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DIALOG, Volume 17, Winter 1978 (46-49)

GRACE: GOD AS NOT FREE NOT TO LOVE
Duane Voskuil
University of North Dakota


That religious concepts are neurotic projections of man's psycho-biological nature was maintained by Freud and is held by many. Perhaps such persons can be shown to reflect their own limitations in an inability to see beyond their own reductionistic Weltanschauung; but even so, one should not overlook the possibility that some of their charges of neuroticism and infantilism may be justified--a justification accomplishable, perhaps, by ironically furthering the insight that a theistic universe is a necessary and not merely contingent psychological desire.

No concept expresses more deeply the emotional content of personal relationships with God and others, nor has wider theological import, than "grace." Yet "grace" seems to have suffered a displacement of its logical meaning along lines all too similar to our all-too-human social structures.

To be "saved by the grace of God" often means that God decides to save or accept us. My thesis is that God makes no decision to save or accept us. Caesars, wives, fathers, and publishers can decide to accept or reject. A feeling of thankfulness and well-being could come then from being accepted, knowing we might have been rejected. Are we, then, to praise and worship God because we are not rejected though we could have been? If so, I finally understand what the expression "the fear of the Lord" means.

The way to face the fear of being lost is to realize one cannot be rejected, rather than to believe one is one of the chosen. The latter will either breed egotism, the very condition exhibited by the unchosen, or it will not fully weed out the germs of doubt. Absence of doubt is usually thought necessary, since one's belief must be unflagging or one is not privy to (has not earned?) God's grace. Doubt can arise on such a thesis (1) because it can only be a fact (not a necessity) that one is saved (and we all know we can possibly be wrong about facts since we are not omniscient), and (2) because it is possible to be in God's grace and then fall out of it. The anxiety that one can fall from God's grace seems well-founded since Adam and Eve and, before that, Satan are reputed to have fallen.

While one lives in anxiety of being O.K., that is, of being worthy of acceptance, one cannot live most valuably, the insight popularized by the psychologists Berne and Harris. God is the only I AM who is always logically justified in saying "I AM O.K. in all ways." God is essentially (necessarily) O.K., or God would not be unsurpassable, the very essence of God. We are O.K. also, which means that God unconditionally accepts us. Paul Tillich is right as far as he goes in saying God accepts us unconditionally when we come to him (or her?). But is Tillich clear (1) that we must come to God in some way whether we know it or not and (2) that God is not free to accept or reject, that is, that God is not free not to be God? God could no more decide to reject us than to decide not to exist. Anything that can decide not to exist exists contingently, and contingently existing realities are surpassable. God is necessarily unsurpassable, or not God, as Anselm long ago should have made clear to us. "Unsurpassable love" means non-contingent love, or God would not be essentially loving, and would be surpassable by a reality that was, if "unsurpassable love" does make sense. My suggestion is that it does make sense, as a love that does not just happen to be all-embracing, but must be.

Is there anyone who feels his or her life could not have been bettered? There is certainly a sense in which we are not, or may not be O.K. We need not fear that we are accepted, but this does not remove the concern for the quality of value we have for the one who accepts us. The opposite is necessarily the case. Only some-thing that must happen in some way or other can be an imperative for action of some kind. God, of course, is O.K. in both senses, (1) God knows he will be accepted by all (that is, be a causal factor in everything) as well as know he will be capable of accepting all, and (2) God also knows that the way he is a factor in, or influences, all could not be improved (this does not rule out decisions, as Spinoza thought, since there are co-equally good actions possible); thus God could not regret his influence though he undoubtedly often regrets ours.

Existential thought often emphasizes the "sickness Unto death," the meaninglessness that ensues if what we do makes no difference. God's grace is the logical denial that one can meaningfully be in an existential vacuum, even though one may feel this way. To be accepted is to make a difference in the one accepting. Neither any creature nor God chooses to make a difference: God must be and become all there is and will be, so that loss is impossible and what is, therefore, forever makes a difference in what will become. But each reality must have some choice in how it is meaningful. No reality is free not to be somewhat free (God being Un-surpass ably free). "Grace" is the concept that best expresses the necessary truth that no reality is free not to be somewhat conditioned, that is, that nothing is free to be unrelated to some-thing else both as being partially caused by (loving) others and partially affecting (being loved by) others.

