August 23, 2004
The graces

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.

Special grace, meanwhile, is the grace given to believers in Christ. That gift is the Gospel, both as received and as lived out by Christians.

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

Thanks, Camassia. You seem to have a lot of clarity here.

Common grace is a doctrine easily twisted. I've heard Reformed people suggest that common grace exists (only?) as a means of saving the elect, like it's some sort of "spillover benefit" that God didn't really mean to give to the *whole* world.

And yes, common grace can also be used to deflect the good actions of non-religious people: non-Christians couldn't possibly do anything good in themselves (so it is said) because they're totally depraved, so the goodness must just be some residual effect of God's common grace.

That's probably not a completely fair representation of common grace and total depravity , but it is the one I grew up with. So I'm glad you pointed out that common grace is a useful idea to Christians of all persuasions -- I hadn't considered that.

Posted by: Chris on August 23, 2004 10:23 PM

There is a strong strain of Platonism running through Western culture, non-religious and Christian alike. All the civic and personal virtues are available from that source alone. And there are many others. You could call it "common grace" or "protological grace," or you could call it "philosophy." In any case, it is a good concept to keep in mind, as one tries (agaist all odds, usually) to love one's neighbors.
The only thing that is really unique about Christianity, is Christ. But, should that be surprising?

Posted by: Rob on August 24, 2004 05:26 AM

Gosh, this is a very insightful entry. I'd add another possibility: that secular humanitarians or "virtuous pagans" or whatever you want to call them obey the second great commandment ("love thy neighbor as thyself"), while Christians obey the first and second great commandment ("love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength").

Posted by: Marvin on August 24, 2004 05:57 AM

Yeah, except that I think you have to specify "Christ," since the virtuous pagans had the concept of a supreme, Ultimate, Unknowable, One God. Check out, for instance, Plotinus, who influenced Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, etc.

Posted by: Rob on August 24, 2004 06:34 AM

Hi Camassia--
We spoke surprisingly the other day when I was visiting Telf. I am touched by your intellectual clarity on some of these issues. I just wanted to respond to one or two things.
1) 'The religion part" which prevents you from running out of resources:
The tricky part of this is that it is *not* the church or community that makes the resources abundant or overflowing. It is the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of the members. When the resources are dependent on humans, they run out. Even ministry professionals burn out--with all their resources & experience--when they forget to take time to refill from the well of Living Water. It's a small distinction, but important, I think. Because the Holy Spirit doesn't "pull it out of them" as much as pour Himself into us. I never put much stock into all the hoopla about "God giving us our strength' until I had nothing else to depend on. Maybe you've spoken about this elsewhere, and I'm bringing up something you've already thought about, but I think it's important to tie into this post. The 'special grace' is the Holy Spirit pouring into your life til it is overflowing. And that comes only from presence. Taking time to be in the presence of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and allowing that to permeate and fill you. It sounds hokey and strange, but at the same time, there's truth to it.

2) Some recommendations for Christian community/churches-- You might be interested in Vineyard or Lighthouse. They're a teensy bit charismatic (well, they're more than that) but I know that they're trying to live out Acts church style. If you're interested in something a little less, I'd recommend Bel Air Presbyterian, which isn't as square as it sounds. If you're interested in a commute, Harvest Rock in Pasadena is growing in popularity for its enthusiasm.

I'd love to chat more...
Grace & Peace--Katie

Posted by: Katie on August 25, 2004 09:33 AM

I read Mouw's "He Shines in All That's Fair", and highly recommend it for its tidy and eloquent explanation of common grace; Camassia, this is a terrific summary you have here.

Posted by: Hugo on August 25, 2004 12:42 PM

"If Grace Is True" at might give a little light into some corners you find still inthe shadows. Amazon has it.

Posted by: Jim on August 26, 2004 03:19 AM

My advice, since there really is no church radical enough to be living exactly how Jesus taught, is to do what you can to get members of the church you're already in more radically involved in helping the poor and marginalized.

If there's a Catholic Worker House near you, though, they're usually grateful for help from anybody, Catholic or Non-Catholic -- and they're pretty darn radical.

Posted by: Patrick on August 28, 2004 04:13 PM

A good discussion. I admit to being inclined to reject, sometimes a bit too emphatically, the theology of the "elect"...and in so doing, tend to grab the lowest common denominator to erase the line between "us" and "them."

I think I'd agree with Katie that a good definition of "special grace" would be the Holy Spirit; if the Trinity is understood to be a community of love, with the Holy Spirit being the flow of love between the Father and the Son (or Lover and Beloved).

The uniqueness is the Incarnation; God dwelling among us. The same flow of love (Holy Spirit) was extended to humanity. To the degree we stand in the place of Christ, we become the Beloved of God.

The early Christians were amazed to see some Gentiles filled with the Holy Spirit. It seems this new relationship with God, ushered in through the Incarnation, was not entered into exactly the way they thought it "should."

That's been my experience. I've encountered many folks who are clearly "filled with the spirit," but do not hold the specific beliefs, or use the lingo, that is usually associated with being "Christian."

The Spirit moves where she will. I really don't think there is any "them"...only "we"...from God's perspective. It would seem that we need to move towards such an inclusive perspective as well.

Posted by: Jake on August 30, 2004 05:14 PM
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