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Graceful Courage: A Venture in Christian Humanism by Roger Hazelton


Walter Wink is the author of The Powers That Be (Doubleday). This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


Chapter 7: Graceful Courage


Grace makes us fall towards the heights. -- Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

 

The preceding chapters have approached the subject of courage in deliberately human terms. Resisting the temptation to "explain" it in either clinically precise or cosmically grandiose ways, we have called courage by many names in ways compatible with common sense. Maintaining this perspective has required that the sheer phenomenon of courage should be seen from more than one angle and without being forced into a single frame of understanding. Only so can we treat a theme that is almost infinitely varied by the changing contours of lived experience itself.

Hence courage has been termed a way of taking the human measure of oneís world, a kind of virtue necessary to becoming human, a resilient steadfastness before lifeís hazards and setbacks. Neither physical energy nor spiritual inspiration alone accounts for its presence, as it arises in the middle zone between bare survival and devotion to superior, self-surpassing values. It vibrates within the tension set up by fear and faith. Its resources come from contrary directions although they meet at that mysterious juncture called "the heart." Why not simply leave the matter there?

The reason why we cannot do so is already evident from the challenge issued in the previous chapter. Does not courage by its very presence suggest a "more-than" rather than a "nothing-but" reading of our humanity itself? In other words, can courage even be conceived apart from the conviction that here humanity is overreaching itself, harnessing possibility to actuality, moving slowly but surely toward its own fulfillment? Such a belief has always been a salient feature of humanistic thought. However, as we ask whence comes this power to produce as well as to endure change, we are led to think of a source of energy resembling what religions call God. Does faith in humankind imply a faith in God, or are these two faiths on a collision course with one another? That is the question posed by considering courage in fully human terms.

Courage Grounded in Grace

It was not a theologian but a novelist, Ernest Hemingway, who liked to define courage as "grace under pressure." Whatever he may have had in mind, Hemingway borrowed from religion a word used to describe God. The same word applies to human character, of course, especially in its most appealing and gallant aspects. Yet grace clearly embraces both meanings. A Godless humanity would be graceless too; the one word seeks to express what Karl Barth called the humanity of God.

So an Appalachian congregation sings "Amazing Grace," which its members know by heart, and a Roman Catholic worshiper prays "Hail, Mary, full of grace"; in each instance what is being said is that those qualities of generous and kindly good will that make and keep life human belong preeminently to God as well.

Grace, then, delineates a common bond, even a common ground, between what is known to he human and what is believed tof be divine. It is not an "either/or" word for enforcing what Sf ren Kierkegaard declared to be "the infinite qualitative distinction" between Creator and creature, but a "both/and" word of intimate relationship. Yet its primary, positive emphasis is surely placed upon God-in-action seeking out, surprising, saving creatures like ourselves. Probably the best synonym for grace is "lovingkindness," by which the King James Version of the Bible translates the Hebrew chesed and the Greek charis -- given gratis with no strings attached, as abounding as it is amazing.

Small wonder that this accent on grace should be lifted up so eagerly when God is being praised or prayed to as the object of worship. However, it also greatly complicates the work of theologians who must think clearly about God as the object of belief. For if we adopt such a human measure for our thought of God then how may we be sure that it is really God of whom we think? And how may grace be recognized if and when it appears on the human scene?

Therefore, as one might expect, theologians have discussed and debated the meaning of grace interminably during the long course of biblical and Christian thinking about God. One of the ironies of that history is the fact that disputes over Godís goodness should have so divided the faithful and disturbed the peace of the church. Legitimate differences of viewpoint are hardened into controversies over matters of undoubted importance to the faith; but how stale and unprofitable all this arguing over grace has become!

But we are not thereby exempted from the task of thinking carefully about grace, for the old antitheses and arguments are still with us, virulent as ever. Is grace predestinating or only permissive? Is it irresistible when offered or can it be refused? Is it all-sufficient or auxiliary to human effort? These and similar questions show how easily thinking about grace falls into "either/or" formats in which words are taken as the things they represent, as if one had to choose between contradictory views with no hope of any reasonable resolution. This hardening process sets the stage for what can only be "a dialogue of the deaf" carried on by groups of thinkers each pushing their own truth, quite unable to hear what other groups are saying, making the questions fit the answers already given.

