instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Scoping out the term

Disputations has something of a reputation for artless diagrams that add little but visual distraction to the discussion. This post shall, perhaps, shake up that reputation somewhat, since it features, not a diagram, but an HTML table.

What scope should we understand Jesus to have had in mind when He spoke in terms of "whatever you ask"?

Some have proposed a tautological scope along the lines of "requests that God will grant," the idea being that Jesus' promise is given only to those who remain in Him, and by definition those who remain in Jesus wouldn't ask for anything God wouldn't want to give them. But while that may be true -- as I've mentioned, tautologies do tend to be true -- it's not particularly helpful in understanding what Jesus means.

Another approach is by using this set of increasingly-limited scopes:

     All Requests     
    Moral Requests    
  Pious Requests  
"Thy Will
Be Done"

"All Requests" is everything that can be asked for: the grace of final perseverance, a pony, the head of John the Baptist. "Moral Requests" is everything good in and of itself that can be desired, including ponies but excluding severed heads of enemies. "Pious Requests" is the subset of moral requests that relate directly to personal sanctification, so ponies are out but spiritual gifts are in. "P.O.D. Requests" [for "pious and overly devotional"] is the set of pious requests only a saint or a showoff would make, things like suffering and humiliation. "Thy Will Be Done" is that single request, with all personal volition removed; note that this isn't a personal request with "but Thy will be done" added at the end, there is nothing being asked for in this specific case.

It's safe to say "All Requests" is not the proper scope. To ask for something evil in Jesus' name is blasphemy, and not something anyone who remains in Him will do.

Let me propose two reasons "Thy Will Be Done" is too limited. First, it would imply that by, "If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it," Jesus means, "You won't ask anything of me." That's an unnatural interpretation (in English translation, at least), and it's an unnatural interpretation that would need to be applied all four times Jesus makes this promise in John 14-16. While it's certainly true that God will always answer that prayer, the words Jesus uses do not mean God will always answer only that prayer.

Second, the suggestion that "Thy Will Be Done" -- again, in the completely passive sense I'm using it here -- is the one thing that will always be granted if asked also implies that asking for particular things isn't something a good Christian would do. But that implication is certainly untrue, contrary to both Scripture and the lived experience of the Church.

Moreover, the model of a Christian as a passive instrument in the hands of God -- which I'd say is equivalent to the proposal that a Christian ought to pray only "Thy Will Be Done" -- conflicts with the reality that we are called to be, not God's tools, but His children. We are subjects of His love, not merely useful goods but (by His grace) good in ourselves. If we lack all personal will, we lack all eros; God's agape will find nothing to adhere to in us.

This again leads us into the promised participation in the Divine Life of the Trinity, since in a mysterious way the Son is both a subject of the Father's love while sharing in the one Divine will (if I've got it right). They are one, yet remain distinct Persons. In a similar way, we are called to unite our own will to the Divine will, yet in such a way that we remain distinct persons.

Maybe it's not so unsearchable a mystery, if we look to a loving human family rather than directly into the Divine. A loving human family tends to a single will, conceptually speaking. The whole family knows the father personally enjoys an afternoon nap, say, so the whole family wills that the father take an afternoon nap.

Note the trinitarian language that naturally arises: the whole family knows (knowledge is attributed to the Son); the whole family wills (will is attributed to the Holy Spirit). Certainly it's not an exact representation -- the individual human wills are distinct, and the "single will" of the family doesn't actually exist -- but I think it does suggest that a complete self-emptying on the part of any one person isn't the end of the story, either within the Trinity or within the Church united to the Trinity.