LOCALITY AND NATURAL GRACE

 

This paper concerns the relation of locality to a developing conception of natural grace.[1] A first thought in this direction is that “Grace is not earned.” This follows from the idea that grace comes to us from beyond what we can control or fully understand. If we could control or manipulate the dispen­sation of grace to ourselves, then we would be “earning” it by what we do—making it happen. Grace comes, if it does, not in virtue of what we do, not by way of “good works,” but, as the tradition has it, “by faith alone.” There is more to the idea certainly, and there is trouble here with the idea of “earning.” My aim here is to elucidate the idea of grace, within a naturalistic framework, and relate it to a discussion of locality in the writings of Josiah Royce. 

 

Grace traditionally conceived

Grace, as traditionally conceived, involves personal recog­nition of those blessed by grace, but this is not a negotiated recognition—as in recogni­tion from the employer for an employee who, in virtue of talents and abilities, has been provided some agreed job or assigned task. So, what does “earned” mean, if we say that grace is not earned? One key to this question, beyond the imperfect opposition between grace and works, is to notice that on traditional accounts, there are “signs” of grace, and the ability to build the local congregation is a sign of grace—though not an indefeasible sign. Consistent with the Protestant emphasis, local efforts and accomplishments in building the congrega­tion do not count to “works.” In relation to the traditional “theological virtues” of “faith, hope and charity,” it is charity which marks good works.

     In my working naturalized conception, grace does involve the idea of receiv­ing a benefit—from sources in nature and human society which are beyond our knowledge or control. But, while agreeing that grace is not earned, I argue with or resist the idea that grace is bestowed or given arbitrarily. It does not depend on an arbitrary will. “Where there is no vision the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” I suppose that “vision” is indeed required for social well being, and that naturalized grace must accord with law.[2]

     We have to do here, in part, with the traditional notion that the rain falls equally upon the good and the bad. Not every development can be conceived of as law-like. But if grace had no relation to law-like regularity, then it would make little sense. Again, the grace of the elect would be given with creation. Since, according to orthodox Calvinism, God created the world with the fore­knowledge of who would be saved and who would not, there could be no independent ground in the person for salvation or damnation. That makes grace and salvation arbitrary. I don’t think anyone believes this today—any more than it is widely believed that a privileged birth entitles someone to wealth and preference in society.

     So basically, I am disputing the concept of an arbitrary power which hold us respon­si­ble for what could not be avoided. That point is basic in all traditional criticisms of predestination in Calvinism. The broader question is what a natural­istic conception of grace might look like. That the grace of the elect is given at creation seems to be Schelling’s idea[3]—a determinism, from one’s own nature or character, from all eternity. Grace is then a matter of a fore-ordained result. In a sense this is a block universe, as William James might put the matter. It raises the specter of arbitrary favoritism.

     So another approach is to extract the favoritism from the idea of grace. Notice how “grace is unearned” tends to block insight into this. How can “salva­tion” through grace not amount to salvation via favoritism if grace is unearned? Also, if grace and salvation do not depend on an arbitrary favoritism, then what do they depend on? Can we tell the story, in general terms, without making “grace” into a matter of “good works”? After all, one original reason for the emphasis on grace, as contrasted with good works in the Reformation, was to avoid the sale of dispensations. That was an interference, from the center, on the judgment and organization of local affairs. What is to be avoided in this is the notion that some central human authority is entitled to decide what to count as sufficient in kind and degree of our good works—and grant “dispensations.” 

 

Natural piety and natural grace

If we think of grace as a power in nature and in society which helps us, beyond what can be achieved from our own powers, and in somewhat the manner of William James’s theism, then is this an argu­ment for plural­ism? Or is there room to emphasize the unifying moment, somewhat in Dewey’s way? The general conditions of life and of civilization are not things which we created personally, and it is not even clear that any of us understand the totality of conditions upon which our life and thought depends. So, we justly hesitate to try to change them all at once. Dewey’s late reformism can be viewed as an appropriate expres­sion of his natural piety. Dewey on natural piety also seems to translate central aspects James’s religious thought into a more naturalistic idiom.