Every acceptance is a condition in the acceptor. God is the unsurpassable acceptor, conditioned by all that ever was, and will be conditioned by all that comes to be. To know God's grace is to know there is no way to be completely alienated or meaningless. To believe one can be meaningless, if this thesis is correct, or even to believe that the difference one makes (the meaning one has) can ultimately be to any-thing less than God, is a state of insanity, a state of self-conflict in which one aspect of the self strives to operate on a belief along lines that are impossible for the whole self; it is the state of sin. Animals are not usually considered sinful since they are not reflective enough to make psychologically such gross logical errors about the necessary relationships of existence. One is saved whether or not one wants to be or even knows he or she is. So our decision to accept God's grace--the condition for being saved espoused by many: "Accept Christ (God?) or Be Damned" the billboards read--is not required, unless "being saved" means in this context that how one acts is inspired by God-centered evaluation as opposed to a less valuable standard, and not that one's acts are maintained for the positive or negative value they have. Otherwise, this act of acceptance would really only be another backhanded way of earning acceptance.

People in societies of all ages have functioned more or less on the principle of getting ahead by who they know, not solely on the value of what they know. Not one's virtue but one's connection, one's "in," makes the difference. Can anyone wonder why, after seeing how easily special privilege corrupts, that a religion that professes an "in" with God because of an "in" with Christ (or some group) is seen by many as a projection of our social habits and some-thing to be purged from a truly sane life? Worship should have no hangovers from the groveling at the tyrant's feet, benevolent or malevolent, any more than a rational government should run on privilege rather than principle. The universe does, and unavoidably must, run on principles at its most basic level, the level so fundamental that no reality could have established them. They cannot be founded since they are the common principles which define, and, therefore, are necessarily exhibited by, all possible foundings. The constitution of the universe, or God, was never written; it has always been. The logical necessities of existence include the necessity for us to be saved.

What is sometimes called "special grace" might be seen as the fortune (hopefully good fortune) to be in a position to learn the meaning of "grace." But learning the meaning of "grace" does not mean that only those learning the meaning of "grace" have the opportunity to be saved; rather, it means they have had the opportunity to know that everyone is saved.

What can be more upsetting to the pious than believing that even the impious are saved or accepted? If salvation (heaven) be not a state to reap the benefits of virtue after denying the worldly benefits of wickedness, what has the world come to? What is the motivation for doing good if the end is the same for the bad? Such cries betray the lack of insight between that one is saved and how one is saved. Motivation for good need not stem from the desire to be saved or accepted, nor from the fear of not being saved or not being at all. The man who does good in order to get good does what he does only to further himself, which makes the use of the word "good" in this context mean "unqualified furtherance of a purpose (one's own) less than the one and only purpose rationally justified as unqualified," namely, God's.

Is the motive for being faithful to one's spouse the fear that the spouse's love will be lost or the love of the spouse? I think one is less likely to be unfaithful if one knows the spouse will not reject. The refusal to reject is a strong expression of love (unless the spouse is weak-which God is not), and those who love are more lovable, that is, have more pow-er to influence one's motivation. The motive for being good is grounded in the insight that we do and must effect God (and others through God) forever, and that only in the balance of God's unity of experience is the everlasting positive and negative of our life weighed. If it were in principle conceivable that we could avoid being loved or evaluated by God, it could not be the moral imperative to be concerned how we do in fact choose to make our differences.

In loving, one not only accepts, the side of love called "grace," but one also desires. One's desire must be to further the value of the be-loved (be it only oneself or only others, or God as embracing all others). The imperative to love God (desire God's enrichment) arises because God is the only reality (1) that must be loved (accepted), that is, no one can fully reject God, and (2) that can logically be loved (desired) without qualification, that is, categorically. The unqualified love of God means being completely open to make the most of God's influence and to love oneself and others in such a way that the value of the inclusions in God's cosmic love is as enriching as possible. Loving something less than God means loving something more or less than others, that is, qualifiedly. One must weigh carefully to avoid loving something distortedly or disproportionately, as evaluated by the whole, which is the very meaning of saying God only is unqualifiedly lovable. However, there is no necessity to love God (or others in God) in the most valuable way, even though there is a necessity to love God in some way as long as one exists; likewise there is no necessity for how God loves us (except that for God it must be in a way as good as any other way conceivable), even though it is necessary for God to love us in some way so long as we continue to exist; and it is necessary for some-thing or other to exist for God to love. If one knows that the measure of his life is its effect in God (which, therefore, means how one loves others for what they can be in present and future cosmic experience) and yet desires to diminish value (for God), he is wicked. Knowledge is prerequisite for evil decisions, though not for tragedy which is loss of future value which no agent desired.

