You are here

Chapter XXII | Grace

§ 1. The meaning of ‘grace’

If a morally good man acts on religious or semi-religious assumptions, and if morality leads—or tends to lead—to religion, we have to ask in what way religious life differs from moral life. Perhaps the simplest answer is that the religious life is distinguished by grace.

The concept of grace has played a great part in Christian theology, which differentiates, for example, between prevenient grace, sufficient grace, and efficacious grace. We must try to consider the subject in a more general way.

The word ‘grace’—like the Greek Ca`rij and the Latin gratia—is rich in meaning and in subtle gradations both of emotion and of thought. The historical development of its various senses must here be ignored, but we may take the primary meaning to be ‘beauty’: grace is, in the first place, a beauty of proportion, movement, and expression which attracts and charms.

Grace in this sense seems to be a gift. Those who possess beauty do not work for it or deserve it: it comes without effort and without thought. To those also who are attracted and charmed by it, it comes as a boon to which they have no right. Beauty, like kisses, goes by favour, not by merit; and a grace is a favour given and received. Hence the second meaning of the word is ‘favour’: he who shows grace or favour is not obliged to do so, and he who receives it receives something on which he has no claim.

On the side of the giver grace or favour is a free gift—it is given gratuitously or gratis, if we may go back to our Latin. On the side of the receiver it has to be received with gratitude and thanks. This third meaning of ‘grace’ as ‘gratitude’ or even ‘gratification’, so prominent in Latin, has almost disappeared from English except in the one phrase ‘to say grace’—that is, to return thanks.

It may be said then that the three main senses of ‘grace’ are first ‘beauty’, secondly ‘favour’, and thirdly ‘gratitude’. But these are not equivalents: the word ‘grace’ combines these meanings in itself, and it has an aura that is all its own.

In considering grace as the special mark of religion, we shall have to take religion at its best and ignore the manifold aberrations which are opposed to grace and may be called disgraceful.

§ 2. The grace of beauty

One English writer who takes a special interest in grace, though in an anti-theological way, is Samuel Butler. He laid stress on the unconscious before Freud, and in spite of his anti-intellectualistic exaggerations he brings out well the unconscious element in grace: we do not acquire grace by taking thought. ‘Dog-fanciers’, he says, ‘tell us that performing dogs never carry their tails; such dogs have eaten of the tree of knowledge, and are convinced of sin accordingly—they know that they know things, in respect of which, therefore, they are no longer under grace, but under the law, and they have yet so much grace left as to be ashamed. So with the human clever dog; he may speak with the tongues of men and angels, but so long as he knows that he knows, his tail will droop’.

Whatever may be thought of this in other spheres, it is true that grace in religion does not come by cleverness, but is rather opposed to it. In pleas for religion there is no room for the clever dogs—not even if they wear dog collars. Nothing could be more out of place than the condescending assumption that if only we will attend to some obvious considerations, if only we will rid ourselves of a few elementary misunderstandings, all the difficulties about religion will disappear. The mark of religion is not sophistication or intellectual superiority, but a kind of unconscious simplicity such as is found also in the poet and in the man of genius. Such simplicity is not shallow: it may be the outcome, as well as the condition, of a rich experience, and it would ill become me to suggest that in this experience thinking can play no part. Yet there is no room for self-consciousness in the bad sense or for self-complacency. The religious man is humble; and what we value in him is a kind of unconscious grace.

For Butler himself grace is essentially Pagan, as will be seen from one passage of his magnificent English.

‘And grace is best, for where grace is, love is not distant. Grace! the old Pagan ideal whose charm even unlovely Paul could not withstand, but, as the legend tells us, his soul fainted within him, his heart misgave him, and, standing alone on the sea-shore at dusk, he “troubled deaf heaven with his bootless cries”, his thin voice pleading for grace after the flesh.’

