Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Freedom and Grace

Actions should reflect sincere intention, ethical behavior should issue forth from interior conviction, our hands should do the work of the soul. In his 1831 tract Formation of the Christian Character, Henry Ware Jr. articulates this mantra in the following way: "It is not the external conduct, not the observance of the moral law alone, which constitutes a religious man: but the principles from which he acts, the motives by which he is governed, the state of his heart.”

Today's shabad appears to share this orientation:

ਅੰਤਰੁ ਮੈਲਾ ਬਾਹਰੁ ਨਿਤ ਧੋਵੈ ॥ ਸਾਚੀ ਦਰਗਹਿ ਅਪਨੀ ਪਤਿ ਖੋਵੈ ॥
If a person is polluted within, he may wash himself everyday on the outside, but in the Court of the True Lord, he forfeits his honor.
[SGGS 1151]

For Ware, the human subject possesses the agency to enact this transformation: "Remember always, that you are capable of being more devout, more charitable, more humble, more devoted and earnest in doing good, better acquainted with religious truth." The burden falls on the individual to ascend to higher moral ground. Similarly, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji exhorts disciples to position their "feet on the right path."

Importantly, however, neither text falls prey to a belligerent super-human idealism. We always need God. Ware insists: "these two things, then, may be regarded as axioms of the religious life; first, that a man's own labors are essential to his salvation; second, that his utmost virtue does nothing toward purchasing or meriting salvation." This poignant dialectic of deterministic freedom echoes in Guru Nanak's assertion: "Without the Name of the Lord, everything is false." We always need grace. We always need one another.

We are caught, it seems, in a web of freedom and constraint.

In Jean Paul Sartre's novel La Nausée, protagonist Antoine Roquentin suddenly comes to realize the existential inertia of life: "This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder…in a frightful, obscene nakedness." And yet, while casually listening to the syncopating sounds of Sophie Tucker's jazz, Antoine comes to realize that we stake our humanity on small acts of creative transcendence - I would add: small acts of love, faith and, above all, grace.

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1 comment:

boston unitarian said...

As someone who loves Ware's "Formation" I very much appreciate your words especially about the balance that Ware achieves between human agency and "grace."
Thank you kindly for your post and Blessings, BU