From Philosophie de la religion entre Éthique et ontologie, ed. Marco M. Olivetti (Biblioteca dell'Archivio di Filosofia 14 = Archivio di Filosofia 64). Padua: CEDAM, pp. 121-34.
The modern age has regrounded religious thought in two ways:
(1) Enlightenment criteria of rationality have been applied to religious traditions, seen as constructions of the human mind, for which it must now assume full responsibility in a critical stocktaking. The justification and rethinking of religious belief in this key demands a perspicuous restructuring of the religious world from its roots.
(2) Religious thinkers have performed a `step back' (Heidegger), from categories that objectify and distort religious reality to a more originary apprehension of the Sache selbst. The distinctive contours of the religious have come into view on a plane beyond ethical or ontological ratiocination. A line from Luther through Schleiermacher to Rudolph Otto's meditation on the `religious a priori' extends this `phenomenological turn' from the specific Christian case to religion in general.
Unfortunately, there has been a gulf between these two paths of thought, which have tended to harden into the rival extremes of rationalism and fideism. The rational critique has become more and more attentive to the historicity and pluralism of religion while the phenomenological step back has tended to seek a single abiding essence (Schleiermacher's utter dependence; Barth's revelation-event; Eliade's sacred). Yet the two paths inherently need each other: religion cannot become rationally perspicuous without phenomenological clarification of its origins; conversely, such clarification withers into a biblicist or experiential positivism unless it opens fully to the demands and questions of critical reason.
If Buddhism is currently enjoying an intellectual triumph in the West, it is because it appears to combine critical reason and phenomenological justesse in a free and flexible style such as Christianity has not known since the middle ages. Buddhist insight into the limits of language and conceptuality may provide the basis for reconciling the two faces of religion: its human face as a set of contingent culture-bound constructions, fragile imaginative strategies for arousing spiritual awareness, and its transhuman face as a vehicle of contact with some absolute or transcendent reality. We are led to see that pluralism, open-endedness, even a certain epistemological inconclusiveness, are inherent in the nature of religion, rather than unhappy accidents to be overcome. Yet in their very brokenness and inadequacy the religious paths that humanity has furrowed throughout the millennia are somehow charged with the conviction of being in contact with the supremely real: `we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God, not to us' (2 Cor. 4:7).
This inherent doubleness in religion allows us a double freedom: the freedom to pursue a demystified critique of the various religious systems in historical perspective and the freedom to appreciate the irreducible claims of religious reality as they make themselves felt across these systems and their interplay. Exclusive allegiance to a single creed is increasingly felt to be a narrow and unsatisfactory way of reaching religious truth; believers are impelled by their faith itself to open out to interreligious space, as the locus of a more ultimate religious truth, not formulable as a synthesis but enacted in dialogal interplay.
In the delicate art of theological and philosophical discernment which the opening up of interreligious space requires of us, the phenomenological concern with foundational events and the rational concern with justification, intelligibility and truth have equally important roles to play. Here I shall show how in thinking about grace the strength and limits of both approaches come successively into view, pointing the way to a fruitful alliance between them.
I The Step Back
A shift of emphasis from ontology to ethics in philosophy of religion can be seen as an impoverishment. The ethical `ought' does not bring into view the givenness of being in all its richness, and the God it projects risks being no more than a cipher or regulative idea of ethical uprightness. The promotion of a moral religion, which renounces as pagan any rejoicing in being, is part of the ideological training of bourgeois society. It limits religion to what is of pragmatic use for the construction of the (bourgeois) good life. A shift from ontology to grace, however, moves in a quite different direction. It brings back the dimensions of uselessness, superfluity, surrender, which have no common measure with everyday rationality. If grace contests ontology, it does so not as whittling being down to something less substantial, but in the name of an event that cannot be fully comprehended in ontological categories.
To the believer, grace is the defining attribute of God, and all the other divine attributes and the relations between God and creation are parsed in terms of it. The philosopher, in contrast, is likely to fit grace in under a more general rubric of providence or theodicy, not allowing it to put in question the established frameworks of ethical and ontological reasoning. A philosophy which questions the adequacy of these frameworks for interpreting religion risks ceasing to be philosophy. The subordination of grace condemns philosophy of religion to a certain tone-deafness, and if philosophy by its very nature must ignore grace, then the very project of a philosophy of religion is impossible. If philosophy has to treat grace as a counter in a game whose rules are dictated by ontological or ethical necessities, then it can never close in on the specifically religious.
