In a previous post I mentioned that the law of gradualism was not like Jack’s Magic Beanstalk that springs up to the sky over night, but more like the mustard seed that is the smallest of all seeds but eventually becomes a tree in whose branches the birds make their nests. I want to elaborate on that and show how this requires looking at human beings and their moral efforts from a different perspective, one that may qualify as a new paradigm.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches. (Mathew 13)
But when it is grown…
It is certainly possible for the mustard seed to become a tree whose branches the birds of the air come to nest. But it doesn’t start out that way. It begins as the smallest of seeds. It begins its journey to treehood with weakness. As a small sapling it could be trampled on and destroyed by a child. For years, its existence is fragile and vulnerable. And yet this fragile, weak thing is simultaneously becoming the tree whose branches the birds will find refuge. Indeed, it is the tree that it is becoming, and even after it becomes the great tree it is still the same tree that before was weak and vulnerable. It is pathetic in the beginning, but magnificent in the end.
The mustard tree cannot simply spring into existence as a full grown tree. There are necessary stages that it must go though; seed, sapling, tree, bird-refuge. There is a progression from weakness to strength, a process that cannot be rushed, a process that requires great patience. The sapling is for years the very opposite of strength. One could say that it is necessarily weak in order to become strong. With cultivation and care, with patience and time, it becomes what it was made to be. It would be absurd to condemn the sapling for not having branches that the birds can make nests in. If we condemn the seed for not yet being the tree, we are in fact condemning the Creator whose love “moves the sun and all the stars.”
And yet it moves…
The law of gradualism is a process much like the mustard seed. It’s an organic change. There are necessary stages that a weak soul must pass through on its way to virtue, especially when it’s starting at the opposite vice. Grace is not magic, it perfects nature. It’s easy to tell if someone’s external life measures up to a law or norm, it’s not so easy to tell if someone is being faithful to God by doing everything God entrusts to them day by day. The sapling does not appear to be growing when viewed hour to hour or day to day with the naked eye, but nonetheless, it moves.
A new perspective
Binary thinking can only look at things in black and white, legal or illegal, regular or irregular. Binary thinking holds a picture of the full-grown tree up to the sapling and says “fail”. That’s obsviously not adequate. How do we judge the process of going from the smallest to the greatest? How do we judge the sapling when there’s so much more to the story than merely saying that its branches are too small for the birds? It’s not the tree, true, but it’s also not that simple because it’s becoming the tree. Change is a mystery again. The binary thinkers (the legalists) want to reinvent the wheel regarding the problem of being and becoming.
“Norms are to be obeyed and cannot not be obeyed” they declare. And yet there are those that cannot obey. A middle way is needed. Not binary thinking, but teleological thinking, gradualist thinking that takes into consideration the goal and directions and motivation behind the movement, not simply the inadequacies of the starting point. It’s the law of gradualism, not binary thinking, that makes sense of passages like this from Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia:
“Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God (Relatio Finalis 2015, 85) and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” [emphasis added]
“For now” and “not yet” is gradualist thinking.
“A given situation does not correspond objectively to the demands of the Gospel” is binary.
Legalists, when congronted with “for now” and “not yet” can only see euphemisms for mortal sin. Pope Francis affirms that conscience is capable of more than just binary thinking, it’s also capable of understanding that it is on a trajectory that grace has plotted out for it, and that fidelity means fidelity to the present point in that trajectory.
It’s “not yet” possible for the sinner to observe God’s law. But it will, some day, if it is faithful to what “for now” grace has enabled it to do. For “whoever has will be given more” and “he who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much.”
This dynamic is present in the Gospels too, for “you must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect; and yet ”whoever says he has no sin is a liar.”
If this analogy accuratetely describes the law of gradualism, then I believe the following points are implied for anyone who is on the path of justification:
1. Grace has its own timetable. There exists certain intervals between vice and virtue, between weakness and strength that must be respected. Patience and tolerance are called for – as with the wheat and the weeds – it is not for us to question the prerogative of grace.
2.Weakness or vulnerability is natural at the beginning stages of transformation. This is the case with most things, why do we expect it to be different in the order of grace/nature?
3. From #1 and #2 it follows that there is no contradiction between the absolute possibility of observing God’s law and the relative impossibility of observing it at a certain moment or stage of development. The difference between “for now” and “not yet” is time. The Council of Trent’s description of justification is implicitly gradualist. “It is possible to observe God’s law” really means “it is possible to become observers of God’s law, for ”with man it is impossible but with God all things are possible.”
4. The process of justification is invisible. That which can be observed and measured “objectively” is misleading and incomplete, and if treated as the sole measure of a person’s fidelity to God – is reductionistic and wrong.
5. The real moral status of a person with God can only be discerned by accompaniment.
Does all of this imply that there has been a pastoral paradigm shift in the Church? Not from the standpoint of the Gospel, for this way of thinking has always been orthodox. But if the starting point is binary thinking or the legalism of a Pelagian mentality, then thinking with the Church does indeed represent a new paradigm.
Husband and father of six, idea-tinkerer, failed graduate student, amateur pianist. Used to live amongst the Christmas trees, now lives surrounded by cacti and coyotes. Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.