The Road Less Traveled: Grace: The Definition of Grace
Thus far I have described a whole variety of phenomena that have the following characteristics in common:
(a) They serve to nurture—support, protect, and enhance—human life and spiritual growth.
(b) The mechanism of their action is either incompletely understandable or totally obscure according to the principles of natural law as interpreted by current scientific thinking
(c) Their occurrence is frequent, routine, commonplace and essentially universal among humanity.
(d) Although potentially influenced by human consciousness, their origin is outside of the conscious will and beyond the process of conscious decision-making.
Although generally regarded as separate, I have come to believe that their commonality indicates that these phenomena are part of or manifestations of a single phenomenon: a powerful force originating outside of human consciousness which nurtures the spiritual growth of human beings…
What are we to do—we who are properly skeptical and scientific-minded—with this “powerful force originating outside of human consciousness which nurtures the spiritual growth of human beings.”? We cannot touch this force. We have no decent way to measure it. Yet it exists. It is real. Are we to operate with tunnel vision and ignore it because it doesn’t fit in easily with traditional scientific concepts of natural law? To do so seems perilous. Id o not think we can hope to approach a full understanding of the cosmos, of the place of man within the cosmos, and hence the nature of mankind itself, without incorporating the phenomenon of grace into our conceptual framework.
Yet we cannot even locate this force. We have said only where it is not: residing in human consciousness. Then, where does it reside/ Some of the phenomena we have discussed, such as dreams, suggest that grace resides in the unconscious mind of the individual. Other phenomena, such as synchronicity and serendipity, indicate this force to exist beyond the boundaries of the single individual. It is not simply because we are scientists that we have difficulty locating grace. The religious, who, of course, ascribe the origins of grace to God, believing it to be literally God’s love, have through the ages had the same difficulty locating God. There are within theology two lengthy and opposing traditions in this regard: one, the doctrine of Emanance, which holds that grace emanates down from an external God to men; the other, the doctrine of Immanence, which holds that grace immanates out from the God within the center of man’s being.
This problem—and for that matter, the whole problem of paradox—results from our desire, in the first place, to locate things. Human beings have a profound tendency to conceptualize in terms of discrete entities. We perceive the world composed of such entities: ships, shoes, and sealing wax, and other categories. And we then tend to understand a phenomenon by placing it in a particular category, saying that it is such and such an entity. It is either this or that, but it cannot be both. I am I and you are you. The I-entity is my identity and the you-entity is your identity, and we tend to be quite discomfited if our identities become mixed up or confused. Hindu and Buddhist thinkers believe our perception of discrete entities to be illusion, or maya, and modern physicists, concerned with relativity, wave-particle phenomena, electromagnetism, etc., are becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of our conceptual approach in terms of entities. But it is hard to escape from. Our tendency to entity-thinking compels us to want to locate things, even such things as God or grace and even when we know our tendency is interfering with our comprehension of those matters.
I attempt not to think of the individual as a true entity at all, and insofar as my intellectual limitations compel me to think in terms of entities, I conceive of the boundaries of the individual as being marked by a most permeable membrane—a fence, if you will, instead of a wall; a fence through which, under which and over which other entities may climb, crawl, or flow. Just as our conscious mind is continually partially permeable to our unconscious, so is our unconscious permeable to the “mind” without, the “mind” that permeates us yet is not us as entities. More elegantly and adequately descriptive of the situation than the 20th century scientific language of permeable membranes is the 14th century language of Dame Julian, an anchoress of Norwich, describing the relationship between grace and the individual entity: “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin and the bones in the flesh and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the goodness of God and enclosed. Yea, and more homely; for all these may wear and waste away, but the Goodness of God is ever whole.”