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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Grace, Sin and the Natural Attitude

I.

The 'natural attitude' works against phenomenology and other deconstructive gestures. This attitude survives because it is a useful adaptation for getting on with everyday life. It allows us to stop at red lights without reflecting on electrons and wavelengths or other gods of glowing. It allows us to hear thunder without fear of Zeus. It gives us the daily logic that allows us to make countless choices. We like the natural attitude. We will keep it.

I have no idea how many people think about grace and sin, or how many times a day these thoughts arise, or if they arise at all. Perhaps only religious people think of such things, and then perhaps not very often. Sin and grace live in the rarefied zones of human experience. The natural attitude, the pre-phenomenological attitude, tends to foreclose those zones. Not so for some religious people, certainly not for biblical personages.

Many Old Testament texts witness to the relation of sin to human suffering. The first human suffering is tied to sin in Genesis, and elsewhere sin, usually in the form of a departure from the covenant, explains individual and collective suffering. The OT is also of 2 minds about the transmission of sin---visiting the sins of the fathers upon the offspring. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Exodus 20:5; 34:6-7 seems to say yes, Deuteronomy 24:16, not so much. The prophets Jeremiah (31:34) and Ezekiel (18:20) look toward a 'no'. But the New Testament give a resounding response to sin in its relation to suffering. Sin does not lead to human suffering, certainly not necessarily, apart from the pangs of guilt, whether that sin rests with the fathers or the children.





And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. (John 9:1-3).






The disciples ask their question from the natural attitude, from the OT normative condition. Jesus vacates the theory of suffering and sin, and posits mystery in its place. This is the Catholic position to this day. That we sin, and that we suffer is simply given; why we sin and suffer is unknown: sin is without why.


The natural attitude wants to know why. Yet, the very paradigm of knowing that creates the natural attitude has no access sin or suffering, except perhaps to describe them. To get anywhere at all, the natural attitude must be suspended, bracketed, to allow sin and suffering to appear in themselves, in their givenness. The authors of Genesis gave a mythological shape to their experience of the ubiquity and givenness of sin. In an imaginative and picturesque manner, they present the progenitors of humanity in a mythic topos, Eden. It's a great story, and I highly recommend it: its a truly inspired way to express why for something that is without why.


The Johannine Jesus also presents an explanation for something that is without why. Elsewhere I have noted how the man born blind assumes the very signature of divinity. The outcome of John 9 is the blind man 'becoming' Jesus. There are many ways of reading this pericope; I would recommend only those approaches of interpretation that avoid arguing that the text is trying to put itself out of business. For example, an exegetical, interpretative gesture that identifies a Jesus who made the man blind since birth in order to gratify his ministry and magnify his status among the people does not advance the interest or theme of the text, and in fact props up the text to assassinate itself by assassinating the protagonist. Better approaches allow the text to speak through such critical agendae.



The Greek text is more open to possibilities and more interesting readings:


καὶ παράγων εἶδεν ἄνθρωπον τυφλὸν ἐκ γενετῆς. καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ λέγοντες ῥαββί τίς ἥμαρτεν οὗτος οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ ἵνα τυφλὸς γεννηθῇ. ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ ἀλλ’ ἵνα φανερωθῇ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ. ἡμᾶς δεῖ ἐργάζεσθαι τὰ ἔργα τοῦ πέμψαντός με ἕως ἡμέρα ἐστίν ἔρχεται νὺξ ὅτε οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐργάζεσθαι.



[Jesus passed by a man born blind. The disciples asked, 'Rabbi, was it because of his sins or his parents that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, neither this man nor his parents sinned. But for the appearance {phaneroothe} of the works of God, as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me; night comes, when no one can work. GNT, John 9:1-4; my rendering]




On the face of it, the disciples' question is absurd: sins do not send sinners back to the womb to be born punished. The real question is about the parents: they ask if the sins of the parents are visited upon the child. Jesus' reply is shocking: there is no connection between sin and suffering. That the man suffers blindness is simple fact, but in the face of this fact in the plain light of day, Jesus does the work of God. If Jesus were making an ontological statement, if he were saying that the man was born blind so that God could pat himself on his glorified back, he would have been saying nothing new; such was the status quo of sin, suffering and the retribution of God.  But Jesus here authoritatively perfects the revolution begun by Ezekiel and Jeremiah: sin and suffering are without why, and the justice of God is love, not hate. Human justice, however, is always bent on violence and destruction, as the pericope successfully presents. It is only in the irony of the blind man who now sees saying to the authorities, ego eimi, "I am," that the justice of God's love comes to the fore, and the condemnation of the authorities comes from their own mouths.



The biblical authors share in the collective experience of humankind and identify its condition of violence, greed, suffering, and injustice, and they conceptualize this condition as sin. Their self-understanding further experiences sin as a rupture in the relationship with God. Why it sees it this way is a complicated question rooted in that relationship itself;  that is sees it this way is self-evident: res ipse loquitur. The prophets, nonetheless, are already speaking of a healing of that rupture, and a freely given forgiveness, a relief for time served, a totally gratuitous gift: grace.


II.

