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

Sketch 1: An Emerging Christian Mythodoxy

Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of sketches of some ideas I have kicking around in my head. With luck, they might become longer essays or full length books! Apologies in advance for grammar and spelling errors…

Living in Vancouver I have always felt a bit lonely in my Christianity. I love the catholic tradition, but I have serious hesitations about a full-throated enthusiasm for being part of the Roman Catholic Church. Recently, I learned that two men I admire converted (or in one case reverted) to Christianity. This has made me feel a bit less lonely and pointed to something I see happening among some spiritual but not religious ecological types. Paul Kingsnorth and then Martin Shaw, both British, and both frequent speakers on podcast and YouTube circuits, converted to Christianity in 2021. Paul converted directly into Eastern Orthodoxy, and Martin, after being baptized by an Anglican priest, has entered catechesis with a local Orthodox church in Exeter.

Shaw grew up in the Baptist tradition, with a preacher as a father, but in his teens became a musician and eventually left the church (very familiar to my own story). He was raised not just with theology but the telling of fairytales and myths. Now in his late 40s, at the end of a 101-night vigil in the forest, Shaw saw a multicolored star-like aura of light moving toward him which pierced the ground like an arrow. He heard a voice that said “Inhabit the time in Genesis of your original home.” He says he felt the presence of “the mossy face of Christ.” Thereafter, entering the lockdowns of COVID-19, he had series of dreams in which a clear message was conveyed. Podcasters Mark Vernon and then Justin Brierley have observed that many in the West are seeking for deeper meaning beyond the fuzzy post-Christian spiritual but not religious landscape of the liberal and progressive West. They have cautiously suggested that Christianity is entering a new phase.

Paul is a talented novelist, who for many years, was a front lines environmental activist. He always had a spiritual side and spent time in Buddhism and Wicca as an unapologetic Deep Ecologist and critique of industrial civilization. His book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist was a public break with his career in the mainstream environmental movement and a manifesto of slowing down, staying put and giving up on the “carbon game.” His response to environmentalism, and his lavish praise for writers like Wendell Berry always sounded to me quasi-monastic. His decision to move to a small farm in Ireland sealed that impression. Kingsnorth continues to rail against “the machine” but he is now doing so within a consciously English, even Celtic, Christianity that shares very little of the New Age trappings of the Neo-Celtic visions of folks like Matthew Fox or John Phillip Newell.

In both of their Substack threads Kingsnorth and Shaw have been thinking out loud about their newfound Christian practice. One thread of Shaw’s is entitled “A Liturgy of the Wild” and in it Shaw curates several wonder stories and archetypal hero journeys that are accompanying him as he learns the rhythms of the Christian liturgical calendar. I have always admired both men, and I feel a deeper kinship with their stories. I don’t always agree with Kingsnorth’s politics, but I certainly have taken heart in my own lonely journey with the catholic contemplative tradition.  

My pilgrimage into catholic Christianity began when I stumbled onto the writings of Thomas Merton, the Trappist writer-monk who spent much of life writing about contemplative spirituality from his monastery in Kentucky. When I attended my first Easter Vigil (Saturday evening service before Easter Sunday), I felt the power of the liturgy through the candle-lit depth of anticipated resurrection. It was a powerful, aesthetic, and affective experience. As the warmth of the liturgy sank in over the days and weeks thereafter, I realized that for me the power of the Christian tradition lay not just in creeds and atonement for sin, but in an ability to invite us into a participation with the cruciform nature of the cosmos. By this I mean that through a liturgy that aligns with the seasons of the Norther Hemisphere’s waxing and waning and the earth’s own resurrection, we bring our own bodies to the pascal mystery: birth, death, and resurrection. Coming to believe in the resurrection of Christ was made possible for me by experiencing first a real attention to the resurrection of the earth. Thereafter, the resurrection of Jesus was not an exercise in intellectual ascent to the proposed truthfulness of an enchanted version of History, but to the reality of resurrection that spoke out of every flower and tree and my own circadian pilgrimage through the year. Jesus distilled and recapitulated that rhythm with his life.

I recount this here because what I am observing and learning from Kingsnorth and Shaw is that to a large extent they too were drawn to the archetypal, storied mysterious depth of the tradition. Their hearts were caught in the fisher’s net, and they have lived to tell the tale. Like the mystics, who classically emphasize direct experience, they are speaking from their own bewildered walk with a wild Christ. Not the buddy Christ of contemporary mainstream Christians, but a dark figure who broods in the wildlands and rails against convention.

