Winter 1983, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 341-357.

Donald L. Gelpi: Two Spiritual Paths:
      Thematic Grace vs. Transmuting Grace (Part II)

A theology of transmuting grace anticipates discontinuity in spiritual growth, challenges complacency, and focuses on religious events and social milieu rather than on subjectivity.

Father Gelpi, S.J., is professor of systematic theology at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, California. Among his many writings are Pentecostal Piety and Experiencing God: A Theology of Human Emergence.

WE are examining two contrasting approaches to the understanding of the relationship between nature and grace: a theology of thematic grace and a theology of grace as radical transmutation. In the first installment of this article, we have traced the emergence, development, and popularization of a theology of thematic grace. We have found that it builds on very shaky Kantian and transcendental Thomistic philosophical foundations. The human mind in its concrete operations gives no evidence of enjoying the virtual infinity which a theology of thematic grace attributes to it. Furthermore, by postulating the same essential religious dynamisms in all human minds, a theology of thematic grace fails to do justice to the varieties of religious and mystical experience. It offers no adequate account for the sense of discontinuity which marks an experience of radical conversion, the feeling of being not only turned around but transformed into a new kind of person. And by lulling believers into the naive assumption that everyone is oriented a priori to God and to Christ, a theology of thematic grace mutes the kerygmatic voice of the church and tends to transform ecumenical dialogue into an exercise in mutual misunderstanding. These deficiencies suggest the need to search for a viable theological alternative. A theology of grace as radical transmutation attempts to offer such an alternative.

The two theological positions we are examining agree at several points. And clarity suggests that we identify points of agreement before we proceed to contrast the two. Both agree that the concepts "nature" and "grace" imply one another in a theological context; hence, a modification of one's understanding of either term will demand a corresponding alteration of the other. Both positions concede that the concrete world in which we live has been changed through the action of divine grace. Both positions appeal to human experience. Both reject an artificial extrinsicism in describing the relationship between nature and grace, and hold that grace perfects nature, though they differ in their understanding of how this occurs. Both positions agree that grace is not owed to human nature, that the attainment of a supernatural end demands supernatural means, and that faith in this life begins a process of gracious illumination that culminates in the beatific vision.

How then do these two theologies of grace differ? They espouse different methods. They conceive human nature differently. And they offer contrasting interpretations of the way nature and grace are related. Let us explore the differences.

THREE AREAS OF DIFFERENCE 1. Method. A theology of grace as radical transmutation espouses a foundational method. It borrows the term from the work of Bernard Lonergan but departs from his own theological method at a significant point. In what, then, does foundational theology consist? And how does a theology of grace as radical transmutation alter Lonergan's own methodological presuppositions?

Foundational theology seeks to elaborate a strictly normative theory of conversion. Normative thinking attempts to explain the way things, other than the thinker, ought to be expected to behave. Strictly normative thinking looks to the thinker's own personal behavior. It measures the responsibility or irresponsibility of human evaluations and decisions against ideals and principles that have been personally espoused and appropriated as affectively, intellectually, morally, or religiously binding. In other words, foundational theology ambitions a systematic account of healthy emotional development, of intellectual development based on sound psychological, logical, and methodological principles, of moral development that conforms to sound ethical rules and ideals, and of authentic religious growth.

Foundational theology numbers fifth among eight functional theological specialties. Functional theological specialties differ from one another in the kinds of questions each asks and in the operational procedures each employs to reach its conclusions. The first four specialties -- research, interpretation, history, and dialectics -- ambition the systematic retrieval of a particular religious and cultural tradition. The research theologian gathers the data relevant to the resolution of religious questions by archeological research, the editing of critical texts, or the compiling of dictionaries and similar tools employed by theologians. Interpretation attempts to explain to contemporary religionists the meaning of the data amassed by theological research. Historical theology tells the story of religious communities and of the cultures in which they develop, on the basis of a sound interpretation of research data relevant to that story. Dialectical theology probes the conflicts that emerge in the history of any religious community and assesses the relative adequacy of their motives.

