Five Smooth Stones: Towards a mystical theology of nature and grace

Introduction: The transformation of stones
In the past few postings, I have been approaching the theology of nature and grace through Anglicans: John Milbank first, who explicitly outlines contemporary theology’s indebtedness to Catholicism; then Rowan Williams, a wonderful expositor of the nature-grace question with reference, in part, to the aesthetics of Jacques Maritain; and thirdly, C.S. Lewis, with his gently insistent Thomism. I’d like now to take stock of some of the theological principles that it is difficult but helpful to hold together to achieve a working understanding of the nature-grace question. Like juggling or, as I’ll discuss below, like building an arch, getting a sense of the nature-grace question has an “all-or-nothing” feel to it and seems to require a “knack.” It can be off-putting if one feels “uninitiated.” One can wonder if it’s worth the bother, like being able to impress nieces and nephews at their birthday parties. I obviously think it is. Through a working understanding of the nature-grace question lie approaches to cultural apologetics, including possible responses to the initiative “The Courtyard of the Gentiles.”

Contemporary discussion of nature and grace together that affirms both the autonomy of nature and its reliance on grace to be itself circulates among various principles. Each in its own way hints at or relies upon the central paradox; together they assist one better to inhabit the mystery while deepening it. Each of the principles is like one of David’s five smooth stones (1 Sam. 17.40) that he picked up from the brook. Each of these aspects of the nature-grace question can play a role in one’s apologetic. It’s worth trying to itemize these because the environment is so complex, full of paradoxes and strivings with the limits of language. In fact, it’s mystical. So trying to lay one’s hands on certain ideas can seem like a good way to make sense of it all and, in turn, have fixed points to which to turn for the task of apologetics.

Yet the very mystical quality of the relationship between nature and grace calls one away from the atomizing and aggressive work of the discursive intellect. One can never simply itemize or rely on fixed points, especially in the give-and-take of dialogue! And so the five stones must morph: grow in size and become dressed for assembly into an arch, a picture of coherence. Coherence, as we shall see, has an important place in a mystical theology of nature and grace. The five stones gathered here, then, are assembled in no particular order. Beginnings needn’t be laboured attempts to get things off the ground in some kind of argumentatively unassailable way. What matters more is the interdependency of the structure, which the following commitments suggest.

Five Commitments
Natural theology. There is natural theology and it means more than just that all the marvels of creation mean that there must be a God. To put it another way, nature does more than point to a grace that is extrinsic to it. Natural theology argues for the relevance of rationality in every corner of reality. The point of natural theology is not to vanquish one’s foes intellectually, for instance by proving the existence of God. Christian apologists have repeatedly observed that a proved God is world. Yet natural theology does more than assert that, if one makes certain assumptions, then the system can be shown to make perfect sense. In that view, one begins with a leap of faith, an act of unconditioned will, and that’s a form of fideism. Even though the relationship between the triune God and creation is one of sheer difference, rationality is itself part of creation; although natural theology has to have built into it a sense of its own limitation, one can nonetheless properly acknowledge a fit between the knowledge of God and of other things.

Natural theology complements apophasis. Much popular Christian application of apophasis is misguided if it is used to thwart rationality. It is a faulty strategy to show how rationality fails as proof that humans need something other than rationality, ie faith, which gives access to a God who is beyond rationality. Such a strategy can be a useful counterattack against rationalism. Yet it is all too easy unwittingly to put the “otherness” of God on a philosophical continuum, thereby actually undermining the radical separation between God and the created order and therefore God’s freedom. God is free at once to be separate from his creation and immanent within it.