In A Common Faith, Dewey argues as follows:

The essentially unreligious attitude is that which attributes human achievement and purpose to man in isolation from the world of physical nature and his fellows. Our successes are dependent upon the cooperation of nature. The sense of the dignity of human nature is as religious as is the sense of awe and reverence when it rests upon a sense of human nature as a cooperating part of a larger whole. Natural piety is not of necessity either a fatalistic acquiescence in natural happenings or a romantic ideali­zation of the world. It may rest upon a just sense of nature as the whole of which we are parts, while it also recognizes that we are parts that are marked by intelligence and purpose, having the capacity to strive by their aid to bring conditions into greater consonance with what is humanly desirable. Such piety is an inherent constituent of a just perspective in life.[4]

 

Dewey speaks of “piety” as requiring a recognition of powers beyond our understanding and control, since the plans and activities of our fellow human beings are always beyond our complete knowledge or control, as is nature itself. These nonetheless enter into the fulfillment or frustration of our aims and purposes. What we are able to do is not done from our own power alone. Instead there is an appropriate humility in recognition of our dependence on our fellows and on nature. Dewey’s natural piety is neither fatalistic nor romantic. He speaks in terms of cooperation.

     Though we cannot do everything we might desire, we can do some things. The idea is that we can contribute to the accomplish­ment of something, which is still beyond our own limited powers, and I want to connect this to the conception of “natural grace,” emphasizing that our dependence upon powers and forces beyond our full knowledge or control may be fairly thought of in terms of what may come to the aid of our contributions, helping to complete or fulfill the aims or ends for which we act. This, then, would be “natural grace,” something that the traditionally religious may think of as a “free gift” from a higher power. Are there paradig­matic cases which we can understand naturalistically?

 

Persuasion

What comes to mind as an illustration is persuasion. I start from the assumption that if I persuade you to do something, then I have not compelled your actions or agreement. But if I persuade you that so-and-so, then you believe that so-and-so. If I persuade you that you should do so-and-so, then you believe that so-and-so should be done. You might think of your insight on the matter as partly coming to you from an “inner light,” some inspiration which enables you to understand some particular connection, perhaps. I do not think that your seeing it that way, if you did, would be inconsistent with also thinking that you had been persuaded by some argument or some presentation of related ideas and facts. What I am aiming to exemplify or illustrate here is the idea that my actions, though not sufficient to compel yours, may still be suited to evoke your comple­mentary actions.[5]

If our efforts are themselves simply fated to be suitable or unsuitable, and their suitability to evoke grace is something completely beyond our powers, then I think you fall back into fatalism. But to reemphasize my naturalistic theme, if I persuade you of the value of something, and you act on that conviction, unbeknownst to me, then you may support my project in a way essentially beyond my knowledge or control. I assume that I have not “organized” you or provided material incen­tives for your action. Intellectual activities have this character essentially. We cannot know before hand that we will persuade anyone, and if we do persuade, by argument and evidence, then we cannot predict or control actions which subsequently arise. To think that we can control them, or “organize them,” make them happen by some virtue or power of our own, this is, in Dewey’s words, that “essentially unreligious attitude” which “attributes human achieve­ment and purpose to man in isolation from the world of physical nature and his fellows.” This is very close to saying that the cult of organization and obsessive “networking” invites a kind of idolatry.

     So, the general idea of “natural grace” is that our actions (including our argu­ments) may be suited to evoke natural grace, though they do not compel it. If I persuade you of something, or if you persuade me, then our agreement is still “freely given” out of our own growth of insight, though what is said by way of persuasion is suited to evoke the agreement.

Of course, however much we may feel that what we say is suited to evoke agreement, such agreement will not always be forthcoming; and because of that, we should resist thinking that we have earned the agreement of others, or that our efforts at persuasion are themselves sufficient to compel agreement. “If the light comes to me,” says Emerson in “Fate,” “then, I see; otherwise not.” If I do not see the force of your argument, then it is no good simply insisting that I should see it. Such agreement can only be freely given, and not compelled, though it may be, on some occasion, just what is needed to accomplish my aim—an aim which is beyond my own powers alone.

More generally, then, we may sometime act in a way suited to accomplish a goal or end which is beyond our own powers to accomplish, and though our own efforts are not sufficient to our goal, they may still evoke freely given support of a kind sufficient to the goal. That is what I mean by “natural grace.” It grows out of the concept of “natural piety” and the idea of our all being dependent on a larger world. Some may see in the phenomenon of natural grace the workings of Providence, or the hand of God. That would be consistent, though not required, by the concept of natural grace.

