Saying Grace with Adam Miller

A short review of Adam Miller’s excellent book Original Grace: An Experiment in Restoration Thinking.

Prelude

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) seems to have a grace problem. Like almost all Christian denominations in North America and Europe, the LDS Church has struggled in recent years to retain young people and progressives. Though the LDS Church’s support for conservative social issues will continue to be a point of tension for many, LDS philosopher Adam Miller’s Original Grace is an attempt to experiment with “Restoration Thinking” in order to affirm a core Christian doctrine to LDS spiritual practice: Grace. His research question: What happens when Justice and Grace are not seen as oppositional? His hypothesis: It changes everything.

Raised in the LDS church, but leaving in my late 20s, I have had my eye on Miller’s Zen-infused prose for a while. This is because Miller has wrestled with one of the issues that led me away from LDS practice and toward a more contemplative expression of Christianity. As an LDS person there was a grace-shaped hole in my life that I didn’t even know was there, but after suffering through deep depression during my mission years, mostly because of my own feelings of unworthiness, grace found me, and I began to believe that my status as a creature of God came before my actions or behaviors. In his boldly titled Future Mormon (2016), Miller’s essay ‘A General Theory of Grace’ simply states: “Grace is Original.” In this short review, I want to commend Adam Miller for his book length elaboration on that sentence and raise some questions for his ongoing experiment with a doctrine that has yet to find a comfortable place at the table of LDS spiritual practice.

Miller’s Radical Justice

Original Grace is a touching tribute to Miller’s late father, a disciple of Christ whose strongest theological proof of God’s existence was the self-giving love he felt all around him. For Miller, his father taught him that Justice and Mercy were always on the same team.

Central to Adam Miller’s claim is that the doctrine of Original Sin, a doctrine that the LDS church has negated since its ‘13 Articles of Faith’ were published in 1842, has nonetheless tainted the way LDS people live their understanding of the Gospel.

Despite LDS religious culture’s rejection of the austere Calvinist doctrine of “total depravity”, and its dismissal of Sola Fide (faith alone) soteriology, faithful LDS have nevertheless absorbed the idea that true justice justifies, at least in theory, the necessity of punishment for sin. That falling short of the Gospel merits our feelings of guilt and shame and that only by redoubling our efforts to be righteous will we come to our salvation.

LDS have often seen justice as a kind of divinely anointed karma: They, along with some other Christian lineages, intuitively believe the proposition that humans suffer because we deserve it. The Old Testament’s admonition of an eye for an eye is often described as a bridle for vengeance within a proportional tit for tat. The Hebrew imagination saw justice as restoring right relation among peoples, castes, land and God, and this certainly included God’s punishment of Israel’s enemies or those who strayed from Torah. Diseases, plagues and natural disasters were often interpreted as God’s justice playing out in the world (See 1 Chronicles 21:14).

Miller doesn’t negate the goodness of the law, but with LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks claims that Christ offers a better way. Miller asserts that this better way is to align justice with grace by returning not only good for good but also good for evil. This is a play taken directly from Jesus of Nazareth’s Sermon on the Mount. For Miller, in a Christian cosmos, suffering can never be deserved, only learned from and wrestled with.

Miller shares that as a missionary he constantly fought feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. That is until he picked up Stephen Robinson’s 1992 Believing Christ. Robinson diagnoses the problem in his own spouse, who after working hard to be the perfect LDS woman collapses into a pile of defeat and despair. She accepted that her efforts would never be enough to merit the full measure of LDS salvation. Robinson takes the whole of the church to task on her behalf for refusing to believe that Christ means what he says and did what he did.

Robinson’s theory of the atonement is not so much of substitution, Jesus suffers on our behalf, but of being saved “after all you can do” (See 2 Nephi 25:23). To illustrate this Robinson shares ‘The Parable of the Bicycle’ wherein a little girl scrimps and saves for a bicycle for weeks, but still falls short, even after all her hard work. The loving father steps in and pays the rest. Grace, after all we can do.

Miller lauds Robinson’s first step, but argues that this “after thought” or “backup plan” soteriology still does not fully grasp the radical claim grace has upon us. When grace and justice are aligned, they ask not what we deserve, but what we need. Sin in this understanding is not a law broken, but grace rejected. Miller writes, “The problem isn’t that God is unwilling to offer the grace I need. The problem is that I’m unwilling to receive the grace God is giving” (14).  