Grace is a transcendental notion; it is not merely a theme in the Christian symphony, but the key in which the symphony is written. If we seek indices of grace in other religious or philosophical systems, we find them not in local themes reminiscent of the Christian notion, but at the transcendental level, in the general complexion of reality as envisaged in these systems. Yet this generality is not of much help to the philosopher. It does not mean that grace is convertible with being or the good, as another name for the ultimate nature of reality. There is an excess of grace over the ideas of being and goodness, such that it can never be pinned down in ontological and ethical categories. Rather, grace prescribes a new kind of thinking, which overcomes these categories, showing them up as incomplete, and exhibits a critical power that propagates a disturbance within philosophy itself, relativising its claims to have grasped the real.
A philosopher may declare that `all things are', and that `all things are good', but to say `all is grace' is to make a statement of a different order. The notion of grace could be seen as an algebraic function, concretised on each occasion through the provision of an unpredictable variable. To say that `all is grace' then means: `expect to find, on every occasion, that the event of grace takes place in some unforeseeable manner'. Generalities to the effect that `all that exists is a gratuitous gift, an expression of divine favour, and can exist only in utter dependence on the giver' miss the specificity of grace as event, and are quickly absorbed in common ontology. `All is grace' as uttered by Therese of Lisieux or Bernanos's country priest is not an ontological thesis but a surprising situational discovery; remove it from this context and you change the tone from wonder to flatness. With the change of tone everything is changed. For the language of grace refers primarily to the discovery of a gracious God in a lived human situation. Generalisation of such language cannot move outside the milieu of origin; it must remain confessional. Objective, scientific generalisations about grace have always either fallen flat or led to irresoluble antinomies.
Events of grace are of such a texture that the ontological language they may call forth is unable to reflect their concrete impact. There is a maladjustment between the metaphysical horizon this language projects and the concrete topology of the space of faith and revelation in which the phenomena of grace unfold for contemplative thought. Theology has been thrown into inextricable confusion whenever it has sought to explain the precise modalities of the operation of grace in ontological terms. The effort to tailor discourse on grace in the categories of being, substance, quality, act, habit, quantity eventually breaks down as each of these terms is magnetised by their reference to a living reality which does not respect the constraints of their normal philosophical usage.
Direct statements about grace, outside this confessional horizon, suffer the same disqualification as the statement `there exist physical objects', as misdirected attempts to express something that cannot be expressed in this way (see Wittgenstein, On Certainty). The Church is sparing in direct positive statements on grace, preferring to criticise errroneous views. Theology stutters when it tries to speak of grace as its object; instead it must seek to keep its discourse tuned to the key of grace; the word `grace' signals the kind of thinking required, but does not provide a definition. Thinking about grace moves in the realm of reflective not constitutive judgment. No methodological or dogmatic rules or concepts can assure the attunement is requires. Reason comes into play only secondarily, in critical reflection on the various discourses of grace, testing their authenticity and well-groundedness.
Paul's language of grace often has recourse to ontological statements which imply the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Yet the primary tenor of these statements is not this general ontological vision, but in each case an irreducible event. It is in connection with the call of Abraham that Paul speaks of God as `calling into existence the things that do not exist' (Rom. 4:17, kalountos ta me onta hos onta), and the experience of the Corinthian community is the objective correlative of the claim that God chooses `even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are' (1 Cor. 1:28). Paul's own apostolic mission furnishes the necessary context for another ontological statement: `I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain' (1 Cor. 15:9-10). Such statements are not parts of a general ontology, but are inherently marked by the dynamic temporality of the situation out of which they are spoken.
