Tracking the writing process, Guilt and Grace part 3: Let’s Get (Meta-)Physical

Yikes, has it been a while since I last worked on this project. But let’s go ahead and picked up where we left off.

The Christian notion of grace is germ of this story – the idea that a person can be forgiven for something without deserving it. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the function of God. Theology often seems to me to follow the contours of human emotional reality, and religious rituals and practices address genuine human emotional needs. To the extent that this is true, studying theology can be deeply revealing of the human condition, in a way that nonreligious reckoning often does not.

To wit, secular culture lacks a ritual and even a concept for the kind of general forgiveness offered by the idea of grace or by rituals of atonement, although whether this is ultimately good or bad I don’t know. This is perhaps one of the points this story is meant to probe. For now, let us delve into this idea of divine grace.

I start with the Wikipedia page. One thing that immediately leaps out at me is that guilt is here hardly mentioned. On reflection, this makes some sense – if grace is about spiritual salvation that cannot possibly be deserved, it perhaps has little to do with culpability. It maybe (definitely) says something about me that guilt loomed so large in my understanding of grace. My understanding so far suggests that the proper focus of grace is not even on forgiveness necessarily, but of ordering your life and soul according to God’s will, which is identical to goodness.

A core idea of grace is the God moves first, that a person can’t choose it. This turns out to be revealing. Removing the agency of forgiveness from the guilty is maybe an essential part of forgiveness. John, my protagonist, is ultimately done in by the fact that his conscience is his ultimate accuser. External forgiveness won’t do against this internal plaintiff, but internal forgiveness is always suspect – what value can it carry, if the guilty can forgive himself?

To wit:

Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved.56 However, according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits”57 – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us.

Because I am not religious, because I have a streak of cosmic pessimism, I have to take this story to the ultimate conclusion that John can’t be saved from himself. But this insight does suggest another dimension to the story. The idea is as follows:

The trial follows an argument-rebuttal structure, with each possibility of forgiveness being thwarted by a more powerful accuser. My earlier idea was for the climax to be the forgiveness of the victim to be undone by the victim’s ghost (which, you may recall, represents the victim at the moment of the crime). My reflections on Christian grace suggest another step – a divine intervention, by Jesus or some other figure representing God, bestowing divine grace, and the poignant possibility that John might be able to be healed.

But in the end, of course, he won’t. But if God offers the possibility of divine grace, what can counter that? There is a mirroring and a sense of opposites between the victim and the ghost. Is this a productive way to look for the counterpart to God? Let’s consider.

Satan is an obvious first choice, and also quickly discarded as too on-the-nose and not particularly enlightening. This is the final act, the argument that will doom him, so this needs to be something intrinsic to the guilt itself. The possibility of grace is the possibility that he can be transformed, sanctified. Simple unbelief can be an element, but is insufficient. What is the mirror-opposite of grace?

Perhaps this: the inescapable idea that he is irrevocably fallen, tainted. That he is depraved, that there is no salvation.

Since we have already brought in the ghost of the victim, we may bring in his as well. This idea already produces thrills of meaning – a truth-goose, in Tim O’Brien’s unforgettable phrase from The Things They Carried. This tends to be a good sign. So this is the idea: John’s own ghost enters, an image of him at the time of the crime, and the crime is reenacted in front of him. What damns him is the brute fact of the crime, which not even God’s grace can erase, and the undeniable truth that that was him. Ultimately, what he can’t escape, what not even God can release him from, is himself.

More soon.


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