Man meets Milky WayIn Speculative Grace, Adam Miller distinguishes science and religion on the basis of two sorts of vision.  On the one hand, Miller says, science cultivates farsightedness.  Perhaps we could say that science is the exploration of something like Morton’s hyperobjects or Deleuze and Bergson’s durations inferior and superior to our own.  Science relates us to nearly unimaginable spaces and times at the level of the vastly small and the overwhelmingly large.  In the theory of evolution we are linked to breathtaking scales of time, linking species and geographical processes that have unfolded over the course of millions and billions of years.  Like the theory of evolution, astronomy and physics link us to sublime distances and ages we can barely conceive.  We learn that it takes eight minutes for sunlight to reach us (compare this to our experience of the a room being illuminated when we flip a switch), or that it takes 230 million years for our sun to orbit the Milky Way, our how beings like our solar system are formed through a process of accretion out of the detritus of ancient stars that spread their matter throughout the universe in unimaginably violent supernovas.  In quantum physics we learn of the strange probabilistic behavior of subatomic particles that are both waves and particles and that seem to violate the speed of light through phenomena of quantum entanglement.  And, of course, environmental science reveals the vast and hyper-complex world of climate change and how our local actions are related to the the behavior of systems at scales incredibly difficult for us to think and conceptualize.  If science is farsighted, then this is because it cultivates a relationship to distance at the smallest and largest scales of time and space, showing us how we are deeply enmeshed and entangled in these things that seem so remote from our day to day experience.

Religion, according to Miller and by contrast, is about developing nearsightedness.  Where science under his reading is about developing a relation to distance, religion is about developing proximity.  As Miller puts it,

Religion corrects for our farsightedness.  It addresses the invisibility of objects that are commonly too familiar, too available, too immanent to be seen.  To this end, it intentionally cultivates nearsightedness.  Religion practices myopia in order to bring both work and suffering into focus as grace.  Redemption turns on this revelation.  (Speculative Grace, 143)

I am not certain that I share Miller’s view that this is what is unique to religion, but conceptually I like what he is doing here.  Within Miller’s framework, all of the ordinary concepts of Christianity are transformed.  Ordinarily we think of religion, and Christianity in particular, as a yearning for transcendence that aims at something out of this world.  Consider, for example, Hägglund’s critique of religion in his magnificent book, This Life.  In Miller’s account, by contrast– and don’t worry readers, I haven’t suddenly become religious –religion centers us directly in this world and the things of this world.  For Miller– and again I don’t think this need be unique to religion –religion aims not at transcendence, the beyond, a super-empirical world, but rather at immanence, this world, those things that are nearest to us.

Take the traditional concept of grace.  According to the Wikipedia entry on grace in Christianity,

grace is “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it”. It is not a created substance of any kind. “Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” It is understood by Christians to be a spontaneous gift from God to people “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved” – that takes the form of divine favor, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God.

Under this model, grace descends upon us from a verticality.  We exist in a state of sin from which we cannot escape.  Grace is the clemency that God grants us, the undeserved gift, that rescues us from this sin.

Nothing could be further from Miller’s concept of grace.  Miller wants to do for the concept of grace, what Darwin did for our conception of species.  Where pre-Darwinian accounts of species held that the world was not enough, but rather that species are created by God and are modeled after the ideas in his divine intellect, Darwin’s declaration under Miller’s reading, was that the world is enough.  Darwin proceeded to show how we can give an account of the genesis of species from within the world without recourse to any transcendent supplements.  Such is the theory of evolution.  It is premised on immanence, rather than transcendence.

read on!