‘The waves came in one after another, the sea-gulls cried together after their kind, the wind rustled among the dried canes upon the sandbanks, and there came a voice from heaven saying “Let My grace be sufficient for thee”. Whereon, failing of the thing itself, he stole the word and strove to crush its meaning to the measure of his own limitations. But the true grace, with her groves and high places, and troups of young men and maidens crowned with flowers, and singing of love and youth and wine—the true grace he drove out into the wilderness—high up, it may be, into Piora, and into such-like places. Happy they who harboured her in her ill-report.’

From a religious point of view this may be regarded as deplorable—as glorifying ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’. But we must remember that Paganism also is a religion, and that, at least in Greece, it was under the discipline of beauty. We may even think that Pagan grace was too readily extruded from the Christian religion—that the snares of loveliness loomed too large in the minds of celibate priests. Yet by itself the religion of Paganism is too narrow: it is a religion only for the young and beautiful, not for the sick and the sorry. And, in spite of Butler, the grace which is beauty is present in all religion worthy of the name—a beauty even more precious than the beauty of the body. Beauty, as I suggested earlier, is to be found in the ritual and myth and language by which a religion is expressed. It is to be found in the art which religion has inspired. But it is surely to be found above all in the simple religious life itself, a life of unself-conscious service and kindness which seems to be encompassed by a kind of holy peace.

Virtue also has its own beauty. Even Aristotle could say of justice that neither the evening nor the morning star is so wonderful; and the Stoics could claim that the sage, the ideally good man, has complete peace in the midst of misfortune. But the beauty of moral excellence may seem to be won and maintained by human effort. Are we going beyond the empirical evidence if we say that what distinguishes the beauty of the saint is that it seems to be given and received rather than fought for and won?

This brings us to our second sense of the word ‘grace’—the sense of a free gift that comes by favour and not by effort or by merit.

§ 3. Divine grace

When we speak of the beauty of the saintly life, we do not use the language of the saint himself. He is too humble to claim merit for his actions, and they would be less beautiful if he did. For him all beauty is in God or comes from God. He regards himself as a sinner and feels himself sustained by an invisible power. Every virtue, every victory, ‘every thought of holiness’—to quote the well-known hymn—seems to belong to God alone and to come to man only by divine grace.

Such an attitude has a special religious value. Morality is an appeal for effort, an appeal to be strong; but religion can appeal also to those who feel that they have no strength in themselves, that they are incapable of effort and in need of help. The drawing power of religion, and perhaps also its healing power, depends on its ability to make this appeal.

Yet we must not look at religion through rose-coloured spectacles. The struggle in morality seems at times to be intensified in religion—perhaps because the religious man is more vividly aware of the ideal and is less content to approximate to it by degrees. The peace he enjoys may still be only a peace in the midst of strife, and—as becomes clear from study of the mystics—even that peace seems to be only intermittent. The beauty of the religious life—if I may go back to the first sense of ‘grace’—is not a superficial beauty: it contains within it elements of pain, and so is more akin to tragedy. This does not mean that the religious life, or even the way to it, should be represented as a kind of hysteria, as in some modern versions. A religious man, like his less favoured brethren, has to be steady in affliction; but if he is not always sustained by consciousness of divine help, perhaps he is always assured of final victory.

The doctrine of grace has its own theoretical difficulties and practical dangers. Some have found it hard to reconcile divine grace with human freedom—although we need not suppose the omnipotence of God to be so straitened that He cannot give to men the grace of being free. More serious is the objection that if grace is given and received apart from merit, then the will of God must be arbitrary and unjust. It may even be supposed that in religion we can avoid the effort necessary for virtue—or abandon virtue altogether—by adopting some creed, or experiencing some emotional change, or submitting ourselves to some mystical or ritual cleansing. Into these darker errors it is impossible to enter here. A religion becomes self-frustrating if it denies human freedom in order to magnify the grace of God. It becomes idolatry and superstition if it throws virtue overboard as unnecessary lumber. It becomes devilish if it makes God as arbitrary as He is powerful. The word ‘favour’ may suggest favouritism, but a God who has favourites could not be a God of grace. Divine grace must be open to all who are willing to accept it with gratitude.