In general, these debates revolve around the issue of Godís power -- its nature and extent and effects on human freedom. This, as we have seen, is most significant for understanding courage in relation to such themes as humility and obedience. It is possible that by concentrating upon courage some new light can be cast on these old antagonistic positions, however, with a view to their removal.

The place to begin, of course, is with those experiences of grace in freedom that provoke feelings of wonder or gratitude in the first place. Sometimes when looking back on moments of unforseen ability to rise to a difficult occasion or to succeed where failure seemed inevitable, I may say, "I didnít know I had it in me to do that." Here is an experience of grace, if you will, in its most ordinary, daily form. Instead of succumbing to the suffering brought on by illness I find in myself a quite astonishing will to live that brings me through crisis back to health. Or, agitated by severe depression, I may catch a brief glimpse of hope in the smile of a friend that calms and steadies me, "restoring my soul." Or again, inured to being a nonachiever when thrown in competition with others, I discover that my real battle is with myself, which makes a manageable and auspicious difference. In such instances of new-found courage to survive or succeed, an unexpected factor enters into situations, one calculated to yield only discouragement. Why not call it grace? Grace, that is, in the sense of enabling and resourceful energy coming from a source as much beyond as within myself.

But perhaps these experiences of heightened resolve or increased strength are not due to anything except my own natural forces; they may quite as well be traced to an influx of adrenaline so that chemistry and not theology provides their explanation. What then? May not such experiences only confirm our good opinion of ourselves as normal, healthy human beings? You remember William Ernest Henleyís often-quoted poem, Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

Is this not simply a witness to that bulldog courage, "bloody but unbowed," determined to master fate by sheer force of will, relying therefore more on pride or chutzpah than on anything resembling faith ?

Yet notice that even Henley does not fail to mention "whatever gods may be," as if to bow in the direction of some energy source other than his personal resources. For it is after all the common testimony of men and women in every age that any experience of surmounting or subduing adverse circumstance carries with it a sure sense of surplus power not entirely their own and for which one can only be somehow thankful. By whatever name it is called, God or fate or genetic constitution, it is something with which we have to do because it has to do with us, and it is something that is invoked precisely to account for the very fact of courage.

Long before the rise of modern medical technology doctors spoke of the vis medicatrix naturae, the healing strength of nature. It referred to natureís way of establishing a turning point or breakthrough toward recovery at the very crisis of an illness, which led to the belief in a power not ourselves that makes for health. Nature is not always so benign, to be sure, and yet its curative powers, favoring growth and fostering health, are by no means to be discounted. Thus it would seem that what religious people name as grace or God is not utterly foreign to general, common experience, however variously described.

Names may not greatly matter; what does matter is that our thought should not lose its moorings in lived and shared reality. Paulís words, "I, yet not I," chosen to describe his own experience of grace, might well serve in accounting for courage too. If I can be said to act bravely or honorably under pressure, it is entirely right that my act should be affirmed as mine by myself and others. I do well to be assured of the self-respect and dignity that courage exhibits so remarkably. And I do even better to be grateful to "whatever gods may be" for those available means and reserves that make courage possible to me and others like me.

Paulís "paradox of grace" holds a significant truth. "I" and "not I" carry equal weight, each necessary to the meaning of the other. If one has to make a choice one must choose both. Theologically speaking, grace does not exclude freedom but includes and implies it; freedom does not repel or reject grace but relies upon it, when it is most itself. The great Augustine, who is sometimes cited as the doctor of grace, wrote pages and pages of prickly prose to show that grace is liberating and assisting, rather than supplanting or overwhelming human energies and ends. At the same time he insisted that we do not acquire grace by freedom, but freedom by grace -- something that can assuredly be said of courage too.

