Sunday, January 25, 2009

Taking the watch apart…

…is lots more fun than putting it back together.

My girlfriend today told me a question her roommate asked her not long ago. If we live our whole lives without God but then repent at the last minute, won’t God forgive us and save us? If not, how can you say He is so loving? If so, how can you say He is so just?

To help respond to this question, I suggested some analogies. The right way to understand this issue is based on the principle that some things are irreversible, or at least, so nearly intractable once enacted that they basically preempt such an easy ‘lat minute’ solution. As St. Augustine remarked in one of his many discussions of the fall in Adam, there are some acts we perform by which we forfeit our ability, let alone right, to undo or repent of them. Such as suicide. As soon as you kill yourself, there is by definition no last second chance or last resort to reverse that action. Suicide coalesces your last second with your last resort; a second later, you’re past your last resort, past the point of no return.

Analogies for this principle are the following: An egg is easier to drop than to pick up. A car is easier to blow up than to put back together. A child is easier to create than to obliterate except, of course, for that wonder-working quick and dirty kludge of all kludges, abortion. (In a typically Luciferian fashion, whereby the evil mocks the good with an inverse mimicry, abortion distorts the Gospel of the Crucified Savior by willfully sacrificing the unwilling innocent. There is indeed power in the blood of the innocent slain for the desperate.) A watch is easier to take apart than to put back together.

Or consider this scenario: A man marries a woman and quickly announces he intends to live his whole ‘married’ life apart from and in spite of his wife. He comes and goes whenever he likes, demands help when he needs it, offers help when he finds the time, all the while assuring himself and his family that he will make good on everything in the end. As death approaches, he returns home and asks his wife to take him in. Would she? How could she? What meaning would his ‘love’ have at such a late hour after being displayed as narcissism and self-isolation all the years before? Even his wife, by sheer grace, did embrace and restore him, could the man really have the capacity to live in the fullness of that relationship? Would he not have become to isolated and self-centered that even the restoration he finds in his wife would seem a theatrical, and therefore artificial, finale?

Theoretically, yes, God would and can forgive us and save at the last minute, despite a life lived without and against Him. The problem, therefore, is not God’s justice or benevolence, but rather, our shallowness and intransigence. Every moment of our lives we stand under a shower of grace, knee-deep in puddles of grace, God’s very immanence in Christ. Our only chance for enjoying that grace is to lower our umbrellas of self-enclosure and idol protection, get naked, and play in the rain. Otherwise, not even grace can touch us. Grace, after all, is not an abstract ‘thing’ but God’s own touch by the Holy Spirit. If we continually reject Him qua Grace, the problem is not that He will not ‘be there for us’ in our final hour, but rather that we will not be there to be touched and healed.

Imagine a plastic drinking straw. A saint is like a clean, straight straw that is fully open to the coursing of grace through him or her. Sins become kinks in our character, in our faculties, which impede the flow of grace in us (and not only for our own sake but also impede the overflow of grace into our neighbors’ lives). Hell is simply a case of a straw that has become knotted in itself: not only can grace not flow through it, but also its continued flow only increases the internal pressure of the plastic––thus hell is suffering in the very presence of God made into an absence by our inability to let Him in. The reason God cannot untie our knots in hell, is because grace only works on the foundation of nature, not against it. As St. Thomas said so well, "Gratia non tollat [destruit] naturam, sed perficiat [Grace does not negate {destroy} nature, but perfects it)" (ST I, i, 8 ad 2). Indeed, not only does grace presuppose nature (De Ver. 27, 6 ad 3)––as the subject of grace––but grace also presupposes the intrinsic openness of nature to grace as its operative reforming agent. Nature is the preamble of grace (In Boeth. de Trin. 2, 3). Once that openness, however, by its own operative powers, becomes an intrinsic closure, there is literally no means, no access, by which God can infuse His grace into that nature. The moment of death is a mystical crucible, ignited in the first exposure to God qua Lumen de Lumine, which hardens our nature into a permanent cast, much like a “glow wall” leaves our shadow on it after a flash.

The point is that consciously living a life without and against God summons all our natural powers to shape those same natural powers into a mode that has really no capacity for turning back to God. All the grace He would shower upon us finds no foothold, or, worse (such as a grace of conviction which is quickly spurned for further hardening in sin), becomes just that much more fodder which we can use to resist God and stifle our own capacity for repentance. A man who says he will ‘test God’ by jumping off a building and then asking for salvation at the last instant is not even seeking the right God. For the God Who was in Christ is also Creator of the very laws and nature that dictate his jump will be irreversible and fatal. As below, so above. Making the jump of premeditated ‘final repentance’ is really just making a final jump. Grace is intrinsically a gift, but a gift is intrinsically something that can only be received by one with the capacity to accept it; unfortunately, sin is something that robs us of this ability, like a beggar who cuts his own hands off to win sympathy but can not even accept the alms given him. We may cut off our nose to spite God’s face, but, being made in His image, we only end up scouring off our own faces, ultimately rendering ourselves blind, deaf, and mute when grace passes us by in the end.

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