The Necessity of God
In the Flesh, Present Tense, Imperative Mood
A version of this essay was originally delivered as a talk sponsored by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship on November 12, 2022 at Brigham Young University as the “2022 Neal A. Maxwell Lecture.”
I can’t stop thinking about this man who couldn’t stop walking. I keep rereading his story. Sometimes I dream about him.
One day, he’s fine. He does what he pleases. He sits. He eats. He works. He sleeps.
And the next day, he starts walking and can’t stop. Robbed of any control, he just keeps walking and walking like an automaton, for decades, for the whole rest of his life, away from everything he wants and everyone he loves, until he dies.
One day he has everything. Then he starts walking. And the next day he doesn’t.
And I can’t help thinking that this is a story about you—or me, that it’s a story about me.
And, especially, I can’t help thinking that this is actually a story about God. That it’s a story about what it means to meet God “in the flesh,” in my own flesh, here and now, in the form of implacable necessities, and to suddenly find, as Jesus put it, that somehow God is already “in” me and that somehow Jesus’s great intercessory prayer has already come true and the decisive day has already arrived, “that day” when, as Jesus promised, “ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).
In other words, I can’t help thinking that this story is actually about what scholars call “divine indwelling.”
It’s a story about what it means to have Christ in me as he, in turn, is in the Father.
In Joshua Ferris’s novel, The Unnamed, Tim Farnsworth finds himself indwelt by a will that is not his own.
Tim is a husband and father. He loves his wife, Jane, and his daughter, Becka. He’s handsome and healthy and has a great head of hair. His teeth are strong and white. He’s smart and works hard. He’s honest and generous. And to top it off, he’s made a lot of money as a valued partner in a Manhattan law firm.
Tim is a model of twenty-first century happiness and success.
Until one day, Tim walks out his corner office, past the firm’s front desk, down fifty flights of stairs, through the busy lobby, and out onto the street—and then, unable to stop, just keeps walking, with only a handful of remissions, for the rest of his life.
Tim is no longer in control. He’s been occupied by a foreign power. He’s host to an uninvited guest. Tim’s mind says stop but Tim’s body keeps going.
When Tim “looked down at his legs,” Ferris writes, “it was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness . . . the terror: the brakes [were] gone, the steering wheel [was] locked” and Tim was at “the mercy of this wayward machine.”1
Tim and his family try everything. They visit every doctor. They gather every second opinion. They try every New-Age, crackpot remedy. But none of it helps.
Tim is diagnosed with “benign idiopathic perambulation.” But this, really, is just a made-up name for the nameless thing, driven by unknown causes, that his doctors don’t understand.
Tim tries running instead of walking, but this just exhausts him and, despite his exhaustion, his legs keep going. He has his wife lock him in the bedroom, but trapped inside he walks himself “dizzy and half-mad.” He tries a treadmill. He’ll “beat his body at its own game,” he thinks, “outwit dumb matter with his mind.” But, every time, he just steps right “off the revolving belt, into freedom.”2
“His body wouldn’t be contained or corralled,” Ferris writes. His body “had, it seemed to him, a mind of its own.”3
Tim’s body had, Ferris says, “a mind of its own.” In this respect, Tim’s situation is dramatic but ordinary. At root, this is commonplace. You already know what this feels like. You already know what it feels like when your body has a will of its own and won’t do what you want.
Your knee has gone out. Your hands are arthritic. You’ve had cancer. You’ve had back surgery. You can’t have children. You suffer migraines. Your teeth ache. Your heart is weak. You can’t sleep at night. You’re allergic to nuts. You can’t sit on these chairs. Your skin burns easily. Your hair is thinning. Your vision is blurry. Your metabolism is low and your blood sugar is high. You know what this is like.
Or, even when you’re well, your body has a mind of its own. Even when you’re well, your heart beats, your blood pumps, your lungs breathe, your food digests, your nerves hum, your thoughts turn, and your emotions rise and fall without consulting you.
The same is true with all your senses: your eyes see and your ears hear and your nose smells and your tongue tastes and your whole body feels (pleasure or pain, it doesn’t matter) with a will all its own—naturally, automatically, irresistibly, necessarily—without your willing any of these things to be seen or heard or felt.
What could be more ordinary than a body with a mind of its own?
And, surely, what could have less to do with that very special, otherworldly thing that philosophers and theologians have long called “divine indwelling”?
For instance, in Jean-Yves Lacoste’s monumental Encyclopedia of Christianity, the entry on divine indwelling certainly never suggests any connection between “circumincession”—a technical, theological term for divine indwelling—and poor Tim Farnsworth’s “idiopathic perambulation.”
Sure, Tim can’t stop walking, but what does his affliction have to do with God or divine indwelling?
The encyclopedia entry, far from mentioning the troublesome autonomy of our bodies, focuses entirely on three classical ideas about the nature of God, claiming that: (1) the term “expresses the dwelling of the Trinity in one another,” (2) the term describes “the interpenetration of divine and human natures in the person of Christ Jesus,” and (3) the term names the means, and ultimate end, of human redemption.4
As the Father indwells the Son (by divine nature), so the Son indwells the flesh (as incarnated), and so, ultimately, the Son comes to indwell us (redemptively).