There are lesser theologians whose opinion of human powers and values is so low that they cannot accept this Augustinian conviction. Either unable or unwilling to grant humanhood its essential rightness in the sight of God, they persist in setting grace and freedom over against each other as if a great gulf loomed between them. They forget the salutary truth in Robert Frostís "You canít trust God to be unmerciful." And by the same token they do not know what to make of courage, taken simply as it stands and shows itself. A wiser, more ample theology would accept the general proposition that grace does not destroy but perfects our human nature. There is a wideness in Godís mercy, as a familiar hymn sings.

Samuel Terrien, in The Elusive Presence, voices this same conviction with singular suggestiveness. Writing on Psalm 51, Terrien regards its prayer "Create in me a clean heart, O God" as a significant breakthrough theologically. He comments on the passage:

He [the psalmist] viewed the holy no longer as the mysterium fascinans et tremendum, forever exterior to man as the numinous force which attracts and repels him at the same time, but as the source of vitality which sharpens conscience, activates the will to shun evil, and stirs the imagination to do the good. A world is aborning also within man. Creation may be microcosmic as well as macrocosmic. Presence and spirit coalesce to animate the new being.l

If one were to try to capture in a single phrase the active attitude of the psalmistís prayer, prayerful courage would be the right term. No passage in the whole psalter is more burdened by consciousness of ingrained, "original" sin, and yet the prayer for a new and right spirit places sin in a quite different perspective. The prayer indeed changes the situation altogether, as sincere praying always does, for it declares the speakerís ready willingness to be changed and the new world stirring within the heart.

Power in God

Returning to the theme of power, how are we to understand the kind of power that is implied in exercising courage? Plainly, no real sense can he made of such behavior without introducing the element of power to some degree: power to make possibilities actual, to choose and do what is chosen, to enter the course of events as a cause and not merely as an effect. But such power is not unlimited or absolute; its very exercise depends upon the recognition of centers of power other than my own within the total situation in which I act, so that my action although free also exhibits those constraints and conditions placed upon my freedom. These limits cannot be disregarded without eventual disaster. The modern world should have learned by now the lesson that unbounded, open-ended power is a mirage that corrupts its instigators and a nightmare to its victims.

Must we not take the same view with regard to the sort of power that is attributed to God? By choosing to think of God in terms of grace we have already rejected any idea that divine power is sheer unqualified omnipotence. Not everything that happens can rightly be assigned to the working of an Almighty Will. The power experienced in grace can hardly be the sort which in human beings is called sin -- overbearing, all-coercing, self-asserting. No, Godís power, being gracious not gratuitous, works suaviter in modo, fortiter in re -- sweetly and strongly, as the theological formula goesóby invitation and not compulsion, as indeed all high religion has repeatedly affirmed.

This throws a new and very different light upon the old question about the power of God, as it asks not how much but what kind of power may be termed divine. Obviously to deny all power to God amounts to a refusal to regard God as real in any proper sense. A powerless God would be no God at all, religious faith would be only a useless passion, and theology no more than beating about the bush of futile imaginings. But the kind of power that belongs to God according to our faith is that which works by persuasion, not by compulsion. It is far better symbolized by the Virgin than by a dynamo, as Henry Adams wrote. Such power draws and invites but it does not coerce. And what is still more to the point of our present need, the divine power is nonviolent, achieving its ends by peaceable and patient means

How far this faith-truth is from the obstinate, desperate notion, still inserted into legal documents, that an "act of God" is what cannot otherwise be accounted for, the inexplicable and catastrophic happening! No honor is paid to God by holding this power-idol responsible for explosions and earthquakes, massacres and shipwrecks. On the contrary, it is a sound theological principle that what is deemed blameworthy in human action ought not to be thought praiseworthy in God.

The most reliable clue to Godís kind of power is that seen to be at work in human love at its sweetest and strongest. A lover cherishes the loved one for the belovedís own sake, exulting in the otherness of the other, letting the other be herself or himself. When the ego falls in love it abandons egoismís claims and so-called rights. We might say that the center of emotional gravity has shifted so that possessing and being possessed become interchangeable in the shared mutuality of belonging to one another. This is an awkward way of saying what love itself always finds warmer, brighter words for, to be sure.