Foundational theology ranks fifth among the theological specialities because it needs the results of the first four in order to advance its own insights. For any sound theology of conversion must take into account the history of the religious community in which it occurs, the conflicting attitudes, beliefs, and commitments that divide that community, and the meaning of its sacred texts and artifacts. Divisions in any community of faith always betray the presence of religious inauthenticity and the absence of conversion at some level. A strictly normative theory of conversion attempts to identify troublesome inauthenticities and to overcome them.(1)

A theology of grace as radical transmutation invokes Lonergan's theory of functional specialties in theology. And it attempts to practice foundational theology. It stands within an experience of conversion and attempts to assess the validity or invalidity, the adequacy or the inadequacy of the motives that give it shape. But a theology of grace as radical transmutation departs from Lonergan's thought at an important point.

Like the proponents of thematic grace, Lonergan defends transcendental method and believes that it provides him with an irreformable starting point for all human speculation. As we have already seen, however, transcendental method offers only a fallible and therefore revisable hypothesis about the structure of reality and the dynamics of human cognition. As a consequence, a theology of grace as radical transmutation eschews every attempt to construct a metaphysics of knowledge based on transcendental method and recognizes instead the need to measure any proposition concerning reality in general and human nature in particular systematically against the behavior of both. By the same token, a theology of grace as radical transmutation demands that foundational theory itself advance by testing the truth or falsity of religious propositions and the adequacy or inadequacy of religious frames of reference against religiously significant events.(2)

2. Human Nature. As we have seen, a theology of thematic grace conceives of human nature as a fixed essence present in every human individual. It asserts that every human intellect and will enjoys a fixed orientation to being and to God that expresses those faculties' innate spiritual essence. Since grace corresponds to these essentially predetermined psychic dynamisms, consistency demands that grace itself be similarly conceived. Accordingly, the supernatural existential is described as an essential reorientation of the natural dynamisms of spirit that transcends anything that humanity can conceive or desire of its own essence or nature. The supernatural existential begets in the soul a new essential orientation, a graced longing not only for God but for Christ and for the fulfillment of supernatural faith in the beatific vision.

A theology of grace as radical transmutation conceives of human nature very differently. Instead of describing the human in essentialistic terms derived from Scholasticism, it takes a page from process theory and speaks of human beings as developing experiences. It defines experience as a process made up of three identifiable variables: evaluations, interactions, and tendencies.

The evaluations that shape human experience include: (1) sense qualities (like colors, tastes, smells, touches, sounds, visceral and kinetic feeling, pleasure, pain); (2) affective impulses (like complacency, desire, affection, friendship, love, rage, fear, guilt); (3) the images that structure intuitive perceptions (whether remembered, constructed, or archetypal); and (4) the abstract concepts that function in the three forms of logical inference. Interactions punctuate human evaluative responses as the decisive impact of environmental forces impinges on human experience and elicits from humans a more or less adequately motivated decisive response. Things bump into us, and we bump back. The tendencies that shape experience consist of the developing set of finite habits that comprise any given human self. These tendencies result from the way in which each self interacts with his or her environment. Habits endow experience with continuity, for they beget routine behavior, the inclination to act in predictable and characteristic ways. Habits also ensure that the self I am in process of becoming today develops in continuity with the self I was yesterday, the day before, and all the yesterdays of my life. For habits perdure. And the new habits I learn today must be integrated into the finite set of habitual tendencies I possessed yesterday.

Although the conception of human nature which grounds a theology of thematic grace acknowledges the role of habit in the development of the human person, it conceives of those habits as accidental modifications of stable, essential tendencies built a priori into human nature and grasped in a privileged metaphysical insight by transcendental method. A theology of grace as radical transmutation, as we have just seen, renounces the claims of transcendental method as logically and methodologically unjustifiable; and it is content instead to discover in each developing human self only those tendencies which can be verified in human behavior. In other words, in an experiential construct of human nature, no fixed essential dynamisms lie beneath the habitual tendencies acquired in the course of a lifetime. Instead, those acquired tendencies constitute each emerging human self.

Experience grows through transmutation. Transmutation occurs every time a novel evaluation, interaction, or tendency is integrated into a developing experience so as to change its constitutive relational structure. Every new sensation, every new social interchange, every new meal, every new physical motion, every new commitment, every new act of worship, every new acquired skill adds new complexity to human experience. Like the addition of a new patch of color to a painting, it brings into being a new kind of experienced reality by demanding that all the other relationships that comprise experience adjust themselves in order to accommodate the addition. In an experiential understanding of human nature, the dynamisms that structure the human psyche do not enjoy the fixed essential orientations postulated by faculty psychology and by classical philosophical thought. They evolve as each self defines the character of its orientation toward itself and its world through ongoing interaction with its total environment.