LDS tend to think that salvation is the highest reward for living a righteous life, rather than seeing righteousness as the fruit of our embrace of the saving (salving) love of God. The commonly quoted LDS scripture Doctrine and Covenants section 82 reads: “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say” is an underlying motivation for an LDS version of the prosperity Gospel, an esoteric incantation that extracts blessings from a God of justice. It is Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic liberated from Calvin’s total depravity. Strange bed fellows indeed.

Miller admonishes LDS that salvation is better sought and understood as a present-tense reality. “A shared life lived in Christ’s presence is the end. It is salvation” (20). Christian virtues like charity are what grace looks like in human clothing, not what Christians do to impress God, whose grace is the very air we breathe (37-38). He writes, “If we take Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as our guide, the logic of justice is the logic of grace” (37). Thus, no instance of a karmic approach to justice in scripture can dissuade Miller from seeing justice as an expression of how to arrive at what human beings need rather than what we deserve. The Bible is not after all a story of justice executed judiciously in each case, it is a story about a thousand broken promises met by a God who loves us as a nursing child at his breast.

Grace and Nature

Perhaps because the book is tailored to a general audience, and went through the editing filters of Deseret Book, the LDS publishing house, I found myself wanting Adam to weave in threads of the “Traditional Christianity” he is partly polemicizing against. I found the lack of historical context for Original Sin or Grace for that matter a weakness of the initial chapters, even if the book is aimed to keep folks from slogging through the theological mud. In addition, I found that his work of aligning justice with grace was more successful than his case against Original Sin. A brief discussion of what I mean.  

First, a bit of background on the doctrine of Original Sin: This core doctrine is found at the heart of all Christian communions: Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist, Pentecostal and Evangelical. The theology claims that our mortality entails a proclivity to sin by nature.

This theology is primarily absorbed from the second account of Adam and Even in the Garden found in Genesis 3, wherein eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil results in the couple being expelled from the Garden of Eden. However, the doctrine also draws from the poetry of Psalm 51 where the poet writes, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (KJV). In the letter of Paul to the Romans (Ch. 5), he claims that if death came to humanity through one person (Adam), salvation most certainly could as well (Jesus).

However, Original Sin does not appear in Jewish theology. It was Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) an early Church Father who really solidified the doctrine. Augustine had a sudden and unexpected conversion to Christianity at the age of 31. His own riotous past convinced him that human beings are utterly dependent on God’s grace.

Miller’s only mention of non-Mormon theology is his mention of the theology of John Calvin, the 16th century French reformer whose understanding of faith meant that unlike the sacramental approach of the Catholic and Orthodox communions, no rite, ritual or sacrament was effective in ensuring our salvation. Not even an act of faith could save us. Our natures are totally depraved of the good, we are utterly and completely dependent on God’s grace. Our election is only made known to us through our desires to live a Christian life, or through the fruits of that life. The Westminster Confession, the current articles of faith of the American Presbyterians, continues to affirm that humans are: “Wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.” [1] Original Sin indeed. Interestingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:

“It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’—a state and not an act.”[2]

In other words, human nature is wounded, but not totally depraved. The notion of an LDS human nature (which tends to be more optimistic) is never fully resolved by Miller who writes:

Christ’s atonement directly addresses a problem internal to my own nature as a sinner, not a problem internal to God’s nature. He bridges a gap caused by my rebellion against justice and grace, not a gap between God’s justice and God’s grace (59).

In all Christian readings, even LDS, my nature as a sinner comes through contraction, I have inherited my nature as a sinner. LDS do not appear to believe that our nature as sinners goes all the way back into the LDS pre-existence. Another option is that sin comes into the world only when we chose to sin. There is no pre-existing conditions, only a long string of spiritual lifestyle choices that our natures are vulnerable to slipping into.

When Miller says that his nature is as a sinner, he seems to be implying then that our sinful nature is contracted through our humanity and understood through the myth of Adam and Eve as the parents of our humanity. While this theory of sin feeds the logic of karmic justice Miller critiques, it is also at the center of his theology of grace, which does not presume to merit God’s grace, only strives to be a receptive vessel for it.