Shaw for example specifically states that he was drawn back to Christianity because of the strangeness and wildness of Christ and the story. He calls Christianity “the last great mystery”. And now he is a on a mission to reclaim the contemplative, wild, ecologically rich texture of the faith. Whereas many converts to Orthodoxy I have read about tend to emphasize coming to some ascent to its authenticity in relation to some imagined original or continuous Christianity, what I hear Kingsnorth and Shaw doing, is, walking in the tracks of the mystics, drawing close to the warm glow of the power of Christianity’s stories and liturgies.  

They are in short espousing what I want to call a Christian Mythodoxy. Mythos: from a root that comes from mouth, myths are not untruths to be busted, but the stories and deep human truths in which we see ourselves participating; not just moral lesson or entertainment. Doxy: meaning praise is our orientation toward the Divine, how do we soak up the rays of the Divine? It constitutes our spiritual practices, our liturgy and worship.

In the wider orbit of ecological spirituality, there are a lot of wonderful conversations that are trying to reconnect with the earth’s rhythms, place, archetypes, myths and even astrology. Adaya’s ecological spirituality courses, the School of Mythopoetics, the now defunct Seminary of the Wild, and many more. Yet while many of these courses can feel quite hostile to Christianity (speaking from personal experience), several renegade threads have been seeking to rewild the Christian lifeway.

For example, Franciscan Ilia Delio has showed that Catholic, from the Greek Kata-holon, according to the whole, must catch up with the facts of evolution and the implications of the discoveries of quantum physics regarding matter-energy as a continuous reality. Others like philosopher John D. Caputo have talked about post-modern Christianity as an exercise not in theology as science, but as a kind of Theo-poetics. As I often tell my students, religion done well is poetry about a mystery, meaning that theology for the most part is not meant to be an exercise certainty, proofs and evidence, but one of awe, wonder, praise and sometimes lament. Others such as writers Bayo Akomolafe and Sophie Strand are doing fascinating things with the possibilities of a wilder, earthier, porous Christianity. These two seem to be more on the outside margins of the tradition, but they speak eloquently about the wild origins of Jesus’s teachings, parables, and connections to the natural world in first century Palestine. Brie Stoner’s podcast Unknowing has also been the grounds for some interesting conversations about what comes after a rigid, denominational Christian identity at the dawn of the Anthropocene.

What I see happening more and more in these discoveries or reimaginings of Christianity does not fit into any denominational category. It is rather a kind of diffuse gesture, posture or dare I say (leaderless) movement. A Christian Mythodoxy seems to be one possible green shoot germinating out of the compost pile of a religion in decline (at least in the West). Stoner’s series on composting Christianity, and Sophie Strand have used that wonderful metaphor to talk about living on the edge of something that feels like both a death rattle and a birth pang (Romans 8). The so-called Anthropocene is bringing about great harm but is also opening space for something new.

What I am experiencing and observing is the idea that to be a Christian is not just to ascent to a platform of beliefs and then check one’s life against it. Rather, beyond theology (not in opposition to it), there lies a move toward a mythic praise, a mytho-doxy, grounded in the body and grounded in the cycles of the earth, that is the tangled fabric of our messy faith, which is always, already embedded in the liturgy of the cosmos, the good earth, and the breathtaking beauty of the pascal mystery.

A Communion of Earthly Saints

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

–The Apostles Creed

“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”[1]

–Thomas Merton

A Communion of the Saintly

Toward the end of the Nicaean and Apostle’s Creeds, Christians from many denominations affirm the belief in the Communion of the Saints. In practice, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Oriental, and Easter Orthodox traditions commonly integrate saints into our liturgies, calendars and even patronal names at baptism. My own patron saint is Saint Kevin of Ireland. Not only is he the patron saint of very ordinary names like mine, but as a hermit, he embodied the deep love of Creation at the heart of Irish Paganism and Christianity.

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines a saint as someone who is closer or more united with Christ in heaven. Intercessory prayer, which seems to pick up where Pagan polytheism leaves off, sees this proximity to heaven as a legitimate and effective way of amplifying one’s prayers. It emphasizes the idea that the church is a communal structure that is not confined to the living.