In a theology of thematic grace, every human mind of its very essence possesses a virtually infinite horizon, a dynamic appetite for being and implicitly for God. In an experiential construct of human nature, only those dynamisms structure the human mind which have been acquired in a lifetime of symbolic behavior. And because every human mind begins at a specific moment in space and time, the sum total of the habits that comprise it remains forever finite, even though education and intellectual growth may continue to endow this or that mind with new habitual complexity. As a consequence (and here we touch the heart of the matter), in an experiential approach to human nature, any given human mind may or may not be oriented dynamically to God. Rather, each self must acquire such an orientation, either by fixing its personal beliefs on purely rational motives concerning the reality and nature of God, or by responding positively and graciously in faith to some event of divine self-revelation. That revelatory event, however, does more than supply the categories that allow the mind to thematize a longing for the divine it already possesses of its very essence. Rather, the revelatory event, together with the faith it inspires, transmutes the psyche by building into it a wholly new habitual orientation toward a self-revealing God. We call such a dynamic reorientation of the self "the infusion of supernatural grace." It transmutes experience by endowing it with a new capacity to relate to God both correlative to God's free act of selfdisclosure and impossible apart from that self-revelation.

Finally, we note that an experiential construct of human nature finds validation in contemporary developmental psychology. Today, however, we stand only at the beginning of the development of developmental psychology. We can anticipate other developmental schemes than those proposed by Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, James Fowler, and Daniel J. Levinson. But the developmental principle that the healthy human mind can advance from less adequate to more adequate and inclusive (though finite) frames of reference remains a sound one.(3)

3. Relationship between nature and grace. An experiential construct of human nature demands the philosophical and theological rehabilitation of the concept of nature. A theology of thematic grace either demands too much of human nature or fails to do it speculative justice. It demands too much of human nature in speaking of a natural desire for the beatific vision. De Lubac concedes the paradoxical character of such a doctrine. But Rahner correctly recognizes that the belief that human nature can, in and of itself, aspire to a supernatural destiny lapses from paradox into confusion and contradiction. It confuses the gratuity of creation with the gratuity of grace. Rahner's attempt to avoid the same confusion in his own theology of grace causes him, however, to transform "human nature" into a residual concept. And one may question whether reducing the idea of nature to a conceptual residue does it full justice. Rahner holds, as we have seen, that in consequence of the fact that the human spirit's a priori pre-apprehension of being has been graced by the supernatural existential, the direct conscious experience of pure nature no longer lies within the realm of human possibility. Instead, what humans are by nature must be inferred by abstracting those experienced realities whose source can be identified as supernatural. Rahner reaches this paradoxical position in consequence of several conflicting motives in his thought. On the one hand, like Mare*chal and de Lubac, he wishes to discover the desire for God welling up spontaneously within every human spirit. On the other hand, he feels justifiably reluctant to ground that desire in human nature alone. Moreover, while he appeals to experience in order to validate the residual character of "human nature," he argues to its inavoidability transcendentally and therefore a priori.(4)

But if one actually consults experience instead of arguing a priori to the way it must be structured, one is absolved from the need to degrade human nature to a conceptual residue. We experience nature directly. And we do it all the time. We can identify the natural tendencies in human nature by the motives that specify the decisions that give rise to them. As we have seen, within experience evaluations, decisions, and habitual tendencies mutually condition one another. The kinds of decisions we make derive their character from the evaluative responses they terminate. I may act angrily or lovingly, imaginatively or rationally. It all depends on the angry or loving, rational or intuitive character of the personal evaluative stance which my action expresses. And my actions determine the kinds of tendencies that make me the particular self I am. They create new habits, reinforce old ones, and interrelate or dissociate existing ones. I act naturally when I respond to created reality and ignore those events that reveal God to me historically. Faith, then, divides natural from gracious responses. I act sinfully when I deliberately thwart what I believe to be God's will for me. Naturally motivated decisions build purely natural tendencies into every human personality, tendencies which can be experienced and named directly and as such. Faith-motivated decisions build graced tendencies. Sinful decisions build sinful tendencies.