§ 4. Acceptance

Whatever special graces may be given to the religious man, he accepts them gratefully and gladly. In his attitude there is no place for vanity. When we find this unaffected humility and self-forgetfulness in any one, we all value it, even the most sceptical. If we found it more often, religion would incur less odium than it does.

So much is obvious, but it is to be remembered that from the religious point of view divine grace is not confined to the help or comfort or peace by which a man may be favoured—it is manifested in every happening in life and indeed throughout the universe. Here too the attitude of the religious man is one of willing and, if possible, grateful acceptance—not mere acquiescence in the inevitable.

It was once reported to Carlyle that Margaret Fuller had expressed her attitude to life by saying ‘I accept the universe’. He replied, ‘Gad, she'd better!’ This may have been a just protest against pretentiousness, but the problem is not so simple.

Even on the level of self-interest—not to speak of morality-there are countless men and women who get into all sorts of trouble because they refuse to accept the universe. They will not take the limitations of human life, and the special limitations of their own life, as a basis for action, but are always envying other people and yearning for opportunities they suppose themselves to have missed. It would be wrong to speak unsympathetically, since there are many who, through no fault of their own, but through the pressure of life, perhaps even in early childhood, have to suffer painful experiences for which modern psychology may be able to find a diagnosis and in some cases a cure. Yet the popularization of psycho-analysis may foster a tendency to evade present responsibilities on the ground of real or imaginary infantile conflicts. It is hard not to be impatient when we find people, especially young people, graced apparently with every gift of nature and of fortune, healthy, intelligent, and well-educated, complaining bitterly that they have never had a chance. The amateurs of psycho-analysis have much to answer for—including a lack of humour and of common sense. In the presence of futility and flabbiness we have to remember that there is such a virtue as courage. If I may say so without undue sententiousness, life is rather like swimming: you must be brave enough to give yourself to the water and learn that it will bear you up.

It is here that the religious man receives a very special grace. He is able to accept his circumstances, and even his limitations, as a manifestation of the divine will. This acceptance is not primarily a theory—he does not pretend to understand the divine will or to know why things are as they are: it is rather a way of taking the world gratefully as a basis for his action. To take things thus is to transform them: circumstances, however painful or even degraded, may then become the setting of a holy life, and willing acceptance of them may be a source of strength. This can be best expressed in the language of poetry, which is also the language of religion—in such an affirmation as ‘If thou wilt carry thy cross, thy cross will carry thee’.

In these matters it is easy to indulge in false emotion; but it is perhaps in some such way as this—especially if the cross is taken as a symbol of suffering also for others—that the healing power of religion is to be conceived. In some respects we have to-day a clearer understanding of the spiritual conflict, the sense of sin and guilt and despair, the anguish or the Angst, from which religion may set men free. To glorify these trials—still more to seek them—is wrong, and seems sometimes to spring from morbidity or vanity; but they have to be looked at dispassionately and accepted willingly, if a cure is to be found. In a desperate situation men must use whatever remedies may be provided by science or religion; nor need they think it unscientific to consult the recorded experiences of the saints.

§ 5. Service

Gratitude as an emotion is not enough: it has to be displayed in action if it is not to turn sour. The gratitude of the religious man is manifested in service to his fellows, which for him is also service to God. It is in this way that his moral life takes on, as it were, a third dimension so that he may be tempted to decry a morality that is without religion and to speak of it contemptuously as what is sometimes called ‘works’ as opposed to ‘faith’.

In the religious life ‘good works’ may no doubt become too absorbing: if they are not tempered by prayer and meditation and even humour, they may stifle the spirit of religion. A life of service is not one of grim efficiency or bustling officiousness, nor even one of bubbling spirits and overflowing amiability—still less is it a life of self-complacency and pride. All this is a religious aberration, but it is also a moral aberration. Moral goodness too depends upon the spirit that is manifested in action. If it is taken up into religion, it becomes something like saintliness or even holiness, and it is then a form of worship—some may find it the most selfless form of worship.