Much of this classical language about divine indwelling is, of course, borrowed directly from the Gospel of John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t talk this way, but John frames nearly everything in terms of Jesus’s efforts to put God “in” us.
For example, in John 6 Jesus teaches, “he that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
Or, in John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Or, most memorably, in John 17 Jesus prays for his followers to “all be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us . . . I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:21).
Here, all of John’s talk about divine indwelling is clearly canonical, it’s obviously and deeply formative for the whole Christian tradition—and, also, it’s rarely used by Latter-day Saints.
Because, as the encyclopedia indicates, for the larger Christian tradition “indwelling” has become synonymous with a Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead. And Latter-day Saints don’t think about God in Trinitarian terms. We don’t describe the Godhead’s mutual indwelling as a “consubstantial” unity and, what’s more, we certainly don’t define consubstantiality as essentially immaterial. Rather, for Latter-day Saints, as Section 131 puts it, “there is no such thing as immaterial matter” because “all spirit is matter” and, eventually, we’re all going to “see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7-8).
On top of this, Section 130 gives the following explicit warning: “the idea that the Father and the Son dwell in a man’s heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false,” because the Father and Son both have “a body of flesh and bone as tangible as man’s” and, thus, it must be the Holy Ghost who as “a personage of Spirit . . . dwell[s] in us” (D&C 130:3, 22).
And so, refusing the tradition’s Trinitarian interpretation of divine indwelling, Latter-day Saints have understandably shied away from talk of divine indwelling altogether.
But what if we didn’t? And if we didn’t, what might a native, Latter-day Saint account of divine indwelling look like?
What if Latter-day Saints held tight to Jesus’s own emphatically repeated claim that divine indwelling is real and redemptive and then—breaking with Trinitarian thinking—paired divine indwelling with the Restoration’s claim that God has a body of flesh and bone?
If all spirit is matter, what if divine indwelling is material?
Or, if even God has a body, what if divine indwelling is about bodies?
Thinking this way would recast Christianity. It would commit us to living in a new world—premortal, mortal, postmortal, it doesn’t matter—a world that consists exclusively of bodies and matter, whether coarse or subtle. And, too, thinking this way might recast how we think about salvation.
If all spirit is matter—if spirit is not immaterial—then we can’t just default to using traditional Christian ideas about an immaterial salvation. Salvation can’t simply be figured as an escape from the problematic demands of matter. It can’t be figured as a way of evading or outwitting or conquering the competing wills and implacable necessities obliged by our troublesome bodies.5
But thinking this way isn’t easy. And if you have a body, you probably already know something about how difficult it is to think about the world (and spirit, and God) exclusively in terms of bodies and matter.
As a rule, people don’t like it. As a rule, we actively resist it.
When confronted with the kinds of willful bodies and material necessities that undercut our fantasies of unchecked agency and sovereign independence, our first impulse—our natural impulse—isn’t to acknowledge their reality and bravely commit to living selflessly in this new world.
Rather, our first impulse is to do some version of what Tim Farnsworth first does: evade and deny.
After Tim’s first bout of “idiopathic perambulation,” he enjoys a period of remission. He resumes a normal life. He has dinner with his wife and daughter again. He sleeps in his own bed. He goes back to his corner office and sits quietly for hours at a time as he prepares effective and high-priced legal strategies.
With some hard work and willful forgetting, Tim pieces back together a passable version of the primal fantasy that frames the life of every natural man: the fantasy that his will is the only will that really matters—or, even, exists. And the fantasy that his own body, heart of his own heart, certainly has no real will of its own.
And so long as Tim squints just so, and frames his life from just the right foreshortened angle, and doesn’t look too hard, the illusion seems to hold well enough.
Until, of course, it doesn’t. And Tim starts walking again. And can’t stop.
Once he starts walking again, Tim can’t bear to tell his wife. And even after he’s forced to tell her, he wants to pretend the next day like nothing has happened. He wants to pretend like his body is immaterial, like his legs didn’t just send him on a forced march through lower Manhattan and half of New Jersey until he blacked out from exhaustion.
Even after he tells her, even as he rests for a moment in the caesura between one walk and the next, Tim insists on going back to work like normal. The illusion must be maintained.
“Janey, I’m all rested up. I have to go in .”
The night before, she had pushed aside how they would deal with the long-term things like his work, in order to make him safe for that one night. Now she had to deal with the reality of the light of day, and she should not have been surprised that he would want to go in.
“You should take the day off,” she said.
“No, that would just be . . .”
“We need to—”
“ . . . capitulation.”
“—to deal with this, Tim. Capitulation? It’s called reality.”6
But Tim doesn’t respond. He isn’t interested in reality. He sits mute and inert in the passenger seat of their luxury car, head in hands, until they finally pull into the spacious garage of their beautiful home and the car comes to a stop.
But Tim can’t stop.