Grace transmutes and transvalues both natural and sinful tendencies. It transmutes and transvalues sinful tendencies through repentance. It transmutes and transvalues natural tendencies by enhancing them and ordering them to a satisfaction they could never achieve in and of themselves, namely, loving union with a God who has entered human history and reveals himself in faith to those he chooses. In other words, grace perfects nature. But it does so by transmuting it and endowing it with entirely new ways of relating to God. We call the transmutation of human experience in faith "created grace." And the fact that created grace transcends anything we can do or experience naturally explains the discontinuity which converts experience in coming to faith. Hope graces the repentant heart by healing it of disordered affections and binding it to a faithful God. Faith graces the human mind by teaching it to acknowledge the saving significance of religious events. Love graces human decisions by ensuring that they are informed by gospel values. Gifts of sanctification (dona Spiritus Sancti) ensure ongoing docility to the Holy Spirit in putting on the mind of Jesus. Charisms of service (gratiae gratis datae) bind Christians to one another in a community of faith, of worship, and mutual service. All these different forms of created grace transmute the natural elements that structure human experience.(5)

The fact that humans can and do respond with purely natural motivations grounds the possibility of experiencing a purely natural conversion at an affective, intellectual, or moral level. I use the term conversion in a broader sense than it often enjoys. In popular parlance conversion means the espousal of a particular creed or the decision to join a particular church or sect. By conversion I mean the decision to assume personal responsibility for one's own subsequent growth and development in some area of human experience. An area of experience is delimited by the kinds of tendencies or habits which structure it. Affective, irrational tendencies differ from rational ones. Habits of evaluation differ from habits of decision. In affective conversion I assume personal responsibility for the health of my subsequent irrational, emotional growth. In intellectual conversion I assume responsibility for the truth and falsity, adequacy or inadequacy of my subsequent rational beliefs. In moral conversion I assume responsibility for the ethical character and consequences of my subsequent decisions.

I can attain all three forms of conversion for reasons that have nothing to do with God. My neuroses can reduce me to a pitch of misery that forces an affective conversion. The deceit of others may lead me to personal responsibility in intellectual or moral matters. Or the natural human desire to live lovingly and responsibly in my dealings with my fellow humans may draw me positively to all three forms of natural conversion. God's historical self-revelation in Jesus and the Spirit need have nothing to do with any of these decisions. Not that the natural convert denies divine revelation. He or she simply fails to take it into consideration in making a choice for responsible living. When one makes such a choice, one experiences a natural conversion with regard to feeling, thought, and/or decision.(6)

Authentic religious conversion can, of course, never transpire naturally. For the religious convert decides to respond responsibly in faith to some historical act of divine self-revelation and self-communication. Religious conversion always, therefore, results from the action of uncreated grace (God) and transmutes experience by infusing created grace (the difference in the believer which an ongoing life of faith makes).

In an experiential approach to the theology of grace, the human capacity to experience natural conversion, to decide for personally responsible rather than for personally irresponsible behavior on purely natural grounds, constitutes what theologians in the past have called "the human obediential potency for grace." For the natural capacity to opt for responsible behavior builds into the human person an ability to respond responsibly in the face of a gracious act of divine self-disclosure and self-communication. The potency in question remains obediential because nothing in human nature can force God to reveal himself historically or claim that such a grace is owed to human nature as such.

Religious conversion seeks to transvalue affective, intellectual, and moral conversion to the extent that they remain only naturally motivated. Why is this so? Every conversion creates a strictly normative frame of reference. So does religious conversion. But because the realities and values with which religious conversion deals are derived from the unexpected and unpredictable eruption of the divine into human history, religious frames of reference are faith derived. The strictly normative character of religious conversion results from the fact that, because religious events disclose to us a supremely beautiful, true, and good divine reality, they make morally absolute and ultimate claims. That is to say, they demand that the convert be willing not only to live but to die, if necessary, for the one supremely desirable reality we call God. And they demand that the convert cling to God ultimately in all circumstances.

Such a claim and the transformation in God it effects can be legitimately described as radical. For it demands that all merely natural realities, including natural conversion, be reevaluated in the light of the ultimate realities which religious conversion grasps, and is grasped by, and be transmuted by them. Humans do not naturally and spontaneously desire to die for any reason, though they may learn through love the meaning of such self-sacrifice. But religious conversion demands in addition the willingness to live and die for world-transcending realities. The paradox of dying naturally in order to live supernaturally suffuses authentic religious conversion with an unavoidable element of discontinuity. The newness of life which religious conversion brings does not emerge with easy spontaneity from natural hopes and aspirations. Radical transmutation rather than mere organic continuity names the religious game.