Saints are also culture-heroes that elevate our eyes toward heavenly virtues through the prism of their unique gifts. Saints are the celebrities and athletes of the spiritual life. They are role models and icons of holiness and character. For example, sounding a bit like a Catholic Bodhisattva, 19th century French Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote, “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.”[2] Saints are heroic in virtue, and yet they are often keenly aware of their own woundedness. Contemporary Catholic commentator and YouTube evangelist Bishop Robert Barron uses the analogy of a pane of glass to describe the saintly heart. As it becomes more directly illuminated by light, even the slightest smudges and blemishes become readily apparent. As Barron puts it, saints are simply people who know they are sinners. Saints don’t earn this merit, they simply orient their lives toward the light already there.

In a broader sense, all Christians, or even all people, are saints. In his letters, the Apostle Paul refers to the ordinary members of his churches as Saints—as contemporary Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continue to do. For Paul, the Saints (Gk: hagiois, holy ones) were those who had chosen to bask in the Grace of the risen Christ.

This notion of ordinary folks being Saints shouldn’t surprise us. Think of Paul’s stark transformation from a persecutor of the church to a Christic visionary; or of Peter’s penchant for cowardly self-preservation at the time of the crucifixion, to a miracle working evangelist-martyr who tradition holds was crucified upside down. From the earliest moments of Christianity there is a notion that each of us are saints in embryo, holy not just through extraordinary feats of virtue, but through our createdness, our belovedness, and our utter dependence on God, who brings us into being and sustains us in each moment.

Making Room for Creation in the Communion of the Saints

For most of Christian history, Sainthood has been seen as a human affair. However, it seems like the time has come to decenter the human person as the only creature in Creation worthy of the title. I don’t want to devalue us, I want to decenter us, there is a difference. I want to think about this with the help of 20th century spiritual writer and monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the patron saint of ecology Saint Francis of Assisi, and a few other geologians.

It isn’t actually that much of a leap to go from the notion of a primordial sainthood at the heart of our human createdness, which emerges from no merit of our own, to the saintliness of the rest of Creation with whom we share our evolutionary morphology and instincts. As a monk explained to me on retreat regarding his belief in animal souls: “Do we have the same Father? Ok, then we are siblings!”

In his poem Canticle to Creation, Saint Francis of Assisi affirmed this close kinship with creation in the 12th century. In writing with the reconciliation of two rival cities in mind, Francis declared with the Psalms that all of creation rightly gives God praise. However, he also went a step further by referring to Sun, Moon, Water, Plants, Earth, and Fire as our siblings. He wrote: “Praise be to you Lord God through Brother Sun…”[3] This kinship language is striking for a pre-ecological age that affirms the interrelatedness of all creation. And yet, there is no confusing Creation and Creator, only a more directly aligned prism that is able to see God’s loving presence in Creation.

In his foundational book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton meditates on the depth of contemplative spirituality in the Catholic tradition. Merton’s writing had a great deal to do with bringing mysticism and contemplative spirituality to an entirely new generation of Catholics, and his influence has reached into the generations of the 21st century through the efforts of the International Thomas Merton Society. One of the most startling and beautiful passages in New Seeds beautifully amplifies saintliness beyond the more than human Creation in a way that would have turned Henry David Thoreau’s scruffy head. Merton writes:

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”[4]

A tree’s substance, its tree-ness, is its praise, and because that substance owes its very being to God, it is fundamentally united with God, or, in other words, a Saint. Merton continues:

“The forms and individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God. Their inscape is their sanctity.”

Here, Merton alludes to a word coined by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Inscape for Hopkins is a creature’s most intimate uniqueness, which bears the very finger print of God. As Dan Horan has written, this is a deeply Franciscan idea, which echoes the heady theology of 14th century theologian John Duns Scotus. Merton, say on!

“The special clumsy beauty of this particular colt on this April day in this field under these clouds is a holiness consecrated to God by His own creative wisdom and it declares the glory of God. The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.”[5]

Swoon. This is one of my very favorite passages from Merton, and when I first read it as a seasonal forester in Utah in 2012, it changed the way I saw the woods. It is recalling this passage that I affirm the idea that the Communion of Saints is ready for an update.

Extinction is Martyrdom

Death is a fact of evolution. Most species have an ecological life span of about a million or so years. Human beings may be no different if we don’t shape up. Extinction, the death of a species, happens naturally. Admittedly difficult to calculate, the background rate of natural extinctions is about one species per million species per year. The industrial machine is speeding up that rate so by estimates of between 100 to 1000 times the background rate. There have been five major extinctions of life on this planet, reducing species diversity by 75-90 per cent. Human expansion out of Africa, but especially the activities of industrial humanity initiated what some are calling the Sixth Extinction event.