Grace cannot be confined to a single saturated moment; it `rides time like riding a river' (Hopkins). This dynamic temporality is not allowed to unfold in a discourse which reduces grace to clear principles - speaking, for example, of our utter dependence on God if it were a given fact, to be subsumed under the general principle of the creature's ontological dependence on the creator. Translate Paul's self-description into an ontological analysis (even spicing it up with a Buddhist twist): `Paul's being is granted as a free gift of God and has no intrinsic substantiality', and you have lost its cutting edge. Even statements about grace that apply to human existence as a whole, such as `where sin increased, grace abounded all the more' (Rom. 5:20), are given a concrete inflection by their insertion in a framework of salvation history and of God's covenants with humanity. Moreover, they deal not with ontology but with temporal events, not with qualities of the soul but with lived relationships.
Pauline rhetoric places ontology at the service of a dynamic temporal event, and in the process subjects it to a paradoxical twisting. What is non-being is chosen and becomes stronger than what is. All that Paul is, all his free acts and achievements, are done by grace: `neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth' (1 Cor. 3.7). Salvation `depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy' (Rom. 9:16). Pelagius insisted that good works are accomplished with the help of divine grace; but for Augustine this was not enough: the good works must be entirely and exclusively ascribed to the working of grace. Human freedom is not another factor beside grace, co-operating with it; the possibility of freedom is itself granted by grace, and the enactment of freedom is itself through and through a work of grace. Paul expresses this in language that borders on contradiction: `Achieve your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who achieves in you both the will and the achievement' (Phil. 2.12-13). Augustine speaks best of grace in taut paradoxes, which seemed nonsensical to Pelagius: `Da quod iubes et iube quod vis' (Conf. X 40).
These paradoxes reflect the decentering nature of the event of grace. The human subject, finding himself or herself a prey to sin and death, is clothed with righteousness and restored to life through the sole mercy of God. This is radical turn-about in one's sense of identity: `It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal. 2:20). Grace is a death to one's former self, and the discovery of an unsuspected life, which is simply given: `to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead' (2 Cor. 1:9). Even if the process is long-drawn-out, and even if the operation of grace blends into the general texture of life, its presence is still marked by sustained paradox, the paradox of a death which is life: `always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies' (2 Cor. 4:10), or the paradox of an alien righteousness: `For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God' (5:21). Read swiftly, Paul's rhetoric could lead one to grasp this paradox as a neat pattern of death and resurrection, or even in terms of a Platonic dualism of flesh and spirit. But a more attentive reading stays tuned to the non-assured, non-automatic nature of what is afoot, to the lurch at the heart of it, the leap, the letting-go.
Logic can tidy up our talk about grace. It can project a scheme of the entire divine plan underlying the experience of grace. The divine gratuity can be parsed logically: Christ's death for sinners is the logical basis of justification, and this in turn is founded in God's need to reconcile his justice with mercy and not to let his creation go to waste. But the more logical the situation is made, the greater the danger that the event of grace becomes something automatically assured and loses its quality of gratuity and unpredictability. Conversely, attunement to grace can bring out the spiritual sense of the paradoxical structure of other doctrines, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. These doctrines broke with an enveloping Platonist onto-theology through paradoxical conceptions which pointed the mind to the realm of mystery; but the resulting rearrangement of metaphysical notions such as substance and hypostasis remains opaque unless grasped as reflecting the situation of grace.
When this paradoxical tautness slackens, the inertia of the natural attitude takes over. What reasonable common sense makes of grace is well illustrated in the first work of Christian systematic theology, Origen's On First Principles, which explains God's gracious election of Jacob, rather than Esau, as a reward for his pre-natal merits. Pelagianism is another name for this drift towards unimaginative rationalisations. The slogans of Pelagianism are those of modernity: achievement, accomplishment, competition, success, self-assertion, doing our part, `You can do it!' A Pelagian moralism pervades Christian preaching, for attention to the phenomenon of grace calls for a tense vigilance which is hard to sustain. Grace is objectified or reified, and becomes a gift which one then develop using one's free will, or a possession of the soul which one earns or loses by one's own choice and effort. God is subjected to our ethical or rational controlled and we lose touch with the situation of trusting surrender which is the context for all credal utterance.
