I need to caveat, from the start, that I don’t usually write about serious topics here, and don’t plan to make a habit of it. Not that writing, U2 and the Lakers aren’t serious for me, but they’re not “if we disagree, and keep discussing it, tempers are likely to flare and we’ll both stomp off muttering curses under our breaths, slightly sick from the adrenaline rush of actual emotional conflict” serious.
But that’s sort of where tonight’s post will lead. It’s not like it’s all that controversial, but I’m also not likely to be in the mood for non-committed back and forth on it. Most topics, I can take either side, enjoying the effort more than what side the victory is on. Not this one, I don’t think.
I also need to caveat that I don’t plan to go into detail about any of the tangential topics that this one would naturally raise. I’m going to give you the minimal amount of background necessary to grok where I’m coming from, and then we’ll move on.
And I finally need to caveat that this post already has two (and now three) caveats more than I like—my blog, I get to do what I want, when I want, and shouldn’t have to explain things. But as I noted, this is a somewhat serious topic, and since I don’t tend to go publicly diving in those waters that often, I’d like for them to be clear and not open for a variety of troll-baiting interpretations.
And now, with sufficient baggage strapped aboard, we’re off…
So, here’s the background. Once upon a time, I was very religious. Serious case of bornagainitis. Probably because I was first introduced to religion at a critical moment in my life…parents recently divorced, transitioning from elementary school to high school, puberty, intellectual awaking…all that great after school special crap. My mind and heart were desperate for something deep and involved to sink their teeth in to, and a fervent Born-Again Christian meal just happened to be walking by.
I will now skip ahead 20 years—and easily a couple hundred thousand words, if I just stuck to summarizing the high points—and expect you to keep up.
These days, I don’t like religion. I don’t think my actual beliefs have changed all that much, but I am a lot clearer on A) what exactly “a belief” is, and B) what mine are. There’s been a demi-glace-like reduction to the overwhelming symphony of ideas and concepts I first walked into 20 years ago, distilling the core principals to their essences while somehow increasing and balancing their complexity at the same time.
Which are pretty words to sum up something I already posted here a while ago: Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
To conclude the incredibly-brief background section of this post: I once was Christian, in an organized fashion, and while I now pursue disorganization (spiritually speaking), my beliefs are rooted in that ground, and despite two decades of scrutiny, and wide-spread exploration into a large number of seemingly-incompatible belief systems, those aspects I’ve identified as the basic principals of Christianity stick with me to this day.
One of which is the topic of the post I’m almost finally about to start writing.
(And no, I’m not talking about the Bud Light version of Christianity, the “Jesus was a cool guy, and what we can really learn from the bible is to be good to each other and love each other and maybe go to church on Easter, but there’s no need to get too bogged down in the details” version…fucking pussies.)
(And, one more [fuck me, does that make four?] caveat: when I mention the word God, no, I do not mean it the way you think I mean it, except yes, I mean it exactly the way you think I mean it. Which is to say, I’m not about to get into specific definitions here in this post, and do not assume that I’m being vague because I’m assuming that y’all already know exactly what I’m talking about; I’ve just spent 645 fucking words setting up this post before even mentioning what the post is going to be about. I’m not leaving out a specific description of God because I’m aiming to be brief. You want to challenge what I have to say because I mention God, and how absurd is it to believe in a dude with a beard on a throne living up in the clouds? Well, I don’t believe in that either. When I say God—at least for the purposes of this post—I could be talking beard-dude, I could be talking Yahweh, I could be talking the Ineffable, I could be talking tP / t…meet me halfway, if you would.)
What I want to talk about is grace, and why it’s a unique concept, one that blows apart the typical Christian-centric structure that usually encloses it.
I think I can say—without tempting too much in the way of debate—that as long as we’re moving along through the dimension of time, we’re all heading from something to something else. There is an ideal, no matter how minor, vague or undefined, that we’re moving towards. It can be superficially consumerist (“I’m not thin enough,” or “I’m not rich enough.”), it can be more personally meaningful (“I don’t take good enough care of myself,” or “I need to treat the people I care about better.”), or overtly hedonistic (“I am not nearly as baked as I should be,” or “I have not slept with nearly enough girls as I’d like to.”) ,or overtly spiritual (“I am not yet as far down the Eightfold Path as I aim to be,” or “I have yet to properly give Satan his full due.”), or any of a million different variations of all of the thoughts that pass through our heads in any given day. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be fully conscious: dropping trou and squatting is moving you closer from the present state of stomach cramps to the ideal of “deuce successfully dropped,” no matter how consciously you’re staking out those milestones. We’re talking prime mathematic givens here, not specific recipes.
