Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Sin and Grace: Consonance


“Such a mirror might be held up…we behold a double image, not of one face but of many, infinite in number, moving in an endless variety of directions. Imagining the glass as uncracked, we see…flourishing in the context of faithful community, wrapped in the gifts of faith.”

The trouble that Christian and especially Protestant thought of sin has long been to make it surpassingly more interesting than grace. As a female friend of mine remarked when eating chocolate, “Nope, this isn’t God’s goodness. It’s too good! It must be sin!” One can see the same tendency in Milton’s leading character turning out to be, in fact, the Satan who would notoriously rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.

Static, Platonic notions of grace have long led to a heaven no one wants to live in and here in Calvin we see grace held up to us as a mirror which reflects only the way we ought to be. But if “Calvin defends the breadth and imprecision of his discussion here by explaining that sin is not a stable or static state but more a furnace burning with ever new flames or a spring unceasingly bubbling up from the earth…always changing, assuming ever new forms and traveling into ever new terrain,” then one could hope that, when pressed, love might do similarly exciting things.

The image of grace as a fractured mirror helps to explore such newly evolving territory. Grace at last becomes a multiplicity embracing a plurality of options even as it defines a field of options to choose from; life for Christians becomes selecting choices from the menu offered at the banquet of experience. Love becomes a fire burning with ever new flames, and grace becomes the spring bubbling up from the ground of all our being.

Grace is the boundary the defines a field of options, and the field of options consists of the selves awaiting in our preferred and promised futures. The Lord’s injunction that we shall be holy as the Lord is holy becomes a promise as much as a command, and while perhaps Jones might not want to take the notion so far, one would hope that whereas sin is the bondage of our will, righteousness would be that which sets our will free and increases our options in God.

‘If you but love God, then do as you will’ says Augustine, and one has no better a vision of heaven then this, not because grace is libertine but because it is liberating and always leads, one would hope, to a surfeit of options. This would be true both for men pressed into masculinity and women constrained by femininity alike – in the mirror of grace we face not simply the reverse of gendered constructs but indeed our truly human side.

Grace always changes. Grace assumes new forms and travels into new terrain. The images of grace are whole and holy, multiplicities unfractured by their separation – and here we note the postmodern allowance of disparate things to remain disparate yet contribute to a more harmonious whole. Sin fractures the glass precisely as it eliminates the future possibilities of humankind. The road of sin narrows as it goes unto desolation; the road of grace begins small but expands to embrace the humility, dignity and authority of agency.

Grace demands responsibility because it offers up to humans our first true choices. Grace implicates us in the story of our own sanctification not because we can become righteous on our own but because it makes all righteousness(es) possible. In my estimation the oppression of women is sin as such precisely because and to the degree that it limits the agency of women and denies them responsibility in the first place; this applies, obviously, to all disaffected, disenfranchised and marginalized people even as it embraces those who remain so caught in the system of sin that they deny the agency of others and act as oppressors in their own right.

That sin touches all must also imply the possibility that graces touches all or at least extends toward all, whatever they might make of it. Otherwise, Satan would presumably welcome both oppressors and oppressed into her dominion; I am sure she holds no preference otherwise. What grace and God prefer, however, is that we run out the scripts of righteousness precisely because they are both more compelling and more liberating than the monotonous and banal self-righteousness, self-deluding, and self-denying script of sin that the darkness would have us repeat ad infinitum.

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