Grace. The concept of unmerited favor. Many readers at Front Porch Republic should understand this simple definition. Yet, I wonder if Christian Porchers limit our thinking about grace to the work of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Yet grace abounds beyond the facts of Christ’s redemptive work. In fact, grace is the currency of what Wendell Berry calls “the great economy.”
Theologians have long used the language of economics to help explain God’s ways. They often focus on redemption as a kind of transaction. I think this is just one aspect of God’s economy (though an eternally important one!). My main point is that the Creator’s grace is also evidenced in His creation. The design, systems, and processes of creation witness to God’s grace.
I recently used social media to ask people where they see grace. One member of on online community gave an excellent observation about grace in God’s creation which reinforces some of my thoughts. She wrote, “I think the resiliency of the natural world is a kind of grace. Disturbance happens, things grow. Harvest happens, things grow. Even poisoning happens, things grow. Life was created to go on (and I emphasize created). To be fruitful and multiply.”
God’s design for growing things, even in a cursed state, constitutes a kind of grace. Wes Jackson of The Land Institute was not far off when he and Wendell Berry were discussing what kind of economy would be right for the world, or at least “more benign.” In his essay that records their conversation, Berry writes that he suggested an energy economy would be better than the current money economy. Energy is a more comprehensive currency than dollars. But Jackson’s counter to Berry was insightful: the only economy that is comprehensive enough to function at every possible level no matter how mundane or important, no matter how simple or complex, while still being benign to creation is, as he put it, the “Kingdom of God.” Berry confesses to have found Jackson’s claim important to him as he “found it indispensable,” in large part because there is nothing that is not included in the Kingdom of God.
In more than one of his books, including The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Norman Wirzba reflects on what the ideal economy should look like and refers to it as the “Sabbath economy” in which all things not only exist but flourish in the context of God’s delight in His creative work.
This then causes me to ask the question: What is the mode of exchange in this all-encompassing Kingdom of God or this Sabbath economy? I can only conclude, in my lay capacity, that grace is the currency.
Grace abounds. Grace is God sustaining a creation in which creatures are interdependent in a complex web of interactions creating patterns of conviviality. Grace is the fallen leaf being consumed by other life and helping to form fertile soil. Grace is mineral-rich rainfall supplying moisture and nutrients for plants only after having been filtered through the ground and distilled to vapor as part of the hydrologic cycle. Grace is the uptake of nutrients by plant roots only made possible after the nutrients have been consumed, digested, and excreted by microbial life in the soil that was attracted there by chemicals exuded by the very roots that needed the mineral nutrients. Grace is the ability of plants to convert abundant energy of sunlight into compounds they need. Grace is the ability of other creatures to consume these plants and receive many beneficial nutrients through mastication, digestion, and circulation. A nearly infinite set of examples of God’s grace is found in His creation.
If we practice what God intended by רָדָה (dominion or rule, or what Ellen F. Davis describes as “skilled mastery”), we will be able to benefit from this flow of currency so readily at our hands. The abundance of God’s provision for humans, even today, is humbling if we only consider it thoughtfully and with thanksgiving.
What is the point of all this grace in creation? Though there are many, three in particular come to mind:
- Grace reflects the Creator’s glory and points mankind back to Himself – it is revelatory.
- Grace helps us realize our dependence on God – it is relational.
- Grace helps us discover that our needs point us to Christ – it is redemptive.
To expound on this last point, Creational grace derives from and participates in the grace offered by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Take what Wendell Berry wrote in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural:
To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.
A fifteenth century theologian penned a very eloquent description of how the sweetness of the created order invites us to participate in the life of the Creator. Nicholas of Cusa wrote:
When all my endeavor is turned toward Thee because all Thy endeavor is turned toward me; when I look unto Thee alone with all my attention, nor ever turn aside the eyes of my mind, because Thou dost enfold me with Thy constant regard; when I direct my love toward Thee alone because Thou, who art Love’s self, has turned Thee toward me alone. And what, Lord, is my life, save that embrace wherein Thy delightsome sweetness doth so lovingly enfold me?
I believe many of us in cultures similar to my Midwestern upbringing have been taught a lie that we must strive and strain to be successful financially so we can be good consumers. We value those who amass monetary wealth independently, without the help of others. And yet, if we would take our cue from Nicholas of Cusa and the grace-based economy of the Kingdom of God, we would observe a Sabbath rest. A community of people living in this Sabbath rest exchange that grace among each other. This wealth—a wealth increased as it is given and received—is the currency of a Sabbath economy. And what greater wealth is there than this?