II Phenomenological Fixation
The recovery of a sense of grace has always meant the shattering of some established rationality. But the powerful breakthrough to a new paradoxical mode of perception, if it becomes a pretext for an arrest of critical reflection, results in the illegitimate elevation of one particular experience of grace to universal status. When theology wins back from the murk of Pelagianising calculation a clear, free vision of the reality of grace, it is tempted to assert that vision as rigid dogma. When such cramping occurs, the preaching of grace can no longer authorise a wide variety of practices, in the freedom of the Spirit, but gives absolute status to a single ritualised technology of salvation - Catholic fetishisation of the sacraments, Pietist cultivation of conversion-experiences, Pure Land invocation of Amida Buddha. One or two scriptural texts become the canon within the canon, confirming transparently and univocally the approved model and ironing out the troublesome variety of the scriptural landscape.
Even Augustine narrowed the experience of grace in this way. He saw grace as an interior, spiritual power, an invisible medicine which Christ pours into us a mysterious operation not to be perceived or marked in space and time (see Greshake 1972:114). Greshake sees Plotinian metaphysical ideals at work here, and proposes instead an understanding of grace as the opening up of a space of freedom by Christ and by his Church, an event of liberation that cannot be reduced to a metaphysics of interior presence, and that has temporal and spatial visibility. Freedom is temporally structured as exodus from past to future, not as a verifiable present possession. It is a dynamic project; try to isolate it as a merely present reality and it disappears.
Luther's simul justus et peccator can be interpreted as such an exodic structure; isolate the sinner in his present state and he is a sinner, place him in the dynamic open horizon of the Christ-event, which he embraces in faith, and he is free, and can stand confidently before God in righteousness. The marvellous variety of his rhetoric, recreating his Anfechtungen and his release from them by the Word of the Gospel, dramatises the unexpectedness of grace in a thousand forms. His thorough experience of the dialectic of Law and Gospel, condemnation and justification, exposed not only the futility of seeking salvation through works, but also the ungroundedness of intellectualist discourses about salvation. The deployment of Platonic and Aristotelian categories in theology from Origen to Ockham was a distorting objectification, based on an inadequate grasp of the point of departure, the event of saving faith in God's promise. Luther experienced God's justification as `against all reason', including ethical reason. `All Luther's invective against "reason" takes its origin from this point' (Holl 1948:77). From a distance one might rationalise the justification of the godless, but from within that drama the impotence of reason is apparent.
Luther's followers did not sustain the open, dynamic character of his thought. Their vision tended to narrow to a stylised rhetoric of fiducia, of being clothed with Christ's righteousness. The opposition between the faith-event and alienated reason became mechanical, yielding a rigid caricature of both. Such a disjunction between phenomenological radicality and mundane conceptuality, whereby faith focusses on its grounding event at the expense of an open dialogue with secular reason, brings a cramping of vision, a fixated apprehension of the event of grace itself. Luther is always thinking furiously, from the thick of his dramatic struggle. For ordinary theologians, such reflection has to be pursued at a distance. Grace becomes the elusive theme of a searching inquiry that stands in need of constant renewal. An appeal to first-hand experience in order to overthrow this constant reflection would here be a destructive short-circuit. It would elevate the projected experience to the status of a constitutive principle which puts an end to reflection, thus unwittingly creating a new intellectualist system.
Such rigid championing of grace would dismiss ethical reason as arrogant human self-assertion before God, and see efforts to reflect rationally on the existence and nature of God as idolatry of a dead substance. Instead of converting theological thought towards a more flexible reflection, attuned to the phenomena, such a `positivism of revelation' maintains a divorce between the primary biblically grounded language of faith and the wider effort of faith to locate itself through reflection and dialogue in the horizon of contemporary culture.