For those of us who see the world as more than a God-given grocery store, extinction caused by human beings is a travesty. Extinction has been likened to the silencing of an instrument in the symphony of Creation. Said another way, if each creature is a word of God, unique and singular in its particularity and bespokeness, a species, is an epic cosmic poem. Extinction at the hands of human expansion impoverishes the vocabulary of this cosmic epic that makes up an earthly Communion of Saints. Just as murder is not just death, extinction by our hands is a kind of martyrdom.

Escha-ecology

In his Letter to the Romans chapter 8:22, Paul writes that “all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” There is a sense that Christ is a cosmic event, and salvation an earthly affair. In the famous John 3:16, “God so loved the world”, after all. Eschatology is the study of last things, final words, and end times. For many Christians, only humans will accompany God into post-moral eternities. But in an era of ecological conscience, eschatology needs an earthy reassessment. As ecological theologian Sallie McFague has written, “Salvation is the direction of all of creation, and creation is the very place of salvation.”[6] Salvation was not just a single event, but an ongoing trajectory of Creation as the Body of God.

Theologians like the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin and his contemporary interpreter Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, see Big Bang cosmology as affirming the idea that Creation is moving toward its fulfillment in God. For Teilhard the Omega point was synonymous with the Logos of John Ch. 1, where the author states that the Word (Logos) was with God from the beginning and is God.

Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, and Teilhard used this as an image of the entirety of Creation being drawn into God through the humanity of Christ (Logos). Of course for Teilhard, the Omega point insinuated that the Noosphere, or mental realm, would become independent of the physical world, but Delio’s writings make a stronger claim that all of creation is involved in this ongoing cosmic soteriology. She writes, “Rather, reality is a single, organic, evolutionary flowing.”[7] The lives of Saints are powerful because they give us a taste of heaven on earth. To expand the Communion of Saints is acknowledge that like the Our Father prayer, salvation is the ongoing process of earth merging with heaven.

Finally, if a human can be a saint, perhaps we should consider whether or not her gut flora, eye mites, viruses, lice, skin and mouth bacteria, fungi, and parasites might be as well. Perhaps as well, we should wonder whether the species that have been domesticated with us are Saints: Heather, corn, wheat, barley, millet, cows, chickens, dogs, pigs. Perhaps as well those that have accompanied us as we made our cities: Cats, rats, mice, cockroaches, pigeons, squirrels, starlings, coyotes, dandelions, and crows. And perhaps those species and ecologies that provided the materials, medicines, and wild foods that nourished us. And all those that populated our symbols, languages and stories. Perhaps the Communion of Saints is nothing less than an ongoing Being-One-With the Holy-Ones-of-Creation.  

A Litany of Ten Salish Sea Rainforest Trees

Saint Western Red Cedar pray for us…

Saint Douglas fir pray for us…

Saint Western Hemlock pray for us…

Saint Grant Fir pray for us…

Saint Sitka Spruce pray for us…

Saint Amabilis Fir pray for us…

Saint Big Leaf Maple pray for us…

Saint Red Alder pray for us…

Saint Paper Birch pray for us…

Saint Yew pray for us…


[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 27.

[2] St. Therese of Lisieux, The Final Conversations, (Washington: ICS, 1977), 102.

[3] Here is a link to the whole poem! https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=3188

[4] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 31.

[5] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 32.

[6] Sally McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Fortress Press: 1993), 287.

[7] Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, (Orbis Books 2020), 176.  

A Season for Kenosis

 

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A Night for All Souls, Mountainview Cemetery

Since becoming Catholic, my love for the real meaning of Christmas has only grown. This year, I decided to do something extra in preparation for the Season of Advent, the season of ‘Holy Waiting’ in anticipation of the Incarnation.

 

Every year, Mountain View Cemetery holds A Night for All Souls, a public event and art installation that corresponds to the Christian Holy-day of All Saints and Souls Days, and the ancient Pagan Holy-day of Samhain (pronounced Saw-win). For the past couple years, I have really enjoyed this time of year. With the land turning from summer to winter and having lost several family members and friends, it was a good time to reflect on transitions; on life and death.