The leitmotif of Christian faith is indubitably the confidence that God is love. However, this good news is likely to come as bad news to those who do not realize, or have forgotten, the authentic power of loving. For love, both human and divine, is not an "anything goes" permissiveness; it clearly has built-in constraints and warning signals of its own which we disregard at our peril. Following loveís leading requires keeping faith with that which inspires and fortifies love. Among other things it means being willing to be changed by "the expulsive power of a new affection," as old habits are broken and the grip of bondage to self is loosened. That power can be resisted or refused, of course, with what may be ominous results. We all know that the struggle to love and be loved goes on amidst traps and temptations, so that courage must be its watchword always. Was this not perhaps what Paul meant in writing the Corinthians that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things?

Such loving courage may not constitute a simple answer to the woes and wrongs that beset our world, but it can serve as a powerful antidote to them. That is why it is worthy of being called more than human, as it goes against the grain of what is only human. Danteís poetic intuition discovered love in the motion of the sun and other stars; Francis of Assisi recognized love in the nearer tokens of our common creaturehood; and Jesus of Nazareth more than once found loveís emblems in birds of passage as in lilies of the field. All these, and more too, signify God to us, as Francis sang delightedly.

And what shall we say of the love that so powerfully strengthens and sweetens "this mortal life also," in Lutherís words? It can, and does, make a heart of flesh out of a heart of stone. It walks the second unrequired mile in guarding the belovedís freedom. And it makes the first move without being shown the reasons for giving itself, so that its generosity may even seem a little crazy, going well beyond what prudent self-protection would advise. Only power, and power of unparalleled virtue, is able to take such risks and make such strides of courage.

Here of course we are speaking of grace under its other name of love. And now the old theological words return to firm up our thought. Grace is prevenient, going before, dependably there in every enterprise or encounter, working already with us for our good. It is efficacious; not to be earned or paid for by "good deeds" or by any other quid pro quo. No matter how sanctified religiously, grace acts beyond and above the law. And grace is cooperating; it accompanies and assists us, eliciting not compliance but consent, greatening our courage precisely by gentling it, adapting itself to our condition while accepting no condition as final.

A life lived in the ambiance of grace is not under the control of an exterior, superior power. That is not the intention behind Simon Weilís memorable sentence, "Grace makes us fall towards the heights.íí Or it should not be, at any rate, for Weil was so attracted by the contrast between gravity and grace that she tended to make it into a contradiction. As gravity seeks the lowest level by a law of nature, she suggested, so grace raises what it touches to the highest level by the law of God. But she evidently forgot an important truth -- that while the rule of gravity is all-compelling and passionless, the beckoning of grace is strangely selective and alluring. Grace is as much a fact of our existence as gravity is, and therefore we are constantly being drawn in contrary directions; that is true. According to Weilís view, our only right response to grace can be through what she calls "decreation," making ourselves as small and light as possible, stripping down the self to nothingness so that God may fill the vacuum that remains. The route she recommends is that of ecstatic asceticism which has always been followed by extreme mystics who want to get lost in God. However, it finds little if any warrant in either the Gospel or in Christian common sense. There we come upon an equally strenuous but paradoxically humbler view. Life itself is a gift, a trust, a charge to keep. Let it be held then reverently and joyously, invested and reinvested, not abused or wasted. The right response to grace is gratitude, for what do we have that we have not received?

A life so lived, according to the power working in us, will proceed on the premise that it is lent to be spent, given to be given away. "Freely you have received; freely give." Oliver Twist begging for more is hardly the model of such a life; its type instead is found among those whose cup runs over with the gift of grace. And living out of the overflow has social consequences, for the gift includes a task. As Saint Augustine wrote, while the love of God comes first in the order of enjoining, the love of the neighbor comes first in the order of doing. Both loves are made one by the power of grace.

Wrestling With God

From his Samoan sickbed Robert Louis Stevenson spoke this unorthodox benediction: "Now may the grace of courage and of gaiety and the quiet mind, together with all such blessedness as belongeth to the children of the Father in heaven, be yours" -- a blessing that bears out the line of thought traced in these pages.2

A craftsman as good as Stevenson does not string words along at random, and it may be assumed that he chose these particular terms with care. The courage that is companioned by gaiety and the quiet mind is far removed from stereotypes scrawled in shorthand. Let us just call it graceful courage.

