Mercy and the need for our desire

I was struck today by the times when we need to ask for things even if the other person wants to give them to us. I needed a sitter for a few hours, and knew that grandma had nothing planned for the afternoon. I knew with mathematical certitude that she wanted to help out, and that she would not see it as an imposition. But I still had to ask her if she would take the kids. I couldn’t very well just drop them off and count on her goodwill.

The realization brought to mind an argument that has been doing the rounds in certain atheist circles: “if God wants me to convert, and he really is all-powerful, then he can come and convert me”. Mortimer Adler spent much of his life giving a variant on the argument, namely that he wasn’t a Christian because God hadn’t given him faith. Both arguments presume (heh) that if God really wants us to change, then it’s his job to come and change us, and to do this irrespective of what we ask him to do.  This might make some sense if salvation were a divine duty, the way that fixing the sewer pipes is the duty of the city. Generally, if salvation were a matter of justice it might make sense to get indignant about God not simply showing up and saving everybody, or to wait around for him to show up and save us. But salvation is not a matter of justice.

An argument like this might also have value in showing the reason for the prayer of petition.


  1. Aaron Michael Matthias Selinger said,

    June 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    How does this relate with God offering all people actual grace, which will lead to habitual grace, if they do not resist? The Angelic Doctor seems to teach that it is part of God’s justice that he gives to each thing according to their rank, for each thing to obtain their final end. It seems that it is necessary for God to at least offer actual graces to all men, otherwise eternal punishment seems to be undeserving, as someone enters the pit, not because they threw themselves in, but because they could choose no other destiny. Can there be moral responsibility without alternative possibilities?

    I would agree that salvation is not owed, insofar as we mean the kind of salvation that involves an elevation of our nature. Yet it seems that God cannot let the sons of Adam perish, when they have not committed the sin that caused the absence of Original Justice. We are weeping slaves in chains waiting for redemption.

    If what I have written is heresy, please correct me so that I may grow in my understanding and not lead others into error.

  2. June 11, 2011 at 6:30 am

    Leaving aside the technical terms, like the division between actual grace and the other graces, the basic situation in which all this occurs is this: the human race is, by a peculiar historical calamity, a failed project. Human beings by nature and not just by the fall need supernatural help in order to live past the age of reason and avoid hell (even by nature our intellects aren’t that bright – especially with moral goods; it’s easy for us to confuse sense goods and intellectual ones; we get easily surprised by circumstances; we are surrounded by malevolent spirits more persistent and clever than us, etc), but that help was offered once and rejected. Apparently, we were supposed to just get this help by just being born, and since none of us can get it in this way, something else happens to us by being born. When we consider the concrete historical situation of human beings, then this “is the part of God’s justice that he gives to each thing according to their rank, for each thing to obtain their final end.”

    We were not created to be failures, of course, but to fill out the perfection of the universe, which required that there be a nature that would terminate the lower limit of spirits and the upper level of physical existence. Such a mode of existence is unstable for the reasons given above, and so it would be reasonable to assume that it would belong to justice to not create such a nature without offering it some help. The whole dispute, therefore, comes to this: what way of giving help satisfies justice? It is implicit in your question that this justice is satisfied only if God offers it to each person individually – and you give a good argument for this : how can the individual be responsible for, as it were, being forced to pilot a craft that was so damaged he could not reasonably be expected to reach its destination? The biblical claim, however, is that justice was satisfied by God offering it to one man (who was in turn to give it to everyone) but this one man rejected the offer. This is why, when this help was offered again, it was not offered by justice (or “law”) but in a way divided from this: grace.

    The difference between the biblical view and our own is whether one views man primarily as an individual or as a member of a race; said another way, whether one sees man primarily as a set of individuals or as a degree of perfection in the universe. If in either of the former ways, then God’s justice demands “grace” (if we can call it that) to be actually given to all (the creation of each man would be the same as the creation of Adam, after all) but if either of the latter ways, both justice and grace are given though one to all, though in different ways. St. Thomas viewed man as most fundamentally a part of the universe, and his position of the matter of grace follows from this.

  3. Aaron Michael Matthias Selinger said,

    June 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Thank you very much for your response James. I would like to pick your brain a wee bit, as I don’t think I have had the opportunity to be an interlocutor in a dialog with a professional Thomist before.

    1). You make a distinction between the ‘biblical view’ and ‘our view’. What do you mean by this distinction? Does our theology differ from the view of the Sacred Authors?

    2). Does the theology of Saint Thomas sufficiently account for the issues raised by Christian personalism, especially Blessed John Paul the Great? Although the human person is a degree of perfection in the universe, has he not been made into the bride of the bridegroom? Does the bridegroom ‘use’ his bride as a pawn for Himself, that is, does God merely ‘use’ us to fulfill the perfection of the cosmos? It seems that he doesn’t strictly, because the relations between spouse and husband in humans bears a likeness to the relations between Christ and the Church. Since ‘use’ is directly contrary to this relation, it seems that anything that involves ‘use’ would be contrary to anything that the relation between God and the Church is like. It seems that that we cannot be mere pawns, as the good we provide to the cosmos must involve mutual gift. Why else would the Son of God become man, become our Beloved, if we were not ordered to God in a way that necessarily involves mutual gift of self?

    3). The difficulty of the theology that you expound is that it is hard to assimilate due to the subjective experience of profound grief over the evil that afflicts every person, and our entire species. It seems altogether unacceptable that God would allow us to suffer this evil, for some greater good that does not take into account the good of man. Surely it must end with the universal good which is God, but it is unthinkable that God who is Love, who is Good, who is Mercy, would not swoop to the aid for those who mourn in this valley of tears through the sin of Adam.

    Supporting argumentation:

    I understand that you say that this is ‘grace’, and that it is conceivable that God could have left the ‘massa damnata’ to its fate, and under such a system is seems quite sound. It is just that it is contrary to our experience as not just human subjects, but Christian subjects. We are supposed to be made like Christ through the Sacraments, and our mind is supposed to be formed according to Sacred Scripture, the Logos. Why is it that the further we are brought into this mystery, the more the grief at the plight of the human race becomes excruciating? If we are like Christ, then Christ bears some likeness to us. Is this likeness altogether void of anything that would be analogical to weeping for man? If not, why do we weep for man, and get this sense of immensity, dignity, and reverence, when we think of the nature of ‘human person’? If our subjectivity was formed by God in a way corresponding to the contrary of our current experience as human and Christian subjects, would we not just be solemn in the justice of it all?

  4. Gagdad Bob said,

    June 18, 2011 at 6:37 am

    If atheists didn’t exist, God would have to invent them. To put it another way, if there were no possibility of atheism, then God could not be known. Besides, if God doesn’t exist, only he knows it.

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