The Ecology of Grace

“Such is the richness of the grace which God has showered on us in all wisdom and insight.  He has let us know the mystery of his purpose, the hidden plan he so kindly made in Christ from the beginning to act upon when the times had run their course to the end; that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth.  And it is in Christ that we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning.” –Ephesians 1:7-11

Among the doctrines of the major faiths there are those which are complex, contradictory, arbitrary, seemingly impossible to understand, and at times just plain crazy.  Grace should not be one of those.  It has at times been twisted beyond recognition because those who proclaim a different gospel of grace can’t bring themselves to believe that what it says is really true.

     I have borrowed the term ecology from natural science because it seems to perfectly describe the spiritual process as well.  An ecosystem is one that depends upon the mutual relationship of all living beings in it.  This interrelationship characterizes other forms of eco- such as the economy: anything which happens affects the system as a whole. Citing the economy as an example, only where there is balance, fairness, equity and protection of individual rights within the economic system does it work.  Balance and growth are defeated when the forces of greed are at work.  The boom and bust nature of the economic cycle is no accident.  The system must work for all to succeed.     

     Mention of the word grace reminds me of water, freely flowing from on high, seeking the low places, penetrating all.  Lao Tzu described the nature of water and its operation centuries ago: “In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.”

    You should know the name Harold Dittmanson. In 1977 he shook the theological world with his book Grace in Experience and Theology. In the book he states time and time again the priority of grace and its unrestricted nature. He dared to define grace as exactly what it is, without condition, without exception, and without limitation. This flew in the face of much prevailing teaching and tradition. To paraphrase some passages from the book, God’s grace is prevenient, that is, it precedes our awareness of and response to it; it is irresistible; it is personal; it calls for faith, but does not compel it; it is unrestricted, overcoming all conventional barriers between good and wicked people; it cannot be manipulated or managed from the human end, which is always a grievous mistake. [Grace in Experience and Theology:  Minneapolis, Mn, Augsburg Publishers, 1977,  Pp. 58-59] In a section titled “The Priority of Grace” he states: “Grace is the ultimate context within which all create objects, persons and events have their being. The created world can have only one context since God is one, not many, and since God’s will is a single gracious will, not a jumble of conflicting purposes.” [p.73]

     An internet review of Dittmanson’s book reads, “Grace is at the center of Christian experience and, indeed, sums it up in a single word.  The doctrines of Christianity do not exist as a set of unrelated propositions.  They are closely interrelated and give witness to a single reality—the gracious reality of God.  This single reality provides the unifying principle through which all Christian doctrines are interconnected.  Grace in Experience and Theology explores the many aspects of this unifying principle called grace.”

     All exists in relationship; if that were not so, the universe would fall apart.  While certain forces necessarily exist in opposition, the phenomenon known as grace is an expression of the “optimum workability” of two or more differentiated components having been drawn into an ideal state of cooperation.  Grace must be lived, and as it is lived it exhibits a dynamic principle. Simply put, the giving of grace creates the condition for the getting of grace.  It is both reciprocal, requiring mutual interaction, and regenerative, capable of new growth.  This is close to Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life, whose principal  statement “I am the life that wills to live in the midst of life which wills to live” is what makes it all work—all living creation in real-time relationship one to the others.  It is not only critical to our personal lives but to the transformation of our world.  It is epitomized by the gracious life of Jesus and his continuing presence. 

     In his book Faith and Culture, Eugene Meland writes:

“We live upon the grace of one another….Whether or not grace has actuality in an individual’s existence will depend upon how ready he [or she] is to receive the good that awaits him [or her] in each such situation….’Grace’ has been defined as ‘the abundance of good in any concrete situation which our own efforts did not create’….No life  depends wholly upon its own merit and achievement for the sustenance of life.  We are not rewarded according to our due, but according to our capacity to receive the good that  is in existence….[This] involves an awakening of the individual consciousness to the goodness of God that is in oneself…, and in every concrete event, and to the communal context in which all life is gathered into community with God and humanity.”    

Eventually, all religious philosophies must either affirm or deny the implications of grace, whether they do so explicitly or implicitly.  Scriptures may be examined for the presence of this concept.  It is here that I must make the assertion that grace comes from Divine Personhood.  It must be received from someone, not something.  The blind, impersonal operation of karma leaves us with the results of cause and effect, nothing more.  It is what we deserve.  Grace goes beyond that.

