grace and human effort

At the heart of the Christian faith is a conviction that salvation is God’s doing.  God takes the initiative in establishing, maintaining and perfecting the relationship with all of creation, and humans in particular.  Without God, there would be no salvation.  Period.

This conviction has tended to be accompanied by an emphasis that downplays the importance of human effort.  Most of all, it seems that in order to defend Grace, some feel the need to oppose any prescriptive statements about what Christians ‘ought’ to do, particularly when those statements are a) specific, b) all-encompassing, or c) strong.

I’m not going to get into the broad issues of biblical theology despite how relevant they are here.  Instead I want to focus on the basic compatibility of Grace and human effort.  And none of the following has anything to do with being under the Jewish/Mosaic “Law” (i.e. keeping kosher, observing Sabbath, or males being circumcised).

Augustine perhaps said it best:  “Without God, we cannot.  Without us, God will not.” (Google it)

Like a loving parent whose love moves them to refrain from doing everything for their children, God seems to require our active participation in our growth.  “God will not” do things for us against our will.

This not only means we must participate with Grace, but also that being exhorted, instructed, urged, or encouraged to do specific things should be a normal part of our training and instruction in Christian community.  This happens through preaching, teaching, discipleship and mentoring.  We need to be told what we should be doing.

Trusting in Grace doesn’t mean resisting being told what to do.  Quite the contrary, actually.

Yes, it is possible (and too common, actually) that “telling people what to do” is done from a negative posture of power, ego and control that runs against the values of the Gospel.  But it is also possible (and more common than we may admit) that “telling people what to do” is resisted simply due to our pride and arrogance of not wanting to do what we should.

The Grace and Love of God is so overwhelming, beautiful and true that it should cast out all forms of fear, including the fear of being told what to do.

Being told what you are doing wrong and what you ought to do instead, can indeed be a “gift”, and expression of Grace.  It can be a very practical way that God offers the power, assistance and help toward the transformation, healing and growth that all disciples of Jesus should experience.

love is grateful

I recently came across this gem of a quote on Facebook; beautiful in its profundity, and breathtaking in its brevity.

“Grace is the essence of theology; gratitude is the essence of ethics.” – G. C. Berkouwer

It captures the heart of what any Christian thinker has ever tried to say about the fitting human response to divine grace.  The only way to respond to being given a gift is to say thank you.

My curious (and a bit obsessive) mind, always on the look-out for frameworks, pondered what the opposite might be.  That earning merit (and love) is the opposite of being given Grace (and love), and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad theology.  And that entitlement is the opposite of gratitude, and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad ethics.

In the back of my mind, however, was the framework of love and fear (wonderfully expressed by Michael Leunig here, scroll down and you’ll see it).  It left me thinking there must be a correlation between gratitude and love, and between entitlement and fear.  So I wanted to tease that out below (all the while hoping for a bit of it to drip down from my brain into my heart!)…

Love is grateful.  Fear is entitled.
Love is surprised at what it has.  Fear always needs more.
Love can freely give as it has received.  Fear always takes.
Love can accept what it disagrees with.  Fear tries to force it to change.
Love can cope without recognition.  Fear clamours for attention.
Love is empathetic.  Fear is narcissistic.
Love sheds tears on behalf of others.  Fear only sees its own pain.
Love can fail and try again.  Fear gives up.
Love is life.  Fear is death.

love of self & others

More and more, I’m convinced that love of self and neighbour/others are meant to go together.  Love of self without love of others is – literally – selfish, and love of others without love of self is not only unsustainable but false.  Leaving aside the question of justification for love of self (when we all know too well of the things we do which we don’t love – or do we grow too skilled at dismissing these things from our minds?), I found a relevant statement yesterday in Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy.  As a part his argument that ‘hunger for significance’ is not egotistical, he defines egotism in a helpful way:

Egotism is pathological self-obsession, a reaction to anxiety about whether one really does count.  It is a form of acute self-consciousness and can be prevented and healed only by the experience of being adequately loved.  It is, indeed, a desperate response to frustration of the need we all have to count for something and be held to be irreplaceable, without price.