Each way of grasping the reality of grace is accompanied by the correlative projection of a way of denying that reality, and this projection is superimposed on the supposedly benighted opponents. Thus Paul projects a system of `works-righteousness' onto his Judaising opponents, and even onto Judaism itself. Augustine projects full-blown Pelagianism onto Pelagius. Pure Land Buddhists project a Promethean reliance on self-power onto the practitioners of Zen (see Tanabe 1986; Unno and Heisig 1990). Luther found the opponent his vision needed in Erasmus, Calvin in Osiander, Pascal in the Jesuits. Here is one source of the caricatures of Judaism spawned by Christian theology. The Judaism overcome by Paul is presented as an ethical rationalism, incapable of conceiving the gratuitous gift of forgiveness and justification of the godless. Justification is a `saturated phenomenon', exceeding all the normal rational expectations; in Lutheran reading of Paul, and perhaps to some extent in Paul himself, the Jewish world of Law corresponds to these expectations. Thus theology presumes to explain the entire living phenomenon of Judaism and Jewish life in cut and dried dogmatic terms: `If the Synagogue, persisting in its comfortless calendar, can and will know nothing of the fact that all has been made new, then it must all the more clamorously attest the fact that the old has passed away. It speaks of the darkness that came over the world in the hour in which Jesus passed away' (Barth 1942:290).
But legalism or Pelagianism do not exist historically as fully constituted systems in opposition to grace. They are projections of the defenders of grace, who want to draw attention to potential distortions. The distortions in question are too subtle and pervasive to be clearly mapped and banished as an identifiable heresy. Rather, like mistakes against which a critic might warn in the field of art, they indicate a cluster of vague dangers, and alert us to the points where something has clearly gone wrong. The attempt to draw sharp lines between heresy and orthodoxy here is illuminating at first, but if pursued too far it blunts sensitivity to grace in the end, and the slogan `grace alone' can even become a mask for Pelagian self-assertion. When Luther strikes out in all directions, the effect is to shake us out of complacent, half-hearted interpretations of the Gospel. The formalisation of his insights in Melanchthon and Calvin gives them the stability of a beacon. Yet when this message is absolutised to such an extent that it is taken as complete and sufficient, so that there is no need of ongoing questioning and critical reflection, then it begins to change into a tawdry slogan.
Contemporary historical consciousness offers an antidote to the cramping of the discourse on grace, by bringing out the immense variety of forms which this discourse has taken. Metaphysical theologising begins by taking `sin', `the Law', `grace', `faith' or `love' as unitary phenomena, but the history of their usage reveals that they are labels for highly diverse ensembles of situations and experiential patterns, held together by Wittgensteinian `family resemblances' (see O'Leary 1991). When we speak of the order of redemption, the events of predestination, election, justification, sanctification, glorification, divine self-communication, each of these phrases is no more than convenient shorthand for processes which resist summary and definition, and can be spoken of only in a congeries of narratives, taking different colours in different epochs.
It may be feared that this pluralism undermines the phenomenological perspicuity of grace, and robs the various messages of grace of their urgency. Certainly it makes a direct discourse on grace more difficult than ever, and the realities of sin, divine judgement, faith, forgiveness, sanctification can no longer be invoked as self-evident reference points. They make themselves felt obliquely, in a variety of perspectives; the biblical language alerts us to the depth-dimension where such words have resonance, but the words no longer have the firmly defining authority as in the past. Yet this flexible, pluralistic use of religious terms can serve to let phenomena of grace emerge in an unforced way and to prompt a more discerning and creative reflection on them. The powerful, integral vision of Augustine or Luther may be a thing of the past, but a wide-ranging, exploratory approach may build up a way of talking about grace which has a wide realm of empirical reference and offers a rich fund for reflective thought.
The process by which we are reconciled to God is already grasped under a plurality of models in the New Testament. The pictures given by Paul, the Synoptics, the deutero-Pauline letters, Hebrews, the Pastorals, John, do not entirely coincide. Nor can one distil from these a single objective account, for the subjective and objective are more intricately imbricated in theology than in quantum physics (see Faye and Folse 1994). Luther's clarification of the biblical event is not the definitive focussing of what the various accounts aimed at. Rather it is a modern construction, in response to the particular problems of a community whose image of God had become clouded by paralysing fear and uncertainty. Today what most stands in the way of a firm and confident relation to God is not this moral confusion but the remoteness of the very notion of God; a clarification of the Gospel that could overcome this, in our changed epistemological context, would be something quite different from Luther's vision.
