Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Grace of Indirection and the Moral Imagination: Learning from William Spohn and Literature

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Grace of Indirection and the Moral Imagination: Learning from William Spohn and Literature

Article excerpt

WILLIAM SPOHN, (1) A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR to this journal until his all-too-soon death in 2005, wrote often about the importance of the moral imagination. Perhaps best known for his volume Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (2) and his long-standing work on the formative power of the Scriptures and spiritual practices for the moral imagination, Spohn also wrote about the impact of the arts, particularly the literary arts, on the moral imagination and, more generally, on moral formation. In an essay on this topic in a not-widely-disseminated anthology published in the year of his death, (3) Spohn described what he called the grace of indirection as the fundamental way in which the arts can help shape our moral imaginations.

My objective here is to mine the richness of Spohn's notion of the grace of indirection, especially as it relates to the potential impact of the arts on moral formation. Because Spohn's single essay on this topic has not likely been accessible to many readers, it is worthwhile to give an exposition of what he meant by "the grace of indirection" as it is related to the moral imagination; the idea deserves wide circulation. My article, however, moves beyond a mere exposition of Spohn's ideas in two substantive ways: first, by showing how the grace of indirection is a concept with deep connections to long-standing theological convictions about God, Jesus, and the Spirit; and second, by offering an extended example of what the grace of indirection might look like relative to a contemporary short story by Tim Gautreaux.

The article is in three parts. Part one situates Spohn's notion of the grace of indirection in the context of some larger theological commitments and themes. In fact, the grace of indirection gives an account not only of the place of the arts in moral formation but also of the fundamental manner of God's relationship with humankind. Moral development takes place in response to the presence and promptings of the Spirit of God, however indirectly or obliquely bestowed. Part two examines, more specifically, Spohn's view of the potential impact of the arts on moral formation. This leads me to explore, as Spohn did, the way the arts can influence moral perception, imaginative identification, and discernment--central themes throughout his works. Part three uses the Louisiana short story writer Tim Gautreaux's "The Courtship of Merlin LeBlanc" to illustrate what Spohn meant by the grace of indirection. This story displays the fact that moral formation can take place in response to the gift of God's Spirit in indirect, surprising, and at least initially unwelcomed ways. (4)


In the single place in his published works in which Spohn referred to the grace of indirection (see footnote 3), he did so to describe the possible impact of the arts on moral formation. It is important first, however, to examine the way the idea displays deep theological convictions important for questions well beyond those relating to the arts. What follows, though it is prompted by Spohn's discussion of the grace of indirection, extends his analysis by showing connections between the grace of indirection and key theological convictions about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The notion of the grace of indirection is valuable in reference to the arts in moral formation, but it is also intimately connected to the larger conviction that followers of Jesus live, have their being, and move forward in their lives in response to the gracious presence and promptings of God--however indirectly or obliquely that presence and those promptings may be experienced.


In his 2005 essay on the grace of indirection, Spohn drew on the insights of Catholic essayist and short story writer Andre Dubus to express a centrally important theological conviction about God:

Dubus' writings point to a puzzling insight: we do not have experiences of God but experiences with God. …

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