There does seem to be some connection between Jamesian theism and Dewey’s natural piety. Looking at grace again from the perspec­tive of Dewey’s natural piety, it seems clear that nature and the social context do support many diverse strivings and aims and purposes—not just one—in any identifiable way. If we accept the concept of natural piety, then natural grace seems to come along in the wake. Contem­porary doctrines of evolution, in contrast to traditional conceptions of Providence empha­size that there is no single pre-determined direction of develop­ment in evolution. Nature supports many diverse direc­tions of development, though not each equally well, or in every natural context. Still, the point requires renewed focus on human “intelligent design” of society, that is what has been called “intelligence in the modern world.”

     I am reminded of Buchler: “Every natural complex prevails in some context or other.” But if nature supports every development of evolu­tion, though some are better supported at particular times or places, then this suggests that a given soci­ety should also support varieties of cultural devel­opment—though not all in an equally effective way. What is crucial and central, from a normative point of view, is that society should support that degree of diverse developments required for intelligent criticism and self-correction of its overall workings. These things can be organized only in part, and in part they must be left to the free development of others. Likewise, natural grace cannot be organized into existence. That is to say, it cannot be compelled by organization, and organization may become a form of idolatry. Considering grace invites the theme of humility.

 

Natural grace and the limits of virtue

Natural piety involves our acknowledgement of dependence upon powers in the natural and human world which we can neither under­stand in full or hope to control. We can never fully understand or control what comes between our acts and statements and their ultimate consequences, because what is involved is too vast, complex and ever changing. Similarly, the causal and social presuppositions of our lives and acts are too complex for us to ever fully understand or control. What it is to lack natural piety is to think that we stand in need of no support from outside our own powers and under­standing: that we can organize and manipulate the needed outcomes. But since we do depend on the larger natural and social world we should respect these powers. Accepting our place within this larger world we express the attitude of natural piety. But clearly, not just every place in that natural world is as appropriate as every other.

     Natural piety does not suggest a lack of power or virtue in one’s own doings, instead it is a matter of recognizing limits to one’s power and even limits to the effective scope and consequences of virtue. Where there is natural piety, however, there is also the possi­bility of natural grace. Taking up the attitude of natural piety, we are open to this world though lacking control or full understanding; and being open to it, refusing to close ourselves off from it, we may better benefit from it.

     Natural grace begins, then, with a refusal to close off one’s own human world, individually or organizationally, from the larger social and natural world. To accept that what comes of grace cannot come of our “good works” alone is not fatalism. Still it is a subjection to unknown powers and forces. Beyond that, if we are ourselves growing, then we are always on the cusp of something new, and growing recognition of powers in the world adds to our own powers. Sometimes, what we have just learned may add just the power or ability we need at that point.

     This generalization includes all needed emphasis on solitude: The power to remain silent, to fail to respond, the power to avoid obsession, to refuse conflict, may be just the power or virtue needed at a given time. In this context it strikes me that politi­cal ideolo­gies and groups built upon intensive political ideologies are inconsistent with natural grace, since they effec­tively close themselves off from part of the human and natural world, and because they seek to eliminate (not just avoid) the influ­ence of whatever cannot be controlled.[6] This suggests extremes of idolatry. When I consider the simplicity of physical surroundings, that “puritan simplicity,” produced in the attempt to eliminate idolatry, I think, too, that it must have been well understood in those times that the most persistent idola­tries are all the more stubborn in requiring no out­ward signs—or only the written word.

     In a similar way, peace in the world is not something ever completely within our control. Peace is not merely something we do, it is also some­thing which may happen to us. If it does, since it is not fully within our control, it is plausibly a matter of natural grace. Those who seek world peace, attempt to evoke it at the best, and they cannot but seek a grace beyond their power to compel. 

 

Locality

Emphasizing constant growth and economic expansion, the focus is, too often, on “the next big thing.” Fitting in with the next big development is always what is important. But this, in turn, is subject to an idolatry of images. Whether we fit in with the next big thing is a matter of image, and fitting the image is a matter of image making—thus subject to media manipulation. The key to everything is mastery of rhetoric, we hear. But is this skill or virtue sufficient of itself? He who pays the piper calls the song, and who does pay the piper? What does locality have to do with this? Grace? Cooperativeness? Might we need a rest period from following the trend of the “next big thing?”

     Each locality, we assume, has its own specific potentiality for devel­opment. Again, we naturally suppose that there is some definite relationship between the people and situation of a given locality and the potentialities of that loca­tion. To be swept forward on the crest of those particular potentiali­ties of develop­ment would then plausibly be a matter of grace, and the better one fits in with the pre-existing potentialities, the greater one’s cultivation the local environment and its potentialities, the more likely it would be that one would benefit through cooperative development of them.

