t's been a long day of laundry and thinking, punctuated by bits of mildly-entertaining randomness: I just today noticed such things as the "Grand Canyon" backs to 2010 quarters, and the funky new "shield" back to the 2010 penny. But while doing "life chores," I've been mostly thinking about my upcoming "Experience of Grace" course for the Spring semester. I am both terribly excited by, and positively dreading, this upcoming course I'll be offering. That's because I believe that the theology of grace is the most difficult subject in Christian theology. Even the things people tend to think of as hard or abstract in the field – mysticism or Trinitarian theology – are pretty straightforward, I think, once you start to understand their internal logic. But grace – defined perhaps most simply as "God's action on our behalf" – that's hard going. It's the dualities it's caught up in (not dualisms, but dualities) that are so mind-blowing: grace and nature, grace and freedom. How do you reconcile such ideas as an all-good, all-powerful God with human freedom?
In many respects, it's an anthropological topic: you could call it a course in "theological anthropology" almost as easily as one in "theology of grace." The supernatural dimension to our existence, while typically just ignored in anthropologies that assume principles of Secularist philosophy, is utterly woven into what we technically call "nature," so much so that a detached "natural" world separate from the supernatural really has to be considered solely as an abstraction itself, or as a remainder concept, once you theoretically subtract the other away. Already that leaves you with a very different vision of the world than that imagined and assumed by just about everybody in their ordinary language. But if the ordinary language is in an effective state of denial by refusing to have considered the "religious" questions, well, then, that language deserves a good poke, and a semester's analysis won't hurt. Karl Rahner once defined grace as "an active orientation of all created reality toward God," which better acknowledges this "combination" of these two sides to reality that we tend to separate in our minds.
At this point my reading list looks like it's going to consisted of the following books, with some additions I'll provide from the likes of Thomas Aquinas and a good dose of Rahner at the end:
Ten Theories of Human Nature, Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman (4th Edition, not the most recent one)
The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor
Theological Anthroplogy (Sources of Early Christian Thought), Patout J. Burns
The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology, Stephen J. Duffy
I'll start out by exploring alternative major anthropologies or worldviews with the students, particularly in the arc of Western history, which have contributed to current perspectives. We'll look at Plato, Aristotle (hence the 4th edition of Ten Theories of Human Nature
: I can't believe they dropped Aristotle), the same text's treatment of the "biblical" worldview, Kant, the Enlightenment, Marx, Freud, and a general essay on an evolutionary theories of humanity. We'll read Taylor as a key analysis of the contemporary secular situation. Then the more-developed study of the Christian worldview will begin, with its emphasis on the graced dimension of human life: early Christianity, Pelagius and Augustine (I'd love to figure out how to read the whole of The Confessions
here, but I don't think I'll have the time), Aquinas, some Luther, and then a last week working on Rahner. I'm still trying to figure out what to use of his, whether a specific text on grace, like Grace in Freedom
, or essays such as "Christology within an Evolutionary View."
As I said, I think this is the toughest part of Christian theology: it certainly was such in my study of it, but it was also just about as enthralling a subject in a field that is entirely enthralling. How I'm going to communicate these ideas – which I found difficult and intricate to articulate in doctoral seminars – to undergradautes, well, that's something I think I'll have to figure out by doing it, just like teaching itself was, the first time I did it. I'm getting a handle on what
I'm going to study with the students; thinking about the how
I'm going to do it: that feels like I'm holding on to the roller coaster seat – from outside the car. Should be fun!