Toward the end of my mother's visit, we had a conversation which, she said, made my interest in Christianity "make perfect sense." That's pretty impressive since it still doesn't make perfect sense to me, but this is how the conversation went.
She said one thing that vexed her was how, exactly, her own life would be different if she were a Christian. It occurred to me later that the first thing a lot of people would have answered is that she wouldn't be divorced and living with a man to whom she is not married, but I didn't think of that at the time. Instead, I agreed that her life has actually been pretty similar to that of a good church lady. She's kind, compassionate, civically active, a good mother, and a good teacher.
But, I said, such middle-class visions of church life aren't what draw me. I told her that if she belonged to a good church she would be less isolated than she is from people outside her family. I brought up Hauerwas's example of a church where a pregnant teenager would be paired with an older couple who would raise both mother and child. I pointed out Telford's promise of "unconditional friendship" to me, which he's lived up to despite some very good excuses he could have used to get out of it. (And believe me, it hasn't been easy for him.) It's the refusal to protect oneself from others, physically or emotionally; the refusal to close the door on anyone.
"But sometimes you just run out of resources," my mother said, knowing whereof she spoke.
That's the religion part, I said. If you are enmeshed in a community that way, you can call on more than just your own resources. And for some people, the Holy Spirit pulls more out of them than they think they can do -- as one pastor I heard describe it, "To love even when it hurts. To love even when all is darkness and all is black."
The fact that so few churches really live up to this, as I mentioned to Rob in the last post, keeps frustrating me. Part of that is, I think, that the structure of middle-class American life is basically designed to protect us from those cruel edges of the world where people have to call on such extraordinary reserves. Yet as the two examples I cited show, you don't really have to go that far. It's just that in my neighborhood, perdition tends to come by a thousand little acts of neglect rather than big flashy misdeeds.
I've been wondering if I should move on to some more radical church. I was thinking about the Mennonites, ironically, exactly when Hugo announced he was leaving them. I was also (again somewhat ironically given that post) thinking of looking into an intentional Christian community, which imitates the church of the New Testament. Jennifer mentioned the Church of the Servant King (described briefly on page 4 of this), but that has several drawbacks. Anyway, if anybody knows of any good communities like that I would be interested in hearing about them.
The conversation with my mother also brought to mind a theological concept I've been pondering lately. It's the Reformed doctrine of "common grace" and "special grace." Telford describes it down in page 22 of this article:
Common grace is divine favor shown to all human beings, regardless of their proximity to the Gospel. We might even call common grace “protological” or “primal grace” (grace from the beginning) and special grace “eschatological” or “final grace” (grace toward the end).
Mouw repeats a list of three forms of common grace promulgated by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924:
(1) the bestowal of natural gifts, such as rain and sunshine, upon creatures in general, (2) the restraining of sin in human affairs, so that the unredeemed do not produce all of the evil that their depraved natures might otherwise bring about, and (3) the ability of unbelievers to perform acts of civic good (Mouw 2001, 9).
Mouw pleads that these types of common grace should not be taken as comprehensive.
As the Mouw quote suggests, one purpose of the idea of common grace was to square the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity with the fact that most people aren't totally depraved. But even if you don't believe in Total Depravity, it's an incredibly useful idea. If there's one problem that I hear raised the most by nonbelievers against Christianity, it's some version of my mother's objection. She's a good person, and she doesn't believe in God. How does that fit into the story?
Without a clear idea of the distinct graces, the answers tend to go in two different directions. One is to take the view that the only grace is special grace, so if a good God favors only his followers, my mother's goodness is illusory or irrelevant. This leads to an attitude among some fundamentalists and evangelicals that the only thing God must really care about is worship of himself -- justification by faith to the max. This also, I think, encourages the apocalyptic attitude among the same groups that God must despise most of the world and will torch it any day now.
The opposite side understandably finds this appalling, and so elevates common grace to the level of special grace. This tends to lead to the conclusion that if all goodness is of God, and so many good people aren't Christian, Jesus may not be so essential after all. The Unitarians brought this idea to its apex, but many liberal Christians seem to see Jesus as important only to the extent that he represents abstract virtues and truths (see Fr. Jake's comment here, for instance).
Neither one of those answers presents a very compelling reason to convert. In the former case, God sounds like a megalomaniac dictator you wouldn't want to worship. In the latter case, there doesn't seem to be any reason not to go on being a virtuous secular humanist (or a virtuous whatever-you-are). But they have something else in common: they relieve Christians of the burden of having to act different. As the Internet Monk lamented here, thinking God only cares about a confession of belief in himself makes discipleship in the rest of life pretty irrelevant. And if Christ is simply a road to a benign humanism, then you don't really have to listen to the commandments that demand something weird that would alienate your fellow humanists.
The nice thing about the common/special grace distinction is that it helps distinguish what is Christian without condemning everything else as Satanic. I hope that if more people imbibe this idea they'd resist the urge to slap the label "Christian" on whatever they approve of. No, traditional family values and government welfare programs are not Christian. They can benefit people, but they're common graces, not special graces. And I would venture to say that people outside the faith aren't buying for one second that they're Christian, because they know from personal experience that you don't have to believe in Christ to believe in them. Back when nearly everyone in Western society was Christian people could elide that distinction, but no more. We nonbelievers have high standards these days, and if Christians want to win us they will have to exceed them.Posted by Camassia at August 23, 2004 06:49 PM | TrackBack