Another Response: On The Uniqueness of Evangelical Grace
I love the bit about “borftaglock” -- very funny definition. But the term grace does remain something that should separate Christianity from other religions.
Actually, I realized after reading your critique that there is something unique about the evangelical concept of grace. But I need to give a little background.
One thing I’ve discovered, in talking to adherents to every religion I’ve encountered, is that all religions seem to work on two levels, which I guess you could call the popular and the sophisticated. (I hate those terms, since even saying suggests that I’m sophisticated and smarter than the popular people, but just see where I’m going and see if you can think of any different way of saying this.) If you read books on Taoism, for example, you’ll see tons of philosophical treatises on the nature of Reality, the importance of Being and Right Action…and if the writer isn’t a believer in magic, they will also say that the actions associated with Taoism—such as meditation or tea ceremonies or what have you—are merely the vessels for the inner work, which is to encounter the Ultimate. The actions of the faithful person are like the gantry around a rocket; it’s only there to point the rocket in the right direction, and it falls away the second the rocket takes off with real contact. But if you were to go to China and watch everyday Taoists (or if you read the specifically New Agey Taoist books), they tend to emphasize the I Ching (Taoist stone-tossing divination) or feng shui (Taoist magical interior decorating). No Taoist scholar or sage would put much spiritual stock in either, but the regular folks in the pew seem to find it fun.
The same holds true pretty much across the board, and you can prove this by talking to almost any academically-inclined person in any faith community (as I did recently with a Muslim at my local mosque’s next-door restaurant): ask them, “So do you really need to pray five times a day, (or wear that garment, or not kill flies, etc.) to impress God?” They will invariably tell you that the rituals are just that—helpful guides that point our hearts and minds (and sometimes our bodies) in the proper direction. But God can reach us anywhere, and can come in any form. That what I'm calling the sophisticated (ugh) version. And then every religion also has a popular version that focuses on lighting candles or venerating this ancestor or that saint on such and such a day. This includes Buddhism, which has a good reputation in the West at least partly because it was popularized by academics among educated people, not in its vulgar form as you see it in the streets of Tokyo, where (as Julia Sweeney points out in her show “Letting Go of God”) you’re allowed to be scornful of poor people because reincarnation proves they had it coming.
This is actually a point on which C. S. Lewis makes his most egregious error in Mere Christianity. He says at one point that the conservatives in every religious tradition are much closer to each other, and have more in common, than the liberals. Because the conservatives, he suggests, have a shared core of beliefs, while the liberals, ungrounded in any text, don’t know what to believe from one moment to the next.
This is so embarrassingly inaccurate it’s rather startling that Lewis would said it. As any look at any ecumenical meeting (or Unitarian church) will show, it is the liberals in every faith tradition who come together to hold hands and talk about the essentials that bind us. It is the conservatives, surely, who hunker down and refuse to fellowship with people who haven’t passed the proper litmus tests. It’s the conservative priests who will forbid you from communion if you’re not an official Catholic; it’s the conservative rabbis who don’t want Jews marrying goyim. But every religious tradition also has a liberal or embracing wing; one that ignores all the exterior dross and accepts people based on their will and their heart, not their clothes or their knowledge of any one tradition; they believe that God will reach people who reach out to him, and that this connection--this salvation, in traditions that require it--is based on faith and not works. They believe in grace, not in magic prayers or seer stones or the other religious activites people distract themselves with.
What makes evangelical Christianity unique, now that I’ve had a chance to reflect, is that it’s the only religious tradition I’m aware of that claims that everyone else—not just other religions, but other Christians—has grace dead wrong. Not just a little wrong, but completely off; evangelicals are correct, and everyone else is tragically, damnably mistaken. No other religious tradition I’m aware of has ever said such a thing. Usually believing in grace also means allowing other people to approach God in their own way, since actions don’t matter and the heart does. The mountain has many roads to the top! Help your sister or brother along their road! By comparison, the evangelical model of grace begins to look significantly cramped and narrow.
I assume this is because evangelicals, since they see themselves as the only ones who treat the true word of God with the proper level of obedience and respect, can only assume that the evangelical message of grace that they derive from it must be something very different indeed (by definition) from anything any other religion has ever said. This is simply not the case, but I’m damned if I know how to prove it. Precisely because they’re territorial about their truth claims, evangelicals rarely go to ecumenical gatherings and would almost certainly be inclined to judge them as theologically wanting if they did. I could offer up quotes about grace from a dozen or so different religions, but surely any evangelical reading these quotes and eager to establish their turf will cut any quote into a million cavils and conditions (“When that Jain scholar refers to Ultimate Mercy, it’s not the same thing as Christian grace because there’s a different concept of ‘sin’…”) until they’re left with borftaglock and triumphantly declare that no one else has said it. I can only invite the evangelical reader to conduct the experiment I just did—ask any thoughtful or philosophical practitioner of another religion what they need to do to earn God’s favor—and trust that when they do this enough, with an open mind, wishing to learn about someone else’s happiness rather than trying to prove the other person wrong— they’ll discover the same thing I did. The idea that God isn’t impressed by mere human works isn’t much of a brain-buster, it turns out. I wish I could do more to prove it (maybe I'll start working on those quotes), but it maybe be a vain task.
LATER: Ooh! Wait! I just thought of a way to do it! What if, in my book, I got a whole bunch of different quotes on grace from all different religions (the forgiveness of God, the vanity of mere works, etc) and then MIXED THEM UP and challenged the reader to tell which ones were Christian and which ones weren't? I think that might work!
Maybe not though. It's late, which is when I'm inclined to giddiness.