One might notice that evil results would not be to be evil if they were not also saved, which is why the concept of "hell," keeping the wicked around, has one foot logically justified. To be in hell is to be saved; of course, how one is saved does presumably differ from those in heaven. But if "in hell" means "not in God," then God is not the measure of reality, has not accepted all unconditionally and must also be incomplete. Being "in God" does not mean that our deciding, evil or not, is part of God's deciding, only that the results of our decisions are in God. Our evil, which lies in our deciding, does not make God evil; it only makes him suffer.
But if one loves God's positive value (which is not only possible but necessary to some de-gee) and not his own future rewards (which ultimately is impossible anyway unless one can establish he cannot die or even forget), he will desire to fulfill the differences he makes in God by the things he does with himself and others. No other sanction can there be. To motivate one to love another by promises of rewards is only to demonstrate one loves the rewards, not the other.

We are necessarily free to choose, so radically so that God could not stop our choosing and have us, as some existentialists suggest. We exist by virtue of our freedom or power; power is not given to a reality that could conceivably exist without it. The removal of all creaturely life would be required to remove all possibility of anyone not loving God, and this is like trying to make a container that is absolutely empty, namely, a logical contradiction. A position that seems very cogent to me is that nothing exists that is not alive to some degree, since existence and exercise of power are likely synonymous. Even though God could exist without this particular world, for him to exist without any world is impossible. God is the love of the world, and without a world there would be no Godly love nor God, since God is essentially love. Here is just another, though extreme, case of asserting God's grace is not unconditional, since on this theory there would only be grace when there is a world.

The point I have tried to make is that we do not earn God's grace, that is, our salvation. But there seems to be a way to earn God's love, that is, influence God's desire to help us continue to have new future experiences to be saved. God's desire must be for his beloved, that is, the world, but there are incompossible worlds or states of the world as Leibniz, amongst many others, pointed out. God must choose which kind or state of the world to further or bring into existence and which to diminish or eliminate. How we are likely to continue to fit into the value of the future states of the world by our new creations is a major factor in God's decision. When we desire to use our freedom destructively God has to diminish as far as possible that destructive effect in the world and, it seems, would have to put his influence towards frustrating or eliminating such a one's future creations if they are likely to be destructive; whereas, if one were more enriching or lovable for God than an evil (or, perhaps, a tragic) person, God's love returned would be to further that one's lovable desires, unless they happened to be incompatible with desires others have which are at least equally lovable in the grand scheme of things.


This is a subject whose complexity cannot be handled adequately within the space or topic of this paper. Just to realize that what is lovable or beautiful for a while soon becomes old and boring unless there is sufficient integrated novelty is to see God's desire to further our desires as a complex aesthetic matter. There can also be seen here good grounds for believing that creatures, who must have limited creative flexibility, cannot expect to have God further a desire (which one of them might have) to be allowed to live forever fulfilling his or her desires, because the fulfillment of these desires would necessarily become jaded for God relative to what new realities could be brought to exist that would be incompossible with that person's circumscribed desires or abilities.

In summary, I can agree with the tradition on grace that maintains we do not earn our acceptance or salvation. But the assumption, then, that God gives it does not necessarily follow. It could and, I think, must mean that we are necessarily saved. There are at least three reasons this position will not be easily accepted: (1) our age is rather cynical about the possibility of establishing any meaning to "unconditional necessities" (all necessities are thought to be definitional, that is, really contingent); (2) man, in his egotism that often comes out even in his explicit denials of it, likes the notion that he can have his special privilege, that he is part of the "in" group; and (3) a widespread but misplaced piety tries to defend God from the buffetings and sufferings of the world. We so often seek refuge from pain, we assume God certainly would, despite the teachings of Christianity that God (Christ, at least) suffers unsurpassable. Only we are so weak as to need to be insulated from suffering.

I cannot help but wonder how history would be different if our theologies embodied the notion that every experience must be saved. Until they do, the truth that the essence of God is love cannot be clearly seen, in both the senses (1) that God loves unqualifiedly (must accept all and unimprovably desires the welfare of others) and (2) that God must be loved (accepted) by all in some way and ought to be loved (desired) unqualifiedly. Then, perhaps, it will not sound so strange to call God "she" or "mother" as well as "he" and "father," since a mother's love for her children--traditionally, any-way--is undaunted even when they are bad. And what would those like Freud say of this androgynous concept of God even if they persisted in their psychological evaluations of the logic of theism?

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