I wanted to do something to connect this time of year to my anticipation of Advent. I have heard of celebrating the Celtic Advent, which begins around mid-November. But it occurred to me that as we prepare to receive the Incarnation into the world, meditating on transition, on death, on our blessed dead was the perfect time to deepen our understanding of the mysterious idea of Kenosis.

Kenosis is Greek and literally means self-emptying. Paul uses this curious phrase in Philippians chapter 2, where he says:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (NIV) 

God emptied himself of divinity to take on humanity, so that we could, in turn, enter into the divine presence.

This idea has cosmological implications. One of the monks that I interviewed for my PhD had this to say:

God reached into the far end of the universe, like grabbing the back end of a balloon and pulled it back the other direction. He’s made himself present by becoming part of the created order precisely so he can pull the entire created order back up into himself. Christ is the head of everything, and everything is present in him. Everything finds its expression before God in Christ. So when I’m encountering the beauty of a flower…any part of creation…I’m encountering some part of Christ, some radiance of Christ.

Christ’s full divinity and full humanity mean that the cosmos is not a static creation, but an ongoing event that is moving toward God. Teachers like Teilhard de Chardin and his contemporary interpreter Ilia Delio, see this as corroborating scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries that see the universe, not as a static space, but an unfolding drama, wherein human beings play an integral role with the rest of creation.

Kenosis also takes on an ethical dimension in Christianity. Not only did God empty himself of Godself to become human, but the way back to God on the Christian path is to mimic this self-emptying through the cultivation of agape, or love.

In Simone Weil’s (1909-1943) Gravity and Grace she writes:

It is God who in love withdraws from us so that we can love him. For if we were exposed to the direct radiance of his love, without the protection of space, of time and of matter, we should be evaporated like water in the sun; there would not be enough ‘I’ in us to make it possible to surrender the ‘I’ for love’s sake. Necessity is the screen set between God and us so that we can be. It is for us to pierce through the screen so that we can cease to be.

To cease to be often comes across as a kind of Eastern annihilationism. However, in Christianity, to empty ourselves is really to strip down the layers of prejudice, pretence, greed, selfishness and hate that plague us as human beings and discover what Thomas Merton calls the ‘True Self’ which lies at the core of our being. Weil goes on to write:

May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.

To empty the self is to dig down to the source of the living waters that bubble up at the core of our being, where God is continually present to us and in fact creating us at each moment. If you are like me, there is still a long way to get there. But no amount of work on my part will get me all the way there. So long as I am looking, waiting, watching for God, She tends to bubble up and surface in unexpected and grace-filled ways.

This is why Kenosis is such an important Christian practice, and perhaps why this is a good season to engage it more deeply. As we enter the season of Holy Longing (Eros), we await the refreshing fulfilment of the Incarnation. Once we have emptied ourselves of the clutter of self-regard and sin, we are more prepared to be filled with the pure love of Christ (Agape). This dance between Eros and Agape is a productive tension in Christianity, and it seems like the perfect time of the liturgical calendar to engage it most playfully. Longing and fulfilment, emptiness and fullness, eros and agape tug at each other. Christianity is a religion that seeks to find itself by giving up the self, a religion that worships one God in three persons. Or, as Mother Clare Morgan writes, “Christianity is about paradox. Our greatest wealth is our poverty. Our greatest strength is our vulnerability. Our greatest armor is the wound in our side.”

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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Why we Need the Cursing Psalms

DSC_0925.jpgToday in my morning prayers I read Psalms 58. If you are not familiar, Psalms 58 is one of the more vicious “Cursing” Psalms, wherein the poet-author begs God for vengeance on his enemies. Some exceptionally gruesome lines read:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;

tear out the fangs of these lions, O Lord!

Let them vanish like water that runs away;

Let them wither like grass that is trodden underfoot.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,

like a woman’s miscarriage that never sees the sun.

This visceral desire for vengeance reminded me of the other infamous Psalm 137, which reads:

O daughter of Bablylon, destroyer,

blessed whoever repays you

the payment you paid us!

Blessed whoever grasps and shatters

your children on the rock!

Listening to mild mannered monks chant these lines is an interesting experience, but there is of course a theology behind it. The Psalms express and give voice to the entire range of human emotion, good and bad, and to chant the Psalms is to enter into those emotions on behalf of those who might be feeling them.

