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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Planning My Course on "The Experience of Grace" 
5th-Dec-2010 12:59 am
Holy Spirit Dove/Jesus Freak
It'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!
5th-Dec-2010 07:42 am (UTC)
I'd just like to say that I'm jealous of your students, Mike! I hope you have a good semester with this class. It's interesting that you're using Charles Taylor - I haven't read that one, care to explain how it will work as part of your reading list? Edit: I know you said a little about that above, but I'm just curious!

Edited at 2010-12-05 07:43 am (UTC)
5th-Dec-2010 08:03 am (UTC)
I've not yet read it, either, so I'm "winging it," to a certain extent. But as I understand it, Taylor's account is a well-received discussion of the various dimensions (positive, negative, or both) of the contemporary worldview. While I'm going to have students look at a number of thinkers who greatly contributed to modernity (even if, like Marx, they might have been full of powerful nonsense), I wanted to do something that was a little more direct to our particular situation. Many of my undergraduate instructors were Marxists, but that worldview is near death, if not dead: I wanted to do something that wasn't just historical, even if relatively recent history, and it sounds to me from reviews that I've read that Taylor's book captures much of the current assumptions as to what constitutes human nature in this era of mixed modernity and post-modernity.

Is that any clearer? Or was it just more? :-\
5th-Dec-2010 09:34 am (UTC)
I am really jealous! I'd love to take your class. I don't know how connected this actually is, but sometime last year I tried reading de Lubac's The Mystery of the Supernatural (not sure what the original French title was), and was really interested, but found it a bit over my head given the amount of time I had to give to it.

My college didn't have a reliable course on Catholic theology, let alone anything in-depth (and from a generally Catholic, or at least not strictly Protestant, perspective) like this, and I really think I could have used the guidance on how to approach theology in a more systematic way. The way I do it -- and the way I educated myself into the Church, if I were to put it that bluntly -- is to find the nearest random books related to the subject, find the most pressing answers that I want, and let the rest stew somewhere in my memory, unexamined. Particularly with more contemporary, or more controversial, problems, I usually find myself in the middle of an ongoing argument without knowing much about the basic terms, and don't trust myself to go forward, knowing how subject I am to the opinions and biases of the author I happened across by chance. That said, I'm really hungering for a better way to do this, and for better self-discipline. My biggest interests right now are probably historical theology and what you mentioned above -- theological anthropology. Also theology of liturgy, and something related to forms of devotion and religious identity, how theology impacts religious culture and experience. The list goes on.

Re: what you and Kristen were talking about above, I haven't read much of Taylor, only parts of a few chapters from A Secular Age. But I read those bits immediately after I finished a course on the sociology of religion, and I thought Taylor was able to express aspects of religious experience and meaning that none of the authors from my sociology syllabus had even seemed aware of, except maybe Peter Berger. I liked him a lot!

This comment is kind of random. Are there one or maybe two books that you think serve as a good mini-introduction to the theology of grace, particularly as it's been understood (or not understood, I suppose!) throughout history?

Edited at 2010-12-05 09:41 am (UTC)
5th-Dec-2010 11:17 am (UTC)
It's been years since I've really looked at it, other than for a quick reference or the like, but I read Roger Haight, S.J.'s The Experience and Language of Grace as part of my intro to the subject during my Master's at Notre Dame. I suspect that it might be at just the right level for you to be both sufficiently beginner and sufficiently challenging or possessing the depth you desire. If you grab it, let me know what you think! One of the difficult things, I'm finding, the more time I spend as a teacher or advanced student, is that it is harder and harder to remember the beginner's perspective, or to gauge what's appropriate for beginning students. Yikes!

But yes, de Lubac's The Mystery of the Supernatural is a key text for the theology of grace in la nouvelle Theologie. That entire movement is based around a renewal/new articulation of a theology of grace, and it was key to setting the Second Vatican Council in motion. I studied that in some detail during my doctorate, but it's a large blur now, and one that I have to revisit. I've yet to give it the kind of repetition that leads to real mastery, which is one of the reasons I'm jazzed to teach a class on the wider topic of grace.

Stephen J. Duffy's books, The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology and The Graced Horizon: Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought, are perhaps the reigning "state of the art" attempts at "textbook" coverage of the issue. I did also just recently pick up Manifestations of Grace by Elizabeth Dreyer and The Suspended Middle: Henri De Lubac And The Debate Concerning The Supernatural by John Milbank in order to look at some other discussions on the topic

Edited at 2010-12-05 11:17 am (UTC)
5th-Dec-2010 02:06 pm (UTC) - the dynamics of grace
I recently read "The Dynamics of Grace" by Duffy-I read also this book at the same time "God's Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation" by Nonna Verna Harrison (Eastern Orthodox view)-Duffy's book was great-peace
5th-Dec-2010 11:41 pm (UTC) - Re: the dynamics of grace
Excellent! It's good to hear from a third party that the Duffy seems that good. I read it with the professor who really worked me in the theology of grace during my doctoral year – Fr. David M. Coffey of the Archdiocese of Sydney, and I know he grumbled and argued over certain points of Duffy, but still thought that Duffy's work was the best published on the subject.

What, then, did you think of the Harrison text? Having dodged or (effectively) denied Augustine, the Orthodox approach can be really different. I've been very interested in the trajectory following John Cassian on that account, which is ignored as "Semi-Pelagian" in the West.
5th-Dec-2010 11:40 pm (UTC)
The writings of Brennan Manning come to mind - The Ragamuffin gospel, forward by Rich Mullins. I recognize, probably not intended as text for classes on theology, but a writer who grasps grace and can share it with others in a manner that speaks to the soul.
5th-Dec-2010 11:42 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. I ran into Manning through Mullins, but I hadn't thought of using the text in class. Interesting idea!

So: who speaks?
6th-Dec-2010 01:19 am (UTC)
Oh it's Angelia, came in thru facebook. I've been consuming Manning's books the past few months. I've read at one time he lived in New Orleans. He'd be an amazing man to cross paths with.
6th-Dec-2010 01:25 am (UTC)
Hum...if he's in New Orleans maybe he'd make a class visit. Always fun to think a little grand.
6th-Dec-2010 07:36 am (UTC)
Interesting! I almost think that that could be too powerful for my students. And then I wonder why that would make me hesitate! :-)
16th-Jan-2011 11:15 pm (UTC) - provides access
That was a awesome read,You discover something new every day.
17th-Jan-2011 08:15 am (UTC) - painter 11
that’s a damn good checklist! any chance you could make it into a pdf for us all?
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