When the spiritual aspect is considered, just about every possible path (I hesitate to call them “religions,” since there are far more people pursuing spiritual paths without the trappings of religion than there are people genuinely pursuing a religiously-defined path, as opposed to giving that religion lip service while more actively following one of the consumerist/personal/hedonistic/etc. paths already mentioned) is just that: a path. Today, you are Here. Tomorrow, you will be There. If successful, that There will be closer to the ultimate goal than Here is. And most of the time spent walking that spiritual path is focused on defining the steps needing to take you from Here to There, and monitoring your progress.
This is true even for most Christian paths, which to my mind completely misses the point.
See, Christianity has this unique concept, one that none others have or embrace, called grace.
Grace is a gift. Grace is something un-asked for, given regardless of whether or not it’s deserved or has been earned. Grace is, in the context of the notion of a path described above, a profoundly disturbing disruption of the basic understanding of how things work.
Put another way, grace is the fucked-up quantum entanglement to traditional religious Newtonian processes.
In the specific context of Christianity, grace is the given forgiveness of your sins before you can ask for it and with zero comprehension or concern for the notion of atonement. Grace is the gift given by God that removes the need to walk any distance down a spiritual path. Grace says that you do not have to earn the ideal you are pursuing by measuring yourself against some external spiritual yardstick—you already have it. Grace says “I have a pancake on my head; your argument is invalid.”
Enough with the platitudes: let’s get down to business.
Here’s what’s amazing about the concept of grace: because it cannot be earned, it is given to everyone. That fat fuck next to you on the bus, the one you caught staring at your ass, making you wish you hadn’t worn the low-riding jeans, knowing he’s saving up the brief, furtive views for his spank-bank later? Yeah, he’s been given grace. Your boss, the one who gave you a list of things to do today, and then kept passing on emergency requests from his boss, and then spends his time in the break room bitching about how you’re too lazy to get through the short list of easy tasks he gave you earlier? Yup, he’s been given grace too.
…That guy who screamed out something in Farsi before triggering the ball-bearing-laced plastic explosive he has strapped to his chest in the midst of a crowded market? Again, yes, he’s been given grace.
Which is kinda the point: if grace can’t be earned, then when given, it’s given to everyone. There’s no criteria for being an eligible receiver. That’s what’s beautiful about it: the drunk puking on himself in the gutter is as beloved and worthy of grace as you are, and while that might feel like a bit of a raw deal for you and your paid-my-rent-on-time-no-speeding-tickets-in-two-years self-esteem right now, it very profoundly says that all of the joy and wonders of God and the universe are equally available to both of you. All of you. All of us.
Which is how it should be, or else what’s the point? I don’t want to believe in a God that would pick and choose which people are worthy of Him based on an ever-changing, semi-objective matrix. I mean, are we to assume that God was okay with Abraham having multiple wives back then but isn’t in favor of it now? That’s too much like trying to get into the right clique in high school. Sure, he might like caring for puppies now, but who’s to say he won’t like people who paint their dicks blue later? Sure, that sounds absurd…but it fits within the set.
It’s far more likely that the ultimate point of convergence with God isn’t defined by nor dependant upon details like that.
But that makes for a difficult follow-up question: if everyone has been given grace, does it matter what we do? Are we all going to heaven (or whatever you want to interpret that particular phrase to mean)? And if we are, then does it matter one bit what we actually do? Can those people doing what strikes us to our core as evil be just as promised the Promised Land as those of us who try each day to do more good than harm? And the people who aren’t even paying attention, who are wandering through life in a self-induced haze, do they get to wake up at the pearly gates and say, “Hey, there’s a heaven. Who knew?”
I don’t think so. It’s not that it isn’t there, waiting for them; it’s that, fundamentally, gift giving requires two people.
Anyone who’s been a scout of any kind (boy, girl, whatever) or had a father/relative/etc. teach them more “traditional” skills will know what an Active Transfer of Control is, even if that particular name wasn’t used. It’s the first lesson of knife safety. When someone is handing you a knife, they hold it out and say, “I’m giving you this knife.” You reach out, put your hand on it, and once you have a firm hold of it say, “I have the knife,” at which point that someone lets go, and the knife is yours. Or there’s the rock climbing ritual of “On Belay?” “Belay On.”
What it comes down to is a clear, active decision with awareness of what that decision means, with no unstated assumptions. And that’s the second half of the grace equation: the gift has been given, but you still have to accept it.
And really, the only way to do so is with a prayer I learned long ago, when I first joined the Church, just read along and say the words out loud as you do, “Heavenly Father, in Jesus’ name I repent of my sins and open my heart…”
Ah, I’m just fucking with you.
Not to say that that particular method isn’t perfectly and completely valid. Here’s where that thing I said earlier, that I “hate religion”, is proven to be not entirely accurate. You certainly won’t hear me speaking against—especially to denigrate—anyone’s particular religious beliefs (unless there’s a joke to be made, because one of my most profoundly-held beliefs is, if you can’t take a joke, fuck off).
The flip side of grace being available to everyone means that everyone has to be able to receive it, if they’re willing, and that notion is incompatible with having a single, set, pre-defined path for doing so. Which does mean that all paths are valid, including the familiar, stereotypical ones you all already know about…
Because—and here another traditionally-Christian tradition pops its useful head up—words are cheap. Or as a youth pastor back in my high school days (for reals…which may help explain my willingness to do some desert wandering, given his mentorship) quoted to me, “Money talks and bullshit walks.”
You know and I know that unless you’re dealing with a world-class actor—or you’re intentionally willing to deceive yourself because of some unresolved and possibly unrelated issue—it’s pretty damn easy to tell when someone’s going through the motions. My six year-old daughter may say “Sorry” for sticking her fingers all through my rice, but she was laughing when she did it, and sullen when she says it, and I know the only reason she’s saying “Sorry” is because she doesn’t want to get punished again, not because she’s honestly understood that her actions have negatively impacted another’s life and desires to communicate to that person her awareness of the consequences of her actions, both empirical and emotional, and regrets her actions, and her willingness to make amends.
And she’s a lot better at faking it than most people I know my own age.
There’s a reason you don’t handle knives with just anyone, and why you don’t rock climb with people you don’t know. The giving-accepting relationship requires trust, since the only definitive proof you’re going to get of the other person’s trustworthiness is when you pull your hand away, and either the knife falls to the ground, possibly impaling your foot, or slices your fingers as the other person fails to release it, or when your handhold slips and the rope that’s supposed to catch you shortly after you fall whistles through the carabineer loud enough for you to hear the entire way down.
To sum up the point of these analogies, it’s pretty obvious to God, however you define Him…and to yourself, really…whether or not you’re telling the truth when you consciously decide to accept the grace that’s been given.
I’m not going to tell you what specific fruit will be borne when you do that. I have my own thoughts on the matter, but there’s a reason I ultimately decided against going to seminary and becoming a preacher, and it’s because I have a hard enough time sorting this shit out for myself, and the most difficult thing to do was de-brainwash myself from all the rules and regulations other people had posted on my walls. I’m not about to just switch seats here.
But I can at least tell you what I think are some pretty critical components of the process, however they end up manifesting themselves:
You have to know yourself. More importantly, you have to be willing to know yourself. Borrowing from David Brin here when I say that the greatest inherited skill human beings have today is self-deception, especially rationalization. You take the dumbest motherfucker off the streets right now, hand him one more beer than he knows he should really drink tonight, and he’ll find some way to convince himself that not only is it okay to drink that beer, but the world is a better place because of it.
In order to accept grace, you have to be able to know if you’re telling the truth or not. You can ask any smoker who’s in the car on the way to 7-11 even though they’re trying to quit how hard that can be. I found it through the progressive mind-clearing zazen of Zen. Others find it through prayer and bible study. Others find it through rigorous adherence to the scientific method, even when their pet theory—the one that’s going to get them tenure and an extra zero on the end of the grant check, maybe even that ½ paragraph blurb in Time magazine’s year-end round ups of the “best of” in science—turns out, by the evidence, to be completely wrong, and not in the “well, then the opposite must be true” way, but in the “wow, I have no fucking idea what’s going on here” way.
It just requires an acceptance that most of what you think you know about yourself is completely, flatteringly wrong, and a willingness to turn that laser-sharp ability to dissect others’ faults onto yourself.
Next time: so you’re willing to examine how much of a shit you are…what’s next?