Ordinarily, courage is not associated with feelings of a gay, lighthearted sort. The moreís the pity, for is it not the case that such an alliance is both natural and right? Otherwise, "be of good cheer" would not make sense when linked to exhortations like "take heart." Of course courageous persons do make up a very motley group; they exhibit a great range of temperamental traits, some gay and some sober. Yet for that very reason courage cannot be confined to what goes under the name of serious or solemn behavior, like the unsmiling face on a Marine Corps poster.

You may have heard of the Protestant pastor who was said to take his religion very seriously, but cheerfulness was always breaking in. How else could he be faithful to his Lord who counseled "Be of good cheer for I have overcome the world"? Or how might he respond to Paulís "Rejoice, and again I say rejoice"? The point is that the gospel yields an affective tone of glad, even exuberant happiness or it is not the gospel. You may know it by its fruits of joy within and among people as hard pressed as yourself. One of the surest signs is a face radiant with the gaiety of truly gracious living.

Yet there is more here than meets the casual eye, for this blessing tells us something precious and profound about human courage. I can meet the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune because they have already been met and overcome by folk whose names I know, who have been there before me. Self-pity is ruled out in principle if not yet in fact just by virtue of my own membership in the company of those as beset or bereaved as I am. I am never a mere island washed by the streams of a humanity to which I do not belong. No, I am part and parcel of an ongoing pilgrimage from which I draw and to which I add my own characteristic strength. "Success may be counted sweetest by those who neíer succeed," in Emily Dickinsonís words, and yet there is always a real sense in which the failures of the world have only themselves to blame. This is so because no one is without examples or incentives for the race to be run and won. Heroes and heroines may seem at times to have vanished into the dust of yesteryear, but there are plenty of them near at hand for those who have the knack of recognizing them.

Courage that is lifted and lightened by grace is a Josephís coat of many colors, predominantly bright and rich with inward happiness. For one thus gifted there can be no final discouragement, as life consists of second chances, new beginnings at every turn. The ups and downs of success and failure lose their importance when winning or losing ceases to be the measure of well-being. There is always some better thing ahead for those whose courage acts to shape the future. Self-fulfilling prophecies of doom more than meet their match when anxious care is overcome by grace.

The gaiety that goes with graceful courage has wonder in it, too, which keeps it from becoming self-congratulating or self-satisfied. I cannot honestly take credit for the many ways in which the world of facts around me serves to support the world of purposes within me. Not invariably, to be sure; but when I think of all the times I have been spared the consequences of my own folly, or have seen apparently fortuitous events turn into really fortunate ones, I can only wonder at such strange outcomes. They almost seem to have my good at heart, if not my convenience or comfort. By these conspirings and concurrings of inner with outer happenings I am enabled, made strong, even as I am changed and challenged at the same time.

Grace under pressure is a good name for courage because it conveys the sense of wondering gratitude that steadies and sustains truly human life. Its benchmark is not relaxed quiescence but the quiet-mindedness that comes from knowing who one is and what one has to do to be oneself. That kind of poised integrity, let it be said, is as far as possible from an unmoved, unmoving stolidity. The ancients tended to believe that the natural state of a physical body was one of rest. Scientists today, however, tell us that a natural state is that of uniform motion in a straight line, allowing of course for the curvature of space itself. Human nature, in any case, is defined by its plastic, pliable qualities. Quietness of mind is not achieved by staying in one and the same place but by moving with and through a world of objects and events in constant motion.

For all that, mere mobility and mutability do not constitute the whole of a courageous life. Readiness to change and be changed are intrinsic to it, surely, but this does not mean that change as such is necessarily good and right. Change is not a synonym for progress any more than it is a certain guarantee of growth in persons or societies. We humans also have a great need to maintain in ourselves the sense of what is permanent, durable, abiding; only so can we keep pace with the changes that occur and recur throughout life. We do well to pray for the blessing of a quiet-minded grace which can meet turbulence without agitation, the shalom of the Jewish Scriptures.