The ties that bind in any relationship have as their only determinants the individuals in that relationship. Such ties can be deontological, moral, ethical, and so on, but some can be of a different order and determined to something more essential than even those ties. A soldier and her superior officer has a relationship built upon, among other things, duty and obedience. So too, might an employee have a relationship based on these determinants, but perhaps also, ethical and moral ones. The case of of people who love one another, is of yet another order. That love itself is more essential than any other determinants that might also inform the relationship. Parents and children command simple determinants, but also the determinant of love. Lovers are bound by love before they are lovers.


Jean-Luc Marion makes the case beautifully for lovers in his The Erotic Phenomenon. In this fascinating study, love between humans and love between God and the human is carefully articulated in an intense meditation.

The erotic phenomenon, as it arises through the advance that makes the lover make love, paradoxically offers death no hold---precisely because it breaks free from the horizon of being. Contrary to the anticipatory resolution in the ontological reduction, which only reaches possibility according to being (which is the say according to death, which highlights the possibility of being through the possibility of impossibility), in  the erotic reduction the anticipatory resolution opens a measureless possibility---a possibility that being, and therefore death, never limits. This possibility is defined as the impossibility of impossibility. The erotic phenomenon, as such, has no motive to succumb to death because it does not belong to the horizon of being (193).


The movement in this passage exemplifies the movement of the entire work, which is more symphonic than philosophical. It is a movement sweeping the relationality of love off the ontological horizon and onto the erotic. Between lovers, love is more essential than being. Love is eternal in its own horizon and levels the Heideggerian motion toward death. Death has no truck within the horizon of love. Instead, love offers a perpetual, eternal, calling of the lover, which brings the lover to her self. Lovers do this for each other every day. When God is a lover in such a relationality, the other lover is called into itself as a self. Love therefore is anterior to being. God himself loves before he is, and he loves the other before that other is, before individuation. 


It was necessary that I enter into the erotic reduction and that I advance under the form of the lover in order that the logic of love lead me insensibly, but ineluctably, to comprehend that another loved me well before I lover her. It was enough that I accept the possibility for it to become actual (215).

The erotic reduction allows relationality to appear to the lover. This is true of human lovers, as it is true of God as he loves the other. 

Grace has been called many things, but in its most neutral expression it commands relationality: grace is friendship with God. Phenomenologically, we now know that this friendship is determined by a freely given love before the other even comes to be. But love, even as a mode of grace, is certainly available outside of the phenomenological reduction. The natural attitude, the attitude of science, of structuralism, of empiricism cannot close off such grace. It can ignore it, bracket it off to accomplish its own version of phenomenology, but it cannot resist it: this is the sufficient grace that infuses itself in all the world.

For grace to appear, the grace that sanctifies, the natural attitude must be suspended in deference to the supernatural existential. In order to enter the horizon of the sacred, of love, one must side-step the ontological reduction, which always disallows the divine. The attitude open to God is within sufficient grace, and the experience of a relationality between the hearer of the call and the call which calls the self into itself, opens upon the horizon of love, the love that essential to the relation of God as love.

The self is not something that emerges in a finality, once and for all time. The self is always emerging, pulled into itself by God the lover in relationality. Religious people intuit that all relation with God comes with the ties that bind. The turning away from God in this relationship causes a rift in its matrix. The rift is not an irrevocable sundering; it is an injury to the relationship. It is an injury against what it means to be in a relationship with God whose horizon is love. It is an injury to love and the lovers. There is a disruption on either side of the relationship, and the self, always emerging and constantly created in the relationship, is damaged. Injury to the relationship with God is called sin, but so to is the injury to the self also sin. Sin injures the self by rupturing is on-going emergence and creation which is constitutive of the relationship.

It is this profound sense of emerging that the self seeks. Even as it precipitates out as a subject with intuition and intentionality, in knows its self in relationship to God whose essence is love. The self loves the self when it wills for itself the good, which is love, the self-love that is only the good when grounded in the relationality of love which is God. The self always wants to return to its self-emerging, to which it is properly ordered by the ties that bind it in the relation to God.

Sanctifying grace then is the grace that returns one lover to the other, the self to God. That grace is freely given as love from the God who is love to the lover. It is also the grace that keeps the lover in the relationship. So why is it that some lovers fall out of lover with their lover? The choice to love is always radically free; it is always a free act of the will. The freedom to resist sanctifying grace is what makes the relationship a real relationship: vulnerable to a self seeking the self to its own ends and even its own detriment. Freedom is all bound up in the will's ability to choose to resist the grace that sanctifies---the grace that holds the self in its relationship to God.

III.

The man born blind in John 9 is a self called into something new, a new self so in love with God that he dares utter the Exodus ontology, the divine name, "I am." Is this a usurpation of the divine calling card, the divine signature? The Johannine pericope witnesses to the place of the self in the new paradigm of the Incarnation. "Before Abraham was I am (John 8:58)," says the Christ. The man born blind, comes into himself from the ambiguous identity experienced by the crowd and says, "I am" (9:9). A self is born out of a sea of ambiguity grounded in the erotic reduction: it is he who is speaking to you: I see and I believe. And he worshiped him (9:37-38). Worshiped? What can worship be but a self in relation to a God who has pulled that self into a brand new thing: a self in relationality with its lover and creator?

