Grace, Power, and Sentiment

There is a famous sermon by Paul Tillich, known by its tagline, “You are accepted.” Tillich’s intention was to preach of God’s grace to a world that badly needed assurance. God’s grace is absolute. If so, then Jaroslav Pelikan spoke truly in a sermon at Yale Divinity School ca. 1970, when he said God’s power is greater than all human sin, greater than that of even the greatest villains of history. Name whom you will, they have had their shriving before the throne of heaven. We might go on from there to say they are in a better position to pray for us than we are to pray for ourselves.

It would be a serious error to construe this as an expression of “cheap grace.” Yet we must never settle for tawdry grace, grace trivialized, so that the wonder of it becomes routine. I certainly did nothing to deserve Jesus’ sacrifice for me, but it would show a frightful misunderstanding, wouldn’t it, if I showed up at the crucifixion expecting people to hug me and tell me I needn’t be afraid or sad. The lover of souls is condemned and dead. It would be horribly grotesque to hold hands and skip in a ring.

Where do we get the idea there is such a thing as feelings associated with grace? It comes from our sentimentalist cultural background. We indulge ourselves in it to our peril. No initiative of God’s is involved. If the culture actually could be a conduit of grace, define it as cheery optimism, good upbringing, positive emotion, then what could go wrong? All one need do is rely on it, lock arms and sing Kum-Ba-Yah.

But if grace is as free as Tillich says, what feeling is not associated with it? Do some feelings exclude one from grace? Is grace therefore not free? According to the culture, that is the case. Certain feelings are to be held up to shame: pessimism, various lusts, greed, shock at things unfamiliar—the list could go on very long. Such stricture lurks close beneath the surface of our “acceptance” juggernaut.

Yes, we can impart feelings of grace. At street level, our civic life consists of little else. The technology is well known, cheap, and efficient. We see it at work every day in movies, advertising, and politics. I have sat in congregations where the technology was aimed specifically at me: “No need to come down and receive the laying on of hands; stand right where you are, to affirm Jesus as your personal savior!”. A few times it has worked, and I’ve been ashamed afterward. There’s the point: feelings do not impart grace. They impart only more feelings: for some people; maybe glee, but in my case, disgust.

Authentic grace is imparted by God, to people who have all kinds of feelings including (I trust) sick feelings, and even no feelings at all. Notwithstanding that, technicians of grace would have you believe you need their help. Take the Matthean metaphor of the tree that fails to bear fruit. These fellows would not root up that tree, but exploit it; they would hang on it fruit of their own making. The weight of their imitations will break the branches and smother the genuine fruit while the eye is distracted to mere show.

If it must be one way or the other, singing cheesy songs to inspire, or inspiration before the singing, give me the latter. In certain modern art we see what curious shapes the thing can take. For example, in The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, grace operates unrecognized even by the man possessed of it, a “whiskey priest” whom villagers will not cease imploring to baptize their babies.

The Owl being himself a man of feeling, even complexity of feeling, he hopes there are Christians of his kind scattered around. One needn’t embrace the proprieties of one’s fellow parishioners to be assured of God’s love. If that idea exposes one to danger, then so be it. Let us not forget we are talking about an institution that has murdered people for less.

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