The quiet mind is a peaceable mind, concentrated on seeking and pursuing the way of peace. That pursuit is described by Augustine as adhering to God. If it were only a question of finding and using the right technique the search would be quite easy, but like all good things peace of mind is difficult and rare. It eludes all packaging and programming, however well-intentioned, for it is not available simply on demand. Instead, it comes as the byproduct of struggling after a selfhood that is truly oneís own. To seek it directly is already to have lost it. Merely avoiding conflict cannot ensure it. Like Jacob wrestling with his mysterious antagonist until daybreak by the brook Jabbok, each and all of us must say, "I will not let you go until you bless me."

It would, however, be wide of the mark indeed to suggest that quietness of mind is no more than the result of an identity search. To be at peace with oneself is undoubtedly a great good, but the whole point of what we have been saying is that it has something to do with God as well. I cannot make it happen in myself, earning it by my own efforts, although it will not happen without such efforts either. The general witness of humankind is that the quiet mind comes as a gift to those who seek it with all their hearts, which places it within the order of grace. The so-called paradox of "I, yet not I" remains.

Marc Chagallís portrayal of Jacob wrestling with the angel is most illuminating here. The central figures are shown at the moment of Jacobís refusal to let the angel go until his blessing is given. The strenuous encounter is almost over; the angel upright, Jacob on his knees but clinging to his adversary, his wounded thigh showing the mark of the angelís wrenching touch. Extending one arm in blessing, the angel gives Jacob his new name, Israel, "for you have striven with God and men, and have prevailed" (Gen. 32:28). But who is the victor in this unequal combat? It is difficult to say. Perhaps this question is not the right one to ask, since it has been made irrelevant by the astonishing outcome of the struggle, to which the categories of winning and losing do not apply.

At the end of his life, according to the ancient story, Jacob gave his own blessing to his sons, "blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath" (Gen. 49:25). Here once more we are shown the coinciding opposites that make up the grace of courage: serenity and perseverance, brought together in a resilient steadfastness that is neither wholly spiritual nor natural but strangely, surely both.

The Nearer Side of God

Our consideration of human courage has led us unavoidably to the thought of God. Some may regard this as forcing the theological issue, others as a leisurely unwrapping of a foregone conclusion. Self-styled humanists who keep on insisting that God is a fiction compensating for the ills and woes of earthly life will prefer to give attention to "what man can make of man." And there will always be some theologians who persist in declaring that grace is solely the property of God even when it acquires definite human shape in courageous attitudes and actions. The trouble seems to arise from a common assumption that "God" and "humanity" are simply nouns standing for distinct and separate entities with mutually exclusive meanings.

But this assumption cannot stand the scrutiny of either reason or faith. Those who make it are right in what they affirm but wrong in what they deny. The fact is, these traditional attempts to make contradictions out of felt contrasts, antitheses out of real tensions, tell us very little about ourselves or God. There has to be a better and a truer way.

That way is indicated by the central, fundamentally coherent understanding that whoever says "humanity" also says "God." This means that all our images for God are drawn inevitably from our own experiences as earthbound creaturely beings who live in families and communities, must make our living by our wits and labor, create useful and beautiful objects, and cope with trials and hardships too numerous to mention. Yet this can never be the whole story, since we keep searching for a kind of happiness and self-fulfillment that these conditions fail of themselves to provide. Enter God, as the guarantor and agent of desires, hopes, purposes otherwise unfounded and unaccounted for.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise that the word "God" should have come to signify a cosmic overlord or superbeing whose supreme and sovereign power makes up for human deficiency by overriding and overruling our poor, pitiful pretense of freedom. From here it is but a short step to the belief that such a God is totally other, utterly unlike anything we know in ourselves or in our world. What we forget is that these claims made for God bear bitter fruit in belittling human self-respect and self-worth. They are demeaning in a very precise sense of that word, based on the odd and really outrageous premise that if God does everything then human beings can do nothing except to let God have absolute control over their lives in the world.