Augustine and Luther were liberating in their day, but now their message seems couched in all too predictable terms, within a framework that we would question at every point. We so not receive their teaching as the definitive gospel of grace, but only as a powerful variation, the characteristically Augustinian or Lutheran one, on the gospel themes. Even Paul and John have to be received as one form of witness among many, if their words are to resonate freely in the complex pluralistic awareness of today. A preaching of grace adjusted to present conditions would be aware of its own provisional status, as an adroit actualisation of some themes from the traditional repertory. Awareness of the imponderable degree to which our idea of God is a human projection forces us to renounce the attempt at permanent definition of the human-divine relationship and to be content with a language that, despite its metphorical texture, can hold water for the here and now.
III Pluralistic Reflection
Theology cannot subsist on an exclusively phenomenological diet (not even if that phenomenology is open to the immense variety of the given). It has also to pursue a clarification of the intelligibility and truth of religious belief on the basis of logical argumentation. The laws of theological reason are not reducible to those of phenomenological attention to the data. Philosophy of religion has a special role in raising the questions and setting the criteria of justification and intelligibility which have to be met by the apologetic enterprises of each religion. Theologians may fret at the tone-deafness of many analytic philosophers of religion in regard to the fundamental phenomena of revelation, but where the rational dimension of theology is concerned the independent rigour of the philosophers is a necessary point of reference (as the rigour of phenomenological philosophy provides a touchstone for theology's dealing with the phenomena).
If the theological discourse on grace treats reason haughtily, in return the first question reason poses about grace is whether such a thing exists at all. Any authentic experience of grace will welcome such sceptical assessment of its status and sifting of its claims. A pure phenomenon of grace can never be extracted from the dense texture of Christian life. Grace does not impose itself in a phenomenological knockout, but is apprehended in a web of suppositions, spun out in stories and traditions. Even the sudden conversions of Paul and Augustine emerge traditions of interpretative activity. Hence, a logical definition of grace and proof of its existence is impossible to construct.
Theologians have studied closely the Kantian critiques of pure theoretical and practical reason, in which reason plays a constitutive role, laying down the infrastructural plumbing of intelligibility in general, and they have neglected the Critique of Judgement, in which reason functions as a play of reflective judgement dealing with empirical phenomena that exceed its totalising grasp. The elusiveness of the notion of grace reminds us that theological reason is an exercise of reflection, which has been tempted to take itself for a prima philosophia, a speculative determination of first principles. Had theology realised how thoroughly it is referred to empirical sources of information and how in consequence the kind of thinking it is licensed to practice is merely reflective, it would be in a better position to enter into dialogue with other reflective discourses such as literary criticism.
The tensions and antinomies which haunt historical discourses about grace are due to stretching a contextual model too far, in an attempt to construct a comprehensive rational system. It is not that reason itself is out of place here, but that the data it has to work on thwart such constructive enterprises. The contextual and situational bearing of the primary utterances of faith, the `dissemination' of the meaning of its basic terms, the pluralism built into the phenomena these terms attempt to name, all this is repressed when the project of rational totalisation is launched. Inadequate attention to the complexity of the point of departure causes the resulting constructions to tilt dangerously. Retrospectively they appear less as the building up of systematic insight than as tentative essays in reflection, serving to light up a particular situation. The Western metaphysical investment in theoretical reason led them to misread the situation as requiring a speculative resolution of permanent validity, but the brokenness of the attempt at this throws them back on the situation, and illuminates the situation, at least for us, just as much as the positive clarifications do.
When essentialism breaks down, we see that `grace', like `emptiness' in Buddhist tradition, functions as a strategic word for lighting up the nature of spiritual reality and shattering false characterisations of it. If this is the way that the words `grace' and `emptiness' function, then their encounter cannot be choreographed as a dialectical interplay of metaphysical principles. Rather two styles, two sensibilities, brush against one another, exciting innumerable vibrations, and bringing a stereophonic richness to our apprehension both of religious and of everyday realities (see O'Leary 1996). Combining the rhetoric of grace with that of emptiness, we can bring their critical power to bear on the Pelagian and substantialist illusions to which religious discourse is prone (and worldly discourse much more so).
