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.

Dispatches from the Camino de Santiago: Setting Off

12 Century Spanish Cistercian Chapter House being restored at New Clairvaux Trappist Abbey in Vina, CA.

A few weeks after I had defended my PhD and graduated from the University of British Columbia, I bought a ticket to Barcelona. I had heard of many people having amazing experiences on the nearly 500 miles long Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that gained popularity in the middle ages as a safer alternative to the Holy Land. In the last several decades, annual walkers of the “French Way” have risen to approximately 300,000. I love walking, but I have never done any long distance hiking apart from a hand full of overnight backpack trips. I want to walk the Camino for a lot of the same reasons that most people walk it. I have the time and the resources. I love to travel. I love Christian history, mythology and architecture. I am discerning my vocation within the church.

Of course, a pilgrimage is supposed to be more than just a long hike. Twentieth-century contemplative writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote that “the geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey.” My journey has been one of enormous privilege and blessing. Now, at the end of my education, there is no juicy job offer, no tenure-track position awaiting me; just the vacuous uncertainty of 50 or so digital black holes asking for three letters of recommendation. It is a frightening liminality; being in between my last moments of a very long career as a student, and my hoped-for profession of scholar and educator.

About a week ago, after wrapping up a course for the Forestry Department at UBC, and delivering my last midday meal to some high-rise office in downtown Vancouver for my part-time food delivery job, I packed up my truck and said goodbye to a beloved Vancouver community. As I have done many times before, I boxed up my possessions, mostly books, and hoisted a few boxes into the creaking bed of my small truck. On the morning I left, after saying what felt like weeks of send-offs and well wishes, I took one last look at the strange geometry of a familiar but empty room. Over the last week, I drove down the West Coast, staying with friends along the way. I am writing this in Oceanside, California, while I visit with family in preparation for my brother’s college graduation. I will catch a flight to Barcelona from LAX on Sunday, May 27.

Even though I leave this coming Sunday, I began my pilgrimage kneeling on the sanctuary steps of Saint James Anglican Church about a week and a half ago. After converting to Roman Catholicism in 2015, my long spiritual journey continues, and I have really fallen in love with the balance between progressive values and traditional liturgy of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that is alive and well in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where Saint James is located. At the end of my last Sunday High Mass, the Rector gave me a simple pilgrims blessing, and the love, admiration and prayers of the parishioners buoyed my spirit.

Whenever I drive to Southern California, the first thing I notice when I summit the passes of the desert mountains is the smell. It is a smell that tugs at all of the memories of my formative years and if I were to describe it, it would be something like the smell of fresh rain on hot pavement. I love that the freeway exit signs and place names read like a catechism of the Catholic Saints. Just as we call the collection of states in the Northeastern United States ‘New England’, it would not be inappropriate to call the Southwest ‘New Spain.’ I only realize now that the tallest mountain in Orange County, where I grew up, was christened by the Spanish in honour of Saint James. Santiago Peak and Santiago Canyon were familiar words with invisible histories for me as a young Mormon growing up in Orange County. There is a certain “Catholicity” to the geography of Southern California, and I am only now becoming literate to the names and charisms of the many saints and feast days that dot the state’s many post-colonial place names. Having grown up in Southern California near Mexico, and having travelled in Latin America, it feels right to finally be paying a visit to the ‘Old Country.’

The last few months have been busy with planning the logistics of the trip, making lists of cathedrals and monasteries I want to visit, and assembling the proper gear for the walk. It is only in the last few weeks that I have begun to really reflect on the spiritual reasons I am walking the Camino apart from the raw experience of the walk. Traditionally, people undertook a pilgrimage as an act of penance, petition or gratitude to God. I am certainly taking my own sins, prayers and thankfulness with me on the Camino, but I wonder if there is something more my walk could mean or put out into the world. I am not expecting any grand revelations or mystical encounters, but what does the simple act of going for a long walk mean in such uncertain times?

As I drove a long stretch of highway between the city of Saint Francis (San Francisco) and San Luis Obispo, California, I listened to a three-part series from Radiolab about illegal immigration in the United States. The series explored how toughening border security in urban areas in the 1990s had pushed desperate migrants into the deserts, who must walk for days on end to reach the United States. The number of deaths and disappearances surged drastically. Prior to 2000, fewer than five migrant deaths were reported each year. After 2000, the number has reached nearly 200 each year. And those are just the ones that are found. As Radiolab’s guests argued in gruesome detail, a dead body does not last long in the desert, with vultures, scavengers and even ants quickly dismembering and dissolving the bodies into nothingness.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers took vows of voluntary poverty and privation and sought a kind of spiritual anonymity. Desperate migrants, who risk everything to find a better life for themselves and their families all have names, stories and people who love them, and yet do find spiritual solace in the privations of the desert. As I listened to the stories of these brave people seeking a better life, a life like the one I was given through no merit of my own, I could not help but feel somewhat ashamed of my privileged stance as a voluntary pilgrim. I am going to walk for leisure, adventure and spiritual insight; they walk for their lives and the lives of their families.

