May 29, 2008

Free Will and Grace

John Newton

[The Union Gospel Mission is where I have been attending a church service, eating my evening meal, showering and sleeping most days during my first month of homelessness.]
The daily services at Union Gospel Mission are presented by thirty area churches, most of which are Baptist, that each come once a month. Services usually last an hour each evening, from 7:30 to 8:30, with singing dominent in the first half hour and a preacher's sermon beginning at 8:00pm.

The sermons vary in their core messages, often being at direct odds with sermons of prior days. This is understandable, of course, since each church has its own slant on things, but it is troubling the disparity one hears of what's required to get into heaven.

One pastor, Jimmy Roughton of Capitol Free Will Baptist Church, echoed the sentiment of Blaise Pascual in his April sermon: "Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists." To me, this rationale for belief is terribly fragile and is clearly, wholly self-interested. For me, and for most people -- I would wager -- you believe what you must believe and there is no wiggle room for believing what you perhaps ought to.

In his sermon given at the rescue mission in May, Roughton didn't say "I don't know that there is a God any more than any of you," as he had, but he did emphasize the benefits of believing (i.e., gaining entry into heaven and the horrors of the alternative, hell.) His is a rousing, clear message of getting ready for the eternal future.

Other preachers insist that faith is not enough. At at least three services I've heard the sentiment that "even Satan believes in God and Jesus," thus mere belief is greatly inadequate. For these more-conservative churches, being humble before God and following his dictates is necessary to warrant the eternal reward of a body of light and to be in God's presence to praise his glory forevermore. Basically, to live for God you must surrender your free will and fully follow God's will as you understand it from your reading of the Bible.

Other preachers made a simple appeal: Believe in Jesus and heaven is yours. Or, believe in Jesus and that he is the risen son of God and you will live for eternity in heaven. Here, becoming a good Christian is made rather easy. There is ample evidence that Jesus existed and it is not difficult at all to be convinced that Jesus was a remarkable person and that, at the very least, the New Testiment is mostly factual.

Only a couple of preachers I've heard have emphasized compassion and love. Particularly impressive was James A. Robinson, pastor of Greater Hills Zion Missionary in Sacramento. Greater Hills Zion Missionary is possibly the only black church on the roster of those that preach to the UGM congregation. Since the homeless men at the rescue mission are in majority black, it is disappointing that there aren't more black churches involved with Union Gospel Mission. Another pastor that emphasized compassion in a recent sermon was from Wilton Bible Church which associates itself with Bob Jones University, which has gained some notoriety for racism in the past.

Amazing Grace

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

There are a half dozen hymns that are favorites of the constantly-shifting Union Gospel Mission congregation. One is "Amazing Grace." More so than any, it is one visiting churches love use to lead us in song. The UGM congregation sings the words loud and with gusto and demand a final chorus (or two) where the words are the repeated phrase "Praise God, praise God, praise God, praise God ..."

"Amazing Grace" is an amazing song with a beautiful uplifting tune and interesting, profound lyrics. It's no wonder it is near-universally loved by Christians and admired by non-Christians. But there are some instances when some of the older white preachers lead us in singing it when I feel uncomfortable. The end of the first line is "that sav'd a wretch like me!" and I come to feel, from some of the sermons, that the homeless congregation is pointedly being designated as the wretches the hymn is naming.

As is well known these days, due to a Bill Moyers documentary and, more recently, an art-house film called Amazing Grace, the lyrics were inspired by hymn-writer John Newton's mystical, transforming experience while captain of a slave ship that travelled between West Africa and America. In the song while being written, it is the mighty John Newton, and not his cargo, that felt the power of grace -- and was in greatest need of grace -- and was the wretch that experienced conversion.

Of course, the hymn, now, is meant for everyone and it is wonderful that Union Gospel Mission has embraced it. But I do wish I felt that those leading us in song felt humbled and themselves as wretched as we who are being led in singing.

The opening words of the song are interesting; I do wonder what Christians make of them: "Amazing grace; how sweet the sound ..." Why sound, and not feeling or experience?

As many readers of this blog know, bells and gongs are commonplace in Buddhism because they are known to trigger satori. It would seem from Newton's careful, clever lyrics that his experience, too, was triggered by a sound -- likely that of the ship's bell or foghorn.

I believe that grace, cosmic consciousness or enlightment/satori are all the same experience, colored by the tradition one practices. I am sure most Christians would reject this, feeling that God-given grace is unique and far more mighty. I think that that is wrong, that religions have much more in common that we suppose.

It is also of interest that the lyrics in the hymnal that Union Gospel Mission uses are not altogether the ones that Newton wrote. You can see Newton's lyrics in the righthand sidebar at Wikipedia. The Mission hymnal uses the first three of Newton's six verses followed by the "extra verse" written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.


Nagarjuna said...

Tom, I agree with you that Pascal's Wager is "fragile." First, like you say, I don't think we can make ourselves believe something just because others believe it and tell us we should too, especially if that belief seems like nonsense. Second, I think one could lose a lot by believing in Christian myth. One could be diverted by his Christian beliefs from genuine spiritual truth and transformation.

Tom said...

I think that people tend to need to have an example, a visualization, for what they believe.

All religions, including Buddhism, certainly, are an overlay, coloring our spiritual experience. Even Ken Wilber's conceptions and categorizations are overlays.

I'm not sure that we can have these things empty and transparent, nor that having them devoid of preconceived conceptualizations is "better" in any way. We need to have a way of remembering mystical experience which wholly exists 'immediately' so we give it context and shape.

If this comment makes any sense or not, I'm not sure.