Reflection: The Generous Melody of Grace and its Non-Christian Singers

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“I,” she [the Spirit] opened her hands to include Jesus and Papa, “I am a verb. I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active and moving. I am a being verb. And as my very essence is a verb, I am more attuned to verbs than nouns. Verbs such as confessing, repenting, living, loving, responding, growing, reaping, changing, sowing, running, dancing, singing, and on and on. Humans, on the other hand, have a knack for taking a verb that is alive and full of grace and turning it into a dead noun or principle that reeks of rules. Nouns exist because there is a created universe and physical reality, but the universe is only a mass of nouns, it is dead. Unless ‘I am’ there are no verbs and verbs are what makes the universe alive”

– Paul Young (The Shack)

Ericka was a devout Christian who had a transformative encounter with God through Jesus firsthand. Such a transformative encounter influenced Ericka so deeply that for her there was no doubt in her mind that the God of Israel was the God of the universe. Nevertheless, while Erika had no doubt of her experience with the Blessed Loving Presence that pervades the universe. Erika could not make sense of those genuine transformative encounters had by non-religious and religious persons (but not Christian). In numerous encounters with many non-Christian persons, Erika could not seem to synthesize her theology and the realities that she faced on a daily basis with genuinely transformed people. From these real encounters with her Muslim friends, Hindu neighbors, Atheist/Agnostic friends and Buddhist students, Ericka discerned something profoundly transformative that drew them away from themselves to a reality beyond themselves – to a reality that propelled them to love their neighbor (even if she is the enemy) at all cost. For these reasons, Erika found herself at a crucial intersection in her Christian faith. Even more, she found herself in a situation that demanded her to make sense of the religious experiences genuinely shared by the religious other. Here then is the question: “How will Ericka make sense of these sincere religious encounters?”

In reflecting upon the story above, I believe that Ericka’s confusion would be clarified by a richer understanding of the Spirit’s ministry (God’s Presence) in the world. Contrary to what is often assumed in Christian preaching and ministry, the work of the Spirit is not limited to any words that we speak nor to any of our actions, rather the Spirit’s touch extends beyond the ministry of Christians in the world offering grace and life to all of creation. Such statements do not deny the ‘particularity’ of Jesus – language that I believe to be fundamental to the Christian identity – rather they seek to highlight the ministry of the Spirit alongside the ministry of Jesus. As Clark Pinnock writes in his book Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit:

Viewing Jesus’ incarnation as an event in the history of the Spirit lets us consider particularity in the context of universality. The mystery of God was uniquely and unsurpassably revealed in Jesus (particularity), but this happened with the aid of the Spirit, who had always been working in creation and history before that time (universality). God sent Jesus in ‘the fullness of time’ to a world being prepared by the Spirit (Gal. 4.4). What God was aiming to reveal in Jesus was long in preparation, and Jesus came as a fulfilment to a process in which the Spirit had been a central player (Pinnock; 197-198)

Consequently, the Spirit’s offer of grace and our participation in this grace is not a reality that was initiated in Jesus, rather the Spirit’s offering of grace is a reality “as broad as history itself” (Pinnock; 197). In the person of Jesus we discover that grace reaches its culmination and high point – but not its beginning (Pinnock; 198). Thus, in turning our attention to the Spirit, we learn of the life-giving ministry through the Spirit that has never ceased to be absent in history. Even more, in light of Spirit’s ministry we should not be surprised to see fruits of the Spirit’s ministry even amidst people whose talk about God is different than our Christian talk about God. “It has always been possible to cast oneself at the mercy of God, even if one’s theology is conceptually incomplete. An incomplete knowing of the Giver of Life does not disqualify one from receiving the gift of life (Pinnock; 198-199).

