The concept of grace is integral to Christianity. According to Wikipedia, “grace” is understood by Christians “to be a spontaneous gift from God to people.” It is “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved”. The question I raise here is whether the concept of grace can be similarly meaningful to Spiritual Naturalists.
While the concept of grace is central to Christianity, the experience of grace is recognized in other, perhaps all religions. Grace, at least as I have experienced it, is a kind of unexpected or spontaneous uplift, strength, delight, or inspiration. In my writings, I sometimes refer to the experience as “joy for free.” It is a feeling of uplift that cannot be willed or obtained by following a procedure. In its joyfulness, it is something like the experience of beauty. But where the experience of beauty finds its delight in something exterior to our being – grace is a kind of inner radiance; a radiance of being itself.
Christians typically think of grace as something that is given by a God that is exterior to us – it somehow mysteriously flows from God to us. I suggest a different, more naturalistic interpretation of the experience of grace; it is purely within us, a property of “our” nervous system. Yet I also want to emphasize that the experience is no less blessed for that.
As suggested above, though the potential for this “joy for free” is within our biological being, we cannot willfully manipulate it. As a rather rough analogy, we can think of the way adrenaline works. Adrenaline is clearly part of our body, yet we cannot will adrenaline, it comes to us when a situation calls for it.
This analogy has limited value, though. Adrenaline has a clear survival value — grace is more mysterious. If grace does have survival value, it is probably opposite that of adrenaline. Where adrenaline makes us highly stimulated and active, grace helps us become calm and relaxed. If it is tied to some aspect of survival, it would probably be saving energy.
Though the question of how the experience of grace might tie into biological evolution is interesting, I won’t pursue it here. There are many aspects of human experience, such as the sense of beauty that can be obtained from reading poetry, that do not fit readily into the theory of evolution. Some such things may just be accidental offshoots of evolution and our ability to experience grace may itself be evolution’s unintentional gift.
If we cannot think or will our self to a state of grace, we can do certain things to put our self in the path of grace. Spiritual traditions speak of “living in accord with Nature,” “immersing yourself in the Tao,” “letting go and letting God” as ways that lead to the inner strength, tranquility, and joy that are part of the experience of grace. Meditation, contemplation, prayer, silence, wilderness travel are methods that have helped many open up to grace. And suffering too can lead there.
A few decades ago, I worked at Hazelden, an alcohol and drug treatment facility. Over and over I heard stories from alumni of the program about their long odyssey of dependency and denial, hitting rock bottom, and the despair that finally led them to call for help — their turning to “a higher power” — which led them to recovery. This too is an experience of grace.
By this point, I suspect that some of my readers, particularly those who have never had a powerful experience of grace, are feeling rather skeptical about what I’m writing. Possibly there are a few theistic readers who have experienced grace but are skeptical of the claim that it is only part of our biology. Rather than trying to argue my point further, I present a little story that I conceived while working at Hazelden. On the surface, the story could be embraced by a Christian, which would be fine with me. Some people may need supernatural belief to find their way to grace. But in light of what I have said above, I invite you to read it through the lens of Naturalism.
The Skeptical Tern
The stormy weather of winter was approaching in the Arctic and the Terns began to speak to each other of flying off to another land where they would be warm and food would be abundant. One young Tern, however, was skeptical about flying off over the ocean with no sense of where he was going. He questioned the others about why he should believe in this place. All the other Terns could tell him was to have faith, that the Great Tern in the Sky would show him the way. But this was not good enough for him.
Soon the other Terns began flying off, and then all were gone — all but the skeptical Tern. “How silly they are,” he thought. But then the days got colder and colder, and the little Tern started feeling very chilled and alone; then miserable and frightened; and finally desperate. One morning in his desperation he cried out, “Great Tern guide me,” and immediately he opened his wings and flew off. After many weeks of flying, guided by a sense that he had no choice but to trust, he caught up to the other Terns. And sure enough, in the end he arrived at a place of warmth and abundance.
From the point of view of an intelligent bird, the ability to migrate halfway around the world might be seen as a gift of grace from the “Great Tern in the Sky,” though we know that it is actually a genetic predisposition (whatever that means). So as humans, suddenly finding ourselves in the glorious uplift and inspiration of grace, we may see it as a gift of the “Great Person in the Sky,” though I am suggesting here that it too is part of our genetic predisposition.
Whatever its cause though, grace is a gift; one that I will accept graciously.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.