One of the discussions currently being addressed on at least two blogs is on the question of free will, human nature, and grace. I think there is considerable good will going on in the discussion, despite the norm. It is in this spirit I want to address this discussion. The people involved, in general, have not had a rigorous study in theology, and in that sense, one must understand what they say as contemplative reflections, not as final statements, and more importantly, and those struggling to understand concepts with a limited exposure to the debate around them. This means they can, and will, make mistakes which people who have studied the matter further will not make. More importantly, because I think such discussions are important, and that sometimes the non-expert will stumble upon something which the experts have not, I only want to help them along with some observations which, I hope, will help them all. In doing so, I will relate ideas from many sources, but I will do so in the methodology suitable for a contemplative essay and not a piece of academic theology: it will be more metaphoric, and engage, save for a few places, those academic distinctions necessary for a proper work in theology.
One of the issues involved is whether or not one can be sinless without grace. The question itself, and how it has been addressed, in general reminds me of the question of pure nature: can one be a just, good human, in the realm of the “natural” without any relationship with the “supernatural”? The answer is no. Sin blocks one’s relationship with God, one’s relationship with grace. Before the fall, Adam was in a perfect relationship with God in such a way that he was, even in his “natural form” open to and receiving God’s grace. Isolation from God is what the fall is about. Whatever creates isolation from God creates a barrier between oneself and God so that God’s grace is cut off from them, and the action which does this is sin. But we were created in such a way that, in each moment of our life, we can either open ourselves up to God’s grace or close ourselves to grace. When we close ourselves off to it, however, the grace which is necessary to be open to it is cut off so that, in such a fall, we no longer have the same freedom we had before that fall. Sin isolates and imprisons, and once put in that prison, one’s freedom still exists though in a far more limited nature. Thus, there is still freedom, but there is also bondage: both are true. The Catholic and is in play.
In what remains of our freedom, we can struggle to remove that barrier, but our ability is so weakened, that the barrier, by our power alone, cannot be broken — it can be weakened, and we have the freedom to work to weaken it, and indeed, we should do so — but there is the need for something else, further grace, to break it down. Grace creates the cracks needed in order to allow us to break through our sinful barrier; cooperation with grace is to break through our barrier by the means of those cracks and get out of the structure of sin.
The point above, however, is that there is no pure nature without a relationship to God and therefore, no pure nature without grace. To be pure to our nature is to have no barrier between us and grace. But even when we become less than our nature, that nature remains as it always was: good, powerful, free, because our nature is, by itself, open to God. When we cut ourselves from God, it is not our nature which suffers, but our mode of existence which suffers: we become unnatural. Sin prevents us from being what we are by nature, and turns us from persons into individuals. As individuals, we no longer have the full freedom given to us by our nature — our nature remains ever free, but our existence does not.
Now, it is asked, whether or not it is possible for someone to live a life without sin. The answer is yes! Grace which restores us to our nature can be cooperated with to overcome concupiscence. Concupiscence is manifested in the personal (and therefore, individualized) habits that form in us because of original sin (and actual sin). Habits do not have to be followed; they have to be struggled against, but they can be overcome, with the creation of virtuous habits (which of course, can be broken and turned into sinful habits if we cut ourselves off from grace). Those sinful habits are the structure created by our sin which limit our freedom; grace cracks it up. Even encased in sin, we have the freedom — and duty– to take those cracks and break down the structure (hell is when we become so isolated, so encased by sin, we do not have any more freedom to move and cooperate with grace). Some people have worked so much with grace that they have entirely gone beyond the structures of sin and are entirely free. Some have lived sinless lives (St John the Baptist, Mary), and others, after cooperation with grace have become sinless after that engagement. St Symeon the New Theologians makes it clear: if Christ demands something of us, he demands not the impossible, but the possible. The further we move and interact with grace, and break down the structure of sin, the more freedom we have to move forward until, at last, thanks to that grace, the structure of sin is broken down entirely and one can live in true and full freedom with a pure relationship with God. St Symeon the New Theologian pointed out that this was the case of his spiritual advisor (who, after he died, St Symeon founded a cult; he was able to convince the hierarchy of Constantinople of the truth of his claims, that St Symeon, under much opposition by court theologians, got his spiritual father canonized).
In this way, not only is it possible to work with grace so that we become sinless — we must affirm this possibility, because if we do not, we give excuse to sin. The weaker we are, and the greater the foundation of sin in our lives, the more it will take to get to that state — but it is possible. Purgatory is the continuation of that work for those who have not, by the end of their lives, overcome the structure of sin in their lives.
We must also understand the power of sin. It is individual in the sense it isolates us, and turns us into individuals cut off from God and from each other. But it is also communal in the sense that society can work together to create the structures of sin, to encase each other in towers of sin. Social sin is real, and it is the attempt of a society to do with itself as the individual does to itself. It is, in its way, analogous to the Tower of Babel. The structure created by social sin will be great, and can appear triumphant, but it is unstable and it will crack and fall in on itself — God’s grace, if nothing else, will make sure this is so. When this happens, there is either the option of individuals isolating themselves in their individualized prison of sin, for society to try to recreate its own structure of sin, or a reformation, where at least some of those structures are entirely eliminated.
Since we are created as persons to be open to each other, we must understand social sin can and will affect us even as we try to overcome the sin we create for ourselves. This, of course, is what material and formal cooperation with sin details: the more formal and proximate our cooperation with sin, the more those social structures encase us and cut us off from God. The more remote, the further they are from us, the more we experience them around the cracks of grace, and the more we find ourselves free to move despite their existence.
I hope this reflection helps.