How can grace operate in a religiously pluralist world? – October 2011

Question: I am interested in the relevance of prevenient grace to Christian interaction with non-Christian religions. Can religion itself (however it is defined) be a means of prevenient grace through which a person experiences salvation?

Publication Month: October 2011

Prevenient grace is not a Wesleyan monopoly, but I am going to refer in my answer to Wesley. Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace was clear, and the doctrine was important to him. In many ways, Wesley’s teaching flows into process thought, or perhaps process thought flows into Wesley. For both, God works graciously in everyone. That gracious working can lead to justification and sanctification, and as it does in takes on new names. That is, it is no longer prevenient but, instead, justifying and sanctifying. Prevenient simply identifies the working of God among those who have not been “justified.” Everywhere grace does, in and for us, what can be done.

Obviously this is relevant to persons of other faiths or religions. God works in them also, doing for them what they can receive. Sometimes that is, indeed, a great deal.

Accordingly, prevenient grace is at work in every religious community. On the other hand, the idea of “grace,” the fully developed doctrine of grace, and the centrality of grace are not common in the world’s religions. An emphasis on grace and its full elaboration are a Christian specialty. It is a specialty developed with particular fullness by Wesley. It is my belief that grace is most effective overall when it is acknowledged and celebrated.

But again this does not mean that from the perspective of one who believes that grace is operative everywhere, the failure to speak of it is a sign of its absence. Even the rejection of the idea of grace by a Zen practitioner certainly does not prevent grace from being operative. Under certain circumstances, especially where a doctrine of grace has led to passivity or irresponsibility, grace may express itself in the critical rejection of the idea of grace.

I think that I am thus far supporting the intuitions behind the question. The question moves in the direction taken by Karl Rahner, the greatest Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. Like the questioner Rahner thought that God was at work in everyone, and he identified religion as the expression of that work. I male this point to indicate that the questioner has strong support in his basic intuition.

Nevertheless, my intuition is different. Of course, much depends on what we mean by “religion.” But the word often guide us to what are widely understood as religious ceremonies, or to beliefs in supernatural events or beings, or to codes of behavior sanctioned by religious leaders. These do not impress me as the distinctive work of grace. On the other hand, many acts that may be regarded as quite “secular,” giving a cup of cold water given to a thirsty child, liberating minds from superstition, or breaking the excessive power of a priesthood, may be genuine expressions of grace.

My point is neither to disparage religion nor to praise it. It is an important human phenomenon that can, and often does, play a positive role in society. But it can also do a great deal of harm. In my opinion, grace always works for the wellbeing of creatures, especially human ones. Whether that working takes what is usually called a religious form or a secular one is not the issue.

Actually it is quite striking that the founders of what we now think of as the world religions were typically critical of the religion of their day. As a Christian I think of the prophets and of Jesus. The prophets sometimes expressed themselves strongly, juxtaposing the justice for which they called to the typical religious beliefs and practices of their times. Jesus belittled and broke some of the religious rules that he encountered.

The prophets, including Jesus, critiqued “religion” from the perspective of God’s will. God wills the wellbeing of individuals and justice in social relations. Is that “religion?” Of course, we could define it as such. But what is usually called religion can easily become in our day, as it was in the time of the prophets, an obstacle to the realization of God’s purposes.

My view is that prevenient grace was certainly working in Gautama, the Enlightened One. We might say that in him we see the work not only of prevenient grace but of enlightening grace as well. To use terms like “justifying grace” and “sanctifying grace” in his case, would not be helpful. But, by whatever name, it is the same God working in the world for the realization of creaturely wellbeing.       

Grace was effective in the other great spiritual leaders of India and in those of China and Persia as well. It also worked impressively in Socrates and Plato and the great Stoics. And, of course, usually in less dramatic ways, it has been working in everyone else.

To recognize that God has worked in the other religious communities and in the secular world as well, leads us to be open to learning from both religious and secular sources. They have their own true insights and rich wisdom to offer us. We believe that we have learned more fully than most of them the dependence of all of us on God’s grace. We think that there is wisdom in our tradition that can help others. We want to allow God’s grace not only to open us to the wisdom that same grace has made possible for others but also to enable us to share what we have received through our distinctive Christian history.