We have been describing two contrasting theologies of grace. Both stand within the pale of Christian orthodoxy. But they tend to inspire different brands of spirituality.


In commenting on the tendencies inherent in the two theological positions I have described, however, I in no way intend to comment on the personal spiritualities of those who defend them theoretically. Rather I wish only to comment on some of the practical consequences latent in principle in either position.

1. In the practical living of a life of faith, a theology of thematic grace tends to inspire a certain complacency about one's essential orientation to God, a complacency which a theology of transmuting grace challenges. A theology of thematic grace builds, not on a foundational exploration of the dynamics of conversion, but on a metaphysics of knowledge whose validity is assumed even though argued to only a priori. As a result, theologians of thematic grace talk more about the essential dynamisms of the human psyche than about the complexities and varieties of converted, religious experience.

Not that a theology of thematic grace rules out the possibility of conversion. In both of the theories of grace we have examined, the convert renounces sin for the obedience of faith. But in a theology of thematic grace, the assent of faith thematizes the essential, a priori orientation of the intellect and will to God, whether that orientation results from the natural desire for the beatific vision or from a supernatural existential. In a theology of transmuting grace, religious conversion radically transmutes and transforms experience by endowing it with wholly new graced tendencies entirely absent from any merely natural experience.

Moreover, to the extent that a theology of thematic grace affirms the universal presence in all human individuals of a supernatural orientation toward graced union with God, an orientation that precedes the act of faith, it tends to inspire a pious belief in the implicitly graced character of all morally sincere acts. As a consequence, the sincerity of a choice, the fact that it does not grow from sinful motives, can begin to be prized as a sign that it expresses at least implicitly a graced longing for divine union.

A theology of grace as radical transmutation insists by contrast that sincerity alone, the mere absence of malice, gives no clear evidence that an action is implicitly graced. Humans can act sincerely when they respond to created goods while simultaneously ignoring God's historical self-revelation in Jesus and the Spirit. Mere natural sincerity, no matter how intense, always falls short of supernatural faith. And faith marks the dividing line between nature and grace. Not that natural sincerity displeases God who takes pleasure in all natural goodness. But if natural moral sincerity is to be graced, it needs to be transvalued in faith. And that transvaluation changes it radically by suffusing it with gospel values and with a new dependence on the prompting and illumination of the Holy Spirit of Jesus, a dependence it previously lacked.

In sum, a theology of thematic grace encourages a certain complacency about one's fundamental orientation to God by assuming that that orientation expresses the essence of spirit and is built into the psyche a priori. A theology of transmuting grace discourages this or any other form of religious complacency. It demands, instead, constant scrutiny of one's motives in order to determine whether or not they express an integral fourfold conversion. Similarly, while a theology of transmuting grace recognizes natural goodness as a value in its own right, in rejecting the a priori gracing of experience it demands a constant concern to enhance, transform, and transvalue naturally good responses by relating them to gospel realities and values in faith.

2. A theology of thematic grace looks upon the a priori structure of the individual psyche as the most fundamental source of personal orientation to God; a theology of grace as radically transmuting finds the fundamental source of personal orientation to God in interaction with religious events and with religious communities. A theology of thematic grace discovers the most fundamental orientation of humans toward God in the dynamic spiritual structure of the individual psyche. That orientation originates a priori; for example, prior to any interaction with one's world. Religious events supply the categories that thematize this essential orientation. But the a priori structure of individual consciousness, rather than religious events themselves, provides the point where the human spirit finds its essential orientation to the divine.

A theology of grace as radically transmuting looks, by contrast, upon the individual psyche and the dynamisms that shape it as both fallible and finite. It looks on the apriorities of any human cognitive act as historically acquired, and on the adequacy of the relation of any given mind to being, or reality, as varying from individual to individual. The dynamisms of any given intellect and will may or may not orient their owner to God. The mind's habitual tendencies may or may not be informed by grace or transmuted by faith. As a consequence, a theology of grace as radical transmutation fails to find in the individual psyche a necessary or privileged source of religious orientation.