Miller aims to port the concept of grace into an object-oriented framework.  As he describes it,

To a programmer, to port means to modify a program or application for use on a different platform or with a different operating system.  To port an application, you need to rewrite the sections of the code that are system-specific and then recompile the program on the new platform.  (SG, 4)

The operation of porting grace into an will require the following:

…it is necessary to (1) identify the essential features of grace, (2) identify the key differences between a theistic ontology and an object-oriented ontology, (3) map the modifications that are necessary in order to recompile grace on an object-oriented platform, and (4) make explicit the practical implications of these modifications.  (4 – 5)

I am not convinced that he completely delivers on these promises, but his attempt is provocative enough to demand further thought.  Porting grace into an object-oriented framework will above all mean adopting the stance of immanence.  Grace will not be conceived as something that descends form a verticality, God, that was once not there and that then is there and saves us– he writes another audacious book entitled Jesus Is Not God’s Backup Plan:  A Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans that is literally a paraphrase and translation of Romans similar to Badiou’s “hypertranslation” of Plato’s Republic –rather grace will be something that has always-already been there in the world among the things themselves.  Indeed, Miller will go so far as to say that God if he exists– –each time he mentions God in the book it is with the caveat “if he exists”, indicating that for him God is not a key player in this story –is one object among others, in need of grace as well.  Grace, for Miller, is inscribed in the real itself and is in all things.

Startled by this declaration, I asked him, in text messages, if he thought there was grace in the humble jalapeño?  He responded saying that,

The humble jalapeño, apart form itself being grace for me, is itself the product of what is given to it:  the grace of the sun, the grace of the air, the grace of the soil, the grace of the rain.  Each of these graces is given absolutely and unconditionally and the jalapeño both suffers and is enabled by each of them.  On an object oriented account, though, all of this gracious giving and counter-giving has been decentralized from a single, top-down theistic source to a multitude of interdependent, bottom-up relationships.  (Correspondence with Adam Miller)

If I understand Miller correctly, graces are the way in which things are intertwined with one another in relations of mutual giving and dependency.  If right, then we are now in a position to understand his thesis that religion is the development of a certain relationship to proximity.  We can now see what Miller might have in mind when he claims that religion cultivates a sort of nearsightedness or myopia with respect to those things that are closest.  This would entail that we develop an attunement to the way in which we are imbricated in all sorts of other things necessary to be the beings we are.  Here I cannot help but think of the astonishing footage of the first astronauts trying to walk on the moon.  Watch the video, preferably with the sound on:

The lesson I draw from this video is what happens when certain graces are absent, notably the grace of the earth.  The moon is about 1.2% the mass of the earth.  What the astronauts discover when they first step on the moon is that you cannot walk on the moon.  When they try to walk on the moon they fall over in all sorts of comic ways.  No, they must enter into a collaboration with the moon, a sort of dialogue with the moon, developing a new way of getting about.  I call this form of movement a “crallop”.  The move about by adopting a sort of combination of a crab walk and a hop, hence a “crallop”.  The lesson here is profound.  We take something as simple as walking as resulting solely from our agency.  Walking is something we do.  What these astronauts learn is that we do not walk on the earth, but rather walk with the earth.  Walking is a collaborative activity that is afforded and made possible, in part, by the earth itself.  We are entangled with the earth.

Jan Svankmajer seems to make a similar point in his 1968 film Byt.

In this film, the poor man finds himself trapped in a strange room where none of the usual laws of physics hold.  Not only do the things of the world in this room behave in very different ways, but the rules governing them change from moment to moment.  Again, we encounter here an absence of what Miller calls grace, the grace of things.  In the materialization of this absence, we discover the way in which we are entangled with all sorts of things as a necessary condition for our agency.

While I do not think there is anything particularly religious about Miller’s concept of grace– though I do recognize the rhetorical power of characterizing grace in this way –I nonetheless think there is something deeply powerful in his concept.  He is attempting to cultivate a vision, a way of seeing, that makes us attentive and attuned to all of the ways in which our being is a gift from other beings that we “suffer” and that we receive from the world about us.  Such a way of thinking, I believe, can only make us more ecologically aware in all facets of our existence, generating a far more caring way of relating to the world and others.