This week I want to use my column inches to do you all a favor and share somebody else's thinking for a change. Adam Miller is a young philosopher who is doing fresh and unconventional work in Mormon philosophy and theology. His new book Rube Goldberg Machines, published this year by Greg Kofford Books, collects some of his essays on Mormon topics. The book is an intellectual stir-fry of disparate themes, styles, and methods with lots of protein and plenty of fiber, too. Pick out the water chestnuts if you must, but eat this book for supper sometime soon.
Some of the essays are formal theology and some are personal reflection, notably the concluding essay "Shipwrecked" in which Miller in essence bears his testimony, though not in guru-style spiritual self-help, and Miller might disapprove of the therapeutic uses to which I am about to put his ideas. But putting ideas to work in odd and seemingly-inapt ways is Miller's modus operandi, so perhaps he will forgive my kidnapping his ideas and putting them to uses for which they were never intended.
One of my favorite pieces in the book is "Notes on Life, Grace, and Atonement." Despite its weighty-sounding title, the essay, if I've understood it, is a prolonged joke: structured as a linear sequence of 118 numbered items, the essay is actually a dilatory, digressive, and circular argument against a linear, progress-driven concept of cosmic time. The essay has many moving parts and finally arrives at several different destinations simultaneously, but one of the central ideas has, dare I say, changed my life? At the very least, this idea has allowed me to interpret a difficult experience from my past in a new and meaningful way. The idea concerns resurrection; the difficult experience is my own battle with anxiety.
To summarize Miller's entire argument in all its complexity would be tricky, so I'll pick out a single strand as well as I can. Miller takes as a foundational text Christ's words from the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I say unto you, Take not thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body more than raiment? ... Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. ... Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or Wherewithal shall we be clothed? ... Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Mt. 6:25-34).
Miller finds in these words an instruction to "attend to the givenness of life in its immediacy": that is, to remain mentally and spiritually present in every moment, aware and accepting of everything the universe offers us in that moment's place and time, whether good or bad. Any mental escape backward into obsession or regret, or any escape forward into fantasy or anxiety, is a spiritual refusal of the grace of the present moment. This refusal is both sin and death: sin because it refuses life and grace, and death because it is a separation of the spirit from the body-in-time. Miller writes,
To the degree that past or future events dominate our attention and cause the richness of the present moment to withdraw into the background of our lived experience, we die and become enemies of the kingdom of God. In this sense, we die a thousand deaths every day. Failing to be fully present, we fail to be at-one with our bodies, with God, and with the people around us. Failing to be present, we suffer that triple-death of death, sin and scattering. (10)
When I read these words, I was given a sudden insight into what have been the darkest passages of my life, my periodic struggle with anxiety. I am fortunate to be healthy now, but during periods in my adult life—four periods, to be exact, coinciding precisely and not at all coincidentally with the infancies of my four children—I have experienced severe and consuming anxiety on a daily, hourly, minute-to-minute basis. In the terrible depths of those months, made bearable only by the pleasure that my infants gave me, I couldn't describe what I felt, only that I didn't feel alive, didn't feel that I belonged to my life. But Miller's words above captured exactly what I experienced: my mind spinning forward out of control, away from the present moment where my body and my babies waited, headlong into catastrophic fantasies. I didn't feel alive because I was dead, my spirit separated from my body, the hand out of the glove.