 

both-and, again…

This photo (found on Facebook) reflects a false, either/or view of Christian spirituality.

It assumes that a) respecting, serving, growing and happiness of ‘you’ and b) respecting, serving, growing and happiness of ‘God’ are in direct and total contradiction.  To quote Hannah Moore from the film ‘Amazing Grace’, “we humbly suggest you can do both.”

I suspect that the person making these ‘corrections’ to the original photo probably meant well, and I agree that a ‘humanism’ that defines itself as being over-and-against (or otherwise independent of) God is counter to Scripture and the Gospel.  But I deny that loving yourself is in tension with loving God or others.  Indeed, based on Christ’s epitomisation of the entire Law (i.e. Mark 12:29-31), I’m inclined to believe that Love of God, others and self are inseparable.

a trinity of ‘knowledge-lights’…

Epistemology is the most foundational of topics in philosophy.  How trustworthy is human knowledge?  Or worded another way: How much ‘faith’ (Greek ‘pistis’ for ‘trust’) can we put in what we think we know?  At one end of the spectrum, you have narrow, ‘verificationist’ epistemologies (such as: logical positivism & naive realism) that only trust knowledge that can be ‘verified’ by empirical methods.  At the other, you have skeptical ‘post modern’ epistemologies (such as the phenomenalism of Maurice Merleau-Ponty – The Phenomenology of Perception) which hold that all we can truly ‘know’ is the ‘sense data’ of our perceptions.In his book, The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright follows the thought of renowned Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan (particularly his Generalised Empirical Method) discussing a kind of middle-way between positivism and phenomenalism: ‘critical realism’.  Elsewhere, he has described an ‘epistemology of love’, where love is that which a) respects the ‘otherness’ of the other, while at the same time b) remaining in rich subjective relationship to it.  Critical realism is first critical in that it is aware of its potential for self-deception and the distortion of perception, but it is not so critical that it does not take the second post-critical step of then daring to describe the reality it believes it actually ‘knows’.

I’ve been recently intrigued, however, by a talk on Epistemology by Mark Strom (audio here) where he claims that all human knowledge involves not only acts of love, but also faith and hope.  I find this really compelling.  Our knowledge of any activity, person, principle or thing involves faith, hope and love – in some form, and at some level.

Scientific knowledge, for an interesting example, involves all three.  The natural scientist must first have faith (Greek pistis, meaning ‘trust’) that his object of study, the natural world, will, under the exact same conditions, always behave exactly the same way in the present and future as we’ve observed it to in the past.  She also hopes that the hunch followed will be fruitful, that the experiment designed will be sufficient, and that the knowledge gained will be helpful and worthwhile. And finally, there is also love – the relational dynamism between a subject and object; in the case of science, between the observer and the observed, the cosmologist and the cosmos, the neurologist and the neurons.

Faith, hope and love (I thought for a few minutes today), then can be thought of as the ‘vehicles’ by which knowledge comes to us.  However, this, I decided, is too anthropocentric a metaphor.  Better to see them as ‘lights’ by which we are enabled to ‘see’ Truth.  But of course, this vision remains imperfect, blurry and ‘dim’…

Love never ends. Prophecies? They will be set aside. Tongues? They will cease. Knowledge? It will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully knownAnd now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 13:8-13

the (w)hole in our confession

Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind & strength
Love your neighbour as you…
Love your self.

Love of God, neighbour and self are all interwoven.  I’ve been thinking lately about confession, which – like love – occurs in relationship.  Protestants often are quick to give reasons why they don’t confess to a priest like Catholics.  “Through Christ, we can confess [but do we!?] directly to God…”  Fair enough.  But one thing about confession to a priest is that at least they are confessing horizontally as well as vertically.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that Protestants are not that great at horizontal confession.  When we do it, we often only confess the really easy-to-confess stuff.  “Oh, I just have to be honest with you… I’ve allowed myself to get too busy this week.”  In the ModWest, being busy is a virtue, for crying out loud – that’s hardly confession…  Rarely do we [OK… I!!] have a) the courage, and b) the quality of relationship to confess the darkest, deepest, hardest-to-confess stuff.

