Review of Haight: The Experience and Language of Grace
Haight surveys historically different understandings of grace. He observes that there are "diverse languages of grace, that is, diverse ways of understanding it" (p. 149.) This is the challenge he extends to articulate a new language of grace for our age and generation.
Haight observes that Augustine sees grace in the context of sin, freedom and unfreedom as that power to do good. Grace is "the force in the inner life of a person calling to faith and assisting the will to do good. . . . It turns cupiditas to caritas" (149). In Aquinas he observes, by grace "we are sanctified and enabled to live a life that is worthy of salvation"(150). In Luther, he writes, grace is God's word and promise of mercy and forgiveness: "God addresses us personally in Christ and guarantees that we are forgiven, acceptable and saved." For the Council of Trent (1215), grace is not only forgiveness but a new state of being, given by God and inhering us so that it becomes our own." In Rahner, he notes, grace is God's gift of his very self in love. With a more global attitude, appropriate to the twentieth century, Rahner describes grace as "any experience of a call to self-transcendence and positive response to it comes as a result of and is an encounter with God's grace"(151). Haight concludes that as with most things theological, each age has its own way of understanding a mystery and so "history invites us to understand it in our own terms." While normative understandings give us starting points, newer understandings in fresher more culturally relevant language can serve the believer much more. The author then extends an open invitation to speak of grace in more personalist and metaphorical terms rather freer of the tired theological connotations of the past.
Clearly Haight is dealing with a category of Christian experience and a concept of Christian theology. He struggles to offer some coherence about it since it is slippery and yet a commonly used term. Charis has been used to convey the gratuitous and undeserved love of God, and describes what is not earned. It is a gift "added to life, a gift beyond one's control, spontaneous, healing and sanative enabling us in freedom "to open up toward the good" (16-17). Primarily in Catholic theology it elevates the bestowed, leading to "a new life and being raised up by communion with God who fills one's being with himself" (17). Thus we have saints, those more preferred, the more highly favoured ones in the economy of salvation.
Haight further observes that grace operates in human lives, is a fact of human experience affecting human emotions and experiences: "The experience of grace is a human experience" (14). Of interest too is that "grace expresses a genuine pluralism in the experience of God and his grace." (15), and thus it (or maybe 'she' would be better in today's academe) shows the uniqueness of God's love, and it is at "the locus of religious experience in the person"(19).
Haight embarks on a topic pertinent for all Christian believers. Grace is a healthy reminder of our ultimate dependence on our Father in heaven, of our own mortality and of our own worth. It rebuts human greed, our competitiveness and our self-assertions. We humans have been given what we need and God's grace is always strong enough for what we need. Grace discriminates about what we deserve beyond what we think we need. Grace reminds us that in the community of the faithful, we cannot demand love, and that God's love is given discriminately over and above the salvation won for all of us by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Furthermore, Haight reminds us that that the Holy Spirit works in all of us, that the Spirit of creativity and Love is always at work in our hearts, in our lives, in our work. His wind will blow at will. By whatever name, faith can be won and done beyond our limited expectations and social and ecclesiastical categories.
Haight recommends that the existential language available today especially language about nature grants us newer insights into the mystery of love and encounter that grace describes. Grace is not distinct from nature as if it is a layer on top but indeed suffuses it with refreshment, liveliness, direction, engagement, fascination and love. Grace is life enhancement, greater freedom, greater gratitude for the gratuity of God's loving preferment. Grace nurtures the habits of love and peace and intimacy with God.
Luckily, Haight finds a more psychological description of grace in Aquinas at ST I-II, 113, 3: "Conversion consists of turning toward God, an act of faith, a movement of servile fear, a commitment to amendment and hope of pardon," and "a movement of charity, and finally of filial fear of God" (ST III, 85, 5) in his Chapter 3, footnote 28, p. 77-78. Such language better serves us for pointing to the actions of the whole person in a more loving reciprocal relationship with one's Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
Haight's treatment of grace reminds us then that religion is not about designing and playing to some plan but about the exercise of freedom sometimes in spontaneous outbursts of joy and liberation. The doctrine of grace is that hated reminder that God is beyond our control, beyond our expectations, beyond predefinitions. Like the weather, God's grace can blow where and as it will, being selective and selectively denying, randomly granting favour individually and surprising us with gladness.
Greg Smith 18/6/12