On Religion

The Revd Alan Ramsey

“Religion is what breaks our will to go away.” This is one of many gems in Adam Miller’s magisterial book Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology. By this he means that religion (in the most positive use of the word) is what breaks our will to just withdraw and instead brings us back to the ordinary world at our feet. Religion is not the work of escaping this world but the practice of returning to it, revealing the nearness of what is often too near to be seen.

The thrust of Miller’s book is about how grace works through everything. He presents it as a dually structured phenomenon where objects are characterised by ‘resistant availability.’ Objects are not reducible to any other object. They are ‘resistant’ to being anything less than they are, just as humans need to resist being less than they are. Similarly, objects are ‘available.’ They interact with and relate to other objects in the world just as we do. So, for grace to work, in Miller’s view, there needs to be a resistant availability. We sin when we despise the resistance of other objects or when we don’t honour people for who they are. And we sin when we refuse our availability to them. 

But, as we know all too well, the task of respecting and fully ‘seeing’ each other and the thousands of objects we encounter each day is so difficult. And we know that making ourselves available brings suffering. Most of the time it’s just easier to walk away. The forward writer of Miller’s book gives a great example of this:

“I sit beside my daughter as she colours and tell myself I’m a good father as I spend time with her. Yet, as I sit there, I turn back to the book I am reading, check updates online, compose articles in my head, and so on. I am there without being there and am refusing to ‘suffer’ her and enter communion with her. Turning away, I imagine myself a little sovereign, free from the world. Like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, I try to withdraw in order to enjoy a perfect solipsistic sovereignty.”

This week as election fever begins to grip the country there is a temptation to not respect the resistance (the dignity and ‘this-ness’) of others, and their opinions. Or to refuse our availability to them even though they’re trying to make sense of this country just as we are. When it comes to Brexit, I am a Remainer. But my temptation is to leave. Not the EU, but those who think differently than me. To withdraw from dialogue, understanding and forgiveness. But Grace asks us that we don’t withdraw, that we suffer alongside each other and each object in the world while we work out some kind of future together. Religion is what breaks our will to go away.