October 12 – Spirituality, Grace and the Sacraments
In the last two weeks, we have taken a look at the Christian idea of ‘spirituality’ in the light of our ‘Secular Side of God’. We saw how in this secular mode of reinterpretation, ‘spirit’ is neither supernatural nor ‘other-worldly’, but simply a word for the energy that propels evolution in the direction of increasing complexity. We saw how Teilhard sees ‘spirit’ as neither an ‘epi’ nor a ‘meta’ phenomenon, but instead the critical phenomenon in the evolution of the universe. Although, as Richard Dawkins acknowledges, science has not yet addressed it per se, the religious term for the energy “which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence”, is ‘spirit’.
This week we will move on to some consequences of understanding that spirituality not only underlies the evolutionary process by which the universe becomes more complex, it is the milieu in which we live.
The History of Grace
Grace is one of the basic concepts of Christianity, which understands the ‘love of God’ as a tangible thing by which God interacts between his supernatural divine life and our natural human life.
As we will see, the church teachings on this interaction with God can be seen to have much in common with our secular understanding of spirituality. Not that the traditional dualisms of supernaturalism and otherworldliness are not present in these teachings, but the idea that grace makes up the milieu in which we live is pervasive in them.
The church teaching on grace, however, can also be seen to be tarnished by the gradual drift of Christianity towards a hierarchy which effects social stability and a system of beliefs necessary to secure successful promotion into heaven. This can be seen in the Baltimore Catechism’s description of grace as a “Supernatural gift of God bestowed on us through the merits of Jesus Christ for our salvation.” It goes on to say, “The principal ways of obtaining grace are prayer and the sacraments.” In this teaching, grace is less a milieu in which we exist than a gift, not gratuitously given by God but ‘earned’ by Jesus and mediated by the church. Grace is a ‘gift’ necessary for our ‘salvation’ which must be ‘obtained’ by asking for it (prayer) and participation in church-provided rituals (sacraments). To a large extent, it is seen as necessary commodity to be obtained from the church.
Sacraments, as defined in the Baltimore Catechism, are “outward signs, instituted by Christ, to give grace”, and are conferred (dispensed) by church hierarchy. In this teaching, the sacraments only ‘work’ (only dispense grace) if they are performed by the correct rank of church hierarchy (eg ‘Confirmation’ by bishop) and according to the established ritual (eg Baptism by water).
The excesses of the medieval church which led to Luther’s reformation are well documented, but one of the more egregious practices that Luther attacked was the ‘selling’ of sacraments. To the church of this era, grace had become a hierarchy-controlled commodity without which salvation could not be accomplished but from which the church could profit.
So, What is Grace, and Where Do The Sacraments Come In?
As we saw last week, spirituality is fundamental to the process of evolution, from the ‘big bang’ to (so far) the human. From this secular perspective, grace is simply the quantification of this energy of evolution. Paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, we can say, “There must be an energy of evolution, and we might as well give it the name Spirit, but Spirit is not an appropriate name unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘Spirit’ carries in the minds of most religious believers. The energy that we seek must be that which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence”.
Just as we saw in our discussion of God, the ‘axis of evolution’ rises through every branch of the tree of life. The specific branch that rises though each human person is a continuation of the basic energy of evolution and it is manifest in its potential in our lives.
The long legacy of dualism that has risen in Christianity came to understood sacraments as a means by which the spiritual energy of God could be delivered across the wide gulf between spirit and matter, and that this aperture was opened by ‘the merits of Christ’ and therefore contributes to ‘our salvation’.
Setting aside the issue of ‘salvation’ for now, we can see how our secular approach to the idea of the energy of evolution, and our understanding of God as ‘supremely’ natural (as opposed to ‘super’ natural) permits the idea of the sacrament to be seen in a secular context. While we may well be immersed in this milieu of grace, the very nature of its intangibility calls for reminders, ‘signposts’ of its activity in our lives. The sacraments are religion’s attempt to erect these signposts. They are, in Teilhard’s words, examples of “articulation of the noosphere’.
The Sacraments and Evolution
As we have suggested many times in this blog, the continuation of evolution through the human species can be understood as the development of tge skill of using our unique human neocortex brains to modulate the instinctual stimuli of the ‘lower’ limbic and reptilian brains. In the post of February 2, 2017 – “Relating to God, Part 7: Loving God, Part 2” (http://www.lloydmattlandry.com/?m=201702), as well as several others, we saw this skill requiring two actions. The first action was to recognize the rise of this axis of evolution in us, and the second was to learn how to cooperate with it. In religious terms, this is expressed as “finding and cooperating with God”.
In the posts which addressed ‘finding God’, beginning with “Relating to God – P1: Opening the Door” (http://www.lloydmattlandry.com/?m=201609) we addressed the concept of meditation as a process for finding God as understood by Teilhard, and how it has been carried through to the current day by psychology. In these posts we saw how the idea of ‘finding God’ happens in the quest to find ourselves.
The second step is less obvious, and less treated by psychology. To ‘cooperate’ with this manifestation of the ground of being in our lives, it is necessary to see how the energy of evolution is specifically manifested in our life so that we can cooperate with it and enhance its effects in us. Effectively, to cooperate with the energy of evolution, we need to learn to recognize how the ‘articulations of the noosphere’ occur in our lives.
This is where the sacraments come in.
The Next Post
This week we saw grace as the manifestation of the ‘energy of evolution’ as it flows through our lives, and addressed the idea of ‘sacrament’ as articulation of how the action of grace can be seen if we know how to look. Next week we will look at the sacraments in more detail to better understand how the seven traditional sacraments can be seen as active in our personal evolution.