March 2019 News Perspective Online

A Message from Dean Hill: On Grace

What makes life together possible? One answer is law. Unquestionably, there is truth to that response. I am grateful for civil authorities who enforce just statutes. As they say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Legal boundaries protect us from predatory behavior and help to curb our own self-centered instincts. Would I obey speed suggestions on I-35? Knowing that speed limits are enforced has a salutary effect on my inclination to get where I am going just that much faster.

However necessary for public order and safety, the framework of law or even rules is increasingly irrelevant as we draw closer to others. My spouse Robin and I did not require a prenuptial agreement to determine who does the dishes. One or the other of us takes the initiative, often in response to how one perceives the other is doing that day. Where there is growing mutual affection and concern, formal strictures govern less and less behavior. Jesus reduced the core commandments to only two, knowing that, were we to love God and love neighbor fully, we would fully do God’s will.

What makes life together possible? In a faith community as well as in a family, I would suggest that the answer is grace. It is important to note, however, that religion and grace do not always cohabit peaceably. It is an understandable tension: Religion offers a way of living, a path and a directive, even a code of law. For that very reason, religion is all too easily reduced to a system of performance and merit, to which grace is invariably a scandal.

It is striking that so much of what was scandalous about Jesus is what is scandalous about grace. Grace pays the late laborers as much as those who bore the heat of the day. It joyously receives the prodigal back into the home. It welcomes the publican, the adulterer and the Samaritan. It extends the bounds of fellowship. Like tables in the temple, it overturns rules and traditions when their implementation stands in the way of some higher good. Thus, it chooses to perform works of healing on the Sabbath.

Jesus spoke about and, more important, demonstrated the gracious reign of God. And this is something that many religious people found impossible to accept. Why?

For one thing, because grace is unfair. It disrupts our systems of merit and self-constructed identity. It offends our sense of justice – that is, if we regard ourselves as being among the just. To appreciate and to extend grace, you have to know that you are already its beneficiary, that you have been welcomed as you are, not because of your achievements. It meets us, not at the point of our virtue, but at the point of our vulnerability, which threatens our fragile self-assertion.

To receive grace requires a recognition of our own need, our own sinfulness. That is why Jesus could say that “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47), and why he could tell religious authorities, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter God’s reign ahead of you” (Matt. 31:21). It is why we are asked to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Luke 11:4). Religion as a system of exchange does not operate within this economy. In fact, it actively, even violently, opposes it.

A faith community that is also an intellectual community proffers a double hazard. Not many lectures begin with the words, “I might be wrong, but…” In academia, to be right is to be righteous, and all the more so when the object of study is God. Once again, one’s identity is fused to one’s perceived performance, and so being wrong means being less.

People who have changed their minds in some significant way – especially over a period of time, not haphazardly or reactively – have experienced a kind of intellectual repentance. Thus, it is often easier for them to be aware of the limitations of their intellect and the imperfectability of their opinions. If they have received grace, they in turn may extend grace to others, and so live with humility as well as conviction.

Students quickly learn that they cannot agree with every Perkins professor about every issue, because faculty do not themselves always agree. But I think we all recognize that each of us is more than the sum of our opinions. That does not mean that anything goes. We care passionately about truth, but we also recognize that no one possesses the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are all still students ourselves.

To extend such grace is scandalous to some, especially to those who have not yet seen that they themselves require it. I am grateful to be part of a diverse faith and academic community that attempts to live together graciously, especially at a time when so little grace is to be found elsewhere.

Jesus consistently resisted human prejudice and self-assertion. He was, as the Gospel of John so eloquently put it, “full of grace” (1:14). That is what makes him so challenging – and so wonderful.