At the Convergence of Grace and Truth

November 14, 2018
David Holland
HDS Professor David Holland. Courtesy David Holland.

David Holland, John A. Bartlett Professor of New England Church History at HDS, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on November 14, 2018.


My text for this morning’s prayers comes from the Christian scriptures, John 1:14.

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” Some version of this same scriptural formulation occurs at least seven times in the canon of my tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This passage will be forever connected in my mind with a conversation I had with friends, on a Sunday morning, many years ago when I was in the early stages of my PhD program. Our discussion that day turned to a question of where honesty ranked in the hierarchy of virtues. I began wondering out loud if honesty was sometimes subordinate to other concerns, such as the ability to provide the comforts of hope to those in hopeless circumstances. As I was bumbling through the moral calculus of these questions, I was brought up short by the comment of a friend sitting to the right of me, who spared me from my sloppy Sunday morning ethics by pointing out one rather simple scriptural point. “Jesus,” Erik said, “is described as full of grace and truth.” He proceeded to explain his view that rather than seeing the virtues I was describing in competition with each other, perhaps our task was to seek to live the principles of both graciousness and honesty to their fullness. The struggle between grace and truth, he observed, may not be the zero-sum game I was making it out to be.

In that moment, and in years of reflection on that moment, I came to realize that I had been too fully conditioned by a culture that pits these two ideals as rivals. Think of the presumptive ways we use the phrases “brutally honest” or “painfully candid.” Think of our current politics, where we give credit to public figures for being truthful not because their facts hold up—which they so often don’t—but simply because they deliver them with brutality. Somehow we have made truth and grace mortal enemies—to the detriment of both.

This passage compels me to reject this false necessity. Grace and truth, it teaches, can coexist—not just in some half-measured, compromised form, but in their fullness. And with divine help I can—I must—strive to live at the intersection of these two demanding virtues.

I have also come to recognize that the related message of that passage is that perhaps these two can only achieve their full coexistence when we make the commitment to dwell together, even in—or, maybe, especially in—our most difficult realities. 

About four years ago—in my role as a lay leader in my church—I was meeting with a person in dire circumstances, a man who was working desperately to keep a family and a life intact. He had grown up in a home with a mother suffering from a bi-polar condition, making his childhood very difficult, and now his wife, the mother of his four small children, had been diagnosed with a related mental illness. In the course of trying to provide some comfort and support, I asked him what his church family had done, or hadn’t done, or could do to help families like his. He said something in response that has been seared into my memory. He told me that they encountered over the years an endless string of well-meaning and energetic church people who would take it upon themselves to try to fix their family. They would pour resources of time and effort and material assistance for a week or two or a month or two until they began to realize that the problems were not going to be fixed. The intractability of mental illness would not be solved through a service project or a prayer of blessing. As the unending persistence of their problems became apparent to their church community, they gradually lost sight of and contact with these helpers. After recounting this experience my friend looked up at me and said, “You know, we weren’t really looking for someone to fix our problems. We just needed someone to walk our road with us.”

This is, I think, the “dwelling” part of John’s formulation. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”

Jesus’s call to grace and truth was made real through his willingness to dwell among us. So, too, it seems to me that we can embody neither full grace nor full truth unless we are willing to be present in each other’s pain, to walk these roads of life together.

In my effort to live at the convergence of grace and truth, I fail every day. I indulge in graces that are insufficiently truthful. I utter truths with inadequate grace. But I get to keep trying, as long as and insofar as I am willing to dwell with all of the children of God in the hard realities of our shared journeys. And I can pray to be better.

Let us pray.