This lesson is the first of five on the theme of "Wounded Human Nature," which will entail reflection and (hopefully) discussion of our resistances to God. Anticipating this topic a couple of weeks ago, Danny wrote in the discussion forum:
That's very well said, and reminds me much of Paul's lament in Rom 7: 18-20.
We all know this experience, and if we do the daily examen described in our previous lesson, we come to be increasingly aware of it.
Again and again in Scripture, we read of the contrast between the growth that God calls us to and the other direction which opposes it. A few examples:
- the way of life and the way of death
- justice vs injustice
- law vs lawlessness
- compassion vs hardheartedness
- love vs hate
- generosity vs selfishness
- faith vs infidelity
- hope vs despair
- wisdom vs foolishness
- good fruit vs bad fruit
- way of the Spirit vs the way of self-indulgence
- Prince of Peace vs the Prince of this World
- good vs evil
- grace vs sin
- God vs Satan
Figure 3 in Chapter 3 of Pathways to Serenity, one of your course resources, also highlights contrasts in terms of how we pursue our needs.
The Power of Sin
Far from ignoring the reality of these forces in opposition to God, the Bible provides a coherent and congruent accounting for their origin and spread throughout the human race. It also details the human limitations for dealing with them -- Paul's reflections above expressing the sad state of human powerlessness over the pull of what he calls "sin which dwells in me." This term, "sin," is the biblical designation for the power that frustrates our spiritual growth.
Sin is not "natural," even though it is very common. God did not create sin and did not desire that human beings fall victim to its destruction. As the biblical account relates, the first humans were free from this darkness, and enjoyed a kind of natural knowledge of God (some theologians call this original justice and innocence). It is difficult for us to imagine what this must have been like, although contemplative graces give us something of a taste. Something went wrong, however, and that's what that old story in Genesis is getting at. A free choice to reject God and extol self was made, thus wounding all the levels of being in our first parents and in all who have descended from them. Human nature became vulnerable to the deceptions of evil spirit, and began to perpetuate evil through its own choices as well. Family systems and societies further enculturated sinful dynamics, thus frustrating the human spirit in its natural tendencies at every turn. The world (culture), the flesh (human passions) and the devil thus came to work against God's plan for the human race; we were a fallen race, falling ever more deeply under the dark power of sin as the ages unfolded.
Every world religion acknowledges this reality and tries to deal with it somehow. In the East, the pathway seems to be one of trying to shed the harmful attachments that have taken root in human nature, with the goal of awakening to a more authentic level of life. Space does not permit an exhaustive critique of this approach, but suffice it to say that very, very few are acknowledged to have attained deep enlightenment, or freedom. For dealing with the power of sin in one's human nature does not completely remove vulnerability from evil spirit, nor from the debilitating influences that have become enculturated.
That "way" in Judaism was to live by the Law -- those commandments that presented a clear outline of what a life of justice, compassion and holiness actually looked like. While, as Paul noted, the human spirit was attracted to this vision and benefited greatly when it was attained, to some extent, the overwhelming experience was powerlessness to keep the Law. Hence, one of the purposes of the Law, it seems, was to teach us that we were powerless to keep it on our own. While that might seem a cruel and unusual lesson, it nevertheless helped to break the illusion we all have concerning our own power and so became something of a "First Step" to opening to a higher power.
The way of authenticity sought in the East and the way of righteousness sought in Judaism were fulfilled in Christ. No need to tell any of you the story -- about how the human race was "upgraded," as it were, through his death, resurrection and ascension. With Pentecost, the power and intimacy of the Holy Spirit became also became available to us in a new way, enabling our human spirit and its longings to be completed by the Holy Spirit. No longer slaves to sin, we have "received the spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God; and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and join-heirs with Christ." (Rm. 8: 15-17).
And yet we still struggle, as the power of sin in our human nature endures; does the devil and sinful dynamics enculturated through the centuries. We are both fallen and redeemed. The question is, to which side are we giving the greater consent?
A Matter of the Will
The theme of the two ways pertains primarily to the orientation of the will -- that capacity of the human spirit which moves us one way or another. This doesn't mean, as noted above, that it's merely a question of will-power. It's not! Nor is it a matter of intelligence informing the will. Our reason can exert considerable influence upon the will; so can our emotions, and even the health of the body. When we are ill, for example, we are less likely to be hospitable and more likely to be self-centered than when we are healthy.
That said, we note that health, information, awareness, etc. do not fully influence the will. As we all know, intelligent, self-aware people can be crooks and political manipulators, or worse. It takes a lot of awareness and intelligence to outwit security to rob a bank, for example, and the same dynamics of the human spirit that can be used for good can also be used in the pursuit of evil ends. Being attentive, intelligent and reasonable doesn't always lead to being responsible -- at least not in the Christian understanding of the term. Ultimately, we must choose the values we will live by and how we shall put them into practice, and this is the telling factor, determining the kind of person we ultimately are to become.
