Be Change(d)

God became man so that man might become god.
Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Throughout this academic year, our focus is on different ways that our faith must change our lives and our world. This week, our focus is on how some acts of change simultaneously change both the outside world and our inner-selves. This dual change is a central purpose of faith. But, what kind of change needs to be made? The answer provided by faith is that our world and we need to move toward the holy. In other words, the life of faith is less about being good than about being holy, becoming holy. To become holy, we need to identify both a proper end, i.e., a goal, and the appropriate means to that end, i.e., how will that goal be achieved. The two above quotes provide hints.

Taken together, Athanasius and Aristotle suggest that the life of faith somehow includes transformation from one way of being to another. Yet, how do we connect these two notions: (1) that our actions, according to Christian tradition, are meant to make us like God and (2) that somehow we become what we are through our actions? Both reliant upon God’s primary acts in grace, the answer comes through the pairing of two theological concepts: justification/henosis and sanctification/theosis.

Justification is the act by God through grace to connect us to God’s very being. It is our being (re)connected to God. However, as Martin Luther reminds us, justification means that we are merely counted as just by God yet are not actually just, i.e., we are not actually holy as God is holy. We need to be made just; we need to be made holy. It is this second stage, transitioning from potentiality to actuality, where sanctification centers the conversation. If justification is being one with God, then sanctification is becoming like God. Here, with sanctification, the connection between our actions and our transformation merge.

For instance, when speaking about sanctification, The Discipline—the book of church doctrine and law for The United Methodist Church—clearly links sanctifying grace with holy habits and personal transformation. The Discipline asserts that through “the power of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor.” Fundamentally, here, love is not understood as sentimental compassion or empathy but action, transformative action. The Discipline continues: “We proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners.” Theologically, a moral calculus might be deduced. That calculus, roughly, is Holy Spirit plus selves freed by God’s justifying grace multiplied by habitual love equals both social and personal transformation. Expressed in more conventional terms, Thomas Langford summarizes this same point: “Christian perfection is progressive, a continual renewal of love and growth in love. Both realized and being realized, it is a love that matures into greater love.” In other words, what we do has a significant impact on who we are or must become. Importantly, the Holy Spirit and grace are always precursors and paramount to the transformative practices of holy living, but the power and presence of the Holy Spirit does not abdicate human responsibility and the transformative efficacy of human endeavors. On the contrary, the presence of the Holy Spirit actually enables and presumes the efficacy of our (holy) habits: “Sanctification is that renewal of our fallen nature by the Holy Ghost . . . and [we] are enabled, through grace, to love God with all our hearts and to walk in his holy commandments blameless.”

Stanley Hauerwas, insists that this self-forming movement from grace to gracious responsibility under girds who we are and, thus, what we must do. Hauerwas’ insists that ethics begins by asking: what shall we be? In his work Peaceable Kingdom, he states:

I have argued that [this] question . . . precedes the question “What ought I to do?” If we begin our ethical reflection with the latter question we stand the risk of misunderstanding how practical reason [i.e., phronesis] should work as well as the moral life itself. For the question “What ought I to do?” tempts us to assume that moral situations are abstracted from the kind of people and history we have come to be. But that simply is not the case. The “situations” we confront are such only because we are first a certain kind of people. . . . “Situations” are not “out there” waiting to be seen but are created by the kind of people that we are.

Hauerwas discloses the character of his ethical project through his central positioning of this guiding question. Thus, for Hauerwas, the primary purpose of ethics is the making of a particular kind of people who behave in a certain manner rather than another. Additionally, Hauerwas insists that ethics is directly linked to our particular narrative descriptions of reality that help us to see what is right, good, proper, and holy. Hauerwas comes to ask and position this particular question of who we will be through his use of Aristotle and Aquinas, particularly in his sympathetic adaptation of their commitment to phronesis and praxis. Phronesis (i.e., practical wisdom) describes a particular ability, involving both knowledge and skill, only gained through practice. Phronesis, thus, necessitates praxes (i.e., practical actions) inseparable from the end sought and from the persons invested in the action. Through phronetic training in praxes, we come to embody that good (or holy) end sought. We become our habits. We become our holy end.

This week, our focus in Religious Life is on the curious connection between our pursuing the holy/better world we seek and our simultaneously becoming that end, too. See you in chapel as we explore the connection between holy living and holiness, between service and being a servant, between loving and being love.

Have a great week.

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