Saturday, April 29, 2006

Nature and Grace, Novak and Schindler

The mode of Dr. Schindler’s critique of the so-called Murray/Whig position is largely theological, and one of the key targets of criticism is the Whig understanding of nature and grace. Professor Joel Garver provides a succinct précis of Dr. Schindler’s critique as put forth in Heart of the World, Center of the Church:

According to Schindler, this is not an interpretation and political system that is empty of theological content--this very conception of religious liberty as immunity from coercion through legal procedure presupposes a certain openness to some religious worldviews and not others (e.g., theocratic Islam). Furthermore, the theological content it does presuppose is not distinctively Christian since it posits a society that is basically neutral or indifferent in regard to God and transcendent values--but that is to say that the realm of nature (culture, society, the civil order) stands in an extrinsic relation to grace, rather than being intrinsically ordered to grace at its proper end.But is this an accurate portrayal of the Whig understanding of nature and grace?
I don't pretend to offer here a comprehensive account of the Whig position, merely two articles in which Michael Novak explains his understanding of the way grace works in nature and in history. First, from an encomium to Bernard Lonergan in the magazine Crisis (Memories of Bernard Lonergan Crisis February 1, 2003):
Let me pause to point out here that neither Aquinas nor Lonergan was imagining that there is a two-tier world, nature below like the cake and grace on top of it like the icing, or anything like that. On the contrary, both imagined that there is in reality and history only one world, all of it conceived and created in, by, and through the Divine Word, Verbum, Logos, and all of it redeemed by Him. The theory of grace and nature is a theoretical construct, designed to make sense of human experience both among those, like Aristotle, who knew nothing of the Verbum, and those like St. Augustine, who did know and wrote especially well both about the fall of human beings into sin and their need for healing. Fallen man is like an athlete who breaks his ankle: It needs to heal before he walks again -- and he is always in greater danger of reinjuring himself than he had been before he broke it. The theoretical construct of grace and nature should not be reified in such a way as to lead us to imagine two separate realities, nature here, grace “up there.” As Georges Bernanos wrote, and Yeats suggested, “Everything is grace,” and yet grace works in and through nature, which it penetrates as yeast penetrates dough.
How does grace penetrate nature? How can we see evidence of this? One great strength in the writings of Novak and Weigel is their willingness to look for concrete manifestations of their ideas in history. In an article on Jacques Maritain, Novak adopts the French philosopher’s view of the work of grace in history through non-Christian agents:
Yet Maritain does not say that Christianity exists in the world solely as the Church or the body of believers. Rather, he sees “Christianity as historical energy at work in the world. It is not in the heights of theology, it is in the depths of the secular conscience and secular existence that Christianity works in this fashion.” He is equally far from asserting that Christians brought modern democratic institutions into existence: “It was not given to believers in Catholic dogma but to rationalists to proclaim in France the rights of man and of the citizen, to Puritans to strike the last blow at slavery in America.” He gives credit — by schematic suggestion, not comprehensive detail — where credit is due: “Neither Locke nor Jean-Jacques Rousseau nor the Encyclopedists can pass as thinkers faithful to the integrity of the Christian trust.”(A Salute to Jacques Maritain The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (1989))
Grace thus works even outside the visible boundaries of the church, and so, institutions that arise in cultures alien to it can nevertheless be ordered towards truth and goodness:
It is clear that Maritain considers the Christian message about the cry of the poor for justice to be a motor of human temporal life. He holds simultaneously that existing democratic ideas, traditions, and institutions were often championed in actual history by those who were non-Christians or even anti-Christian; and yet that, in building better than they knew, such persons were often generating in human temporal life important constructs whose foundations were not only consistent with Jewish and Christian convictions about the realities of ethical and political life but, in a sense, dependent on them. Pull out from under genuine democratic principles the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity about the transcendent dignity of the person and the human propensity to sin, and the existing edifice of democratic thought is exposed to radical doubt.
This is a very optimistic view. At least in theory I think it meets the demands of what Dr. Garver describes as “Schindler’s alternative”: “If we see grace as directing nature from within and drawing it to its proper, grace-given end, then the realm of nature must be seen as distinct from grace, but nevertheless, while distinct, always already situated within grace.” It’s up to more educated minds than mine to parse the theology and see if Novak and Schindler are very far part, at least on a theoretical and theological level. At first glance it seems that they are closer to each other than is commonly thought, and Novak’s fondness for Bernanos (he quotes him in many writings) is something he has in common with Dr. Schindler, who edits the Ressourcement series at Eerdmans, a publisher which also carries a book by Bernanos. In any case, I think these quotations at least add nuance to the common (and inaccurate) simplification that the Whigs see grace as a condiment which Christianizes the nature of liberal institutions.


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