There is another way in which morality may be enriched by religion. As we have seen, in practice moral action is more than obedience to an abstract universal principle: it is also a fitting in with a pattern—a moving or changing pattern, for which we seem to have no special name—and it merges into loyalty to comrades, perhaps especially to a captain or leader, and also to society. The religious man's pattern is consciously wider than his society or even than the visible Church—it becomes for him the pattern of the universe, and the captain of his faith is God. Obedience and loyalty seem to be merged into awe and love.

A more technical point may be added. Because of the imperfection of earthly persons and earthly societies—and indeed of a visible Church—moral loyalty has always to be checked and corrected by an appeal to universal principles. There is no such separation for those who love God, since He is conceived as both universal and individual—as we saw, it has been thought better to say of Him that He is goodness rather than that He is good. It is curious how in this respect metaphysical speculation seems to find an echo in moral and religious conviction. This is shown also by the way in which moral conviction, like theoretical speculation, seems to strive towards a whole which is complete and perfect and unconditioned—a whole accepted by religious faith, in spite of paradoxes and even contradictions, as actual and not merely ideal.

It is in this way that faith becomes more than the adoption of a moral attitude—it seems to become a complete self-surrender, a waiting upon God. It is described as like the opening of a door that He may enter. This waiting is easier for the Christian since he thinks of God, at least in part, under the figure of a man in whom self-surrender was complete—a man who loves him and seeks him and demands his love and service. Other Western religions seem to share at least something of this view of God and this emotional experience. In Buddhism, if not in the other religions of the East, the theoretical interpretation is different; but there too the moral life, although apparently more self-sufficient, is a way to absorption in the ultimate reality and is accompanied by something like the same emotional experience of self-surrender. It is perhaps this that constitutes the distinctively religious attitude, so that ways of life may be classed together as religious in spite of opposing doctrines. Perhaps there is no religion which does not believe in the Real Presence, however differently this may be interpreted and however varied may be the speculations about the way in which it is felt or known.

Some may think that this account is too rational and too moralistic, that it neglects the numinous, that it fails to allow sufficiently for awe and dread, and says nothing of the wrath of God. For the last omission I make no apology, for I think that much of what is said on this subject is diseased. Otherwise there is no necessary conflict with Otto's analysis of the mysterium tremendum and of its rational schemata, as he unhappily calls them, although there may be a difference of emphasis; but while awe may be felt in the presence of the overpowering and the incomprehensible, it is most fully religious—at least from a Western point of view—when it is felt in the presence of absolute holiness.

It may be true that in the Western world even religious men tend to make too much of action and too little of contemplation and adoration. But adoration is to be distinguished from adulation; and it may be found most fully in a life of humble devotion and service—not in the repetition of fulsome praises in which (to judge by human analogies) the Almighty is not likely to find satisfaction. Nor should it be forgotten that for the religious man virtues and victories as well as thoughts of holiness come only by divine grace.

§ 6. Religious assumptions

So far an attempt has been made to describe grace from the point of view of the religious man himself. He is not interested in philosophical difficulties; and if he becomes too curiously concerned with questions of ways and means—if he enquires, in Martin Buber's language, not about man's way to God, but about God's way to man—he seems to move into new territory and enter on the doubtful paths of speculation.

It may seem ungracious here not to follow his wise restraint, but one thing must be said from a more philosophical point of view.

