In the first installment in this series I briefly outlined a traditional argument from the Catholic philosophical tradition for the immateriality and, therefore, immortality of the human soul. In the second installment I explained how the body and soul are united and they together make a complete human being. We cannot fully understand human nature unless we recognize the essential unity of body and soul. In this installation, I will explain what all of this implies for the reception of God’s grace into our lives. Thomas Aquinas said that grace builds on nature. Hopefully by the end of the present column, we can see how that grace can enter into our lives.
Signs and Symbols
A sacrament is understood in the Church to be a visible sign of God’s invisible or inward grace. And the sacraments in Catholic theology are the seven principle means by which we receive the grace of God. Now, this seems to lead to at least one question in particular. Why does God’s grace need to be accompanied by visible signs? The answer is because we have bodies and our bodies are essential to us. Our bodies are not ancillary vehicles for our souls. On the contrary, as we saw in the previous installment we can properly understand only as the unity of body and soul. Without the body, the soul cannot have any concrete existence. Without the soul, the body can have no life.
The body provides the means by which we take in and process information. Through the senses we become aware of physical objects, signs, and symbols which we can analyze. This is evident in many cases. For example, this is why we ask for evidence in courts of law. Someone’s word or testimony alone is not enough to corroborate a case. There has to be some physical proof or signs to back up the testimony given. When teachers explain new concepts to students they often utilize visual aids and concrete examples. This type of pedagogy builds off of the information we have already received through our senses earlier in life. Just think of how hard it would be to learn anything if you could not hear and could not see.
We can see now the usefulness and genius of the sacraments. The function they serve is twofold, epistemic and practical. That is to say, the sacraments allow us to be confident that we have received God’s grace and they are a fitting means of transmitting God’s grace to creatures like us.
Sacraments Are Signs of Grace
Using outward signs to deliver grace to us is practical because that is how we typically receive information in life. Therefore, it is fitting that grace should enter our lives in the same manner by which we typically receive information. This has the effect of allowing us to be confident that we have actually received grace. Take the Sacrament of Baptism for example. A priest performs Baptism by pouring water over the candidate’s head (at least in the Roman Rite) and pronouncing the formula Christ commanded (John 3:5; Mat. 28:18-20). The physical signs are the water and the formula, and the invisible aspect is the grace of God entering the soul and removing original sin. The water and words give the receiver assurance that grace has entered his soul and serve as a physical metaphor for the spiritual reality that the grace accomplishes.
Now imagine that no water or formula or any sort of visible sign was involved in Baptism. Suppose that a priest simply just declared that a candidate for Baptism had received God’s grace and was now cleansed. I suspect that most people would think that such a declaration was a hollow gesture. It would just seem and feel too easy and cheap and almost meaningless. This would very much resemble a court not seeking out evidence for an accusation but merely taking the testimony of the accuser and using it alone to pronounce a sentence.
Without any sort of physical sign or evidence in which the testimony’s veracity can be made manifest, there would always be doubt. This would be so even if the testimony was true. Likewise even if the testimony is true, we would be right to not pass judgment based on the testimony alone because it by itself, without any sign or evidence, leaves much room for doubt. And more to this, that is not how we settle anything in any other field. Scientists or doctors for example don’t just take a colleague’s or patient’s word. They conduct their own tests and examinations.
We can say the same for the reception of God’s grace without any accompanying physical sign. This should not be surprising given the essential unity of body and soul. God speaks to and redeems the whole person. So it is only fitting that signs accompany the grace of God for the sake of our own assurance and so that the integrity of human nature (i.e. the essential unity of body and soul) is not misunderstood.
Biblical Support and Prayer
Some might dismiss the understanding of the sacraments and human nature above as philosophy infecting Christian theology. To the contrary, this understanding of human nature and the transmission of God’s grace is rooted in Scripture. We already saw with the example of Baptism how the present understanding of human nature is operative in Scripture.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heals a man suffering from palsy and before He performs the miracle He says, “And now to convince you that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins while He is on earth…” (Mark 2:10). At the Last Supper Jesus implored the apostles to believe in Him, and that if they had difficulty believing in Him, they should remember the signs that He performed and believe for the sake of the signs (John 14:11-12). These signs are physical manifestations of Christ’s power and divinity. Christ established His veracity and teaching authority by working signs. The appeals Christ gave to believe for the sake of signs makes no sense unless we admit that human beings are essentially physical as well as spiritual creatures and that physical signs provide for us epistemic clarity and assurance.
The importance of physical signs is also evident in prayer. Think of how prayer typically begins—with the Sign of the Cross. This is a physical symbol of the passion and death of Christ as well as the Trinity. It is by means of this sign and others during prayer that we can focus our minds on God. We must, therefore, take care to fill our prayers and our time with physical reminders of the Gospel and of how we can live it out each day. We must ourselves be the physical manifestation of the Gospel message to our brothers and sisters. And we must avail ourselves to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. In this way, we can constantly renew our spirit and remind ourselves of the call of discipleship, which is the call of every child of God.