Grace versus Karma, by Bono

This exchange has become well-known and Bono is praised for his acumen:

Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Assayas: I haven’t heard you talk about that.

Bono I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

Assayas: Well, that doesn’t make it clearer for me.

Bono You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

Bono’s heart is in the right place but his point is incoherent, and ultimately destroys grace.  He misses the entire point of the gospel, which is that we get Jesus’ karma and He gets ours in an exchange offered by grace.   And this exchange is the only way we get grace — there is no other…interruption of karma.    All that “as you reap, so you sow stuff” is the reason and logic for the entire drama of redemption.

It’s a short quote, and Bono might expand on it if he had the chance.  But as it stands it is typical of the shallow view of grace that makes Christians miss so much of the riches of the theology of the atonement.   Indeed, why even have a theology?  There was karma, and then one day God just “upended” it.   Well, that was nice of Him.  Why?

If God offered grace for no reason, from no ground, capriciously and absurdly, then He is no person with whom we can have a relationship.    And there would be no reason for the Redemption to take any particular form.  If grace is simply produced by God from a contentless ground, then why was That Particular Atonement necessary to accomplish the grace?

Grace is deeper and more profound the more it is painted against the background of the crushing karma of our eons  of depravity, and — this is the entire force and power of the plot – emerges from within that karmic system as a majestic reversal.   What was Lewis trying to get at in that famous passage where Aslan talks about the deeper magic in which death works backwards?   Unless grace emerges from a karmic  backstory, it is a hollow dropping from a deus ex machina,  plummeting from out of the rafters of the theatre at a random moment and at a random place.

There is this idea — a feeling, really —  of grace that could only be articulated by a modern,  for whom the absurd is normal and significance resides in the sentimental…we love acts of love for no reason.   We love kind moments from the darkness of no cause — ex nihilo.  We want our sweetness to come from nothingness.    It has a romantic appeal, but “just because” is ultimately hollow.   It abandons the grammar and syntax that undergirds the kerygma.

This modern, irrational grace is not a well thought out, cognitive preference — but rather a decadent, precognitive, sentimental aesthetic.   It emerges from a non-biblical ethos as an effort to cling to a scheme of salvation, for a time, but it cannot last.   It is a stage in the death of Redemption.

Notice that theories of atonement become meaningless to the degree grace is understood like this.   It is not that we have left Anselm behind; it is that we have lost what is behind Anselm.   He was commenting upon a masterful play; we are oohing and aaahing at a Happening.

4 thoughts on “Grace versus Karma, by Bono

  1. Ha! When I saw the title of your post, I thought, “Oh, there’s that clever Bono quote again.” I mean, I enjoy U2 as much as the next guy, but Bono just gets way too much lovin’ in some circles lately, it’s ridiculous.

    So I was refreshed to see your comments afterwards. Good stuff.

    “Notice that theories of atonement become meaningless to the degree grace is understood like this.” I know a lot of folks who will likely NEVER grapple with a “theory of the atonement” their entire Christian walk. For them, I’d rather feed them Bono’s line than feed them a heavy dose of law and fundamentalism. They already get enough of that already.

    • I can’t disagree, Matt. Most believers will never wrestle with theories of atonement precisely because their notion of grace matches Bono. When God just decides to be nice one day, there is nothing to understand. Especially, Him.

      But nothing could be worse for them than law and fundamentalism. I realize in some circles “theories of atonement” conjures a tone of law, but for me, just the opposite. I’m thinking more of what Dorothy Sayers meant in her word “drama”: nothing to do with the crushing weight of law, all to do with the pageantry of a great dance, in which we find ourselves whirled about then deposited in the winner’s box.

      The richer the grace, the more complex it diagrams. Not the casuistry of a technical manual, but the curves within curves of a gavotte.

  2. Helpful text, thanks. I think the key is “…a marvelous murder had to happen…” — in the OT, a lamb must die, in the New, a Lamb. Only through His own death — not by a whim — is karma transferred.

  3. Perhaps Psalm 130:4 expresses the union of karma and grace. “With you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared”. The very act of God letting us off the hook is a fearful thing for us, because in the masterful play we see that a marvelous murder had to happen in order to realize our forgiveness.

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