Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Way Without Grace I

Scott Bradley

In demonstrating the similarities between Kierkegaard and Zhuangzi, Ivanhoe and Carr (The Sense of Antirationalism: The Religious Thought of Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard) must also reveal the very substantial ways in which they differ. Perhaps the most profound among these is in the primacy of "grace" in Kierkegaard and its complete absence in Zhuangzi.

The easiest way to understand what grace is might be to follow Kierkegaard's argument for its necessity. (This same argument is also the clearest explanation of why a teacher is absolutely necessary for 'awakening' that I have yet to read; and thus why Zhuangzi saw no similar need.)

Kierkegaard begins by contrasting Christian and Socratic epistemology. For Socrates, truth is already in the individual and its recognition is a question of 'recollection'. A teacher's only task, therefore, is to act as midwife, helping one rediscover their own truth. But for Kierkegaard (and Christianity), not only is the truth not already in the individual, but the ability to discover and receive it are also completely absent. This is because humanity is in a condition of "sin", separation from God (and truth) as an essential, irremediable fact. Humanity is inherently fucked-up (“fallen”). (For Socrates, "sin" is merely ignorance.)

Truth, therefore, must come from outside, from a teacher. But it is not enough to offer truth, for the human is not able to understand and receive it; the human abides in a state of "untruth". A teacher, therefore, must also provide the condition whereby truth can be received. This requires extraordinary (miraculous) transformation. And it is this unmerited gift of transformation that is grace.

But no ordinary teacher could possibly provide this transformation. Only a teacher who is not in a condition of sin could do so. But how could this one be free of sin except by the transformational grace of another, and that one of another, ad reducio? This teacher must, therefore, be so extraordinary as to have never been in a state of sin. But then this teacher is not a teacher, but a Savior. (You know the rest of the story.)

Those who proclaim the necessity of a teacher-as-the-means-to-awakening must, it seems to me, answer the question of where this power of the bestowal of grace originated. Grace implies external intervention. Where did it come from?

One often hears of grace, life-purpose, “being led”, and all manner of other miraculous events in the speech of those who otherwise make no claim to belief in a supernatural Entity. It’s not so much these ‘small’ beliefs which give one pause, but the larger inconsistencies. But does it really matter? Probably not; we don’t have to get it right to get it. But from the Zhuangzian perspective, it does matter what I believe because those beliefs determine my point of departure. It matters in all manner of practical ways that I understand, for instance, that all things arise without having been made to do so. The way of Zhuangzi is without grace, which is not to say it is graceless towards those who differ.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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