In addition to this ecumenical attitude to the phenomenology of grace, rational reflection also recognises that the phenomenological realisation of grace co-exists with and interpenetrates other phenomenological realisations, such as awareness of the phenomenon of being (which is equally pluralistic). Phenomena of grace do not absorb or subordinate these worldly phenomena. Such subordination is attained only when both sets of phenomena are traced back to metaphysical foundations, with the hidden help of such jejune arguments as the following: `Since God is the giver of all being, the experience of being, if it is authentic, must be the experience of a gift'.
The revelation of gratuity and dependence in these events is a clue to the ultimate nature of reality, a clue whose application to `the order of creation' is as flexible as the situations in which it is applied are diverse. The mapping of the graced situation has to proceed from within that situation; to transfer it to the medium of disinterested philosophical observation is to distort it. But can that mapping acquire a stable form? That would entail a freezing of the graced situation from within. Grace is a surprising, decentering reality, and can be spoken of at all only when this element of its temporality is brought into view. A general theory of donation can only falsify the `hints and guesses' offered by a concrete phenomenology of situations of grace and gift. Since grace is always a concrete event, a convenantal turning of God to humanity, its enlargement to a universal process of donation misses the unpredictability of its concrete occurrences.
Grace before being, in the sense of thankfulness for the givenness of being, is best expressed not in the subordination of being to a single metaphysical principle, but in a dialogue between the different voices in which being speaks to us. The voices in which it speaks of itself, as an end in itself, the voices of art and of science, are not to be discredited as idolatrous, and forcibly changed into iconic voices, so that being is not longer entitled to exist except as a cipher of the transcendent. Such a subordination of worldly thinking to a vision of faith projects a system of religious metaphysics or an all-embracing religious phenomenology, which closes off the space within which both religious and worldly phenomena are manifest, the space of pluralistic thought, a space whose boundaries can never be securely charted. The integralist subordination of secular to religious categories short-circuits the dialogical openness without which religious thought turns in on itself incestuously. Such a system paints itself into a corner, unable to attend to the great variety of human experience of world, or even to the great variety of Christian experience of world as graced. One example of such metaphysical narrowing is the exaggerated Christocentrism of Barth or Von Balthasar, which prematurely seeks to find the name of Jesus Christ inscribed on every phenomenon.
The temptation to systematise the religious outlook on reality in this way is strong. Conviction of one's utter dependence on grace does indeed extend to a vision of all reality as gift. Creation is marked by all the defining traits of grace: it is a free gift, unearned by any merits of ours, and which from its beginning throughout its entire duration places us in utter dependence on God's goodness: `unde merito et ista gratia dici potest, quia non praecedentium aliquorum bonorum operum meritis, sed gratuita Dei bonitate donata est' (Augustine, Ep. 177.7).
Yet this vision does not disqualify alternative experiences of the givenness of being, those of Heidegger or Goethe for example. We cannot dragoon these experiences into a biblical horizon without distorting them. The believer's joyful acceptance of everything as God's gift cannot be exploited as a higher form of Seinsdenken, subsuming Heidegger's Es gibt, in an ultimate phenomenological clarification wherein the order of being becomes a subordinate branch of the order of grace. The reason is that Seinsdenken moves in the opposite direction from biblical celebration of creation, bringing into view the proper texture of being which this celebration is likely to overlook. The world does not fit into the box of a Christian aesthetics, but retains its own autonomous modes of presence, its `transdescendence', that will always be other than any religious set of categories brought to bear on them, despite flashes of transparency to these categories (as in some nature poems of Christian or Zen inspiration).
This lack of a smooth fit between the thinking of being and the concern of salvation is a salutary tension, not to be ascribed to some mutinous idolatry of being. For Barth, any celebration of the play of worldhood which fails to make explicit reference to the doctrine of creation is an idolatrous misrecognition of the sovereignty of God: `The sovereignty of God has nothing to do with the sovereignty of caprice, chance or whim. We must rather learn from the revelation of divine sovereignty that the power of caprice, change or whim is precisely not a sovereign power but belongs to the realm of the evil rejected and denied by God, which as such has only the power of impotence' (Barth 1942: 212). Yet pluralism brings the insight that no language, even that of Scripture, and even when illuminated by contemplative experience, can enjoy a monopoly or be applied as an absolute norm in the reception of all others. Rather the authority of this language is confirmed only in fresh contact with other voices, each time in a situation-bound and unpredictable style.
