Saturday, July 3, 2010

Step 3: The abandonment of will (Part III)

So, OK.  Caelius, in a comment in the last post, writes this:
Such a heavy matter this business about the will. The Office is on Romans these days as you know, where Paul is trying to come to grips with this in his daily life.

I'm tempted to say that the problem is distinguishing the exercise of the will as an event (I became blind and decided to go along with the crazy heretic who was trying to help me; or I feared for my life so much that I went to an AA meeting; or an angel told me I would become pregnant through the agency of God and I decided to go along with it as best I could.) from the exercise of the will as a continuous struggle. The person arguing for the bound will, monergism, or irresistible grace has an easy time arguing that the "righteous" continuous exercise of the will being a matter for God alone. Day after day, we screw up. We cannot become perfect.

But that doesn't matter, it is the act of the will in the event that is the beginning and therefore the whole of salvation, for we are not perfected in the here and now. Or so I always thought. AA seems to admit this. "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God." That's what Paul did in the city of Damascus. That's what Mary did in Nazareth. Many of the prophets resisted, but finally thery said, "Here I am. Send me."

Such a smart boy, our Caelius; I always trust his thinking.

"Monergism" was a new one on me, though. That's this:
Monergism states that the regeneration of an individual is the work of God the Holy Spirit alone, as opposed to synergism, which, in its simplest form, argues that the human will cooperates with God's grace in order to be regenerated. To the synergist, faith may arise from unregenerated human nature. Salvation is not complete until the individual performs some action(s). According to monergism, faith in Christ only springs from a heart first renewed by God. Among various arguments, proponents believe 1 Corinthians 12:3 to mean that no one can possibly confess Jesus as Lord apart from the Holy Spirit's prompting and conviction.

Since faith is infinitely beyond all the power of our unregenerated human nature, it is only God who can give the spiritual ears to hear and eyes to see the beauty of Christ in the gospel. God alone disarms the hostility of the sinner turning his heart of stone to a heart of flesh. It is God, the Holy Spirit, alone who gives illumination and understanding of His word that we might believe; It is God who raises us from the death of sin, who circumcises the heart; unplugs our ears; It is God alone who can give us a new sense, a spiritual capacity to behold the beauty and unsurpassed excellency of Jesus Christ. The apostle John recorded Jesus saying to Nicodemus that we naturally love darkness, hate the light and WILL NOT come into the light (John 3:19, 20).

I have to say that if faith can't "arise from unregenerated human nature" - well, we are all destroyed. There was barely a speck of God in me when I began my A.A. life - and that condition lasted for quite awhile. I had no faith at all - only fear. My heart was stone.

Listen: I get the point. We really can't save ourselves - but God can't save us, either, unless we go along.

There's a fissure along these same lines, actually, in A.A. itself, too. I wasn't aware of it - and I don't think it's universal - but here's an example. One day I went to a meeting in a part of town I didn't ordinarily visit - but I'd been to this meeting before and vaguely knew a few of the people. I can't remember exactly what the topic was, but I know I raised my hand and said something like: "What's so amazing is that compulsions and obsessions that once ruled my life - they are all gone now. Abuse of drugs and alcohol, of course - but I mean other things, too. My deep, all-pervading and everlasting sense of guilt: gone. My terrible shyness and fear of other people: gone. My obsessive projection into the future and rehashing of the past: gone. I'm better now, really better; I'm so amazed and grateful at this."

Somebody came up to me afterwards and surprised me by congratulating me for saying this - which indicates, of course, that it's a taboo in that neighborhood. The takeaway for me that day was that saying that you're better isn't done - which could be for several reasons. For instance: one isn't supposed to "brag" about being better - which I really wasn't doing! I was just talking about facts evident to me, and trying to tell others how good sobriety could get. Another reason, and the one I think is at work in "monergism" (and in the versions I'm seeing, this is its error): we don't get better at all, actually. We always return - as I read someplace just today, actually! - like dogs, to our own vomit.

But no. There is, in fact, linear progress. We get better - and this is made very clear right in the Big Book, matter of fact, in a group of statements known as "the Promises" (this section immediately follows the enumeration of the Steps):

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.

We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

Well, there it is: if we work for them. Yet we are told that we can do nothing to help ourselves. I break with the Reformation idea right here; it simply doesn't jibe with my experience - and it doesn't follow from A.A. principles, either.

I'm trying to understand why it might be that the "passive" idea gains hold. I do, truly, understand that God is the prime mover here - and that I couldn't get myself sober. Still, I can do something. The "promises" above are nothing to sneeze at - and I don't think they constitute "works righteousness," either. I don't consider myself "righteous" for having gotten sober; I consider myself "lucky" and "amazed" and "thankful." I freely admit it wasn't my own doing in any way - yet I needed to do the Steps.

Why isn't that a good way to look at it? I wasn't trying to earn brownie points with God by doing the Steps; I was trying to stay alive and keep my head above water. The first is "works righteousness," I'd think; the second is surely something else, isn't it? I don't think the argument holds here - and I don't see why it should hold in the life of Christian faith, either. I don't think people are trying, in the modern world, to "earn their salvation" with works of charity or by following "the law"; that's not the motivation today.

I do acknowledge, too, that "justification by grace through faith" is a valid (and certainly Scriptural) idea. But Paul was - as usual - talking to a particular group of people about a particular issue, and I don't think Romans necessarily needs to become Law, either.

I'm certainly not the first to say this, but there are seven Atonement theories, and each seems inadequate in some way by itself. Something happened on the cross, we know - but I'm not sure we can make a simple equation here. Paul's entire theology hangs on one obscure reference in Deuteronomy; "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." This is not, as far as I know, a major theme in Torah or Tanakh as a whole. It is Pauline rhetoric; it's great rhetoric, I completely agree, but it is something that only a Pharisee would be aware of!

Paul developed an entirely new theology from this one obscure statement in Jewish Law - and good on 'im, I say. "Christ who knew no sin was made sin for us." It's an amazing leap, another of those things arising from a source you'd never expect.

But it's not the end of the story, I don't think. And this is not the end of Step 3, either, from which I've wandered far and wide. I'll post this, and sum up next, really....

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