Natural theology claims that reason and faith are related. It does not claim to explain God or to limit him, but it does suggest that one can push reason pretty hard and when one does so one can think fairly precisely about metaphysical realities. One might think of such thinking as the science of the infinite. The failure of science, of discursive reasoning, to account for all of reality, to lift us out of utility alone, should make one hesitant to use the term with reference to metaphysics. Yet mysticism does not at all necessitate a flight from rigour. When one disdains “science” and “rigour” in the name of spirituality, mysticism, or aesthetics, it is more than possible that a sloppy, default construct has been established. Medieval scholasticism employed intellectus alongside ratio to affirm a dimension of rationality, part of the givenness of things, that nonetheless exceeds the capacity of the discursive intellect in its sheer receptivity. Such a combination applies to the person of Thomas Aquinas, who was steeped in mysticism, though many caricature him as a rationalist, attempting to prove the existence of God with his “five ways.” It did not escape him that a proved God would utterly fail the most basic premises of God’s radical alterity. Yet apophaticism is ultimately inseparable from kataphasis. Rationality does not begin with an articifial attempt to find an originary point of reference. The triune God simply wills that there should be something other than himself. Rationality always admits of something antecedent. It begins in affirmation, in acknowledgement of something given, in bearing witness.

Subject and object.  Subject and object exist, but not as isolated realities prior to all relationship. This does not mean that subjectivity triumphs. One confronts this category, or question, or dilemma as a feature of modern thought. It conjures the essence of philosophy, the problem of perspectivism, and the question of knowledge. But this is only a modern formulation. The approaches to the nature-grace question that are on the horizon here reorient the problem of subject and object by insisting that to be a self is to bear the mark of otherness too. One can only become a self, a person, in the presence of others. For some, the subject-object question involves discrete realities staring at each other. But the active involvement of God in creation, sustaining it, takes the form of shaping the mind so that it responds to data in a certain way. Augustine called this pattern of interaction illumination. And just as God acts on the mind, so too the mind acts on what it beholds. This is to say that the creative mind acts upon matter and that the possibility of mind goes all the way down, that mind and matter are related, and that creation manifests the richness of the possible responsiveness of creation beyond the concept of our imposition. There are dimensions of things that arise from our interactions with them from which we shield ourselves through the desire for mastery. This desire may not manifest itself in any grand way; it may simply be the familiarity of utility. And so typically it escapes our notice.

All relationships between subject and object have the potential to “distract” us, to open us up to “adventures” of thought and relationality, by opening previously unrecognized dimensions of rationality. This is particularly the role of the arts, or perhaps it would be better to say that when one finds oneself in the midst of such dimensions of rationality one finds oneself practicing what we call the arts. They manifest, or at least have the potential to reveal, objective reality, not being satisfied with the imposition of the will of the artist or pragmatic habits of thinned rationality. All knowledge, properly conceived, retains such dimensions of objectivity, attained not through sterile detachment but rather through loving attentiveness, passionate commitment, a willingness to make oneself vulnerable (relying on the loving acceptance of others as one finds oneself stripped of one’s illusions or less-than-noble pragmatic assumptions), and action, often perceptible as the participation of willed obedience.

I remind myself that I am not building an edifice. The connections between the five points do not represent a developing argument, a wall built on some unassailable foundation.

Willing. Humans have free will but willing is not absolutely prior and one does not retain freedom in exactly the same timeless shape because choices help to shape reality. Despite the loss of utter self-containment the subject does not lose the power of will. One can put this more positively. If personality and self-knowledge grow the more one engages and depends upon the other, then the role of the will can grow too. This cannot be a will that answers to a will set above all knowledge. In the late Middle Ages a view of God developed that elevated his will and absolute power; though such absolute power was thought to be tempered by his ordinances, his covenant with creation, emphasis nonetheless lay on his unconditioned will. This view differed from the traditioned one, reemphasized in the more recently recovered theology of nature and grace, that affirmed that the created order came into being by an utterly gratuitous act of self-giving love on the part of the Creator and that in so giving of himself he inscribed order in creation. He did not make the universe according to realities that were somehow separate from himself (and therefore above him and acting on him, as it were); rather, creation suggests (analogically) that which is in him. The world participates in the very being of God, while he retains his otherness. Willing, then, means something other than arbitrary control or violent intervention. It serves as a dimension of being that is essentially “scientific” and “intellectual,” except that it is the life of ongoing activity. God is love, constantly revealing himself in the fullness of incarnation. God gives participatory being to those things that he loves.