When I heard that a man known for past political activism killed two men on a train in Portland for confronting him over his harassment of two women, I felt angry. When I heard that Islamists had ambushed and killed over 20 Christians as they travelled to a monastery in Egypt, I was furious. When I heard about Manchester, Paris, Orlando, Charleston, the list goes on, I wanted justice. The cowardly acts of terrorists by these white supremacists and Islamist Extremists are cut from the same cloth.

In Psalm 137, the Psalmist is reeling from the recent leveling of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces. The carnage left the Jews feeling completely abandoned by God. And at times like this, with more and more senseless violence we can feel the same.

As a human being, my initial reaction is a desire for vengeance, justice and annihilation. But as someone who believes in the reality of the Christian story, I am also committed to reading the Psalms through the lens of Christ, who asks me to dash my vice, sin and hatred on the rock of his paschal mystery. The Psalms name the justifiable reaction, but Christ calls us to purify them, and to move toward a place of forgiveness, love and nonviolence.

Liturgy as Ecology

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Saint James Anglican Church

I attend a High Mass Anglo-Catholic Parish in Vancouver called Saint James. There are sometimes 12 people in the Chancel at a time, attending to the consecration of the Eucharist, swarming in dervish like semi-circles around the eastward facing priest. Priests, deacons, sub-deacons, acolytes, thurifer, torch bearers and crucifer. No single one of us, even the priest makes the dance complete. We are each an integral part of the liturgical ecology.

This is of course not a food chain, but food is involved. Our oikos is the altar,  the place where we bring the fruits of the land, the work of human hands, and  ourselves, and to turn it, ever so slowly, into God. As an ecosystem transfers energy from up the trophic hierarchy from simple to complex organisms, so we during the liturgy, move the desires of our hearts into God’s desires; a little more each day.

It is true, that if we stay on the surface, the liturgy can be boring and repetitive. But just under the surface, the intricate dance that turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ on the altar, is an icon for the everyday intricacy that turns our food into our bodies; bodies that make up the mystical body of Christ.

The Gardener

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In today’s Gospel reading from John 20:12-15 we read:

“But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.”

We all know what happens next. This familiar Easter narrative has both delighted and puzzled Christians over the centuries. Mary Magdalene, a woman, was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. She was the Apostle to the Apostles, the first member of the Christian Church. We have often wondered, however, why it was that she did not immediately recognize Jesus.

One Jewish legend of the time, attempting to discredit the story of the resurrection, speaks of a man named Judas, who was worried that Jesus’s disciples would trample his cabbages when they came to visit his tomb. So, he relocated Jesus to another tomb, and the myth of the resurrection began. It is said by Biblical scholar Rudolf Schnackenberg, that perhaps this story is the reason John’s Gospel refers to Jesus as a gardener in the first place.

Other commentators have of course pointed to Mary’s grief, or even her focus on the worldly body of Jesus as reasons why she did not at first see her Teacher. Or, perhaps the author of the Gospel was playing with the familiar ancient trope of the disguised returning hero (See Homer’s Odyssey).

I would like to suggest a much simpler possibility. Perhaps Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener, because he was gardening. The scripture says that Mary turns around and sees Jesus there, it does not say that Jesus was facing her. Perhaps she noticed his presence, but his face was obscured because he was hunched over, hands in the dirt, taking in the smells of the earth on the early morning after he had suffered so much, and been miraculously returned to life.

The dialogue that ensues between Mary and Jesus could have taken place at a short distance, as Jesus playfully repeats the words of the angels, “why are you crying?” and Mary hopelessly asks if perhaps he knows where her Teacher has been laid. Perhaps he then got up from his task, and put his hand on Mary’s shuddering shoulder and spoke more directly: “Mary!” And when she looked up, only then did she recognize the face of the man she had come to love and respect so much.

Now, of course this is speculation, but I feel like this reading enriches many of the existing elements of symbolism in salvation history. As many commentators have pointed out from the earliest days of the church, including Paul, whereas Adam brings sin and death into the world through disobedience in the Garden of Eden, it is Christ, who in the Garden of Gethsemane and then the garden of the tomb points to the final Garden of the Resurrection. The Garden of Eden begins the salvation narrative, and the garden tomb finishes it. Jesus is the new Adam, as Mary is the new Eve. Christ suffered in a garden. He rises in a garden. As the second Adam, he is the “Greater Gardener.”