This view of an all-powerful deity, if followed through logically would eliminate the need and motivation for courage. But there is another and far more salutary implication to be drawn from the circuit of meaning from humanity to deity and back again. It is that whoever says "God" also says "humanity" -- what we believe ourselves to be is reflected by our belief in God.

How we think of ourselves is disclosed by how we think of God. Such revelations may be inadvertent or fugitive, but they are not less significant on that account. So psychologists and sociologists read theology for clues concerning human self-understanding, as they have every right to do. Although some theologians question this approach, they are nevertheless in the same plight. No one has the privilege of certainty in describing or defining the Godhood of God; that option is simply not available. But such descriptions, taken seriously and not literally, yield something better than mere information; they are valuable indicators of the meaning of God in human experience, and that is no small matter.

"God and the soul I desire to know, nothing more" -- Augustineís terse avowal can scarcely be improved upon, as it makes perfectly clear that God and the soul are intrinsically related, bound together in life and thought alike. This is why, for example, we cannot speak of courage without speaking at last of God. When expressed in theological language, this relatedness has been described in terms of the divine immanence. This rather technical word stands for the truth of faith that God is no outsider-God but an intimate, indwelling God. Its Latin root suggests a permanent and not a temporary indwelling (maneo means "stay" or "remain"). God does not come or go according to divine pleasure or human deserving, but is so dependably present as to be "closer than hands or feet," "nearer than breathing," so that in God "we live and move and have our being."

The complementary term in theology is of course transcendence, which means to protect Godís very Godhood from becoming confused with human powers and values even at their highest and best. It is a good and necessary word, reminding us that "we do not say God merely by saying Man in a loud voice" (Karl Barth). Yet is it not odd that this term should be used to contradict and not to complement "the nearer side of God," as if it meant Godís utter difference and distance from everything human? The old Scholastic principle, to distinguish is not to separate, is worth repeating at this point. Indeed, transcendence requires immanence in order to make its meaning clear. One term without the other is a foreshortened, truncated view of what is meant by God.3

Now however our concern is with the immemorial conviction voiced by the apostle Paul that God is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:27). That tells us a great deal about the grace of courage, among other things. Women and men of every age have borne eager witness that God is a very present help in time of trouble, discovering Godís presence in the midst of life and not in some imaginary Beyond. If their testimony has truth it is true for us as well.

There may have been few atheists in foxholes, as was said during the Second World War. Yet we do not have to reach the limit of our competence to be aware of Godís helping grace, like the sailors in Shakespeareís The Tempest crying, "All is lost. To prayer, to prayer!" On the contrary, very ordinary deeds of chivalry or gallantry reveal an extraordinary quality which can only be called graceful courage. Here is more than meets the casual eye, for such events are not to be accounted for by any least common denominator of humanness. Their true measure may be found, rather, in the degree to which folk like ourselves are enabled, yes ennobled, by a grace that is bodied forth in life itself.

Nothing in this way of viewing grace suggests that God remains in heaven while we stay on earth (Barth again), acting upon our lifeworld at a distance by a kind of gravity in reverse. The perfecting of our nature, evidenced in courage, includes us and engages us in what Teilhard called the divine milieu, where we live and breathe and are most at home. Only because the sense of divine presence, inescapable and elusive at once, empowers our most valorous or venturesome efforts can we truly be ourselves. Grace means participating in the "power of being in everything that has being" (Paul Tillich).

This accent has been missing for too long from orthodox theology and the various humanisms alike. It is high time that it should be recovered. By now it should be obvious that whatever can be done to make human life more human ought to be done. That will of course involve framing policies and pursuing projects at every level of society, by those responsible for structuring the common life in ways consistent with the common good. For them and for all others, whoever or wherever they may be, it will demand and call forth courage of a high order, graced by the fullness of God.

 

NOTES

1. Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence (New York Harper & Row, 1978), 325.2. From his Vailima Prayers.

2. From his Vailima prayers.

3. I have written more fully on transcendence elsewhere, e.g., "Transcendence and Theological Method," in Science, Faith, and Revelation (Nashville Broadman Press, 1979) and "Relocating Transcendence," Union Seminary Quarterly Review (Winter-Summer 1975) 101-109.

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