Lent, Day 13, back to Bernard on Grace and Free Will

The selection from Pennington’s book on Bernard’s writing, is section 7b from the essay “On Grace and Free Will.”  In this section, Bernard speaks of three freedoms:  a “freedom from sin, freedom from sorrow and freedom from necessity.”   According to Bernard, we have the last freedom as part of our natural condition (as ensouled creatures, we have free will), and grace frees us from sin, and the freedom from sorrow we get as part of the community of God in heaven.

The idea that animals don’t have free will I’m not sure I entirely buy.  But animals are much more governed by instinct and drive than any cogitation.  The dogs my wife and I have, if food is present, will simply gobble down.  They don’t think about it, or consider if eating a lot of food is bad for them (they’re pugs, and so relatively small dogs, so eating a lot is not good).  They just do it.  Where my wife and I can decide on whether to eat a lot or a little, and can base our decision on reason and other considerations, the dogs don’t really have that capability.

Sin, as Bernard seems to define it, is a problem “of the flesh,” and into which we have “fallen freely and willingly.”  And this requires outside help — grace, which here Bernard associates with Christ who was free of sin, and sacrificed himself and who overcame death.  Here I have some problems.  First, there is this medieval fear or concern about the body, that we have to cleanse ourselves from the sins of the body in which we wallow.  Such a fear or concern can lead to and has led to extreme fasting (overcoming gluttony), wearing of uncomfortable material such as mohair (overcoming luxury and sensuality) and flagellation (overcoming pride and sensuality).  So rather than seeing the body as a blessing and sensuality as a blessing, it’s rather a curse, one we have to overcome through harsh discipline.  Strangely enough, that harsh discipline itself becomes something of an idol.  We can become fixed on the whipping, or the refusal to eat, and get caught up in the pride of just how good we are.  And such fixation on overcoming our appetites can give them even greater hold on us.  So instead of incorporating or addressing our desires, we deny them, but they pop up unannounced and fierce, when we least expect it, and when it becomes even tougher to control — consider the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

And though I agree somewhat that we need something extra to deal with sin (thinking that we can overcome it on our own can lead to pride, and often to a fall — think of people with substance abuse problems — they deny they have a problem, and when they are willing to admit it, they think they can overcome it on their own, and that seeking help is a sign of weakness, and such decisions to go it alone often result in defeat and despair).  That that extra has to be Christ I cannot accept, or even that it has to be God, as that requires a belief in God, and it seems to me that there are atheists who do deal with sin (the best definition I can find is “failure to love,” which covers most of the seven deadly sins) and there are people of faith who are not Christians, who address the disconnect that is sin.  Following along with my Color Purple motif, that outside force can be the world around us, and seeing in it something worth holding onto, on seeing something beyond and outside ourselves.  And so we avoid or can deal with our ego-fixation, and in seeing and feeling, even if for a moment, we can sense the interdependent web of which we are a part.  And accepting that we are part of something bigger can lead to our righting our course.  And that would be grace helping us out.

The freedom from sorrow is a bit more puzzling.  It seems to be connected with a belief in Jesus as the one who conquered death, so that we don’t have to fear death, whence comes sorrow.  This, of course, is tied directly to a belief in the trinity and in Jesus Christ as Savior and Liberator.  It seems to require, as does the grace element in this triple freedom, for some divine entity to enact, that we are unable to do this on our own.  It also seems to be tied to the afterlife more than I’m comfortable with.  There may be an afterlife, but I choose to believe in no such survival of my life force and consciousness.  So what happens after death lacks meaning for me.  And I think that the Buddhists are right in claiming as one of the four noble truths the truth of dukkha, suffering that comes from the transitory nature of earthly existence.  That is not something to be denied, I think, but something to be accepted and welcomed.  That we suffer when a loved one dies, or is sick, or has left, is a sign that we noticed that loved one, that s/he mattered to us, and that we feel the loss.  I think a continued fixation on that could be a problem, but no feeling of sadness would, itself, be sad.

So, so far as a freedom from sorrow — I guess I’m saying, I’m not sure I want it, and that whatever respite I get from sorrow, though it mainly comes from outside myself, is not dependent on a deity, a Savior, or a Liberator.

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