Wright makes the point that a picture of two humans collaborating on one activity doesn’t quite get it, as though ‘walking by (or in) the Spirit’ was analogous to working alongside another human such that you put in 50% and so does God. It’s not like that. Any good metaphor will capture at least three things (and more):
a) the ontological difference between God and humans
b) the utter human dependency of humans upon God
c) the very real human responsibility to act and choose
I can think of no better metaphor than the person of Christ. But unfortunately, this re-raises the whole question, for (if we affirm Christ’s dual nature as Scripture teaches) how do we conceive of the relationship between Christ’s divinity and his humanity. Is he a human puppet for a divine hand? Is he basically just human? Is he mostly divine and just appeared to be human? Much rich and wonderful theology (since the 1st century as the apostles countered Gnosticism and docetic Jesus) is devoted to clarifying and addressing these questions.
But what other metaphors might we use?