     When the walls of separation are removed and the essential condition of graciousness is rested in and realized, blockages to our path are removed.  Grace, being grace, does not need to be earned, but is simply reflected. It exists as an inner peace.  It does it exist in a vacuum.  It is an active, persuasive force. Swami Prabhavananda writes, “Heaps of cotton can be burnt with one matchstick; similarly, one gracious glance from God can wipe out mountains of sins.” [The Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta, p. 98] It is by the will and function of the Divine Person that this takes place, quoting the Upanishads, “The man burns out sin.”  Who is this man? The Sanskrit term for this Person is Purusha, which is derived from purvam (before or being in front of) and osah(burning), so it is an essential part of the Divine Person’s nature.  As a response to this grace, what we wish for ourselves must extend to our relation to others.  In allowing for the shortcomings, mistakes and mistreatment of us by others we create the very condition that atones for the very thing that is lacking in ourselves, and by this may be restored to wholeness.  The secret is simple: grace given is grace received.

     Living in grace gives us a new understanding of sin and forgiveness.  Atonement is not a one-time act but a process aiming at continually perfect at-one-ment of Being, a participation with God which is forever open to us. Jews celebrate Yom Kippur as a day of atonement, yet in the wider understanding this does not only involve atonement in the personal sense.  As one truly meditates on one’s failures to be at one with others (and with oneself), this awareness extends to the failures of the spiritual community, and from then to the failures of the culture or nation in which one lives, and onward from there to the failure of the civilization of our planet.  This acknowledgement is a necessary first step toward healing, and personal healing must move from self to society. [Charles Clark. The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer, p. 177] Grace, while underserved, can nevertheless be generated by the act of repentance.  In  Acts 3:18-19, “…this was the way God carried out what he had foretold, when he said through all his prophets that his Christ would suffer.  Now you must repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, and so that the Lord may send the time of comfort.”    

     Grace is tied up with gratitude, a simple thanksgiving for all existence, as expressed by Henry Thoreau:

“I am grateful for what I am and have.  My thanksgiving is perpetual.  It is surprising how      contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence.  My breath is sweet to me.  O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches.  No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”    

It should be noted that grace is not an exclusively Christian term.  Its development in Hinduism is extensive, achieving its flowering in devotion to Krishna.  The vocabulary of devotional relationship to and reliance upon the grace of the Divine Person is highly defined from the time of the Bhagavad Gita onward.  Decide for yourself if this passage could describe a relationship to Christ:

          “The Lord fully maintains His unalloyed devotees, and He guides them progressively on the path of devotional perfection.  As the leader of His devotees, He ultimately awards the desired results of devotional service by giving Himself to them.  The devotees of the Lord see the Lord face to face by the causeless mercy of the Lord.” [A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupadha.  Sri Isopanisad: Discovering the Original Person.  Los Angeles,  Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972, p. 95]  

     In Buddhism the vow of Amida Buddha to lead all beings to salvation to be born in the Land of Bliss is the foundation of the Pure Land school, or Shin Buddhism, which is today followed by a large number of adherents. Shinran, its founder, maintained that all that was required of the believer was awareness of sin, strong faith, and gratitude to the Buddha  The Buddha, it is taught, will come to meet his devotees at the moment of their death.  It was necessary to modify the disciplines to meet the needs of common folk. Schweitzer has observed that the original Buddhist doctrine of redemption was for priests and monks only, as they alone could renounce everything and be free from attachment to reach nirvana.  The inclusion of grace was a necessary and almost predictable evolution. 

     The ultimate expression of God’s grace, not only to Christianity but to all world religions, is in Jesus. It is this Divine Person who consented to become incarnate to share our lives. There is, as with other fields of religious study, a specific vocabulary to deal with this:  Emmanuel, God with us; the entire range of messianic titles; the extensive etymology of the name Jesus itself. Quoting something Rev. Milton Gabrielson said many years ago, “We had his credentials before he came.” He was speaking at the time of the Judaic prophecies, but additional support may be found, if it is looked for, in the records of other world faiths. Christmas is historical as well as spiritual; it is personal and specific and present rather than universal and general and distant.  This event changes the practice of religion as we know it.  Religion is no longer a set of beliefs but a living relationship. 

