"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

That little black spot

Most literate folk are familiar with the Yin-Yang symbol. I don't want to get into a discussion of what Yin and Yang really are, or are supposed to be; that is a topic for comparative religion, and Gagdad Bob is better qualified to handle it in a way I would respect. By way of introduction to my real topic, however, I note that when I first saw the symbol, I thought that it was intended to represent the relationship of good and evil in human beings. Thus, there's a little bit of good even in bad people (the little white spot) and a little bit of bad even in good people (the little black spot). I am told that such is a common misimpression among undergraduates. I am reminded of it by a post I've just read by a man who calls himself "janotec" and seems to be an Orthodox cleric, even perhaps a theologian.

The post appears at the blog "Second Terrace" and is entitled Orthodox theologians do not speak in tongues. It is an impassioned yet reasonably well-argued plea for Orthodox theologians to expound dogma more and worry less about meeting the so-called "challenges of the age." With one qualification, I wish that I had written that post myself as a plea to Catholic theologians, whom I am better positioned to address. The qualification is that I object to the following two sentences, which unfortunately appear near the beginning:

A long time ago, when Orthodoxy got too conservative (or seemed that way), relevant philosophers who "responded" to "contemporary challenges" forged a nominalism that made Grace a far less frightening thing, and intellectualized it into something less than a phenomenon. Too, the West could now take its ethics in spoonfuls, in casuistic legerdemain.

For me, that kind of thing is like the little black spot: a stain on what would otherwise be dazzling white. I want to explain why so as to contribute, in my own small way, to an eminently desirable goal: getting Orthodox and Catholics to preach the Gospel effectively in today's world not only with the abiding resources of the Great Tradition, but with better mutual understanding.

The problem with the above-quoted little passage is not that it is altogether false. It contains an important element of truth. The problem is that it rhetorically lumps in something of the bad with something of the good which may be found within the theologies of something called "the West"—a term of art which, in Eastern-Orthodox parlance, means that part of Christendom which, for well over a millennium, worshiped and theologized in Latin rather than Greek. (To Christians in such places as Armenia, Iraq, and India, of course, "the West" included Constantinople too. And John Bekkos, a medieval patriarch of Constantinople with strong "Western" leanings, at least got a hearing in the city for a while. Yet for reasons it would be counterproductive to explain, I don't want to stress that very much.) The resentments, misunderstandings, and rivalries go back to at least the time when Pope Damasus I (366-384) substituted the vernacular Latin for Greek in the Roman Mass and didn't even take note of the First Council of Constantinople (381), which produced what was eventually accepted everywhere as the ecumenical Creed. And for various reasons, the negativity gradually worsened over time, eventually causing the schism that persists to this day. For my present purpose, the two most relevant problems are the Catholic-scholastic idea of "created grace" and the Western development of moral theology at the same time in terms drawn from legal theory.

I start with the concept of created grace. There certainly were Catholic theologians in the later Middle Ages who were "nominalists," and it is certainly true that many of those nominalists treated the question of grace in more or less the way janotec criticizes. But not all scholastics were nominalists by any means. The via moderna of that period in Catholic theology, in my opinion, did tend to go wrong as janotec says; and that was a key precursor to Protestantism's essentially forensic account of justification. But some Catholic theologians were Franciscans and Thomists who were anything but followers of that path. Indeed, in the hands of those more traditionally-minded theologians, the very concept of "created grace" was intended largely to explain how justification and sanctification consisted in what we'd now call an "ontological" change in the human soul, in such wise that the soul could become a "partaker of the divine nature" without becoming God-by-nature. In that respect, use of the concept of created grace had the same goal as that of St. Gregory Palamas when he expatiated on the distinction between the divine "essence," which cannot be shared, and the divine "energies" or actions ad extra, which can and indeed must be shared if we are to have the life God destines us for—the "life eternal" otherwise known as theosis or "divinization." As I see it, the chief difference between the older, more robust Catholic theology postulating "created" grace, and the Palamite view that the divine energies are "uncreated" and thus God, is that the Catholics used the term grace not merely for its primary referent, which is indeed the Uncreated himself insofar as he communicates his life to us, but also for the instruments he uses to communicate his life to the human person, and especially for some of the effects of that communication within the human person.1

