Grace, Wellspring and Compass

‘Tis grace shall bring me home.         –Amazing Grace, Spiritual 

My Lutheran heritage brought me in contact with a theological tradition that talks about grace. We defined it as undeserved love. It was one of the things that demarcated Protestant faith—no penance, praying rosaries, no elaborate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Just grace, plain and simple, accessible to all, given to all, accepted by faith.

But it went deeper than that. It was a whole outlook on life, a way of being that gave forgiveness and compassion because you yourself were forgiven and deeply loved. I felt this from my parents. I was taught to look for it in scripture. I sang about it in church, and later, taught it from the pulpit.

Grace is a powerful thing. As a concept, its theological roots run deep, and it can be found across religions. As a practice, it is a both a spiritual wellspring from which to draw and a moral compass for how to treat others.

Christians anchor God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus. The importance of the crucifixion story, as I now understand it, is as an expression of a universal consciousness of grace as lived out in a singular life, in a particular place and time, and how that life and that time can be in a way redemptive for us all.

There is much to be gleaned from the Bible when it is read from the lens of grace. If by meditating on the Word we find grace, we are the better for it. When the Bible is not read from a place of grace, and for a message of grace, it is easily subsumed by fundamentalism and fearful, protectionist dogma.

But more than that: it needs to be said that the Bible and the story of Jesus are not the only narratives of grace. In a time that seems to be ruled by the grace-less (in every possible sense of the word), we need as many narratives of grace as we can find. I’m looking for them, from all sources of religious thought, as well as from atheist and non-believers.

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What are your stories of grace? Take a moment and share one here. Especially if it involves a character from a non-Christian background or source, I’m deeply interested in hearing that story now.

 

Dismissing Evolution (Magical Thinking, Part 2)

When I was younger I dismissed evolution because (I thought) it describes a world that isn’t magical. A world governed only by its own repetitive cause and effect that seemed lifeless, cold, and machine-like.

Many contemporary Christians ascribe the workings of evolution to God, in an attempt to recover at least some of the magic. All of the physics, all of the replication, RNA, DNA, coding and recoding, is in their quasi-magical view, somehow contained within God, powered by God, or in some vague sense “allowed” by God.

I have always been unsatisfied with that approach, because if the Bible tells us everything we need to know about who we are (as it claims to do), then why would we need to understand evolution? According to the Bible, all we need is trust, faith, and reliance on God. The narrative (even for those Christians who regard Genesis as non-literal) is that God made us, but then we became sinful, and Jesus died to redeem us. Now our job is to rely on Jesus while we fulfill our calling to be his witnesses.

Take the Fruit

Take the Fruit

Evolution calls that framework into question, because if there is no Adam and no fall, there is no such thing as original sin. There is just nature and our adaptation to it. Our behavior is sometimes good, sometimes evil, and we have the ability to be one or the other. If Jesus saves, from what does he save? If Genesis is only metaphor, then so is the garden of Eden and paradise.

If we decide on the factuality of evolution, then we have to admit we are leaving the Bible behind. The Bible knows nothing of the scientific view of cause and effect, nothing of the origin of species, nothing of Darwin’s meticulous recording of animal life around the world that led to the discovery.

There is magic in evolution; it is the imaginative learning that comes from observation of the world. It is an imaginative perspective based on research and evidence, rather than on religious declarations. But the Bible’s imagination is a superstitious kind of magic. It begins in the imagination of stories, but ends in a rather un-imaginative dogma about Jesus. Let’s be honest about that.

Related Post: Magical Thinking, Part 1

A Believing Atheist?

Atheist. The word carries a charge. It has a negative connotation in many people’s minds, synonymous with anger, noisy activism, and valueless modernity. One study found that people trust an atheist less than they trust a pedophile!

For others the word atheist equates to unbelief. An atheist has rejected Jesus, and therefore salvation.

The Bible explicitly says to avoid such people. In fact, belief in the wrong god (or no god) warranted total annihilation in the Old Testament. It was a holy cause, to consecrate, dedicate and repurpose a city, or a region such as Palestine, into something belonging exclusively to Yahweh. Judges describes the holy conquest, and the absolute genocide required, the wholesale killing of men, women and children of non-Israelite nations.

The Canaanite Genocide

The Canaanite Genocide

In similar fashion Jesus vividly described the everlasting punishments in the afterlife for those who do not follow him. The Bible identifies Jesus with the Old Testament Yahweh. Same God, same message, that those who do not believe will be utterly destroyed, except in Jesus’ case, it will be for an eternity in hell. Which is worse, experiencing genocide once, or over and over again forever?

Not everyone, and not every Christian, subscribes to such fire and brimstone. For many believers, an atheist is someone to disagree with and still love. An atheist is to be pitied, however, because he doesn’t have the closeness to a personal god, the reassurance of forgiveness, and the promise of resurrection attached to the believer’s creeds. A believer is still hoping, deep in the heart, for conversion of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the biblical god.

But what if we were able to see atheists as believers? It sounds like an oxymoron. But consider it from a different angle. An atheist might be a believer in this sense: she trusts in life.

If you think about it, life is as large a concept as God. Perhaps they are one and the same thing. Perhaps that is what the artists who wrote the Bible were really trying to tell us. There is something larger than ourselves, and we are a humble part of it, and it is good and sacred and holy. By continually observing and experiencing the life we have been given, we can become better people, we can know ourselves and our world, and we can contribute to others. Atheists are true believers in that kind of purpose.

An atheist can also trust other people, that they are also part of life, that everyone, regardless of religion or non-religion has a similar DNA, similar needs and desires, and a similar place together in the universe as human beings.

Atheists can have a calm and even a certain optimistic acceptance of the way the world works. They can have faith in the way we can observe and learn about how the world operates consistently over time, and amend our own way of doing things to be more consistent with that natural process.

Most of all an atheist can live of love, beauty, grace, and goodness, without a god. To do so requires a fair amount of belief.

A believing atheist? As contradictory as it might sound, this happy, serene, and hopeful enterprise exists. Rather than getting stuck on fearing, pitying, or destroying the unbeliever, let’s acknowledge the large and divine life we all share. Let’s celebrate the ways we do believe.