Sometimes we imagine the resurrected Jesus as a white-clad, angel like man. But the accounts of the resurrection, often portray him in day-to-day scenes. He appears to Apostles in a small room, and eats with them; He appears to two men walking along the road, and again eats with them; He sits by the Lake of Galilee and cooks breakfast over a fire. I am reminded of the familiar Zen Koan, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Before the resurrection, fully human and fully divine, after the resurrection, fully human and fully divine.

We will never know for certain of course, but there is nothing that convicts me of the both the reality and naturalness of the resurrection more than watching the cycles of birth, life, death, decay and rebirth that happen each year in the garden that we call earth.

References

Schnackenberg, Rudolf. The Gospel According to St. John: Volume III. Crossroad, 1990.

Lost in Lent

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About a week before Lent began, I took a retreat to a Benedictine monastery in central Washington. Unlike several of the other monasteries I have visited, this particular monastery was located in a more suburban setting, and, founded as a small college, the monastery is now a bustling university.

I went hoping for some silence, writing time and immersion in the familiar rhythms of the monastic liturgy. When I arrived, however, the first thing I noticed when I got out of the car, was how loud it was. I could hear I-5 rushing and hushing in the background. In addition, the liturgy was not chanted but spoken, which made it feel less vibrant, and the space of the chapel was one of those ill conceived modernist boxes. Nonetheless, the monks were kind, and I enjoyed talking with them, and learning about the monastery’s history.

The monastery started with close to 600 acres, but now retained only about 350, most of which was devoted to the campus and student housing. They had a small farm operation in the 1930s-1950s but it ended by the 1960s. Even with a smaller footprint, the monastery had taken good care of the remaining second or third growth forests, which had a number of walking trails. And even with the white noise of the freeway in the background, I enjoyed walking them.

Despite the loveliness of the forest, I ended up having a difficult time writing, felt restless during the spoken Divine Office, and everywhere I went, the freeway was audible. I ended up leaving early, so I could get home and regroup.

On the way, feeling the weight of dissertation anxiety and something of the distance that opens between us and the Divine at times, I decided to go for a hike at my favorite protected area in Bellingham, Washington, Stimpson Family Nature Preserve. It was late in the afternoon, and a friend and I headed around the wet, still snowy in places, trail.

It is one of the few older growth forests in the area, and I often feel God’s presence there as I breathe the clean cool air, and marvel at the riot of colors. But this time, riding the wave of restlessness from my retreat, I felt a very strong sense of God’s absence. It hit me like a wave, a sudden pang of nihilistic agnosticism, and the darkening forest, still silent and deadened to winter, felt cold, indifferent and lifeless.

For several days after this, I pondered the dark mood that had descended. I stopped praying, and considered skipping Church for a few weeks. My usual excitement for Lent turned into a smoldering dread.

I recently decided to join an Anglo-Catholic Parish in Vancouver because of its wonderful liturgy, and I had signed up to be part of the altar party as a torch bearer on Ash Wednesday. So, despite the darkness that had descended onto my spiritual life, I decided to go.

At first I felt sad, and distant, but as the liturgy proceeded, my attention sharpened, and I began to feel lighter. During the consecration of the Eucharist, which like Traditionalist Catholic Mass is said with the Priest facing the altar, as torch bearer, I knelt with the candle behind the priest. As the bells rang and the priest lifted the bread and then the wine, a subtle shift occurred in my chest. The utter strangeness and beauty of the liturgy penetrated my dark mood, and lifted me back into a place of openness and receptivity. It was nothing profound, or revelatory, but a perceptible change. I was again, ready to enter into simplicity and silence of Lent, in anticipation of Easter.

Reflecting on this ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, I began to understand the gift that God’s absence can sometimes be. I remembered the scene in 1 Kings 19, where Elijah is called out of his hiding place in a cave by God:

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (NIV) 

Of course God is present to all things, but She cannot be confined to any one of the elements. Having experienced God’s presence so deeply in forests over the years, it was alarming to feel such a sense of despair, and emptiness. But it is true, just as the forest is a place of beauty and life; it is also a place of suffering and death. If God were wholly present to the forest, there would be no distance to cross between us.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si:

“Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence” (Laudato Si, 119).

I am most certainly guilty of romanticism, but this phrase, “stifling immanence” keeps coming back to me. God is everywhere present, and hold all things in existence at each moment. But there remains an infinite gap between us.

As I deepen my Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and silence, I am grateful for this lesson, and it has served as rich food in the Desert of Lent this year.

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