At the risk of over-simplification, I think it's nonetheless correct to say that the will is either open to relating in love, or it's not. I know there are lots of shady, gray areas here, along with many mixed motives. But the "mixture" is a blending of movements to love or not to love. In other words, when it comes to the critical issues in the spiritual life there are in the end only two ways to go: toward self-reliance, or reliance on grace working through our natural powers. This helps to focus clearly the most essential consideration in the spiritual life: namely, whether one is living in openness to God's direction (explicitly or implicitly so) or whether one is striving for self-sufficiency apart from God (also explicitly or implicitly so -- even within a religious context). The latter movement is influenced by the power of sin; the former, by grace. See if you can become more aware of these movements, and of the kinds of values and considerations you're consenting to in choosing them.
More on all this as we go along . . . (future chapters on the false self system, the enculturation of evil, and evil spirit).
Reflection and Discussion
1. What comments and questions do you have from this lesson?
2. How do you experience the reality of the "two ways" in your own life?
Response to material:
Phil, I like this approach very much. I so often have heard and read the idea that we respond to either love or fear as the basic energy of our life. The idea of "working toward self-reliance, or reliance on grace working through our natural power" is much more helpful to me. It certainly affirms my own choices in choosing a path of faith and believing in grace in my own life. There needs to be a way beyond fundamentalism and reductionism to bring a fullness to Christianity
now when we are faced with the self righteousness we are seeing from some.
Those times when we turn to self reliance, we may very well fall into fear. Yet, there are many who are intoxicated with their own power.
Some of the worst abuses of our time are coming from those in power. I know there may be a deep seated fear underneath the aggressiveness, but I have had to face the reality that some seem to consciously make very dark choices to keep their power. It brings us to face the concept of evil, which may be where you are leading us. This is a crucial understanding if we are going to change the negative energy and bring it into balance somehow. There is a very seductive new age kind of thinking that we are some kind of mini-gods trying to find our divinity, and the world will fall into entropy if we don't save it ourselves. It is self reliance couched in knowledge and a self-defined enlightenment. We have much to learn from the Eastern ways, and you draw from that wisdom to enhance Christianity, but there is a downside that I find disturbing. Grace is such a wonderful gift of the Spirit, and Jesus brings the beauty of that into our faith. Finding the words and putting language around
all this can help us bring clarity to our spirituality and to move toward a more hopeful vision together. Naomi
Most thoughtful reflections, Naomi. Thank you.
The situation re. sin and Eastern spirituality is perhaps not as simple as I suggested, for they do indeed have a deep understanding of the illusion of control and the destructiveness of selfishness. Enlightenment a la the Buddhists, for example, implicitly recognizes a graced aspect to the experience, insofar as one cannot simply will themselves into this state, but, rather, awakens there through a life of ethical living, discipline, compassion and meditation. The "grace" in question, re. Buddhism, might be considered "natural," in contrast to the "supernatural" grace communicated by the Holy Spirit. This distinction between natural and supernatural grace isn't heard much these days, but we recognize it in many ways:
- the body's innate ability to heal;
- our innate striving toward wholeness and integration;
- the spirit's own yearnings for truth, goodness, love . . .
and so forth.
So what the Buddhists, in particular, are trying to do to deal with what we call sin-power is to consciously and deliberately remove the attachments which block these healthy natural movements, all the while cultivating healthy disciplines to enhance their natural empowerment. The full flowering of this process is enlightenment, which we might understand in terms of the human spirit awake to itself and its fundamental orientations to transcendence.
Problem is, as I noted in the opening post on this thread, this isn't easy to do, especially if one is laden with attachments and woundings. Supernatural grace works much more powerfully to heal and restore human nature. But there's no conflict between supernatural and natural grace, so one can benefit from the kinds of disciplines the Buddhists recommend; indeed, these are all more or less emphasized in Christian spiritual disciplines, as we shall see.
If one were to reject supernatural grace in favor of natural grace, one might be employing a kind of willful self-reliance. In fact, Buddhism does recognize that many embark upon the path of enlightenment out of willful motives and even undertake the practices willfully. Hard to get away from this -- even in Christian spirituality. The insidious power of sin follows us even into the realm of religion and spiritual practice. Weeds and wheat do grow together . . . for awhile . . . maybe a long while.
Supernatural grace works much more powerfully to heal and restore human nature. But there's no conflict between supernatural and natural grace, so one can benefit from the kinds of disciplines the Buddhists recommend.
If one were to reject supernatural grace in favor of natural grace, one might be employing a kind of willful self-reliance. In fact, Buddhism does recognize that many embark upon the path of enlightenment out of willful motives and even undertake the practices willfully.
Phil, This whole concept and differentiation between supernatural grace and natural grace is a great clarification. You are especially sensitive in keeping the dialogue open in other belief systems. I have always appreciated that Thomas Merton was working to do that up to the end of his life. Thanks.
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