     Grace is such a radical proposition that it may be hard to believe it.  Paul needed to be admonished by the presence of Jesus on three different occasions, “My grace is enough for you, my power is at its best in weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:9 (Jerusalem Bible)  KJV and RSV use “sufficient”]  What is this faith that asks us to throw ourselves at the feet of the Divine and not try to fix it ourselves?  All self-improvement has been thrown out the window.  This is part of that necessary evolution that I spoke of earlier.   It only becomes more obvious when we come to the point of despair over any ability we thought we may have to engage in any kind of perfect practice, knowledge, action, and the like.  All that remains is to throw oneself upon the grace of the Lord. It was inevitable that this development needed to take place. Grace from the Divine Person enables us to overcome the limitations that beset us on every side as we attempt the spiritual path and fail again and again. And this is where that nasty little word sin comes into the conversation.  Now many years ago I had been taught by Rev. Milton Gabrielson, previously mentioned, that a good workable definition of sin is “to miss the mark”.  This has stayed with me to this day.  It is indeed workable, practical, and understandable.  It is simply the fruit of the inevitably imperfection of our actions.  It is a part of our nature.  

    The inevitability of throwing myself upon grace came as a part of my own study.  My limited view of grace, the vast opportunity to fail (or sin, if you will), the impossibility of it all was leading me nowhere.  It was at this point of consideration that Dittmanson’s book hit me like a lightning bolt.  There is simply no remedy other than to accept a radical reliance upon grace.  It broke the chains.  It set me free.  The waters of life rushed over me again.   

     The point of grace is reached when we realize how easily our schemes and plans fall apart, how utterly helpless and naked we stand before God.  Herein is the relationship of grace to humility.  The path of surrender requires the utmost of humility. “In Bhagavad-gita (4:11) the Lord relates to the devotee in terms of the devotee’s surrender.  He is always within reach, whereas for the unsurrendered soul he is far away. The humbling of oneself is the key to the  transmission of grace.  The vessel must be emptied to accept the gift.  This has been given to us many times in Jesus’ teachings in the form of  “give to receive”, “die to live”, “the small shall be great”, and other paradoxes.  It is a simple and effective enough method to get grace to flow, and it is apparent by now that any strategy lying in our efforts alone will not avail.  His strength is indeed made perfect in our weakness and is sufficient for us.

     What, then, of the conditional versus unconditional nature of grace itself?  If it is unconditional, does that cheapen grace and diminish its value?  However, if it is conditional, how then can it be grace?  Like a dog chasing its own tail, theologians have run round and round with limited success in arriving at a solution.  Grace is not sufficient as a doctrinal formula or a product of thought—it must have an experiential, an existential component to be active.  One must not only depend upon it but give it.  Much like humility, its potential exists to be acted upon at each moment of our lives.  Calling upon the grace of God who loves, forgives, and seeks our return to him is an act of repentance, it is grace we need but do not deserve.  The grace of the Incarnation is eloquently expressed in Philippians 2:6-7, where he “did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave”, or in Hebrews 2:9 “for a short time was made lower than the angels”.

     The “vine and branches analogy” in John 15:1-7 is a passage I have always loved: “I am the true vine, and my father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit he cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more.  You are pruned already, by means of the word that I have spoken to you.  Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself  but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.  Anyone who does not remain in me is like a branch which has been thrown away—he withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire, and they are burnt.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will and you will get it.”     

     If we reflect, many of us can be bathed in a sense of gratitude to recall what has been graciously given to us.  I will give you an example.  Among the scrapbooks and photo books passed down to me by my family is a book with my name on it, filled with baby cards collected and saved by my mother.  It is really quite emotional because it carries the message that I was wanted, that there was that expectation followed by celebration. Not all children have this.  I am humbled because I know that in a world of pain and struggle this is not always so.  But here is the evidence, and it does not depend on anything I am or I did—it is simply there, a joyous gift of love.

     I stand in awe of the grace I have received during the course of my life, and I am gripped by the realization of what flowed to me that did not originate with me or was deserved by me.  This is supremely important:  I must rest in this grace, and I now see that any feelings of guilt or unworthiness are tied up with my ego.  These must be cast aside in order for the power of grace to be activated.  My only response must be to generate gracious acts without regard to, or even in proportion to, what I have been given.  Grace begets grace. 

   Grace can be generative—how often have we repeated Jesus’ prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (or “trespasses” and “those who trespass against us”, if you prefer).  It is the Lord himself who sets grace in a real-time, living reality, and as a spiritual priority as well.  It is not a matter of our power or resources but only of our will.  It only works when it comes full circle and is given to others as it has been to us.  Envision the dynamic of grace as an engine, amplifying its power as gracious acts abound in gratitude for grace received, which provides the reason for more gracious acts to be created, until at its ultimate extension it consumes the world itself, radically reshaping it in the divine image which it was intended to reflect.

     Above all, remember this:  grace given is grace received.

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