A theology of grace as radically transmuting discovers our most fundamental orientation to God in interaction with those events which reveal to us a self-communicating God. The religious significance of revelatory events must, through the process of interaction, be personally appropriated in faith, if individual experience is to acquire a graced character. The revealing event may, on occasion, consist of the direct action of God on the experience of some individual in solitary contemplation. More often, however, grace is mediated sacramentally through the faith witness of other persons or of a graced community of believers.

Moreover, belief in the fundamental fallibility of the human mind also endows a theology of transmuting grace with an enhanced concern for the social dimensions of human religious experience. Minds convinced both of their fallibility and of their conditioned historical character do not seek for reality, truth, goodness, and God primarily in the varied and undependable structures of individual human subjectivity. They seek them instead in the social corrective of shared systematic inquiry. Moreover, shared religious inquiry pursued in faith and under the charismatic guidance of the Holy Spirit does more than provide graced subjectivity with the categories it needs to thematize it's a priori orientation to God. Rather, shared religious inquiry is prized as a sacramental event which reveals to those who participate in it God's gracious self-communication itself.

In other words, while a theology of thematic grace conceives the believer's relationship to God in terms that smack of religious individualism, a theology of grace as radical transmutation encourages a search for God in the very social sharing of gifts and charisms within a community of faith and worship. Social intercourse rather than individual subjectivity links one to the divine.

By the same token, in a theology of thematic grace faith, hope, and love tend to be conceived as supernatural transformations of an individual human spirit. They thematize the individual intellect and will's essential orientation to God, whether by nature or by grace. But in a theology of grace as radical transmutation, faith, hope, and love are conceived by contrast as social process. In such a theology human persons are viewed as mutually interpenetrating experiences who discover the reality of God in interaction with those events in which he communicates himself to us, and in a special way in the shared faith-consciousness which results from sharing the charisms of the Spirit in community. In such a theological frame of reference, transformation in hope, faith, and love cannot be viewed primarily as the relationship of an individual to God. Rather, they must be viewed as the very social process by which God reveals and communicates himself to communities and through them to the individuals who comprise them.

3. While a theology of thematic grace locates religious consciousness primarily in the intellect and will, a theology of grace as radical transmutation ambitions the transvaluation and transformation in faith of both the rational and irrational ways in which humans relate practically to God. Because it roots itself in a Thomistic metaphysics of knowledge, a theology of thematic grace labors under the intellectualist bias that characterizes every Thomistic anthropology. In such a system the spiritual faculties of intellect and will are prized as those powers of the soul which give us conscious access to God. But since the will derives the realities it seeks from the intellect, of these two privileged faculties the intellect orients us most fundamentally to reality and to God. The intellect, therefore, provides the basic link between the human and the divine.

Other Christian philosophers and theologians have tried to temper the intellectual bias of Thomistic anthropology by exalting the will over the intellect. But in the past these attempts have ordinarily remained trapped in the operational dualism that mars Scholastic faculty psychology. They fail to do justice to an affective, appreciative grasp of reality and of God. A theology of transforming grace eschews faculty psychology with its talk of fixed formal objects and essential dynamisms in the psyche. It also eschews the categories "matter" and "spirit" and speaks instead of humans as developing experiences. And it discovers within experience both affective and rational forms of knowing.

Affective, or appreciative, consciousness advances irrationally. It follows the laws not of logic but of free association and synchronicity. It expresses itself lyrically and dramatically in art, literature, ritual, and myth. It grasps the real in judgments of feeling like those in discernment and in artistic creativity.

Rational consciousness, by contrast, follows the laws of logic and of inference. It advances from description to strictly normative thinking and finally to explanation. It grasps reality through inductive inferences formulated into rational judgments.

Because it construes human persons as experiences, a theology of transmuting grace avoids the intellectualist bias which theologies of thematic grace inherit from Thomism. A theology of transmuting grace grounds the experience of mystery, not in the finite intellect, but in an appreciative grasp of the real. It demands that appreciative consciousness grow responsibly out of affective conversion. And it also insists that rational consciousness should express intellectual conversion. It demands, in other words, not only that the convert recognize the validity of both rational and irrational perceptions of the real, but also that rational interpretations of reality be coordinated with mythopoetic insight and vice versa. As a consequence, a theology of transmuting grace displays a more nuanced sensitivity to the variety and complexity of human and religious forms of knowing than does a theology of thematic grace.