In addition to my own burdens and questions, the people and petitions I am carrying with me; I will also make space to pray for refugees and migrants. For the thousands of men and women who have no other choice but to walk. I know this will not contribute directly to solving these complex global problems and heartbreaking realities. But there is a small part of me that believes that in the midst of a broken world, the earnest prayers of even one person make a difference. I am praying with my feet on a path that has been travelled by thousands of people for over a thousand years. I am going for a walk.

Wilderness and ‘Wild, Wild Country’

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931–1990) began teaching publically in the 1960s.  Bhagwan criticized socialism and Gandhian politics and challenged many traditional Hindu values. His talks seemed to synthesize and illuminate the teachings of various religious traditions. He was an advocate of free love, he blended psychotherapy and meditation, and held civilizational aspirations that framed his movement as the catalyst for a global transformation that would end war, violence, sectarianism and hunger. Many of his talks are available on YouTube.

Despite being fascinated by religion, and having even taught a course on New Religious Movements, I had never heard of Rajneesh, or Osho, as he was later affectionately called. With the release of a six-part Netflix documentary series Wild, Wild Country directed by Maclain and Chapman Way, we are given a whirlwind tour of one of the US’s most fascinating and explosive religious experiments.

In terms of production quality, Wild, Wild Country may be the best documentary series I have ever seen! The visual storytelling is masterful. The cinematography seamlessly blends historic footage and colour-saturated contemporary footage of the people and places associated with the movement’s heyday. The soundtrack isn’t bad either! The narrative is at times alarmist but overall sympathetic to both those who opposed Osho’s movement, and those who are still loyal to him and his teachings. Wild, Wild Country confronts us with yet another case of religious outsiders seeking acceptance on the margins of American society, and like most new religious movements, they were met with intense resistance.

The 40 residents of the town of Antelope, state and federal officials were almost immediately worried when an obscure Guru from India purchased a large ranch in central Oregon. Baghwan’s first commune in Pune, India, established in the early 1970s, ran into trouble with the national government. In 1981 Rajneesh and many of his followers relocated to the United States.

Several things did not sit right with the local towns peoples. The Rajneeshees practised an ecstatic form of meditation called ‘Dynamic Meditation’ that resembled, in some footage, a kind of psychotic break. They embraced free-love. They re-incorporated the town of Antelope and renamed it Rajneeshpurum, occupying almost the entire City Council. Rajneeshees or, Sannyasins as they were also called, wore mostly maroon or pink colours as a sign of group cohesion. Feeling somewhat unwelcomed, they became heavily armed as a measure of “self-defence.” And, it seemed that Rajneesh lived in lavish luxury, while his followers lived simple communal lives, suggesting a disparity between teacher and student. Many followers also cut off ties with family and friends and donated their assets to the movement, a red flag for many. This combination of factors, and the recent mass-suicide at Jonestown in Guyana meant that what may have felt like utopia to some, was being framed by locals and the media as a capital ‘C’ cult.

However, by far the most compelling character in the series is Rajneesh’s personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela. Much of the militancy and controversy in the public eye came through her interviews as the mouthpiece of the movement. She was the Stalin to Rajneesh’s Lenin; an uncompromising and fierce protector of Osho and his movement. In the defence of the commune, Sheela would stop at nothing. She plotted assassinations, wiretapped the entire compound, and perpetuated one of the worst bioterrorism attacks in the history of the United States by contaminating Wasco County salad bars with E. coli bacteria.

You simply must see for yourself how it all comes unravelled, but in reviewing this excellent film, I wanted to focus on one aspect that caught my attention. Though not rooted in the Christian tradition, the decision of the religious commune to take refuge in a remote part of Oregon has a long lineage in monastic and religious movements. Religious scholar and theologian Belden Lands says this of the relationship between land and new religious movements:

“People seeking new vitality in the spiritual life continually retreat to wild and undeveloped landscapes, seeking new meaning along the outer margins of familiarity. There, in places of abandonment—the desert, the highlands—they establish community rooted in the spirit of wilderness saints before them. But after having made this new land habitable, beginning to look upon it with a pastoral eye, they sense the danger of losing the sharp edge and hardiness the original landscape had suggested. Subsequent movements of reform, therefore, set off in search of still other wild and remote regions to begin anew. Or they preserve within the present terrain an archetypal or metaphorical landscape symbolizing the wilderness enclave the community still aspires to become. Repeatedly, therefore, the “desert ideal” of fourth-century monasticism in Egypt, Syria, and the Wilderness of Judea served to inspire successive movements of spiritual renewal” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 47).

In some ways, I appreciate religious movements that see religion as something more than an after-work hobby, a social club, or a Sunday ritual. The Rajneeshees saw themselves as moving to the desert to begin the work of transforming the planet. Sound familiar? Many hundreds of utopian movements have had similar ambitions and claimed not to be a new religious sect.

In my research on medieval era monasticism, new orders would often emerge as an attempt to return to the spiritual roots of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They would write grand narratives about their fleeing to the dangerous and unforgiving wilderness to make the wildlands blossom as a rose and to spread the Gospel. And, if there were people there, they would either write them out of the story or in more rare cases, physically drive them out of the area.