Do not those holy persons in the Hebrew Scriptures like Enoch, Melchizedek, and Job – persons who experienced salvation/liberation apart from the religion of Israel – critique any of our attempts to confine the Spirit of the living God? Are not those holy individuals assumed to have known God? Do not those holy persons warn us against limiting the Spirit’s ministry to the preaching of the word, giving of the sacraments or a set of theological presuppositions? Such holy persons warn us against putting limits to the life-giving and life-sustaining Spirit of God. More pointedly, these holy persons caution us against trying to possess God, for the God of Israel is not an object to be possessed. Believing in the particular truth of Christianity, namely, that Jesus is the definitive revelation of Godself does not negate the universal ministry of the Spirit who is operative in world (which is inclusive of the sphere of religion) offering liberating grace to persons inside and outside the Christianity community. One writer comments that,

There is grace in general revelation and special revelation, and both are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. God reaches out to persons in a multiplicity of ways, thanks to the prevenience of the Spirt. God loves the world, and the Spirit works in the world that it may ultimately align itself with Christ. Granted, such a goal can take time to achieve. Yet instead of saying there is no salvation outside the Christian community, let us simply say there is no salvation outside grace, or only finally outside of Christ (Pinnock; 194).

Consequently, Erika need not turn inwardly – limiting God’s action in the world to the Christian community – nor does she need to relativize the particular claims of her Christian faith. In her encounters with persons whose lives bear the marks of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23), Ericka is able to discern these transformative movements of the Spirit using her own Christian grammar. Put in another way,

The gospel story helps us discern movements of the Spirit. From this narrative we learn the pattern of God’s ways. So wherever we see the traces of Jesus in the world and people opening up to his ideals, we know we are in the presence of Spirit. Wherever, for example, we find self-sacrificing love, care about community, longings for justice, wherever people love one another, care for the sick, make peace not war, wherever there is beauty and concord, generosity and forgiveness, the cup of water, we know the Spirit of Jesus is present. Other spirits do not promote broken and contrite hearts. Such things tell us where the brothers and sisters of Jesus indwelt by the Spirit are (Pinnock; 208-209)

Thus, I cannot help but welcome the persons embraced by the Spirit (whether Christian or not) as my sisters and brothers when their lives are reflective of the life-giving Spirit. Because of the Spirit, everyone (in whatever context, state of life, religion, etc.) has the possibility of encountering Godself – life is intrinsically sacramental at its core (a means of grace). Consequently, at every moment, humankind finds itself being called beyond themselves to participate in something greater than themselves – a reality that demands conversion and a deeper participation in this beautiful reality at every step of the journey. More pointedly, humankind is called to participate in a reality that is permeated by the generous Spirit who welcomes persons to partake in her radical offer of grace.

Grace and Religion

If it is true that God is gracing the world by way of the Spirit, then it would seem inconsistent to exclude the Spirit from the sphere of religion. Again such an assertion does not diminish faith in Jesus Christ – the decisive revelation of God – but it opens the Christian tradition up, allowing it to be enriched by other religious traditions in dialogue that is mutual, respectful and reciprocal. Nevertheless, the Christian response to the religions should be a both a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the present. “On the one hand, we should accept any spiritual depth and truth in them. On the other hand, we must reject darkness and error and at the very least see other faiths as insufficient apart from fulfillment in Christ. The key is to hold fast to two truths: the universal operations of grace and the uniqueness of its manifestation in Jesus Christ” (Pinnock; 202).

However, my provisional ‘yes’ and ‘no’ does not obscure my envisioning of a permanent ‘yes’ in the future. In light of how the God of Israel has been acting in history to restore, renew, reconcile and redeem all creation, namely, every aspect of creation (not fragments). I posit that religion and its systems in the new creation – the goal to which all creation is going – will undergo a reframing in Jesus by the power of the Spirit. However, such a reframing would not force religions to lose their particular distinctiveness. Analogous to the situation of the first followers of Jesus who saw their Jewishness reframed (reinterpreted but not destroyed or made irrelevant) in light of Jesus, I envision a reframing of other religions in light of Jesus as well. As mentioned above, such a reframing does not do away with religious distinctiveness, rather it reframes religious distinctiveness in light of God’s action in Jesus through the power of the Spirit.

In sum, answering Erika’s question in light of the Spirit’s ministry establishes grounds for understanding how Christianity can interact with the religious and non-religious experiences of the religious other – an interaction that does not sacrifice the uniqueness of Christianity and the religious other. Thus, let Christians be fervent in our ministry to the world as we proclaim the kingdom of God in our words and deeds. However, let us be humble to recognize the Spirit of Truth wherever way it may be blowing. As John’s gospel reminds us in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus: “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). Thus, the melody of grace sung by Christians is not solely a tune sung by the Christian chorus, rather it is a melody that many un-Christians sing through the power of the life-giving Spirit.

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