     However, in degree, as the local course of development is controlled from afar, then one’s existing adaptation to place becomes irrelevant to one’s opportunities. “Being there,” has little or no importance or no effect. The media may shift attention from local poten­tialities toward those controlled from afar or toward those better suited to benefit the folks who pay the piper. Local loyalties play a smaller role, and, in fact, people in America typically go from one place to another to follow the opportuni­ties. That this is generally possible shows a great deal of cultural homogeneity.

     William James wrote that “the notion of the ‘one’ breeds foreignness and that of the ‘many’ intimacy.”[7] While America is undoubtedly “one out of many,” e pluribus unum, this does not guarantee that we have always got the emphasis on the one and the many quite right. It seems plausible at least, that there has been over-emphasis on the oneness of the nation-state to the detriment of the pluralism of the country. Socially interpreted, James’s formula suggests that ‘intimacy’ is local or limited by various forms of propin­quity; and to always insist on the dominance of the largest social or political units, the ‘one,’ produces alienation, since this inter­feres with the spontaneous growth of rela­tions based on genuine and deeper opportuni­ties, commonalities and affinities. My perspective is that less emphasis on the ‘one’ of the nation-state, and greater emphasis on the ‘many’ of our localities may better facilitate integration and turn up particu­lar, partial, diverse and local solutions to national problems heretofore deemed intractable—intractable as national problems. These would be solutions otherwise lost in the process of nation-wide negotia­tions, involving a multitude of particulari­ties and local conditions not easily or coher­ently encompassed within any single plan or approach. Yet, just as the federal constitution requires that every state must have a republican form of government, the federal government may properly look out for the rights of the citizens everywhere.

 

Local loyalties

It will perhaps be thought that I put too much emphasis on William James, a notable individualist, and neglect other views. Perhaps so. But let me just briefly turn to James’s Harvard University colleague, Josiah Royce, the “Absolute pragmatist” to help confirm the kind of point I am making. Writing at about the same time as James’s A Pluralistic Universe, in his 1908 book, The Philosophy of Loyalty, Royce advocated our cultivation of local loyalties. “The spirit of loyalty is practical,” he writes, “is simple, is teachable, and is for all normal men;” The aim of teaching loyalty shares the motivation of William James’s pluralistic emphasis on the “many.” Concerning the American population in general, “What is most of all needed is to help them to be less estranged than they are from their own social order;” and “the problem” is “of educating the self-estranged spirit of our nation to know itself better.” I think that we naturally object to talk of “provincialism,” which seems a very European word,[8]—instead of local loyalties. But that is the word which Royce selected. I suspect we need to understand his point in spite of his choice of words:

The proposal is this. We need and we are beginning to get, in this country, a new and wiser provincialism. I mean by such provincialism no mere renewal of old sectionalism. I mean the sort of provincialism which makes people want to idealize, to adorn, to ennoble, to educate, their own province; to hold sacred its traditions, to honor its worthy dead, to support and to multiply its public possessions. I mean the spirit which shows itself in the multiplying of public libraries, in the laying out of public parks, in the work of local historical associations, in the enterprize of village improvement societies,yes, even in the genealogical societies, and in the provincial clubs. I mean also the present form of that spirit which has originated, endowed, and fostered the colleges and universities of our Western towns, cities, and states…[9]

 

I am tempted to think that America’s system of higher education has been somehow, or effectively, nationalized since Royce’s time; and we may certainly wonder at the prospect of some 3,000 colleges and universities, in the country, with so little distinctive of the various localities and regions. How exactly has this come about? Well, perhaps it’s a theme for another occasion.

     In place of reflecting on local and regional accomplishments, tradi­tions, problems and prospects, we seem to have substituted a “one-size-fits-all” system of political correct­ness—which in fact, and at a deeper level, is a confession of alienation from everything local and non-political. Recently, people in business have started to set up their own, alternative system of higher education in order to escape the fashionable leftward gaze in the established universities. It is as though there were no common problems or assumptions to guide discourse and a wall must be built between contenting political factions. That is not a promising prospect.

