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Grace, Works, and Algorithms

July 19, 2019

I have a strange fascination with the religious concept of grace, mainly because it is so central to Christian denominations, yet so opaque to me. I understand it is a core of the disagreement between the various Christian traditions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and even less well regarded traditions like Mormonism.) I don’t think my inability to understand is solely due to a Mormon upbringing, because, to be fair, I don’t even fully grok the Mormon understanding. When I ponder it, it all evaporates in a stupor of thought.

This fascination has led me to try to explore it in irreverent analogies and metaphors to things that I understand slightly better. At Sunstone, I will talk about grace, works, and devotion from the perspective of video games.

Will I get it? Will I have any insight? Hah. Probably not. These presentations are gratuitous.

Today, I was thinking about grace, works, and social media success driven by algorithms.

On sites like YouTube, instagram, and so on, creators want to become successful. Many view success in terms of metrics such as views, watch time, subscriber and like counts.

We want to believe in self-efficacy. We want to believe that if we try hard enough, work hard enough, strive hard enough, then we will be able to earn fame and fortune and success.

We want to believe that if we have arrived at all those things, then “we built that.” That it was owed to us and we have earned it.

We want to believe that if we (or someone else, preferably) have not arrived at all those things, then it is due to their defect. They didn’t work hard enough. They didn’t earn it.

But what if this sense of independence is what is meant by the religious concept of sin?

What if what is meant by sin nature is the fact that every action we do is tainted by a mentality that assumes that we can earn our way to success, and therefore blame ourselves or others for failure to hit those milestones?

What if the sin is failing to acknowledge that what is given is given regardless of desserts or earning? It is freely given. In other words, it is a gift. In another phrasing, it is grace.

Enter the algorithm.

I am not going to claim that the algorithm is God. I’m not claiming that even in a metaphorical sense, that one can ever match the two up. But YouTubers and instagrammers and influencers want to treat the algorithm in remarkably similar ways to how certain believers want to treat God at least in a certain sense — in terms of the relationship of works to outcomes. These YouTubers and ‘grammers and influencers want to believe that the algorithm (which rewards and punishes) is like a vending machine…if you put in x amount of effort, you will get y reward.

But what if the algorithm is quite a bit more mysterious?

Maybe repentance is not necessarily the process of “doing more” or “doing differently” (which is a very common understanding, especially from a Mormon background), but a basic shift in mentality to acknowledge that where we end up is a gift, and that anything we do is tainted if we don’t acknowledge that and surrender to that.

What this means is that doing with the expectation of earning an outcome is sin. It misses the mark because it pridefully takes a posture of self-efficacy and independence. What is required, in contrast, is a mentality shift of doing for the sake of doing itself, while recognizing that the outcome is something one has hope for, trust in, but not an expectation of deserving. This is the appropriate response.

I didn’t understand the religious talk of grace vs works, and of the interrelationship. But with this analogy, I can paint a picture that has meaning (at least for me. [Is it right? Hah. It’s gratuitous.])

Does a posture of grace — that we do not earn what we get and that what is given is freely given — mean that we should give up and do nothing? Certainly not!

While we ought not create with the “expectation” of success (attention, views, accolades, etc.,), the appropriate posture is that a gift should be used with gratitude. This opportunity (and talents) that we have to create — these gifts — should be magnified with gratitude, not with the expectation of success and accolades.

If someone gives you a gift freely, are there obligations to its use? I like to think that in a pure sense, there are no obligations. What is freely given has no strings.

…and yet…we can still acknowledge there are responsible and irresponsible ways of accepting gifts. There are grateful and ungrateful ways.

Regardless of outcome, we should maintain a gratitude…If we are successful, we should maintain a gratitude…this means acknowledge we didn’t earn that. Every view, every subscriber, every like, was and is a freely given gift. Gifts aren’t earned, but must nevertheless be cherished with gratitude.

But even if we are not successful, we should maintain a gratitude, for these are also freely given gifts. I think about the scenario of receiving an “unwanted” gift…think of an ugly sweater for Christmas. It was freely given out of love. It indicts us to snub our noses at it. That is an ungrateful posture.

In this way, there is the relationship between grace and works. To ignore doing, to ignore practice, to ignore works, is an ungrateful posture. Maybe this is what the scriptures mean when they talk about developing talents? To hide the talent, to fail to invest it, invest in it, is an ungrateful posture.

At the same time, to do, practice, work, with an expectation of deserving or of “earning” one’s way, is also an ungrateful posture.


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