The Grace of Nothingness


“Pray as if everything depends on the Lord. Act as if everything depends on you.”

Mormons recognize this as Brigham Young. Catholics as St. Augustine. In either case, I have never heard commentary on the strange duality of mind this “as-if” theology requires, as if true faith requires remaining open to both possibilities simultaneously.

To act as if everything depends on us is to assume ultimate responsibility for the world, to accept the fact that we live in a universe of comprehensive accountability where all effects have causes and all causes effects and where the link between them is always human choice. It also means you accept the possibility that God’s intervention may never come or may come in a form that will not be to your liking. This existentialist stance is the great energizer of human choice and is also vital to the self-made mythos of American life.

To pray as if everything depends on the Lord, on the other hand, is to recognize the limits of our ability to control or direct consequences; it is to assume the wisdom of the Hindu adage, which I often heard my most important mentor, Lowell Bennion, recite, “To action alone hast thou a right, not to its fruits.” It is, in short, to recognize that while we can assume that there is a relationship between cause and effect, we cannot presume to know what it is exactly.

But Adam Miller, in his recent book, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology, suggests that somehow Mormon and perhaps too American mythology has been too impatient with this duality and created a hybrid, a kind of sacralized mythos of the self-made individual. Work as hard as you can to be your best, and God will provide whatever it is you still lack to achieve perfection. Satisfaction guaranteed. The ultimate warranty on a perpetually breakable product. So you can forget the fact that, as the Preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes, “the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong,… but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

By itself, the existential disposition sponsors an urgency to act, but it also inspires delusions of human control and autonomy. By itself, the prayerful disposition inspires acceptance of what is, but it also inspires indifference in the face of evil and suffering. Alone both dispositions become unable to explain why we should concern ourselves with living according to principles or even commandments if they can’t guarantee the consequences that we anticipated. Since it is fair to say that consequences never follow exactly as we plan, we set ourselves up for the feeling of betrayal, as if we had been deceived by the promise of a reliable, sequential ordering of life.

Miller describes sinfulness as a “failure to be where we are, to receive what is given, to feel what we are feeling.” It is a singular failure of faith to be unable to receive the conditions life imposes on us, for good or for ill. And such failure is as much a function of the mythos of absolute self-determination as it is of a kind of perpetual resigned dependency on what we imagine to be the will of God. So maybe we should think further about this duality. Miller makes much of Christ’s plea for the cup to pass and then his “nevertheless” that signifies a hard-earned submission. We might rephrase the adage: “Interpret the world as if God did not exist, and then interpret it as if He were everywhere.” And in our suspension of judgment between these two possibilities, we will experience our limitations and lay hold of our possibilities, while living less shackled by needless anxieties about what we can or cannot control and what we like or don’t like about our life. As the Reverend John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead affirms after a lifetime of unmet expectations and unresolved conflicts, “existence is the essential thing and the holy thing.” The father in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” was a man who once believed in the gospel of self-improvement. “’You can’t say, I can’t,’” he tells his son, “’You say, I’m having trouble. I am not done yet.’” But after losing his job and after losing his son to apparent suicide, he makes himself available to grace: “I wanted to be loved,” he says, “because I was great. A big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us. Trees and birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.”

As Miller says, “In opening our hands to receive what [the present moment] offers and give what it requires, we must confess our dependence, our insufficiency, our lack of autonomy.” This is what he calls a kind of non-sequential grace. Malick’s “glory” is the miracle of existence, a miracle only visible to those who experience life as a gift. Which means to recognize life unconditionally, not as something earned, as something we measure and assess according to our preferences and predilections, as something emanating from and shaped by our choices. Rather, it is something we recognize as far surpassing us and our understanding. It is more than whatever we might do to life with our pitifully insufficient accounting. King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon insists that such humility is the engine of atoning healing:

“I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants. And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you. (Mosiah 2:21-22)

The blessings are immediate, he says. What can he mean by this? Surely he knew, as did his people, that good people often suffer, that anticipated temporal blessings are not guaranteed, that we cannot bind the Lord. But he has already specified what those blessings are: time, breath, physical life, judgment and choice. God’s grace, as Miller has it, “is the substance of life” itself, and is therefore, like the Preacher’s notion of time and chance, non-sequential. It is merely our biology. To be dust is perhaps shameful but only in the existential sense, not because of anything we have or haven’t done. In King Benjamin’s terms, it is to be “dust,” to be a “beggar.” It is to understand our own “nothingness and his goodness and longsuffering towards you, unworthy creatures.” Creatures. Created beings. Undeserving because we are not autonomous but made, and made, interdependent. But unlike shame born of sin, this shame inspires awe, gratitude, and fullness in the face of life’s magnificence.

The mythos of the self-made individual is, according to Miller, a narrative. It is a story of cause and effect, a linear sequencing of human existence that stresses the arithmetic of choice, of human cause and human effect. But what if we must confess, as it appears we all must, that there is no mastery of consequences, no formula by which we control or dictate outcome? What if we must say, with Malick’s father, that we have been foolish in thinking we could? Does this mean that choices don’t matter? No. As Job discovered, integrity is forged in the cauldron of life as a series of non-sequiturs. All it requires is that we must lose that maniacal and selfish need for life’s plotline and instead fall in love with life as a plotless poem. Then in finding life out of sequence, we also find that love and grace—like all good metaphors— inspire immeasurable gratitude precisely because they are gifts, neither necessary nor inevitable. We should pray to be so fortunate and then act because we are.

(Confession: Adam Miller’s book also contains a marvelous essay on my book, Home Waters, which shouldn’t cheapen this attempt to honor his writing freely and unrequitedly.)

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