The LDS Church’s Palagian Problem

This leads to another bit of historical context. The rejection of Original Sin in the Christian tradition has tended to be by those who embrace the idea that we can earn our salvation. For example, Pelagius (c. 355 – c. 420 AD) a British monk, asserted that Original Sin did not taint our nature because our nature was synonymous with being, and being is sacred. Pelagius was one of the early Christians who demanded strict moral obedience for all Christians, especially priests. Pelagius’s view was quite popular in the 5th century, before Augustine’s Original Sin rose to the status of dogma. His notion of free will (free agency) suggested that God would not command us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) if it were not possible. And God didn’t create anyone to be evil, this was a Manichean (dualist, gnostic) doctrine. However, after a public run in with Augustine, Pelagius’s ideas were condemned primarily at the councils of Carthage between 411–418 CE.  

Miller’s challenge going forward is that Mormonism’s rejection of Original Sin is in my view primarily a Palagian move. This is evidenced, not just in many LDS’ embrace of the Prosperity Gospel, but in the persistence of certain folk theologies that come from Joseph Smith Jr.’s later revelations. For example, Miller uses the word “Creation” in the book but does not clarify whether he also rejects the Ex Nihilio (out of nothing) Creation of “traditional Christianity”. LDS tend to talk about creation as an activity of organization overseen by a certain Celestial precinct’s God, in earth’s case Jesus Christ out of existing matter. Many LDS believe that our pre-mortal selves participated in that organization, a beautiful thought for some, but also a move that steals something of the grace at the heart of what it means to be a Creature. These two rejections: Ex Nihilo and Original Sin seem to leave the possibility of embracing grace less likely. Rather, embracing the strong contingency of my existence that ex nihilo creation asserts, and my nature as a sinner that original sin canonizes, leaves me prone to the radical beauty of God’s grace. 

Other Braids in the Estuary of Grace

Before I conclude, I would like to point readers to several other worthy explorations of grace-centered Christianity which flow in the same direction as Miller’s.

1)    The Franciscan Alternative Orthodoxy

The Franciscan Order, founded in 1209, has since the writings of Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308), asserted a minority position on the Incarnation (the doctrine that God took on a human form/nature). Since Scotus, Franciscans have asserted that rather than a ransom, or substitutionary approach to salvation, which is predicated on the inevitability of sin, Franciscans assert that Incarnation has been part of God’s plan from the beginning. Contemporary Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr likes to say that God becomes what he saves, and the Incarnation was not just a single event in Jesus of Nazareth, but an ongoing event from the beginning (See John 1).

2) Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing

In 1997, Dominican Friar Matthew Fox wrote a book entitled Original Blessing. His book proves that Roman Catholicism has just as deep a wound related to Original Sin as the LDS Church. The book got him excommunicated by Cardinal Ratzinger. In the book, Fox emphasizes the many affirmations of the goodness of creation in Genesis 1 that preceded the sin of Adam and Eve that saw them exiled from the garden. While I don’t find Fox’s scholarship all that impressive or well-disciplined, his assertion that the interpretation of Original Sin needs a complete overhaul, was well received with progressive Christians, especially those interested in ecological theology.

3)    The Neo-Celtic Christianity of John Phillip Newell

A former pastor in the Church of Scotland, John Phillip Newell has sought to amplify the teachings of the Church in the British Isles before the Roman standardizations of the 6th century. While he calls his Christianity Celtic, it is more accurately classified as a kind of Neo-Celtic Christianity, which infuses pre-Roman Christianity with contemporary concern for equality, spirituality, feminism and environmental stewardship. Newell negates the Virgin birth and believes that Creation was not effected out of nothing, but out of God.  He boldly claims that holding an infant is the best argument against the doctrine of Original Sin, a doctrine that he simplistically explains as primarily about imperial control and oppression of the masses. For Newell, Original Sin is psychologically damaging and makes up the core wound of Western Civilization, which leads to so much shame and self-loathing.

Conclusion

There are perhaps many more examples, but these writers sketch out the basic topography of the Christian interlocutors that Miller is in conversation with. Each of them emphasizes the primacy of grace as a bewildering gift, not a post mortal rewards package. I commend the razor-sharp prose of Adam Miller’s excellent book. Any discussion of grace is a balm to the common affliction of shame and guilt that justice-oriented approaches to religion too often take. And as Miller says, the LDS Restoration it isn’t finished.


[1] See Ch. 6, https://www.pcaac.org/bco/westminster-confession/

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #404 https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/catechism/cat_view.cfm?recnum=624

Hope is a Stubborn Buoy

Short panicked breaths

Treading icy water

Rounded waves pulse—Zenith and nadir

Tidal times—like the moon drawing our living water toward Underworld

Alone.

