There's a guy in my Xavier program who's smart . . . I mean, he's impressively intelligent. He's down to earth but can throw around five dollar words with relative ease. I've really enjoyed getting to know him. And he's an atheist.

Funny thing for an atheist to attend a Catholic university, eh?

Anyway we're in a class tonight, a course covering the development of Christian theology from the Reformation until now, and we were discussing Luther's perspective on justification by faith. Basically, Luther wrote that we are saved neither by faith nor works but by the grace of Christ [it's more nuanced than that, but it's not where I'm going with this].

So this really smart guy, the atheist, asks a question of the professor:

"What do you mean when you say the word 'grace'?"

He had never really been exposed to the theological concept that is Christian grace.

I almost wanted to turn around and excitedly explain it to him myself. The professor did a decent job of defining grace in a textbook fashion, but I found it wanting because it was devoid of the personal encounter. As I think about it, I think she defined it without any reference to Jesus [which is entirely legitimate as grace was present in the Old Testament. But I'm not sure I would now converse about the topic without noting the importance of Jesus' death].

Then again, I wondered, "if an atheist asked me, 'what is grace?' would I have an acceptable response?" As a minister with over a decade of theological schooling, I'm still not entirely sure how I would answer that question. This isn't to say that I haven't chewed on it myself; trust me, I've thought a lot about it. But I suggest that how we define grace ought to differ from person to person, i.e., we each view the grace of God differently in our own lives. And that's one of the amazing aspects of the gospel message- there is no one true definition but it can be expressed in many different ways without losing it's transformative power.

Perhaps there are times when we who are fluent in "Christianese" ought to beware that we assume people know what we're talking about. Faith is a complex matter and it never hurts to double check to make sure you're being understood.

That said, I love difficult questions. So how do you answer it:

What is grace?