Works and Grace (and Culture)

I was never really that interested in the theological controversy regarding whether we are saved by Grace or by Works…until now.

So why am I interested now? Because it seems to have an analogue in the question of whether human beings thrive more in an environment where the have to work (i.e., the middle class) or where they survive on inherited wealth (i.e., the wealthy). In other words, being saved by works is a middle class theology and being saved by grace is an upper class theology (and perhaps the theology of the poor as well).

But let’s come back to that later. One of the things that always bothered me with the whole concept of Divine Mercy was that I was thinking about it in terms of human positive law. People establish laws,and they establish consequences. Sometimes when people break the laws we punish them (justice) and sometimes we don’t (mercy).

It always seemed to me like the only reason we would ever want to exhibit mercy is if the law weren’t perfect. That is, if the law could perfectly distinguish between good behavior and bad behavior, and it set out exactly the right punishment for bad behavior (i.e., the minimum punishment necessary to achieve whatever the purpose of the law is, balanced against the suffering of the individual being punished) then mercy would always be wrong.

So basically, that quote at the beginning of the post always maddened me. If God’s law was perfect, failing to give us what we deserve would be, well failing. So there isn’t really any room for mercy.

There are a few more subtleties to the argument, but let’s suppose Divine Mercy is a contradiction. It doesn’t follow that Divine Grace is a contradiction. The reason is that, presumably, God is trying to minimize punishment, but He is trying to maximize welfare. So there is no reason for him to dole out punishments unless it is necessary. But he can provide benefits any time He thinks it will help, without regard to whether we did anything to deserve it.

Since most of us have to work for a living, the idea that some people get to enjoy wealth that they never earned kind of rankles. Thus, we have a cultural antipathy toward inherited wealth. Similarly, we (maybe just I?) also tend to look down on poor people who think they are entitle to welfare without working.

But recently, my perspective has started to shift. Instead of asking what people deserve, I have started to try and look at things from what I consider a slightly more Divine perspective and ask: what is the best way for people to live that will maximize their welfare? And I no longer think that people can possibly earn all of the things that are required for happiness. Furthermore, I think focusing too much on earning results in a level of stress that is unhealthy.

Now for a bit of a tangent. Afew days ago I stumbled across this fascinating article in Nature magazine about the relationship between DNA and the neural network of our brain:

For those who are familiar with machine learning, the basic idea is you have a bunch of parameters that are used to calculate a result and you try tons of values until you get something that kind of works. The fact that you just try a bunch of stuff instead of trying to anticipate the best value of the parameters beforehand is what makes it kind of like learning.

Ok, so one of the fascinating things about the article is that they point out that there are actually two levels of learning going on. The first is evolutionary. Our DNA learns the right way to wire our brains via evolution (for example, we are hard wired based on our DNA to be able to recognize faces). Then our brains take the basic structure provided by our DNA and then learn specific behaviors (for example, we learn to recognize the specific faces of our friends and family).

Based on my recent obsession with The Secret of Our Success, I would also add intermediate cycle, that of culture. So, our DNA enables us to absorb culture, our culture changes based on our environment, and then we learn specific things within the context of our culture. For example, our brain has a module that enables us to identify what is high status and what is low status, our culture tells us what to look for in order to identify high status and low status, and then we learn to recognize specific people as high status and low status.

So what does all this have to do with Works and Grace? We can make the analogy that Grace = DNA learning and Works = lifetime learning. Do we deserve our DNA? Do we deserve our culture? Not really. What we learn (and do) in our lifetime is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the whole spectrum of learning going on. Most of it happened way before we were ever born.

So we can really only earn the tiniest portion of what we have. Most of it is inherited. I think everyone is pretty much okay with the idea that people should seek to pass on their DNA inheritance to their children. So why not pass on a culture, and a way of life that can maximize how that DNA functions? Why not give as much Grace to our children as possible?

For some of you, I may be preaching to the choir. But trust me, there are a lot of people out there who think that working for a living (and for salvation) is morally superior to being handed everything on a platter.

I think the idea that wealthy people will get lazy is kind of a self fulfilling prophecy, and it happens because of how our culture is structured. Basically, our culture teaches us that striving for wealth is our purpose. Wealth brings status. So when people get really wealthy, they can either try to stay on the treadmill (i.e., convince themselves that they never have enough) or just kind of give up striving.

In other words, wealth leads to laziness only because our culture tells us that wealth is the only thing to strive for. If we had other ways of measuring success, when people got wealthy they would still strive for those things.

Now, you can’t just snap your fingers and create a different culture. To a large extent, we have to take what we are given, just like we have to accept our DNA. But perhaps the reason I am fascinated by culture is that it is kind of a middle ground between something that is essentially immutable on our time frame (DNA) and something that seems fleeting (our individual learning, behavior and ultimately, income).

In a sense, my whole obsession with the family dynasty can be framed in terms of an attempt to create a micro-culture. I don’t really care that much for wealth in and of itself. But I have come to see inherited wealth as a useful tool for creating the kind of culture I think is optimal for human development. Specifically, inherited wealth can help free us from certain forms of chronic stress.

Similarly, my interest in extended family and communal living can be framed in terms of how it impacts culture. Specifically, a larger family is necessary to create a minimum viable cultural unit that shields us from chronic social stress by having some bedrock social stress, and creates a large enough bubble to be able to effectively pass on cultural norms. That is, I suspect that a single nuclear family isn’t big enough to maintain a culture, even a micro-culture.

The inheritance (i.e., the grace) we pass on to our children consists of DNA, culture, and wealth. Our DNA is perhaps the most important, and the thing we have least control over. We have a little more control over culture, but unless you want to pass on the default American standard, creating the proper environment for passing on culture is very difficult. Wealth isn’t trivial to obtain, but at least we can obtain wealth without contradicting our prevailing cultural norms.

I believe that a culture that encourages individuals to become active stewards of a family culture (and the wealth used to maintain it) is more robust than one that focuses exclusively on wealth. Wealthy people who have grown up with a broader view of how they fit into a family culture are less likely to feel purposeless, because it takes a lot of effort an ingenuity to maintain a healthy family culture.




Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters

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Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters

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