The lights of shore blink

The choking drench of wet waves blinds and garbles

One, two last buoyant breathes…

Silence. 

But hope is a stubborn buoy

Even with the rock and tilt of the storm,

I rise, peak and pitch above the soaking wet

The marrow in my bones refuses to be frozen

At last, grace orients me across the patterned swell

And I begin to swim

I am not adrift, but have somehow set sail

I sprout mast and sail and rigging and lift off the water

Catch the howling wind and am one with the very waves that menaced destruction  

Easter Vigil

On Maundy Thursday

I will wash my feet in the riffle of a creek

On Good Friday

I will lament the crucifixion with the dear earth

and venerate the weeping wood of too many crosses born by still living trees

On Holy Saturday

I will sit in vigil

at the tomb under a night sky

greyed by a shroud of sleepless electric lights

And on Easter Sunday

I will wander and worship

the resurrection body

in the cherry petals

that bloom and waft all over my garden city

Mass Grave

[In June, I started working part time at a Funeral Home. One of my tasks was to arrange all the cremated remains that have been left behind over time. It was baffling. Over 500 since the 1950s. I wrote this poem shortly after a long shift working in the Home.]

I’m standing in a mass grave.

Not one dug in the dubious cloak of night by the shovel of a tyrant.

A grave that is tucked away in the fluorescent catacombs of a funeral home.

I have been appointed to order these lonely parcels into chronological and alphabetical order—due diligence to finally put them into the ground en masse.

Shelf after shelf of neatly packaged cremated human remains—boxes just wide enough to grasp with one hand, but too heavy to carry for long.

I pick up one that feels empty and quickly realize that the box contains the remains of a baby.

There are many babies.

Weathered masking tape holds serial numbers that verify an identity, some with instructions—

Nephew will pick up. Brother in Germany. Hold for six months. Will pick up on April 11. Call family.

Most have names: Maude, Clive, Edna, Dorothy, Daisy, Stan, Bertha.

Some do not have names—Unidentified male, Vancouver. Unidentified Male, Burnaby. Unidentified Male, New Westminster.

This cubical congregation spans many decades—1955, 1958, 1972, 1978, 1986, 1998, 2004.

A weathered box from the 1970s leaks gritty ash from a corner,

It piles like an hour glass on an empty pine coffin I am using as a workstation.

Ash like any ash, dust like any dust;

And yet, attach a name and a big bang of images, ideas and personality expand outward like a tiny universe.

I tape the box shut and put it in its new niche.

Silver fish swim among the disintegrating brown paper and masking taped cardboard coffins.

I scratch my arm and dead skin cells slough off, a slow cremation.

I breath in the trace dust of 500 lives lived and cough them out again.

I want to take them all home and adopt them as my own ancestors and friends.

Build them cathedrals and mausoleums.

Make biopics about their lives, extraordinary and ordinary alike.

Write biographies that will scandalize, or end up in free bins in the foyers of public libraries.

But my arms give out,

A fuse mysteriously blows,

I leave the boxes where they lay for another night alone together.

Easter Desert

The soft patter of cool drops,

Christen forehead, neck and hands.

The earthy incense of the desert’s thirsty breath

As He opens his sandy mouth to drink.

Processions of Palo Verde and Mesquite still clad in their golden Easter vestments

Shout Alleluia! from the valley’s hillsides

And throw their spent petals into the Pentecostal winds.

Even the cacti are clad in their Sunday best.

Like my own spiny succulent heart—

Prickly and defensive most of the time

With seasons of extravagant

Openness and beauty.

April 29, 2019

A Dying Grebe

At the bottom of a steep flight

Of stairs that lead into the ocean,

Between a sandy cliff and the lapping tide,

I caught a red eye among the logs and silent stones.

Silent until the tide teaches them to speak.

I walked to the end of a small jetty and

Looked back at the amphitheater of the eroding cliffs.

The eye belonged to a small bird we call Grebe

In drab plumage. He struggled out of the rising edge of the sea

He knows so well.

He stopped below a beached and weathered

Log and sat silently, awkwardly and alone

On the cobbled, clacking shore.

That incessant

syncopated

chatter

Between sea and stone.

Two of my kind walked past

Without even noticing

That he was there.

I moved closer,

An arm’s length away.

I looked into that fierce red eye

And watched as his back

Rose and fell

In short resigned breaths.

I noticed broken flesh below his wing

Though I was too timid to touch

Him, worried that my

Touch would only make things worse.

