The neoscholastics saw grace as something entirely outside the realm of human consciousness. One participated in the sacraments of the church to receive grace, but this grace was essentially alien and separate from human awareness. This view was sharply critiqued by 20th century theologians who noted that under this framework, it was difficult to see why grace would really matter to anyone. Such an extrinsic understanding of grace, they noted, left people with the view that religious practice was something basically foreign and unconnected to the rest of their lives. Why, if it’s not making any discernable difference in your experience of life, would anyone have any sustained interest in religion?
I find this discussion fascinating because I sometimes find myself asking a kind of reverse question. I think I tend to assume that the workings of grace are (or at least should be) conscious, something I can detect. Yet many, many times I have engaged in religious practices such as prayer, scripture study, and church attendance and felt . . . absolutely nothing. As far as I can tell, doing those things often makes no difference in my life whatsoever. And so I ask: is it possible that these practices could be having an effect of which I am not aware?
I am quite open to the possibility that the answer to this is yes, that engaging in such activities is in fact making some kind of difference even if I cannot always see or feel it. However, that leaves me with a dilemma. Given this possibility, how am I to distinguish between religious practice which is actually helpful, which is doing something spiritually positive, and that which might be classified as nothing but superstition?
This question becomes even more difficult in that I’ve sometimes found that doing the things which are supposed to have some kind of positive effect actually leave me feeling not “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,” but guilt, depression, irritability, alienation, etc. One could certainly interpret this as a need on my part to come at them differently, or even as a test of faith. But one could also make the case that if attending church, for example, is not only not helping me spiritually (at least, as far as I can tell), but seems to actually be having a detrimental effect, the logical thing to do would be to stop, and to seek out alternative practices which do bring me more of a sense of peace and spiritual connection. Yet I don’t know that completely giving up on church attendance during such times is the best solution.
How do you decide what’s spiritually good for you?