Rationality contains a dimension of pure receptivity. As Thomas says, it involves seeing the form, the coherent order, in what it would know and what would be known (ST 1.14.1). The completeness of this receptivity cannot be exaggerated. At the same time, it responds. Natural things have existence, according to Thomas, by their form and intellectual natures have their own intelligible form (ST 1.19.1), which they realize through understanding the form of another. Everything, when it does not have its form, tends towards it. Such seeking in knowing is the activity of the will; will depends on the receptive intellect and cannot be prised apart from it.

The exercise of the will never occurs in a vacuum. Choices always have consequences. They alter the reality that is available to one, and this tells us that choice does not entail absolute freedom. On the other hand, willing contributes the sense that meaning happens in a context, a history of working with and transforming a specific bit of reality, a local environment (but which is not constructivism because we neither begin with sheer choice and endless choices unaffected by previous choices are not forever before one).

One can find outstanding examples of an emphasis on sheer willing in the context of intellectual worlds in Christian literature. In the climax of Book Four of the Lord of the Rings, for instance, Tolkien focuses on the choices of Frodo and Sam. They both, and especially the latter, have to choose to persist in the adventure to which they have committed themselves but which was also thrust upon them as an ongoing story of which they knew very little. This is also the juncture in the trilogy most crammed with reflections on story, on being in a narrative, a cohesive structure that can be thought beyond the manipulations of any one character. The rational world and the free choices grow together.

I recently read a famous example of such willing by C.S. Lewis in a book whose author makes it the centrepiece of her examination of the link between mysticism and resistance. I quote it at length for the way it highlights the role of the will but refuses to isolate it:

The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense, I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow present to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I know that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desire or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say “I am what I do.”

Then came a repercussion on the imaginative level. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back – drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling (Lewis, qtd in Dorothy Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance 23).

Language. The categories I find to recur do not represent an arbitrary template belonging to philosophy which must be satisfy. But in the contemporary world of cultural apologetics, they form a significant set in terms of which the conversation is conducted, and they are more than counters. For the apologist they can serve as nodes, and help one anticipate directions in which conversations might go or to identify areas of unfathomed depths.

Language consists of adequation in a finite world marked by the presence of the infinite. The relationship between words and things is not merely conventional yet is more than a mathematically plain system of labels for things. The languages of the world express the rationality of creation. Language does not embody mere convention, as if the relationship between word and thing were merely arbitrary and the expression of the unconditioned will. Rather, it underscores the intellectual nature of creation and enables freedom. It does the latter by always inviting a response. One finds that one can always say more. It has infinity built into it, though not the endlessness of going off in one’s own direction forever. The freedom to say more (including the more that amounts to complete disagreement) depends on what has been said. It requires the presence of the other. My freedom to express myself, to become a self by articulating a position in the process of conflict, is relational.

Language is also a living example, the best we have (because it is more than an “example” of something essentially “other”), of the possibility of things hanging together. Rational arguments are not simply tools to be picked up or laid aside. The ongoing complexity of interaction, the fact that history always impinges itself (not least in the stories and connotations of words and linguistic formulations) suggests the possibility of all things making sense in relation to one another. No one need be left behind and no expression, whether of joy or pain, satire or frustration, detached observation or impassioned plea, discarded as unworthy. However, the positive value of each utterance, its nodality, its joy, depends upon the skill of the supreme artist to be drawn out. Infinity need not be thought of as unending progress, an arrow with a line. To imagine dialogue as a sphere of responsive interactions, like a Hoberman toy (a ball that can expand to reveal interconnections that make up a vast sphere without the “inner workings” suggested by its initial size and apparent density), and to recognize the range of connections at each node is to participate in the infinite in the immanent.

In responsiveness and in the possibility of coherence language reveals the presence of the Other. Linguistic address is like the act of creation itself, the act of a need-free God who simply creates the world out of the desire that there should be something other than himself. That act renders creation inexplicable to the laws of causality and necessity, imbuing it with freedom from utility, of which the liberal arts are the fundamental intellectual expression; so too language inscribes freedom. The inability to say whatever one wants reflects the need to make ourselves recognizable in order to participate in a human conversation marked by the desire for cultural transformation. Recognition is possible because creation participates in God through the beauty of coherence.