4. A theology of thematic grace celebrates the continuity of religious experience; a theology of transmuting grace anticipates both continuity and discontinuity within an experience of integral conversion. A theology of thematic grace developed in reaction to an artificial opposition between nature and grace which was sometimes defended in neo-scholastic manuals. Manual theology tended to describe nature and grace as advancing on two parallel but unrelated tracks. Theologians of thematic grace protested against this extrinsicism and attempted to overcome it without confusing the two realms of nature and grace. They insisted strongly, as a consequence, on a continuity between nature and grace. And they discovered that continuity in the a priori orientation of the spirit to God. They insisted that faith thematizes an appetite for the divine built a priori into the human psyche. As a consequence, theologians of thematic grace can find themselves, as we have seen, hard pressed to account adequately for the discontinuities which surface in the human experience of conversion, the sense of being not only turned around but transformed into a radically different kind of person.

One may anticipate, then, that a spirituality based on a theology of thematic grace will tend to value continuity within religious growth and to undervalue discontinuity. It will urge individuals to become consciously what they already implicitly are, rather than demand that they become a radically different kind of person. It will eschew an evangelizing rhetoric and counsel people to expect grace to fulfill their spontaneous spiritual longings.

A theology of transmuting grace recognizes the need for continuity in both natural and graced development. New habits, tendencies, ways of responding need to be integrated organically with those already acquired. But it locates the human obediential potency for grace in the capacity to undergo purely natural conversion at an affective, intellectual, and moral level. And it anticipates that an authentic religious conversion will display initially an uncanny, even alien character that transcends anything available to humans in their interaction with created realities and values. The eruption of God into a naturally developing experience transmutes and transforms it into something radically new and different. It does not negate or destroy the naturally good tendencies present in a convert's personality. But it does rearrange the constitutive structure of experience in new and startling ways by setting it into a new kind of developing relationship with the world-transforming, world-transcending reality of God. Authentic religious conversion reorients human aspiration toward a God who confronts us in purification and judgment as a consuming fire and whose relentless love challenges the finitude, the spontaneous self-preoccupation, the inertia, and the self-righteousness of every human ego.

One may anticipate, therefore, that a spirituality based on a theology of transmuting grace will value both continuity and discontinuity in religious growth. It will counsel converts to seek personal integration and satisfaction but to anticipate religious breakthroughs that effect more than the thematization of tendencies already present within human nature. Such a spirituality will seek to restore an evangelizing rhetoric of repentance and recommitment to Christian pulpits. Such a spirituality will, with all the Gospels, warn believers that a love relation with the Christian God demands as much the discontinuity of dying as it does the joy of continuous human development. Instead of counseling non-Christians to look upon themselves as anonymous Christians, it will warn them, as Jesus did his contemporaries, that Christian discipleship demands radical sacrifice and the willingness to undergo purifying transformation in God. For we must die to everything that is not Christ if we are to live with and in him.

The two theologies of grace we have examined offer believers two contrasting spiritual paths. The decision to follow either will, of course, be tempered for better or for worse by the other variables that shape any given individual religious experience. After all, we should not expect finite, fallible humans to act with entire consistency. I have personally opted for a theology of transmuting grace. I have done so in the full knowledge that many will prefer to follow the path I have rejected. And they, like me, must live by the consequences of their personal choices. Which path will you choose to follow?

  1. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).
  2. Donald L. Gelpi, Experiencing God: A Theology of Human Emergence (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), pp. 18-51. A theology of grace as radical transmutation recognizes the capacity of natural reason to reach certitude concerning the reality of God. That certitude may be grounded in a reasoned argument, or demonstration. A theology of grace as radical transmutation finds a plausible philosophical account of how natural reason normally attains to God in C.S. Peirce's "Neglected Argument for the Reality of God" (Collected Papers, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 8 vols. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933-60], 6:452-93). But a theology of grace as radical transmutation insists that a graced encounter with a self-communicating God transcends and transforms any human relationship to God based on natural reason alone.
  3. Gelpi, Experiencing God, pp. 155-204.
  4. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Helicon, 1954), pp. 297-317.
  5. Donald L. Gelpi, Charism and Sacrament: A Theology of Christian Conversion (New York: Paulist Press, 1976), pp. 8-112.
  6. Gelpi, Experiencing God, pp. 178-85.