Bain Davis What could ‘grace’ mean to a non-religious person?
I am always leery of religious or theological language because such terms have so many different meanings to so many different people and we so often totally miss the reality, or life dynamic, that we are trying to reveal. Sometimes, though, you just have to give it a try because the theological term is so fundamental to living a full life. This is the case with the term "grace."
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: language (or terms) are symbols that point to reality. They are not reality; they only point to it. And when we hold onto a symbol (or word) like it is reality, that’s idolatry. But the task of grounding a term in reality is not easy and often has to be done over and over again. For instance, it’s fairly easy to grasp that the flag of the United States is just some multi-colored material. But it’s a symbol too. What it points to is something much greater, a country with a history that embodies freedom and a bunch of other very meaningful concepts and events.
People don’t defend and die for a piece of material. They defend and die for a concept of freedom, their country their community and a particularly meaningful history. Of course almost everyone knows of one or more instances where the defending and dying were for the flag itself, but that’s idolatry.
Back to grace. This one is a lot harder. The theological term "grace" points to the reality that happens to an individual (and sometimes a community) where some event turns their life upside down and they are forced to choose to maintain an old illusion or embrace a future with a new understanding of themselves or the life they live. This is more accurately called the grace event rather than the concept of grace. More on that later.
Let me use an example for clarification. A friend of mine once told me of a young woman at the college where he taught. Your first impression of her is that she was unattractive because she slumped, held her shoulders up high to block her neck, and she had long hair draping over her shoulders. The effect of all this posturing made her look ungainly particularly while wearing an elongated turtleneck sweater and staring at the ground. He said if you really looked hard, what you could see was a tall, attractive woman with an exceptionally long neck which she tried to hide thinking herself to be ugly. One day he decided to address her situation confronting her with the words "Sue, you are a tall attractive woman with a long neck, and that’s the only woman you need to be." Before her anger could dump on him, he made a hasty retreat. Days later some of the other students asked him if he had seen her lately to which he said he hadn’t. They then described for him a young woman standing straight with no shrug of the shoulders, wearing a v-neck blouse with her hair in a bun - and she was smiling.
What happened? I’m going to guess that something slammed into her illusion of beauty and gave her the possibility of seeing herself in a new light. Same person, same physical uniqueness, but with a whole new relationship to who she was. The beauty that was always there she now accepted as her own. The event that occasioned that new awareness I call grace, or the event of grace. The concept of grace requires one more element: her acceptance of the event of grace. She acknowledged the "new" self to be real and the event to be life transforming. My friend was not grace or the grace event. He was simply an event. What made it grace was both mysterious and her acceptance of the event, her deciding it was transformative. If you will, you can block grace but you don’t take away what happened to her. That could hover over her for years before any transformation occurs - or, possibly, never occurs. And when it happens it comes from outside of us. We cannot demand, manipulate or occasion grace to happen. In essence, grace happens or it doesn’t happen. The existence of grace and the possibility of the grace event is not a once-and-for-all event. It is always present and happens over and over and over. Everyone always lives under the possibility of grace.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to Christians. Many people of many religious traditions can, and do, experience this. But let me attempt to put this in the context that some Christians are familiar with. This is even harder to articulate. (Whether I do so successfully or not let me say that I have been personally blessed by the writings of the theologians Paul Tillich on the concept of grace and Mathew Fox on the concept of original blessing.)
Whether you are more comfortable saying "Jesus died for your sins" or "it has been eternally true that we get trapped in illusions (or non-reality) and events occur that allow us to be released from illusion and see realness more clearly," I find them to be the same statement; but I do still find power in the stories and symbols of the Christian tradition.
Bain Davis is a member of the Bennington Friends Meeting (Quakers).