Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Never Deserved or Earned

We've heard a lot about nature today. By its nature, mercy is never deserved or earned. It can only be given as a gift.
- Fables #93
by Bill Willingham and David Lapham

Grace is a gift, freely given.  I've known this all my life.

Grace is not a gift and it is not freely given.  I've understood this all my life, though never really articulated it.  It has always remained the unspoken, yet understood, fact of my Christian faith.  Grace is a gift, but it comes at a hefty cost.  No, I'm not talking about Christ on the cross, at least not yet.  I'm talking about the price I pay and am expected to pay in order to receive, and especially to keep, this gift, freely given.

Perhaps it will help if I elaborate on what I mean when I talk about a "gift."  By "gift," I am referring to what for Jacques Derrida is "the gift," which is truly, freely given and also impossible.  No, the gift is not just impossible, it is the impossible.

John Caputo helps explain that the very act of giving a gift creates an economy which immediately begins to negate the "free" aspect of that gift.  Imagine that Joe gives Abby a gift.  Right away Abby is indebted to Joe in some regard.  At the very least it may be a debt of gratitude, which is still a debt.  Likely, Abby will feel some need to repay Joe, probably with a gift of similar value.  This will restore the balance in their relationship, whatever that may amount to, for as soon as Joe gave the initial gift, their relationship was imbalanced.

For many occasions, gifts are planned transactions.  If Joe gives Abby a gift on her birthday, there probably exists the unspoken expectation that Abby will reciprocate later when it is Joe's birthday.  Or, for Christmas, the season of gift giving is usually a season of gift economies.  Sometimes we eliminate the giving aspect and call it a gift exchange.  We buy everyone else gifts because everyone else buys us gifts.

However, imagine Joe did spontaneously give Abby a gift that she could not repay.  Surely this counts as a true gift.  But Joe, who should have lost something by giving it away, now gains something, like respect or reputation for his generous ways.  Abby, though she gains the gift, loses as she now finds herself with a debt of gratitude to Joe.  The gift creates an economy which throws the whole relationship out of balance.

Now, what if Abby doesn't feel gratitude towards Joe for his gift?  What if she doesn't even acknowledge it?  Joe must lose then, for he lost what he gave away and fails to gain respect from Abby.  Not so, for Joe may still feel good about what he has done and might in fact feel even better about himself this way.  He can take comfort that at least he isn't an ungrateful and rude person like Abby.  Once again, Joe's reputation, even if only in his own mind, increases while Abby's decreases.1

For Derrida, a gift immediately creates an inescapable economy that negates the nature of a gift.  A gift, the gift, true and freely given, is not just impossible, it is the impossible.

But certainly grace isn't tied up in such economies, right?  There is nothing we can do to earn grace, that is true.  But we sure exhaust vast amounts of energy and resources trying to keep that grace, that gift, freely given.  Think about it, how long is one a Christian before they are inundated with rules and regulations, lists of do's and do nots that he or she must strictly abide by, lest the moniker of "redeemed" be revoked?

Maybe I speak of the Ten Commandments.  Maybe I speak of the Sermon on the Mount.  Or maybe I speak of an individual church's bylaws forbidding drinking, smoking, dancing, and writing left-handed.  Should I violate any of these prescriptions, I am told, or strongly hinted at, I will lose my freely given grace and no longer be counted among the saved, the "Christians."

But who are those that count and discount members of the faith?  They are the writers and proclaimers of laws and bylaws that help maintain an organized religious structure.  They are also the ones who have the most to gain from the economy of grace and the most to lose from the gift of grace.

Peter Rollins has an incredibly dangerous idea about grace that I believe only comes into play if grace really is a gift, freely given, never deserved or earned. "In grace we are able to accept that we are accepted and, in this very act of knowing we do not have to change, we discover the ability to change.  It is in experiencing the license of grace rather than the legalism of prohibition that real transformation becomes possible."2  The rigid prescriptions of the Christian life we are inundated with clearly do not work, for we all fail to live up to them.  But if God loves us whether we fulfill these supposed requirements or not, then perhaps, as Rollins said, we are provided the freedom to change rather than the forced edict to change.

Is God's love for me contingent on my repentance?  Do I need to change my ways before God loves me?  An answer of "yes" makes sense to this worldly creature, for that would be my requirement before I would love someone who has run afoul of me.  Brennan Manning, though, says that God does not love in this way that I love.  "But God loves who we really are - whether we like it or not."3  Perhaps more importantly, God also loves others for who they really are - whether we like it or not.

As for me, I don't want to follow portions of Christ's teachings.  I don't want to love my enemy.  I don't want to forgive those who have hurt and betrayed me.  If I try to do these things because the church tells me I must, I do so reluctantly, if at all.  Okay, so I probably don't do it at all, yet still recite the rhetoric proclaiming such love.  But, I have found in my own life that as I stray from the legalism of Christian ethics and dwell on the unfathomable love of God, a strange thing happens.  Within me begins to churn this desire, nay, conviction, nay, indescribable yearning to love those who I should deem unlovable.  I do not seek this sensation, nor do I strive to achieve this task of illogical love, yet the realization of the indescribable feeling keeps bubbling up within my being.

And I ask, is this grace?  Is this what happens when we let God do the work of salvation instead of religion forcefully undertaking the task?  Is this what happens when I don't exhaust my energy trying to earn or maintain my grace, but instead simply accept it?  "A gift is a gift for Derrida," says Caputo, "when it is removed from the circle or circulation of giving in return or paying back (remuneration, retribution), of action and proportionate reaction, when we let the gift be."4  Is this what happens when we let grace be?

Let grace be.

This is unwieldy.  Religion has a rigid structure that appeals to our sense of order and organization.  Love is messy.  Unconditional love is even messier.  There is no way to restrain or control it.  Certainly grace must come with some stipulations to regulate it, right?  "True gifts and radical forgiveness are not good business.  Giving and forgiving, if there are any, do not make for either good banking or good ecclesiology."5

But what if grace is a gift?

Maybe we wouldn't believe it.  We would insist that there is a catch, a clause, conditions to meet, fine print to read, dotted lines to sign, and a tricky contract to uphold, though it be fraught with traps to ensnare us and ensure we fail.

But what if God, in all his ineffable mystery, actually gives a gift that completely bypasses Derrida's economy of the gift?  What if God gives a true gift, freely given, which is impossible, which is the impossible?

What would that mean for the redeemed?  What would that mean for the irredeemable?

Even now I hesitate to use "redeemed."  We have not been purchased.  We have not been bought.  Our account has not been balanced by a generous payment of messianic blood.  For if we have, does that not mean God is simply a blood thirsty accountant whose loans will be repaid to him at any cost?

If I embrace the idea that grace is a gift, then I disagree with Jonathan Edwards about being sinners in the hands of an angry God.  Instead, we are sinners in the hands of an absurdly loving God.  That, if we can be honest, is actually the more frightening and disturbing scenario, for at least Jonathan Edwards' position makes sense to our worldly logic and reasoning.

Please allow me the indulgence of quoting at length the beautifully verbose Caputo:
"The gift of forgiveness is another, indeed, an exemplary instance of something unconditional but without force or power.  If forgiveness is to be anything more than economics, if it is to be a gift, then it must be an unconditional expenditure.  Yet unconditional forgiveness looks like madness, implying that one could only forgive someone who is still offending, who does not deserve it, who has not earned it, but upon whom it is bestowed "graciously" - or should we say, gratuitously.  We would forgive those who are guilty and unrepentant and who have no intention, now or in the future, of making restitution or of sinning no more.  The aporia of unconditional forgiveness would come down to the madness of forgiving sinners, to forgiving sinners qua sinners, just insofar as they are sinners, while they are still sinners.  It would come down to the mad axiom that the only thing that is truly forgivable is the unforgivable, while the more pedestrian and forgivable offenses fall beneath the scope of real forgiving and represent cases of reconciliation."6
Such unconditional forgiveness betrays, confounds, and offends our need for economies and our yearning for logical balance.  But there is no balance in the Kingdom.  Instead, we have an overwhelmingly one-sided display of ridiculous, mad love, leaving no room for repayment or restitution, attempts to settle the outstanding balance on our transgressions.

It is scary.  It is frightening.  For it is vague and ambiguous to our human understanding.  How are we to differentiate between the saved and the lost?  Maybe, just maybe, it is not for us to judge such things and we ought to relinquish such powers back to God.  But that is likely too much of a sacrifice to ask of the moralists on their soapboxes.

Who are we to place conditions on God's love?  Who are we to say who God does and does not forgive?  If grace is a gift then it is unconditional.  If not, then we need to start calling it something else.  If, instead, God offers reconciliation, redemption contingent on my repentance and ceasing of sinful ways, then I am forever and hopelessly damned.

But if God offers an impossible gift of unconditional grace, the impossible, yes, yes, oui, oui, then this hopeless sinner has hope and the irredeemable can be redeemed.

I want to say, before I end, that, like always, I could be wrong.  I have tried to refrain from declarative statements and instead framed these thoughts of mine as questions.  What if grace is a gift, freely given, never deserved or earned, yes, yes, oui, oui, amen?  I think theology in general would be better served if we were more concerned with asking questions than finding answers.

I do not have a clear cut answer to this question.  This is an idea that I have been pondering, working through, and wrestling with for some time now.  I am immediately dissatisfied with everything I have written here, for it is a vague, rambling scattershot of my thoughts and reflections.  This is by no means my final position, for I will continue to wrestle with this question.

But I must say, it is a question that I delight in wrestling with.

What if grace is a gift?

1. John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernity for the Church (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2007), kindle location 781-812.
2. Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe is Human, To Doubt, Divine (New York: Howard Books, 2011), 106.
3. Brennan Manning, Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994), 22.
4. John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2006), kindle location 3652.
5. Ibid., kindle location 4437.
6. Ibid., kindle location 4405.

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