Coherence. Coherence means we live in a world that can always be thought and enacted in terms of rational interactions. Such a formulation cannot be distinguished from beauty. Sociality, which is to say the unity that is the Church vivified by the Spirit of the triune God, is the living picture of coherence. In one way or another, coherence has been a presence in this discussion from the outset. My own need to see things in coherence has motivated me to present an “overview,” to introduce five different interactive principles “at a glance.” Contemporary cultural discourse decries visual metaphors as pre-supposing a false neutrality, but they may be none other than shorthand ways of signalling coherence. If they imply, or if one infers, that detachment is possible, then they do become problematic. Perhaps for this reason other metaphors are to be preferred. Dialogue and sociality suggest coherence without detachment (though allowing always for the address of the Other), and these are not merely images, but rather indicate the nature of participatory being.

Other “images” (that problematic metaphor again) can work too, especially if one allows oneself the art of imagining one’s way into inanimate objects or sentient creations that lack the expressions of rationality typically associated with humans. (Iris Murdoch adeptly practises such metempsychosis.) Part of the need here, again, is to recognize that rationality suffuses creation. The image of the arch suggests coherence without detachment. An arch depends entirely on the coherence of its dressed stones. It has no “inside” or “depth”; it is a miracle of suspended animation. If one thinks of creation as a self-contained whole, with no causal link to its Creator, the arch similarly images such containment, what a world is.

Coherence is worldview. As Rowan Williams points out in introductory remarks to a book series on the making of the Christian imagination, “systems of meaning” entail seeing things in terms of other things. There Williams focuses on the sheer fact of connection, that systems of meaning “seem to operate by allowing us to see phenomena in connected instead of arbitrary ways” (Dostoevsky vii). Metaphor draws attention to this reality insistently. Because of metaphor, we always see things in terms of other things. We have an intuition, built into language, that coherent description is possible, but metaphor also helps one to recognize that we do not fully control the language that we use. The world does not allow us to get outside of it (a problem with visual metaphors of holism) and so any one system purporting to be a complete description is bound to involve an imposition.

Yet the possibility of coherence, a system tending towards coherence through the activity of ongoing dialogue, through the very effort to make connections and explain things in terms of other things, is the very way in which, for Augustine, analogical participation can happen. He reflects at length on the claim in the Book of Wisdom that God made the world in measure, number, and weight (Wisdom11:20). Creation participates in God by being a coherent system. Because coherence signals harmony and beauty, theology becomes inseparable from aesthetics.

Conclusion: The further transformation of stones
The mystical bias of the human condition defies reduction to a single principle, though it is present everywhere, in each stone that cries out. It is always a challenge to avoid appealing to God as a causal explanation and to resist explaining creaturely life in utilitarian terms. Yet this one must do to capture-and-release the joy that most marks the Christian experience. Our experience of the transcendent, of disturbance and wonder as features of this life demand care on our part. Too easy an appeal to God does not do justice to our experience of this world. Too much absorption into the things of this world amounts to a betrayal of our desire. The enjoyment of God returns us to the world he made for us in need-free love, a world for all that he created and which depends upon the interrelatedness of all to reflect “the beauty of the infinite.” 

Worldview entails seeing things in terms of other things. The act of gathering five stones here will perhaps reassure those who second-guess the stability of their reference points as they try “work them through.” Something mystical happens to an arch when the final stone is put in place. It becomes an arch at that moment. It couldn’t have been so without the assembly of all the individual pieces, but the dressed stones cannot anticipate what becomes of them as part of the whole. One cannot work through the nature-grace question methodically, one idea at a time, without the simultaneous recognition of something else happening too that transforms the process of “working things through” into a surface of sheer exteriority, without before or behind. It has been said that a poem comes right with an audible click. Such poetic mysticism applies here. And so my aim is to encourage those who find a theology of nature and grace overwhelming to contemplate and to challenge those who would compromise on their desire to see things whole, either through frustration (the inability to build something with pre-understood method) or through the mistaken expectation that one can move from holistic vision to application (utility) without the uncanny transformation, again, of how the relationship of grace to nature manifests itself.

Norm Klassen
St Jerome’s University

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