The Rajneeshees often claimed that they simply wanted to live in peace. But as they set their sights on the Wasco County Commission election, it became clear that they had a more evangelical agenda. There is something absolutely revitalising about starting fresh. But, when you show up in someone’s ‘countryside’ and assume it to be a ‘desert wilderness’ there are bound to be problems.

The Shape of Water as Anthropocene Fairytale

[SPOILERS]

The Shape of Water (film).pngI suppose it was appropriate to the theme that it was pouring rain as I approached the theatre. After the Oscar buzz of The Shape of Water, Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s new fantasy film, I had to brave the water and see it. It was gorgeously imagined, shot and performed, and nods to monster movies and romantic classics. The final scene, however, was something of a jolt to my eco-spiritual sensibilities.

The film revolves around a white woman named Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who is a winsome janitor at a top-secret Cold War era US military research facility that has just acquired a new “asset.” She is an orphan who has strange scars on her neck which apparently are the reason she cannot speak. Her friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) are both outcasts in some way: Zelda is a black woman in a racially charged time in American history, and Giles is a gay man in a very straight world.

The “Asset” is an anthropomorphic, aqueous creature that can breathe air and underwater through a kind of dual respiratory system, which interests the scientists immensely. Their plan, rather than study the creature alive, is to vivisect it and learn what they can before the Russians get a hold of anything that could put them ahead. The creature is tortured and prodded by arch-villain Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who is the head of security.

Of course, as we soon realize, Strickland is the real monster of the film. On the surface, he embodies the supposed pinnacle of Western civilization during the Cold War: he has a beautiful, obedient wife, two children, a new Cadillac in the driveway, and is on the road to a promotion. None of this makes him happy of course, and he is myopically obsessed with power, with prestige, and with money. He is of course chronically insecure and has to have frequent pep talks with himself in the fluorescent mirrors of the men’s room.

Del Toro’s moral critique of American high modernism couldn’t be any clearer. At every turn, Strickland oozes stale white, male, modernist, Christian stereotypes. He is an effectively hate-able villain, but also a completely predictable, one-dimensional one that merits no sympathy whatsoever. Anthropocentric, greedy Western culture captures and destroys innocent and beautiful nature in a dark sterile industrial looking lab. The subtext is clear: Nature, embodied by the extracted Amazonian amphibious creature who is “worshipped” by the Indigenous peoples of his home place is valuable only as a dissected object. Echoing the classically masculine scientistic view of the world that Carolyn Merchant outlines in the Death of Nature, Strickland will do whatever it takes to subdue and exploit the Asset.

Enter Eliza. The whimsical Amalie-esque janitor is assigned to clean up the lab after the creature is tortured. She inexplicably connects with him and begins a secret romance. She brings him eggs, plays music for him and teaches him sign language. They fall in love. At one point the man-creature is being tortured and prodded by Strickland and manages to bite off two of his fingers. Eliza finds them on the floor as she is cleaning up the blood. They are surgically reattached, but they do not take, and by the end of the film are black and rotten (like his soul?). When Eliza finally gets wind that the lab has decided to kill the Asset because he is too dangerous, she decides to break him out with the reluctant help of her friends and a Russian spy on the inside at the lab.

Fast forward to the final scene: Strickland finds out that Eliza’s friend Zelda knows something about the location of the man-creature and is determined to get it back. He has her pinned to the wall and to intimidate her, he rips off his blackened fingers and throws them on the floor, much to her disgust. This act of sadism compels Zelda’s husband to blurt out Eliza’s name, which he had overheard Zelda talking about the creature with. When Strickland finally finds Eliza, Giles and the man-creature at the docks, Strickland knocks Giles out and then shoots Eliza and the man-creature, who crumpled to the ground. However, as alluded to earlier in the film, the creature has a kind of bioluminescent healing power, he rouses and resurrects. The creature staggers to his feet, places his hands over his bullet wounds, heals himself, and walks toward Strickland who is attempting to reload his pistol. Strickland marvels at the creatures abilities and says, “You are a god.”

At this point in my mystical naïveté, I will be honest, I actually I expected the creature to heal Strickland’s hand, which would soften Strickland’s cold black heart, and the beauty and transformative power of nature revealed. However, as soon as Strickland says “you are a god,” the creature, without thought or much effort slices Strickland’s throat from one end to the other with his sharp claws, and he falls to the ground, himself unable to speak in his final moments. My mouth actually fell open in surprise. There was no harmonious ending for Strickland’s long history of abuse.

The earth is being abused by a relentless industrial culture. The Shape of Water, a kind of Fairytale for the Anthropocene, shows just how indifferent the earth may be to our hubris and attempts at control and power. Many are hoping for a soft landing from our consumer culture. Many are rallying for a ‘good’ Anthropocene. Many see a path of penance and repentance for humanity. In my own eco-theological hope I wanted nature to overwhelm Strickland with grace and healing. To show that the earth is resilient to our abuse and that there is a future for humanity if we would just repent and change our relationship with the earth and her creatures. However, Del Toro’s brutal ending teaches an important lesson, one that is sometimes difficult for me to hear: the earth can only be pushed so far before (s)he pushes back.

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.