Grace is not a one-way message; the grace of the biblical covenant best appears when it recognises grace at work in uncovenanted forms outside the fold of orthodoxy, as in the New Testament figures of the Centurion, the Canaanite woman or Cornelius. Faced with Heidegger and Goethe we can pursue a double reading, searching out critically the Pelagian or idolatrous potential of their work, while at the same time finding in its irreplaceable witness to the gift-quality of being a resonance with the doctrine of grace (but not a mere echo of it). The aim of such reflective Christian dialogue with Goethe and Heidegger, comparable in its open-endedness to literary criticism, is not to form a definitive judgement on these authors but to enlarge the space of vision in which we dare to think and talk about grace.
Phenomena of grace, like works of art in the Critique of Judgement, call rational reflection into play, but can never be exhaustively comprehended in any of the perspectives of reflection brought to bear on them. The `saturated phenomenon' (Marion 1992), or rather the dense web of experience in which we dimly discern workings of grace, calls forth a versatile exercise of reflective judgement but does not warrant constitutive concepts that would bring it under their systematic graasp. The play of judgement cannot confine itself to a small selection of phenomena indicative of grace, but must keep in view the widest possible range, including both the inner intangible realities of freedom, temptation, sin, forgiveness, sanctity, and the outer forms that manifest grace, including the word of scripture and the communal life of the Church.
Marion objects to the policing of intuition by the categories and its confinement to the sensible in the first Critique. In the Critique of Judgement Kant speaks of the aesthetic idea as an intuition of the imagination `for which an adequate concept can never be found' (par. 57). Marion contrasts this with the intuition of the first Critique: now `intuition does not expose itself in the concept, but saturates it and makes it overexposed - invisible, not by defect, but by excess of light'. Perhaps the word `intuition' is equivocal here: the intuition which transcends the concept is no longer the pure intuition of the first Critique (the abstract minimum without which all concepts are empty), but a richly significant phenomenon, for which reflective judgement has to find appropriate concepts. The aesthetic idea is not an intuition given nakedly, without concepts (an impossibility for Kant), but a complex projection attained at an advanced stage of culture. Marion tries to show that the saturated phenomenon disrupts the infrastructural apparatus supposed to govern all phenomena in the first Critique (the axioms of intuition, anticipations of perception, analogies of experience, and postulates of empirical thought), but in doing so he commits a metabasis eis allo genos for the thwarting of reflective judgment by the sublime phenomenon is not the same thing as an overthrow of the basic conditions of intelligibility in general by an outbreak of pure intuition. Kant revels in a great variety of modes of givenness and of intelligibility, and an exclusively phenomenological focus cannot do justice to his complex map of what the mind can do.
My conclusion, then, is that the reality of grace does not give itself to be thought in any single package, neither as an ontological structure to be grasped conceptually nor as a phenomenon to be apprehended in meditative thinking. In its endless variety it opens up a space of reflection in which all the capacities of the mind are activated, and in which religious thinking discovers that, beyond its mastery of principles, it has to become an adroit discernment, tracking the subtle play of a reality that constantly overturns the frameworks of ethical and ontological common sense.
Philosophy of religion can draw from this a negative lesson about the limited reach of ethical and ontological principles in regard to religious existence, but for the reasons we have seen it cannot usefully supplement religious languages of grace with some general theory of the nature of grace. Aesthetics and philosophy of science are similarly thwarted by the living diversity of their realms of application, and are threatened with demotion to the status of mere handmaids to art criticism and scientific methodology, just as philosophy of religion may shrink to being an ancilla theologiae. That philosophers, when they approach religion, should be threatened in their identity as philosophers, and lie open to the charge of performative self-contradiction when they continue to philosophise, is the fate that stamps one as a religious philosopher, the fate of Pascal and Kierkegaard, Levinas and Tanabe. To worry at this tension between the aims of reason and a religious fact that thwarts them, and to discern this tension anew on each approach to a concrete religious phenomenon, is perhaps the principal task of the philosopher of religion.
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