There can be no doubt about the nature and reality of religious experience—the experience of grace. But it is always possible, and indeed inevitable, for a scientist to maintain that consciousness of divine help, or even consciousness of the divine presence, is the result of preceding actions and states of mind or of the hidden workings of the unconscious. He may take in a special sense the saying of Jesus, ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole’, and argue that belief in God gives rise to the experience so that the experience cannot be used to justify the belief. Those who feel free to indulge in psychological surmises may even hold that the religious man draws upon a collective unconsciousness which seems to be a great deal cruder than his own conscious life. It is not easy to see why this should be thought a more acceptable theory than the view that the religious man draws, as it were, on a divine consciousness which is as much above his own as the collective unconsciousness of Jung is below it. Neither view, so far as I can see, can be regarded as a scientific theory to be verified by empirical evidence; but it is a pity that those who explore the unconscious restrict themselves so much to abnormal experiences. Their explanations can discover little but the irrational or even the monstrous, although it seems obvious enough that unless there were more rationality in the unconscious than is usually admitted, we could not think the thoughts, or enjoy the experiences, which are common in the normal man.

There can be no hope of defending religion by means of pseudo-scientific theories, which in any case would be opposed to religion in so far as they must treat God as if He were only one object among others. The religious man has to live his life on principles which cannot be turned into scientific hypotheses: it has to be enough for him that his assumption of divine grace is necessary to a way of life which has its own achievements, its own consistency, its own system, and its own satisfaction. Can we say much more about the assumptions of the scientist himself?

§ 7. The factor of emotion

If religious experience is taken to be an experience of grace, it must contain emotion as well as thought and action; and it may be advisable to return briefly to this topic, now that we perhaps have a clearer view of the intellectual and moral factors in religion. This is a more hopeful task than an attempt to speculate about the ways in which God may act upon man; but we must not forget that any account that is given must be inadequate from a religious point of view.

All human activity has what may be called a feeling-tone. Pleasures, so far as we can speak of them by themselves, take their character and, as it were, their colour from the activity they accompany, whether this be regarded as belonging to the body or the mind. Broadly speaking, if our bodies are functioning well, we have a sense of well-being. If our minds are functioning well, we have a sense of ease and satisfaction. Feelings of pleasure or pain, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, may be a kind of reflexion, however blurred, of success or failure in our activities. They may thus form a kind of clue or guide to our success or failure: an uneasy feeling, for example, may suggest to us that something has gone wrong with our thinking.

This connexion between feeling and activity extends beyond feelings of pleasure or pain in any narrow sense. In athletic exercise, for example, if our bodies are balanced, we feel balanced; and this may suggest that a harmony of feeling—or a feeling of harmony—may reflect, or even further, a harmony in our actions. To suppose this is to follow, or perhaps to go beyond, Aristotle's well-known doctrine of the mean. Thus in the face of danger a brave man acts in a way adjusted to the circumstances: he strikes a sort of mean between reckless and cowardly behaviour. This is what we may call an outer mean or harmony. But according to Aristotle—and his analysis was confirmed by the late Professor J. L. Stocks as a result of battle experience—there is also an inner mean, a mean or harmony or equilibrium of feeling: the feelings of a brave man may be a compound of confidence and fear in due proportion. This suggests that a harmony of emotion, a harmony which may be felt, is the condition of harmony in action. The conception is admittedly vague and in need of further analysis, but it corresponds to something in our ordinary experience.

A similar view may be taken of aesthetic enjoyment. The aim of the music lover is to hear a complex succession of sounds as an aesthetic whole, one in which—if vague words may again be pardoned—there is a balance or mean or proportion. This proportion must be in the sounds themselves; but the ultimate criterion of the success or failure of the music lies, not in any theory or measurement, but in the satisfaction or feeling of the hearer. The music may arouse emotions of joy or sorrow, cheerfulness or gloom, but these are not the criterion of musical excellence—to use them as such is the main source of bad taste. What makes these emotions aesthetic seems to be a feeling of harmony in our activity of listening. Kant thought this might be the feeling of a harmony between our power of conceiving and the imaginative activity of combining successively given sensations into a whole. This combining is what we do when we make our most prosaic judgements of perception; but there we are concerned with bringing objects under concepts, whereas in listening to music we are hardly concerned with concepts at all. Whatever be the correct theory of these difficult matters, there does seem to be in aesthetic experience an outer and inner harmony (which may contain elements of disharmony and be all the richer for them). You cannot separate the harmony of feeling from the heard harmony of the sounds, but without the feeling there would be no aesthetic enjoyment or aesthetic judgement at all.