What Rahner has called the absolute mystery that is God is the selfsame God who appears in the erotic reduction, and finally in the reduction to givenness. Rahner's supernatural existential is written into to potential space that Lacanian psychoanalysis calls 'lack,' which is the apophatic place of the emerging self being pulled into itself through the creative agency of relation to God. Lack is not a loss, or an emptiness, a fault, a depravity or a deprivation: it is constitutive of an ever-emerging self within its relationality with God. Rahner's, Marion's and Lacan's positions coalesce around the givenness of the absolute mystery, Vorgriff, lack and the place of the self. I am most myself in the erotic relationality that is the relation with God. I return to that place of the self where I continue to emerge as my self, which I experience in the erotic reduction as a person who loves in love and in grace. Lack is never filled, but always apophatically and kenotically vacated, to keep creatively renewing that place. In this manner the on-going creation of the world is forever entangled with the on-going creation of the self: generatively and regeneratively.

Why would a rational creature exercise its freedom by injuring its relationship with the lover par excellence? Why does any lover cheat? Where does a lover think he is escaping when he seeks freedom from his lover? The Catholic response to these questions is fairly straight-forward. When we cheat we escape into bondage, into the idolatry that insults the good. It is an escape into the self, which directs its gaze into its own reflection. So bedazzled by its object, the self is blinded by its own distorted, fun-house mirror reflection whose very bizarreness entices the injudicious exercise of freedom. But all is not lost: the icon is always behind the idol, awaiting the return of the prodigal.







13 comments:

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    1. Yes, this is a traditional reading that the translation usually supports; The Gk. text allows for a more neutral reading. I have provided that translation which supports my argument. The general sense of the lines is that in the light of the Incarnation, that which is can become something else.

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    3. Thanks for this comment. I think it summarizes some of the theological difficulties in John 9 and of course, the difficulties historical reality presents to onto-theology.

      I've not read a convincing argument for the kind of cultural, intellectual, and even religious homogeneity you posit for 1st century Palestine, the matrix from which Jesus emerges. There were conflicts and divisions everywhere. The Romans looked upon the Jews with a superciliousness much like today's 'brights' look upon their quaint believing compatriots. The temple leaders looked upon all others with contempt and as simple sources of revenue. Were there 1st century Jews who held to the strict view of a God holding the whole world together having created each piece with divine precision? No doubt, and this is likely reflected in the disciples remark about the man's blindness: they had a very short menu indeed for how blindness comes about. Does Jesus disabuse them of their nonsense with the 'black muck of theodicy' or with the gift of sight? Jesus finds his world as it is in all its contingency. Everybody in John 9 gets to see.

      The problem with natural theology/theodicy is that it looks at a gift to one person as a deprivation of a gift to others. It's an interesting idea as far as it goes, but gifts run, ultimately, deeper than that. I do not need theodicy to declare a gift or its giver absurd: I can simply declare gifts as impossible---I can simply define a gift as hopelessly embroiled in an economy of exchange which taxes its recipient with reciprocity and all the burdens attached. A gift is simply an obligation in disguise. "Better I should be blind than to have to look upon the likes of you."

      I think John 9 is less about blindness than about transformation. So much of the plot hinges on the man being *born* blind. The absurdity of the disciples comments triggers a very different hermeneutics than the traditional readings suggest. We should be thinking of the Nicodemus theme running beneath this strange story of witnesses and testimony and being convicted of one's own mouth.

      Unlike the Synoptics, the 4th evangelist adds a curious addendum to his gospel: John 21:25 (cf. 20:30-31). In the time he had, Jesus had done countless wondrous deeds the record of which the entire world could not contain. That always fascinate me: perhaps no one was left untouched, un-cured, un-restored.

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    3. What the dogma does *not* want to say is that for Mary sanctifying grace is irrestible, yet its plain language keeps a door open to that possibility. Dogmatically, that is impossible. So the dogma can only be saying is that Mary did not resist sanctifying grace. OS is the mythic representation of the first example of resisting SG. We agree that Mary was certainly born into the human condition where SG tends to be resisted. She suffers all the consequences of OS, but does not herself sin, but instead exercises a more perfect freedom. How? Because she is already 'redeemed' and reconciled to God (that much is plainly stated in the dogma and can be retained in my reading of it). What does it mean to be preserved from the stain of OS? Simply the more perfect exercise of freedom (which is available to us because of the redemption of Christ) that chooses not to resist SG.

      SG is already a 'saturated phenomenon' because it is always uncontainable: it exceeds the categories of quality and quantity and modality: it is always the same for any of its recipients. Mary doesn't get 'more', 'better' or 'stronger' efficacious mode; but because of a unique relationality with God, the self that emerges in Mary- because of her unique historical moment, has a better 'take' on SG---that's the difference. It's something about Mary.

      I see this happening under the text of the dogma. And it makes perfect sense to me in the Mariological tradition of the Church. All else is idol without recourse to the icon.

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