My theory is that our vertical confession is at least complimented (and, at most, completed!?) by our horizontal confession.  I reckon it can be all too easy to create a ‘god’ that suits our (vertical) confessional needs; that responds to our confession with just the perfect amount and flavour of gentleness, assurance, anger, frustration or whatever makes us feel better – which is too often the reason for doing it anyway…

Confession, like love, is meant to be so holistically real that it touches all of our person – our emotions (heart), our identity (soul), our thoughts (mind) and our actions (strength).  May we be truly honest, real and vulnerable in our confession – vertically to God, horizontally to our close, trusted friends, and even internally to ourselves!!

Confess to the Lord, with all your heart, soul, mind & strength
Confess to your neighbour as you…
Confess to yourself.

activist theologian

I picked up a copy of Gustavo Gutierrez‘s ‘A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation‘ for a) my growing interest in the biblical theme of ‘Freedom’/’Liberation’, and b) the ‘Themes in a Missional Spirituality’ block-course I’ll be taking this semester at Carey Baptist College – with guest lecturer – and author and theologian – Charles Ringma (very exciting!).

He ends the Conclusion with this:

We must be careful not to fall into intellectual self-satisfaction, into a kind of triumphalism of erudite and advanced ‘new’ visions of Christianity.  The only thing that is really new is to accept day by day the gift of the Spirit, who makes us love – in our concrete options to build a true human fellowship, in our historical initiatives to subvert an order of injustice – with the fullness with which Christ loved us.  To paraphrase a well-known text of Pascal, we can say that all the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution, and of liberation, are not worth one act of genuine solidarity with exploited social classes.  They are not worth one act of faith, love, and hope, committed – in one way or another – in active participation to liberate humankind from everything that dehumanizes it and prevents it from living according to the will of the Father. (p.174)

modesty and attraction

Modesty isn’t (on one hand) wearing body-hiding, beauty-suppressing clothing to prevent even the possibility of someone having any kind of attraction.  Nor, of course, is modesty (on the other hand) wearing body-flaunting, beauty-distorting clothing to ensure every possibility of every kind of attraction.

Modesty and being attractive are not at all at odds with each other.  Proper attraction between two people happens through attractiveness of various kinds – i.e. an attractive personality and attractive attire.  Being attractive in the truest sense is to act, speak, behave and dress in a way that fosters healthy mutuality and relationship with an other.

Prudism is unattractive in the passive/negative sense, because it witholds the whole person from an other.  Exhibitionism (used here to refer to the opposite of prudism) is also unattractive in the active/positive sense, because it forces too much of the person onto an other.

Therefore, the problem with immodesty (whether the immodesty of prudism, or the immodesty of exhibitionism) is not that it is too attractive, but that it is not attractive enough.

who is my neighbour?

In chapter 10 of his gospel (or not far into the Jerusalem journey narrative as he would have seen it – he didn’t divide his gospel into ‘chapter and verse’), Luke presents an exchange between an expert in the Law (of Moses – i.e. Torah) and Jesus.  The lawyer is first trying to ‘test’ Jesus, and uses a fairly standard question of the day to do so.

Both Matthew and Mark also record this question asked of Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I don’t want to bother with the whole discussion of what this question means and what it doesn’t mean (suffice to say that it does not mean ‘how moral must I be to get into heaven after I die’).  I’m more interested in how Jesus answers this “law expert”. Continue reading “who is my neighbour?”

teleology & ethics

The word ‘teleology’ (from Greek τελος ‘telos’ – meaning ‘goal’, ‘end’, ‘purpose’ or ‘that toward which things tend’) is not a street-level term.  However, the concept of a purpose, goal, function or ‘end’ to things most certainly is.  It’s a common as anything.  Teleology is blindingly relevant.

Continue reading “teleology & ethics”