Many philosophers to-day jib—and even gibe—at the suggestion that there might be a specifically aesthetic feeling. No doubt they are right if this is regarded as simply one among many other feelings; but however many emotions may be present—perhaps emotions recollected in tranquillity—it seems pretty obvious that unless we can distinguish the feeling-tone of aesthetic appreciation from sheer raw emotion as such, we are not likely to be good judges of art.

The details of all this may be highly questionable, but one point I take to be sure. Feeling is an essential basis for aesthetic judgements, and yet—if modern scepticism may be discounted—these judgements claim to be valid for others as well as for ourselves. If we adopt a wide, rather than a narrow, conception of truth, feeling is an essential basis for some judgements that claim to be true.

Less need be said of love, for love is notoriously blind. In its possibilities of frenzy and despair it resembles religious aberrations, and religious emotion is itself sometimes considered to be sexual in character. This may be used against the present line of argument. Yet even the tense emotions of love may help to give a vision of the world, of the value of personality, and of the possible union of two minds, which brings us nearer to reality than the detached observations and abstract generalizations of the scientist. If we are seeking for truth in a wide sense, and not merely in a scientific one, emotion, although it must be subject to criticism and control, is not to be rejected or disregarded.

In moral judgements also there is an element of feeling—so much so that some philosophers have thought they must be based on feeling and so must be akin to aesthetic judgements or even to judgements of personal likings and dislikings. All this I believe to be a profound mistake, but it arises because in moral judgements there really is—along with more fundamental factors of thought and volition—a moral feeling which is, not only a spur to action, but also perhaps a rough criterion or guide. And moral achievement may also bring with it its own satisfaction—a quiet contentment and peace of mind which is not to be mistaken for complacency and may at least be suggestive of Tightness in our actions and in the judgements which preceded action.

It is in view of such considerations that we have to ask ourselves what is to be said for those who tell us that the heart has its reasons which the head can never know. How far can we accept the claims of those who seek to base religion on feeling, and perhaps on numinous feeling?

If these claims are intended to exclude all rational thinking and moral judgements, they must be repudiated. We are not obliged to succumb to advocates of religion who occasionally hint that their obscure reflexions must be profound because their emotions keep on interfering with their thoughts; and there is Biblical as well as psycho-analytical warrant for saying that out of the heart proceed evil thoughts and other horrors which need not be further particularized. Nevertheless, if we take feeling as one element in a wider experience which is also intellectual and moral, we may be able to accord to claims made on its behalf at least some measure of justification.

Religious feeling, as we have seen, may run through the whole gamut from despair to ecstasy. Like art, religion may give rise to all sorts of emotion, and some of these may be deplorable, especially if they are used as a criterion of religious insight. There may be no specifically religious feeling if this is taken to be one feeling among many others; but it may still be possible, as it is in aesthetic appreciation, to distinguish the feeling-tone of religious experience, no matter what further emotions may also be present. It can hardly be doubted that religious men sometimes feel themselves to be in the presence of God—the saints may feel this more continuously, although the feeling of God's presence may be withdrawn even from them, and they have to fall back on mere belief or will. It is this feeling that theologians explain to themselves by a special sense, a power of intuition, a faculty of divination. No immediate feeling, however intense, can by itself give us any kind of knowledge—let alone knowledge of God. But if we suppose the goal of religion to be a harmony of the whole man—of mind and will, and even of mind and body—in harmony with the ultimate whole, may not even an imperfect attainment of this ideal be reflected in feeling, perhaps in a feeling closely akin to the feeling of beauty which at times comes so near to a feeling of divine grace?

A suggestion so vague, so summary, so open to objections is not to be compared with a scientific theory—or perhaps even with a philosophic one; but it would be strange if the religious man did not take a felt emotion which he alone has experienced to be a confirmation of his faith or even a revelation imparted to him by the grace of God.

From the book: