Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Why it is Dangerous to Talk about Grace and Why Grace is Always Dangerous
Lecturer: THOMAS W. CURRIE
Why It is Dangerous to Talk About Grace
and Why Grace Is Always Dangerous
Why should it be dangerous to talk about grace? Is there any word that is more beloved by us today than “grace"? We sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” and we sing this hymn with true affection, glad to celebrate its claim that “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Moreover, some of us, anyway, have had experience with certain people, even communities of faith, for which the word “grace” was not the defining characteristic either of their life or their faith. Such experiences have a way of deepening our appreciation for what it is that “grace” names, and in the midst of which “grace” can only seem to us like “a place of springs” in “the valley of Baca.” So, since when was water dangerous, or bread and wine? Or, since -when is it dangerous to speak of such things? Are they not the very gifts that mediate to us life abundant?
Several years ago, Marsha Witten wrote a book entitled, All Is Forgiven1, in which she listened very closely to sermons preached by Southern Baptists and Presbyterian (USA) pastors, mainly on the text in Luke 15 dealing with the parable of the Prodigal Son. Witten describes in her introduction the experience of spending the afternoon of Good Friday, 1990 listening to a broadcast of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. “The stark sonorities of the original instruments used in the performance, and the weak, still unfulfilled sunshine of eastern Pennsylvania’s early spring, seemed to heighten the pathos of the events portrayed in Bach’s setting of the -gospel text: an account, plain and unelaborated, and unaccompanied by elements of hope or joy, of the sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus.”2
While listening to the antiphonal choirs calling out in sorrow to a Jesus quite dead and prepared for his tomb, Witten heard a thump outside the door to her house indicating that the day’s mail had arrived. Included in the mail was a circular from a nearby Baptist church that was just being organized. The message that arrived on Good Friday afternoon was this:
In some ways the juxtaposition of Good Friday (and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion) with this message illustrates precisely how grace has been rendered harmless in a world and in a church that finds grace easily manageable and in any case, indistinguishable from “uplift” and “self-esteem” and “freedom from stress.” Witten’s conclusion, after listening to these sermons is given in the title of her book, “All is Forgiven”: that is, in reducing forgiveness to a therapeutic matter, it now belongs to all in much the same sense that Lake Wobegone’s children are all above average. To be sure, by God’s grace, it may well be that forgiveness is indeed extended to all but just so it comes not through the cultivation of a positive attitude or some therapeutic technique but rather through something more bloody and fearful. She concludes:
These sermons radiate an unproblematic optimism about Christian faith in the world not only because their portrait of that faith is so accommodated to worldly norms; the optimism also stems from the assumption that human beings have mastery over their social, cultural, and even natural environments. The choice-making demanded by the world of social order and culture, and the potential threats present in nature, pose no difficulties for Christian life, . . . because of an implicit understanding that the demands and threats of the world have been tamed by the very persons who are the recipients of the sermons’ messages. The talk suggests that human beings “like us” are competent to deal with the pluralism and complexity of the world; they know how to navigate a path among the thickets of multiple offerings; they know how to allow faith to coexist with concerns of mundane life. There are no dangers in interacting with the world. . . Thus, because issues of control over the world are not a problem in this speech - since control is instead assumedthe difficulties remaining for Christians are largely those of balance: how to counterweigh one’s rational control over the world, as evidenced by the daily concerns of joband family, with the ability to “go with the flow,”. . . to “smell the roses.” As the sermons see it, this is one of the important functions of religious experience: to enable the release of genteel affect into the rational control of one’s daily experience of the world.4
Witten concludes, sad to relate, that it was the Presbyterian sermons that represented the “most accommodated response”sermons that perceived no great difficulty in undertaking the Christian life, largely- because the demands of that life were, in her words, “so domesticated to concerns of daily middle-class existence that they do not require abandoning secular pursuits.”5 We might quibble with her implication that “secular pursuits” are somehow inauthentic or inauthentically Christian, but her basic point remains, I think, namely that the Christian faith does not cost us much, and what we mean when we say “grace,” has become something resembling the most prized goal of a consumer culture: a positive attitude, a comfortable, secure, well-balanced life. We have made grace a matter of personal hygiene and so rendered it safe to talk about.
Worse, the communities for which such messages are intended do not seem to understand themselves as constituted by a gospel that envisions them at its very heart. Rather, they have become societies, sometimes mutual admiration societies, sometimes societies for doing good things in the world, sometimes, even, societies for the propagation of the gospel but in any case not communities of faith whose life together in worship and work is itself constitutive of the gospel they proclaim. Witten does not make much of this but it seems to me to be the heart of the matter, the real tragedy, if you will. That is to say, the problem with trivializing the gospel’s message is not the harm that is done to the gospelthe gospel is tough and will survive our abuse of itbut the life and even the joy that is sucked out of our churches, the real miracle of which is their own joyful existence as the witness to the crucified and risen Lord.
One might well ask at this point exactly what the church has meant, then, when it speaks of grace, or to what reality are we pointing when we name it grace. One could do worse, I suppose, than look at the book of Romans and see how Paul speaks of grace. There in Romans 3:23 and 3:24, he notes that since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we are made righteous by “his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” I am no biblical scholar and I hesitate to tread into areas where I have no business venturing an opinion, but it seems to me that in talking about charis, grace, Paul consistently links the word to what God has done in Jesus Christ, and particularly to what God has done in the cross of Jesus Christ, while at the same time insisting that this miraculous action of God comes to us as an undeserved gift, a gift which, in making us righteous before God reveals both the depth of our sinful lostness and the strength of our still unbroken communion with God through dying and rising with Christ. The gift of grace is this communion with God, which is why one cannot speak of it apart from Jesus Christ and apart from the life we share in Christ’s body, the church. It is not a commodity but a life, a life “in Christ,” a life that meets our lives and makes of them a life together within the triune terms of God’s own life.
Grace, then, is first of all God’s act, indeed a decision within God’s own life. Or to put it another way, grace is not something that you or I can do. It is incommensurate with human possibilities. It is not a virtue or an explanation or an attitude, or a technique. It is, rather, a miracle of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, this miracle is always to be understood as something embodied, an act that defines itself in terms of Jesus Christ, God incarnate. Here is where grace is revealed to be a person, a person with a name, with a past and indeed, with a future. Just so, we are not to think of grace as some disembodied idea abstracted from this person and then turned into something resembling an explanation of ourselves. No; that way lies the Gnostic and even nihilistic abyss that so plagues our present day culture of hopelessness. Grace, rather, always tells the story of Israel and the church, leading us back to the particular events that took place in Jerusalem, and does so by baptizing us into that story by baptizing us into Christ’s body, teaching us through the body language of worship and life together the vocabulary of death and resurrection.
“The cross tests everything,” wrote Luther, and that is also true here. Grace is always cruciform in shape. Its truth is not thin and clear like water but, (to borrow words from C.S. Lewis) it is dark like blood. Specifically, it is what happens in the rejection of the Crucified and in the swallowing up of that rejection in the even deeper mercy and mystery of the Crucified who is raised. It is this grace that becomes grace for sinners, the justification of the ungodly. Here, all the corruptions of the gospel by a consumer culture are not that far from the Kingdom. Grace is the most marvelous good news. Moreover, the culture’s adoption of the word grace to describe “lightness of being,” even “charm” and “delight” is also on the mark. Indeed, in some ways such uses of the term grace seem closer to what the New Testament describes than the virtues or explanations the church has often conjured up. Grace does not mean self-annihilation but communion, a dying that resembles the labor of being born, a birthing that looks for all the world like a death. Just so, however, the good news of grace is precisely not my freedom from stress or renewed self-esteem but the gift of learning how to die, even how to suffer, and how to rise. That is the dance. And, that is grace’s great gift, the very thing.
Paul reminds us, that baptism bestows on us, the gift of being trained to die and rise in Christ. For that is not only how grace dances, but also how it teaches us to dance, by uniting us with the crucified and risen Lord in a community of forgiveness and joy. Only so does grace become epistemologically relevant, helping us to know Christ through our sufferings, setting us free from what is so often called freedom but which in fact is tyranny of self. His past begins to shape ours as we are brought into this dance, and his future liberates us from the imprisoning terms of our own self-absorption, enabling us to find the joy of life together. Grace, in this sense, is -not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt by us, as it is, to use Gregory Jones’s words, the gift that enables us to discover that “embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the Triune God and with others.”6
The reason it is dangerous to talk about grace is then, that such talk, sooner or later, forces us to talk about dying, something that embarrasses and offends our culture deeply. I have said that this dying is not self-annihilation but indeed, the most intimate form of communion, a dying and rising with Christ. But why does talk of dying embarrass us so and make talking about grace seem dangerous?
It has often been noted that the Victorians were embarrassed by talk of sex but were positively garrulous in talking about death, while we can’t shut up about sex but become tongue-tied in the face of death.7 And the strange thing about our anxiety is not its quite understandable fear of death but rather its embarrassment over the fact that death might spoil things, might upset our sense of security. So we turn to techniques for dealing with death, either by making it a therapeutic problem, which can be digested, perhaps, by being sliced into various stages, or by prettying it up and ignoring it. We are all familiar by now with the rapid response teams of therapists and counselors who descend upon schools and other places to reassure us and our children that everything is all right, that we can go back to the comfort and security of our way of life. But just so is death denied, and worse, life becomes a hostage to comfort, or rather to nothing more than my self, a self which, rather than risk loving, or bearing burdens, or being courageous in the face of death, or growing old, or trusting in One to whom we belong in life and in death, prefers to be reassured of its own security and comfort, its own wealth really, even at the risk of ignoring the elephant of death that is in the room. A grace that refuses to deny death but in fact finds in it a clue to life itself, why, that is as welcome in our world, as a skunk at a tea party. Or, perhaps one might say, as prodigal brother whose untimely return home has set off a father’s foolish celebration. How stupid and inappropriate!
Yet the central clue to understanding God’s grace, scripture suggests, is that skunk, or to put it in other words, that stone which we always reject and will always reject because it simply does not fit into our building plans. That stone has become the chief of the corner. “This is the Lord’s doing,” we confess, “and it is marvelous in our eyes.”8 The cross, with a dying man on it, has spoiled many a tea party, yet just so, does it become our hope.
That is why it is dangerous to talk about grace because such talk always leads us to the cross. But then theology is a dangerous business, isn’t it? Only a comfortable church could think otherwise, a church that thinks it is enough to manage things, to help their members live well-balanced and secure lives, or which thinks that the great issues of the day have to do with the equal entitlement of all to the joys of self-realization, as opposed to the equal inclusion of all in the cruciform gift and call of life in Christ. Such a life, from the culture’s point of view, may indeed look something like self-annihilation, precisely because it calls us into deep communion with Another. Or to use the language of Barth, precisely because it is an eccentric life, the Christian life will look strange. But indeed, strangeness has ever been part of grace’s charm from the beginning, and it has never been a good time for the church when we have sought to jettison its strangeness to make it more presentable.
That strangeness, of course, is what makes theology difficult, just as it is what makes theology possible. For to the extent that theology, in order to talk about grace has to talk about the cross, to that extent we who talk are placed in a field of resistance. The reason death embarrasses us is that it is such a vivid reminder that we who are called to be pastors and theologians are not gods. But as pastors and theologians, we do not like to be reminded of that, especially when we are otherwise so comfortable. Just so does the cross enter our world and regularly humiliate us. Our temptation is always to deny it, to speak about it, as Bonhoeffer would say, as if God were out of the room; to make theology a subject of only academic interest and reflection. That way we can still convince ourselves that grace is at best an abstraction, that we are gods, that we are safe and wise, the original sin replayed all over again. Yet that way involves us in a lot of hiding, just as of old, but then modernity (and even post-modernity, evidently) has gotten good at hiding from God. Yet the weird thing about this God is how sneaky God is, how this God comes like a thief in the night with a grace that relentlessly exposes our self-involved culture as a culture of death, and then, most sneakily of all, gives us what we least -desire and energetically hide from, the cross itself as the very means to life abundant. What a sneak! Or to quote a character in one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and he shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.”9
In the time that remains to me, I want to look at another of Ms. O’Connor’s stories as a means of providing a kind of narrative description of grace’s dangers and the danger of talking about grace. The story’s title is itself dangerous, and speaks of centuries of racial oppression. (The title of the story is “The Artificial Nigger”.)10 If there are those who have a right to use such language, I am not one of them, but I would argue that its use here is synonymous with my use of the phrase, “skunk at a tea party,” and its very danger goes to the heart of why grace itself is dangerous. For what if that skunk turns out to be Jesus?
O’Connor’s story turns on a depiction of Jesus in the form of a common object of white racial domination and hatred: a broken down, plaster lawn jockey, a Sambo statue, whose grin has turned into a grimace.
The story concerns a grandfather, Mr. Head, and his grandson, Nelson. They are country people, who live somewhere in south Georgia. Mr. Head, who by virtue of his age and experience considers himself a suitable guide for the young, has decided to take his grandson to the big city of Atlanta and show him the sights. Early in the story, Nelson, the boy, impertinently asks his grandfather, “If you aint’ been there in fifteen years, how -you know you’ll be able to find your way about? How you know it hasn’t changed some?” And Mr. Head replies, “Have you ever seen me lost?”11 That, of course, is what happens in the story. Mr. Head and Nelson get lost, truly and terribly lost. What Marsha Witten reports that the sermons she listened to in the 90’s never could imagine is imagined vividly by O’Connor in this story, and the full terror, bitterness and recrimination of being lost in this modern hell is brought home to these two country folk who may well be naïve but who are far from innocent. Mr. Head is a white racist and Nelson is only too eager to learn. But in their lostness they turn on one another, until Mr. Head forsakes his responsibilities to his grandson, momentarily abandoning him, and at a crucial point, even disclaiming him as his own. The little boy, deeply wounded and even frightened by this rejection, eventually catches up with his grandfather, who experiences now for the first time something like shame. She writes:
Shortly after this, realizing that the afternoon is slipping away, Mr. Head panics and in the middle of a street shouts to all in the neighborhood, “I’m lost. . . I’m lost and can’t find my way and me and this boy have got to catch this train, and I can’t find the station. Oh Gawd I’m lost. Oh hep me Gawd I’m lost.”13
He and the boy are lost: geographically, morally, theologically. They are in over their heads and cannot help themselves. They are even lost, now, to one another, isolated and alone. They are so lost that even when God sends them help in the form of black people to direct them, folk who reach out to them in some form of basic human communion, they cannot accept the gift and become in their terror even more lost. Finally, at the end of the story, they stumble upon a yard, which has, beside its curb, a broken-down lawn jockey, a southern icon whose Sambo image bespeaks a world of oppression and cruelty. But this icon is broken. It has one eye chipped out, and its mouth is twisted into a grimace, and it is itself tilted away from its base at a strange angle. Exhausted, Mr. Head and Nelson fall together at the foot of this crucifix. O’Connor writes:
Of this scene, Ralph Wood has written:
Yet precisely through this defeat is death swallowed up by a mercy that is even deeper. Here at the foot of the cross, where we are shielded from our true depravity lest we despair, we are, nevertheless, given in the mirror of that same cross, enough grace to see ourselves as the sinners we are, and enough mercy to know what it feels like to need mercy. More than that, we are given a restored and even healed community. Mr. Head and Nelson have made a long journey together, a journey in which something in them has died through an “action of mercy” that has, at the same time, brought them at last together, and given them to see an extravagance of grace that has humbled them and made them whole. They have been lost, humiliated, and defeated, and just so have discovered what it means to die and to be raised, what it means to receive the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, what it means to be a community of justified sinners. At the foot of a broken Sambo, they have been judged harshly by the pardon they have received. Nelson and Mr. Head have discovered in God’s grace, a mercy that has led them to repent. They have not repented in order to receive mercy. No. What has scared them is that they have seen that their whole lives have been bathed in mercy from the beginning. Mr. Head’s -only regret is that he had used so little of it, asked for so little, spent so little. As Ralph Wood concludes, “The Cross is the only place where we can truly take our stand, the one and only Grace which we can both live and die by. Our real shame lies not in our sin, therefore, but in our obliviousness to the Agony which purchased our redemption. We should burn with embarrassment as having availed ourselves so little of it.”16
The enemy of grace is always that heaviness of self that threatens us with its own seriousness, with its omnicompetent lack of joy. To such serious professionals, talk of grace (and being utterly lost) will always seem dangerously amateurish, a reliance upon some shabby miracle, salvation by means of a thief in the night. Who could imagine such an embarrassing way of redeeming the world, much less of restoring human community? To be sure. “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?”17 What makes it dangerous to talk about grace is the fact that God has not left the room and in God’s very presence we find ourselves doing the impossible again and again, and instead of rejoicing in the gift of life together in God, we contrive to build bigger barns of theological self-centeredness, or even replace this gift with our own “critical ideas,” all to keep from having to avail ourselves of the grace that is already ours. But what makes grace dangerous is its very sneakiness, its relentless exposure of our lust for security, its pardoning and forgiving indictment so lavishly spread before us. This banana peel of the gospel is how God introduces joy to the world and how falling, we are raised to something much lighter by his sneaky, underhanded, utterly faithful grace.
So, perhaps it would be most appropriate to end this lecture on grace with the way all theology should end, that is, in a word of praise, using Paul’s own words of doxological astonishment: “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. . . For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.”18
1 Martha Witten, All Is Forgiven, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1993.
LECTURE DELIVERED APRIL 15, 2002 AT UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY AND PRESBYTERIAN SCHOOL OF CHRISTIAN EDUCATION.
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