I sit and watch water that is

Endlessly rising and receding,

Chattering with rocks that do not care

If they live or die

Because they will always be

Alive in the tiny flecks of body

That make up plankton

And shell fish

And seals

And herring

And clams

And eagles

And grebes’ red eyes.

This grebe, on the edge

Of the ocean he knows so well,

An ocean that incessantly

Speaks with the rocks

Beneath his wounded wings,

Stares at the coming fog of that dark ocean

Death he may not fully grasp.

And I, I sit stone still at the edge of the world and just listen.

A New Years Blessing

IMG_8388.JPGIn this New Year, may we take the time to both be and become. May we drink of the rich beauty of this life with all the excitement of a fresh sapling. First, acknowledging the Author of all life, that loved us into being. And then, by doing something, even a small something, each day to care for the earth, the poor, the vulnerable and the weak and to stand for justice. May each day be a cup that overflows with goodness, charity and kindness. May we waste less time while remembering to stop and appreciate each moment. There is a difference between time wasted and time that is spent in stillness and quiet. May we acknowledge and learn more of the names and habits of our brothers and sisters in creation: birds, plants, trees and stars. May we pray sincerely every day and not lose heart when we are too tired or feel rushed, letting our praise and petitions eventually melt in the quiet solitude of God’s love. May we read many good books. If we can squeeze it in, may we also work on learning a new language, and so enter into a new world. May we eat fresh food and marvel anew that the bodies of other beings become our own, and to always be humble before this troubling and beautiful mystery. May we thank those who make our clothes and grow our food, and in some small way participate in manual work with them, thus touching the sacred earth with our fingers, and taking some small part in growing the bounty that appears so miraculously at our tables. May we walk and walk and walk and feel our sacred body-souls moving through the world and relish the atmosphere that comes in to us as we dwell in her. May we do all this and more, not as items on a list of resolutions, not as accomplishments for our ego, but as an irresistible way of being in and of this world and becoming the next world, together.

Redemption

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Redemption comes in tiny ripples, not crashing waves.

Redemption arrives quietly like swallows—one or two appear overnight and stay on for a time.

Redemption comes in an instant like the sparkle of grains of sand that catch the sun just right.

Redemption works on a person like the tides.

What begins as the sharp edges of broken glass-hearts, yield their violence to the slow washing over of the ever breathing sea.

Redemption comes like clouds of pollen from sturdy pines that somehow find the nakedness of fertile cones.

And, once acknowledged in the heart, redemption, ever present, becomes a ripened seed that plunges into the fecund darkness of earth with an unwavering hope that she too will become a towering tree.

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Two Walks

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On Sunday I took two walks. One before church and one after. The first took me through the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver’s urban core. I set up the vestments and chalices for the morning Mass. Then, I left the church and headed west along the boundary between Gastown and Chinatown. Gentrification has created a kind of checker board of social housing interspersed with hip up and coming vintage stores, pizza by the slice and dive bars. Buildings tower over head. The streets are still sparse in the early cool of Sunday morning. A man lies sleeping in a doorway. A woman j-walks slowly eyes fixed to the ground. Crows and pigeons forage and peck at the street.

As I round a corner, turning north and then east, the streets are even more sparse. Trinket and tourist shops are still closed. There are a few early risers with cameras. The uneven pavement rests, waiting for the city to wake. I try to make unthreatening eye contact. I try to pray for each person. I forget. My mind wanders and then I start up again.

I return to the church and attend Mass. It is solemn and beautiful. The familiar words, chants and choreography nourish me. I relish in the tiny morsel of bread and sour wine that dissolves into my mouth, dissolving me with it.

The second through a second growth douglas fir forest in North Vancouver. Its tall trees and clean air have become something of a sacred grove for me as I work through a dark period in my life. A period in my life that is rich with the productive pain of spiritual growth.  After coffee and a few greetings I drive to the Northshore and take a familiar trail down toward Lynn Creek. The trees tower over me. The sun peeks through in speckles and flecks from high above. The forest is still cool and still even though it is after noon. I ask the trees and salal to pray for me like they are saints. I pass couples and tourists, dog walkers and families. I try to make unthreatening eye contact. I try to pray for each person. I forget. My mind wanders and then I start up again. Crows and robins forage and peck at the ground. I approach the gurgle of Lynn Creek. I sit on a flat rock caressed on all sides by water. My mind drifts off into the soft sound and continuously flowing water. My two walks were really just one long walk.

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