This week, some more speculating. This time about Saint Paul.
Is Paul's conception of grace amenable to a non-theistic port? Though some things will likely be lost along the way, might such a port clarify anything about Paul's own (theistic) conception of grace?
For the sake of simplicity, let's focus especially on chapters 1-3 of Paul's epistle to the Romans. As I've argued in detail in the first chapter of Badiou, Marion, and St Paul: Immanent Grace (Continuum, 2008), I think that the key to reading the epistle is the following thesis:
In other words, I take Paul's position to be that grace (always already given, always already immanent) is both logically and temporally prior to sin. Sin is derivative of grace. Grace is not an ad hoc, stop-gap, supplemental band-aid for sin.
Or, again: grace is not a means to some other end (e.g., salvation), grace is salvation. Grace is both the beginning and the end of everything that matters.
For my part, I think that Romans 1-3 prompts us to think that there are good theological (and, even, theistic) reasons for resisting the traditional bifurcation of grace into natural grace (the universally available grace manifest in our having been created, our being sustained in creation, etc.) and supernatural grace (a narrowly granted supplementary grace needed to overcome the gap created by our sinfulness).
To port grace into a nontheistic context, we would have to let go of this distinction, flatten the difference between natural and supernatural grace, and view the latter not as something supplementary but as a re-manifestation of an immanent grace that has always already been given.
II. On Sin as "Suppression"
Paul's description of the essence of sin in Romans 1 is especially helpful.
In this chapter, Paul describes sin as being a suppression of God's grace. The following verses are of particular importance:
Leaving much of interest aside, I'll only comment on a few key points. Here, Paul describes wickedness as a suppression of the truth. What truth is in question? A truth that has been manifest from the start: our createdness, our lack of ontological independence or self-sufficiency. In our visible createdness, in our obvious insufficiency, God's invisible grace is manifest. But we despised the insufficiency that this grace made plain, and so we suppressed it and this suppression degraded and disoriented us.
Finding ourselves utterly dependent on God's grace, finite, and incapable of self-satisfaction, we are ashamed (cf. 1:16-17). Out of shame we suppress the truth of our dependence on grace and refuse to acknowledge God as God. Sin is the attempt to fabricate an independence or autonomy that we lack.
In this sense, sin is a direct response to grace. Sin is fundamentally motivated by an unwillingness to accept that we need the grace that we already are. Sin is an active suppression of this need or dependence. Sin is only possible because grace is already given.
III. Displaying Grace
To be saved is to stop suppressing this truth about ourselves and receive, instead, what is actually given as the gift that it is.
In light of this account of sin, I think that Paul's description in Romans 3 of how Christ's atonement works is very instruction. What follows is my own translation of the crucial verses. God's grace comes
through the deliverance that is in Christ Jesus, whom God publicly displayed [proetheto] as a propitiation by his blood, through faith. He did this to display [eis endeixin] his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; he did it to display [endeixin] in the present, pregnant moment [nun kairoi] his righteousness, and that he is upright [dikaion] and righteousifies [dikaiounta] the one who has faith in Jesus. (3:24-26)
In short, Paul's model of the atonement works like this: Jesus' sacrifice saves because it definitively displays the already given grace that we have (sinfully) been attempting to suppress. God's willingness to sacrifice his own Son displays the gracious unconditionality of his commitment to us (i.e., it displays his "righteousness"): there is nothing he will withhold from us. And, in doing this, God restores the present moment as the locus of givenness and grace.
For lack of a better term, I'll refer to this as a "display" theory of atonement. On this model, the atonement does not accomplish some righteousness previously lacking or supplement the world with a supernatural and salvific addendum. Rather, the atonement "displays" or reveals what we had suppressed and hidden from view: the already given (or immanent) grace that prompted us to sin in the first place. (If it weren't already immanent, sin would itself have been without motivation.) The atonement doesn't set in motion a supernatural grace, but "super"-reveals the immanent grace already and unconditionally in force.
On this model, sin is not at the theological center. Grace is not instrumentalized. And God's unconditional commitment to us is revealed as the unconditional (never withdrawn, never withheld, only willfully suppressed by us) grace that it is.
IV. Final Questions
The question, then, is about how this conception of grace might unfold within a nontheistic model. Is the grace of what is given (i.e., in particular, our createdness and insufficiency) no longer sufficient a grace if we do not, with Paul, infer from it the invisible, supernatural backing of a theistic Creator? Or, again: without a theistic supplement, is the unconditionally given grace of the present moment too poor a thing to receive or save?