     The federal government and the union of the states was designed to protect our state and local communities—and not to provide a “one-size-fits-all” political substitute for them. I think our contemporary prospect of overall cultural uniformity in a continent-sized nation of 300 million people (whether the uniformity of the leftward gaze or that of the business oriented alternative) would have frightened both James and Royce. Royce argues as follows:

 

For, I insist, it is not the sect, it is not the labor union, it is not the political partisan organization, but it is the widely developed provincial loyalty which is the best mediator between the narrow interests of the individual and the larger patriotism of our nation. Further centralization of power in the national government, without a constantly enriched and diversified provincial consciousness, can only increase the estrangement of our national spirit from its own life. [10]

 

Again, I think that what is important in this passage from Royce comes through more clearly if we leave out his talk of “provincial” loyalty and “provin­cialism” and substitute something like local loyalty. The states and cities are not officially “provinces” after all. It is a word we have consistently avoided in American political and social history. A province I think of as “provincial,” meaning that it is strictly subsidiary in a country which has provinces; and to speak of local loyalties as a matter of a needed “provin­cialism” appears to prejudge the ultimate import of various local and regional contributions to American national life. So, I think we should avoid Royce’s talk of provincialism, precisely because it expresses some considerable estrangement from the value and potential of American localities and regions.

     Part of our problem is that the states and localities have too often allowed themselves to become provinces and excessively provincial. But consider the outstanding contrary examples. Is the Seattle area provincial, given Microsoft and Boeing? Are Boston and Cambridge provincial, consider­ing Harvard and M.I.T? Is Silicon Valley provincial? Is Hollywood Provincial? What about Atlanta and New Orleans? Manhattan and Wall Street, least of all! These places have distinguished themselves precisely by not declining into the merely provincial. If their success is essentially a matter of Federal largesse, favoritism from the center, then, of course, we are in trouble. Has our growing nationalism gone that far?

     In spite of his talk of provincialism, the fact that a man of Royce’s Idealist, holist and Absolutist philosophical background and inclinations would have taken such a stand in favor of our cultivation of the local in 1908—just before the birth of Teddy Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” of 1910—seems strikingly signifi­cant for our understanding of American history. One might well suspect that Royce shared some of James’s doubts about Teddy Roosevelt and his Progressivism—and I can think of no better reason than the suspicion that nation-wide single-mindedness, even for good and noble purposes, ulti­mately feeds into those more destructive and chauvinistic forms of nationalism which the federal consti­tution, and the division of powers, were designed to prevent.

     I (almost) agree with Royce for once: “Further centrali­zation of power in the national government, with­out a constantly enriched and diversified [local and regional!] conscious­ness, can only increase the estrangement of our national spirit from its own life.” Or we may now return to the words of William James: “the notion of the ‘one’ breeds foreignness and that of the ‘many’ intimacy.”


 

[1].   On traditional definition, Grace is “unmerited divine assistance given for regenera­tion or sanctification; a virtue coming from God; a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace.”

[2].   Equation of fate and unalterable law follows traditional definition: “Fate”: a power superior to the human will and operating in accord with arcane laws knowable only to the initiate. But once the law is known, if we conform our actions to it, then we may make use of it to arrive at an end. Acting in accordance with law is then necessary to grace—but not sufficient.

[3].   F. W. J. Schelling, German philosopher (1775-1854). See, Philosophical Inquir­ies into the Nature of Human Freedom, 1807, and Gut­mann’s 1936 translation, p. 64. Self-identity is equated with origins, and freedom with expression of origins, thus deriving from an original state or condition of grace, in contrast with Emer­son’s emphasis on develop­ment and direc­tion of development. Schelling viewed ultimate origin as defining both circum­stance and freedom.

[4].   John Dewey 1934, A Common Faith. Reprinted in Jo An Boydston ed. 1986, John Dewey, The Late Works, Vol. 9, 1933-1934, p. 18.

[5].   In Christian doctrine, I suppose, there must surely be some connection between Divine grace, freely given, and our efforts to effect our own re-birth by faith. “He that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

[6].   Compare Emerson, 1870 Society and Solitude, “The political reigns of terror have been reigns of madness and malig­nity,—a total perversion of opinion; society is upside down, and its best men are thought too bad to live.” 

[7].   William James 1909, A Pluralistic Universe, p. 321.

[8].   In American usage, “provincial” is almost inevitably used to disparage. Compare the related contrast of American “farmer” to the traditional European “peasant.”

[9].   My quotations come from Royce 1908, The Philosophy of Loyalty, pp. 114-115 in John McDermott’s edition from Vanderbilt University Press, 1995.

[10]. Ibid., p. 116.