The main problem arose when neo-scholasticism as a whole became preoccupied with classifying and analyzing the kinds of created grace so understood, in order to explain how our "correspondence" with grace causes "congruous merit" in the human soul. That went on to such an extent that people started forgetting about the primary referent of the term 'grace' and got into the habit of speaking of grace as though it could be located, divvied up, and distributed almost according to formula. That explains a way of speaking even today that has always grated on me. Catholics often speak of grace as if it were some sort of spiritual fuel, with differing levels of octane, that one can get more or less of depending on one's recourse to the "means"of grace, such as the sacraments and prayer. That's what accounts in part for why many Catholics seem to treat church as a spiritual gas station: a place where you pull up, pay up, tank up with grace, and pull out in time for brunch or the football game (depending on which scheduled Mass you got up in time for). When people receive the Eucharist with such an attitude, it does them a lot less good than it could and, in cases of unrepented serious sin, real harm. Catholicism really has needed to recover a more Eastern, relational sense of grace as God himself operative within the person, without thereby sacrificing use of the term 'grace' in the derivative senses already described, which are perfectly consistent with the primary referent of the term when properly contextualized and understood. That, in effect, is what various Catholic movements and theologians have been doing ever since the ressourcement that preceded and helped to guide Vatican II.

For a long time, though, the chief obstacle to bringing that to fruition in Catholic sacramental, ascetical, and mystical theology has been a tendency to legalism in moral theology. When one treats Christian morality primarily as a set of rules, one comes to think of progress in the Christian life primarily as progress in observing those rules. Salvation is then conceived primarily as a reward for such progress—i.e., for one's degree of merit—and the function of grace is seen primarily as that of enabling one to achieve such merit. The serious Christian will thus do what they can to get "all the graces" they can because, after all, one can never have enough fuel for a long journey in which one too often finds oneself traveling backwards. That is the grain of truth in the common Protestant view that Catholicism teaches salvation by "works" rather than by "grace." Many Catholics, and not just Catholics, have in fact run their spiritual lives as if that were so. It is a kind of spiritual immaturity that certain tendencies in late-medieval, neo-scholastic, and Counter-Reformation thought only encouraged. I have seen the results in many an older Catholic, even those in bitter rebellion against it. I've even seen it in some young "trad" Catholics.

But as a doctrinal matter, the common Protestant view is false. The Catholic Church does not teach that salvation can be earned, and many writers have taken great pains to show that. "Merit" is the fruit of grace, and when God crowns our merits he is crowning his own gifts. Theologically too, the Catholic tradition is much richer than legalism and much closer to the Orthodox. And many Catholics do get it. The reasons why also show that janotec's charge of "casuistic legerdemain," made from an Orthodox point of view, is mostly empty rhetoric.

The purpose of casuistry is to apply genuinely Christian norms to "hard cases" so that people have specific, well-thought-out helps to form their consciences for dealing with such cases. Casuistry need not be, and is not intended by the Church to be, a substitution of law for grace. It is not even intended as an exhaustive resolution of cases. The harder the case, the more its resolution is a matter of individual judgment—or, if you prefer, conscience. The norms governing casuistry are guideposts, not inspiration. To be sure, many people have ridden "the rules" too hard, as if external conformity to even the most technical of them were the primary measure of virtue. But that's not a problem with the rules in themselves. It's a problem with some people's own spiritual growth. And though I can't speak for all Catholics, I don't take my "ethics in spoonfuls." I have learned by hard experience that Christ often calls us to a level of discipleship beyond "the law," i.e. beyond that level of behavior which casuistry can often excuse. He never stops challenging us to reach greater spiritual maturity. And I have found plenty of room in Catholicism for that recognition. It is indeed Catholic saints who have helped me to attain that recognition. And that room is taken up every day by a myriad of saints-in-the-making who will never be canonized.

I just wish janotec and many other intelligent Orthodox could lay off the potshots at "the West" and join with Catholics in rediscovering the common ground that East and West have come to till differently. That little black spot would then get smaller and smaller, so that scandal would not be given to undergraduates and other innocents.

1. I have been influenced to adopt this view by, among other works, Cardinal Journet's The Meaning of Grace (1957), republished in 1997; and by Jeffrey D Finch, "Neo-Palamism, Divinizing Grace, and the Breach between East and West," in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Tradition, edited by Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).
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