My beloved rabbit had recently died in my arms, and I had buried him in a shoe box in the woods behind my house. Scott and Karen Phillips and daughter Evelyn, having moved on from our area to their current post in campus ministry, stopped by for a brief visit while back in town. 1
Her parents must have told 3-year-old Evelyn about Grady: when we opened the door to them, she burst in with a volley of urgent questions. “Where’s your rabbit?” she demanded. “Why is he dead?” “Where did he go?” –all this over the polite protestations of her parents, and precluding my welcoming them properly! I answered her questions seriously, and they led to more: “Where is the box?” “What is he doing in the ground?” “Show me!” In three minutes Evelyn and I were in the woods, discussing matters over Grady’s wee gravestone. Eventually she seemed satisfied, and only then was I released to visit with the rest of the family.
When they were leaving, we continued chatting as the Phillips buckled Evelyn into her child seat and climbed into the front. I leaned in to wish Evelyn good-bye. That deliciously self-important tiny human, golden curls gently bobbing as she nodded, wrinkled her brow and pooched her lip a little as she said, “I’m sorry about your rabbit!”
I was disarmed and amused. She was acting out the behavior of her gracious parents. It wasn’t original. But she had initiated it and it was good.
I offer an irenic—or perhaps evelynic—proposal concerning common grace. Common grace is a concept that, along with antithesis, has been employed by theologians to account for “what the unbeliever knows.” Both concepts presuppose that human knowing is shaped at the root by a fundamental heart commitment that is never merely indifferent with respect to God, but always either radically submits to his Lordship or radically resists it. There is no “neutral” knowledge. Rebellion issues in what we call the noetic effects of sin: human rebellion distorts human knowing. Thus, we can expect antithesis to exist between endeavors of believers and unbelievers. Yet many cultural and epistemic productions of unbelievers nevertheless glorify God and advance his purposes in the world. In these God is restraining the inevitable evil of the ungodly by exercising his common grace. 2
Which is more basic or pervasive? I believe it is common grace. For if you take antithesis to be ultimate, it implies that something escapes and thereby nullifies God’s Lordship. Since he is Lord, you can expect to find diamonds of truth everywhere, commingled with perversities from which it is the Christian’s joy and obligation to extract them.
Some people, I believe, hold excessively rigorously to antithesis. I have heard zealous students argue that the unbeliever has no knowledge at all—it’s impossible, for the unbeliever doesn’t know God. I have heard it alleged that Abraham Kuyper, a great thinker but a bad theologian, came up with an unbiblical notion when he invented common grace. People big on antithesis understandably don’t relate well to unbelievers or their cultural products; they tacitly convey an off-putting superiority.
Human knowing is more complex than either simple knowing or ignorance. A moralistic poem read to us in grade school asserts that some people know not and know not that they know not, some know not and know that they know not, some know and know not that they know, and some know and know that they know--! If any of us, believer or no, considers the state of our own understanding, we will humbly admit this complexity. 3
Evelyn’s pronouncement was an act both her own and not her own. It imaged her parents, though she was too young to be capable of the act being self-consciously authentic. For all that, she initiated it. For all that, the act was good: I was comforted in my grieving.
We can expect to encounter actions of unbelievers that, no matter their intention, recognizably image the glory and righteousness of the Lord. We may honor the unbeliever and employ her/his work, because it resembles the Father, valuing both initiation and product as good, without ever conceding a noxious notion of neutrality. And our Christlike response may also gently subvert heart rebellion and incline the unbeliever to Christ.
3 See my Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Brazos Press 2003). One such experience of mine has been that reader friends have helped me know what I “knew” in writing the book!
© 2006, Esther Meek.