Tim feels, Ferris says, like a “frightened soul inside [a] runaway train of mindless matter, peering out from the conductor’s car in horror.”7
It’s too much to bear. Tim snaps and loses control and starts
pounding the glove box with his gloved fist. He rained blow after blow down on the glove box and she let out an involuntary cry and jerked back against the cold window. He stopped hitting the glove box and began to kick it until the latch snapped and the door fell. He continued to kick as if to drive his foot clear through to the engine block. One of the door’s lower hinges snapped, and thereafter the glove box had the cockeyed lean of a tired sun visor. It would never be fixed.
When it was over, he withdrew his foot and out spilled a handful of napkins. His heel had compacted the owner’s manual and ripped the maintenance records and insurance papers. He returned his feet to the mat and things were calm again, but he would not look at her.
“I have to go in,” he said finally.
Her gaze had a fire’s intensity.
“Okay,” she said. “You should go in.”8
In this respect, Tim is like the rest of us—even the best of us.
Confronted by the fact that we are indwelt by alien wills, by wills that unfold relentlessly in line with their own driving necessities, who hasn’t destroyed a glovebox, kicking until the latch breaks and the door goes cockeyed, kicking with enough force to drive their foot clean through to the engine block? Who, having failed in their efforts to evade and deny, hasn’t raged against matter? Who hasn’t cursed bodies?
Again, this is an ordinary thing. But what’s to be done about it? If we are all matter—and if matter is all there is—how should we think about this kind of material indwelling? How should we think about matter’s willful autonomy, about material bodies composed entirely of other bodies?
For me, the pivotal question is this: if all spirit is matter, what would it mean for matter to be saved rather than escaped? What would it mean to redeem—rather than evade and deny—matter?
My thesis is as follows: it would look, I think, like Section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Indwelling, I’m suggesting, is performed vicariously.
Section 128 is, to be blunt, unusual. Familiar as Latter-day Saints are with the work of performing vicarious baptisms for the dead, it’s easy to overlook how effortlessly and efficiently Section 128 takes two thousand years of Christian thinking and turns it upside down. When it comes to uncoupling Restoration Christianity from Trinitarian thinking, Section 128 is, in my view, at least as important as Sections 130 and 131.
It’s essential, of course, that Section 130 teaches that all spirit is matter. But Section 128 offers something more. It offers a model for redeeming matter. And, I would argue, it also offers a model for matter qua matter—i.e., a robust but intuitive metaphysical model for materiality as such.9
Section 128 consists of instructions given in September 1842 by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois. These instructions clarify, both in theory and in practice, the work of “vicarious baptism for the remission of sins” (D&C 138:33). The section opens with instructions for performing proxy baptisms and then transitions into a series of surprising explanations for this practice, explanations that the revelation itself describes as “a very bold doctrine” (D&C 128:9).
I want to extract just three key aspects of this bold doctrine.
First, the Prophet urges Latter-day Saints to keep careful records of vicarious baptisms because, he says, these records will function as “the book of life” out of which the dead will be judged. The dead will be “judged out of those things which were written in the books,” he says, and these books, he clarifies, “refer to the records which are kept on the earth” (D&C 128:7, emphasis mine).
This is the first crucial twist in the story. In Section 128, our earthly, material records aren’t marginal addenda to ideal and immaterial heavenly originals. Rather, Section 128’s bold doctrine is that the records used in heaven on judgment day will be the earthly records.
Second, a similar inversion takes place with the traditional baptismal symbols of death, burial, and resurrection. It’s not the case, as one would expect, that vicarious baptisms for the dead are patterned after rituals originally designed for the living. Rather, the Prophet explains, baptisms for the living symbolize death, burial, and resurrection because this ritual is itself modeled on the need for vicarious work for the dead. Baptisms for the living were, he says, “instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, being in the likeness of the dead” (D&C 128:12).
This is the second crucial twist. In Section 128, the vicarious form of baptism is described as original and the non-proxy form is derivative.
Third, Section 128 then recasts this vicarious logic of redemption as a form of genealogy. For the living, vicarious work for the dead is not an additional obligation required beyond securing their own salvation. Instead, the Prophet says, vicarious work is the key to one’s own salvation. “Their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation . . . they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (D&C 128:15). As a result, we’re told, vicarious baptisms serve as a crucial “welding link” that, by proxy, works to reassemble the genealogy of the whole human family “from the days of Adam even to the present time” (D&C 128:18).
This is the third crucial twist. Our lives are so deeply intertwined with other lives that they can’t be saved in isolation. Our lives cannot be saved without their lives, nor can their bodies be saved without our bodies. Here, salvation doesn’t require our liberation from the trouble and difficulty of the other lives that indwell us; rather, it requires being welded—through willing, vicarious work on their behalf—to all those other lives.
In summary, then, these are the three key ideas—all of which are anathema to traditional Trinitarian thinking—that I want to borrow from Section 128: (1) the heavenly and the material are not different in kind, (2) vicarious relationships are original rather than derivative (or, to frame this second point as a definition of matter itself: to be material is to be composed, vicariously, of other bodies with wills of their own), and (3) redemption is—essentially, not accidentally—a genealogical reckoning carried out by means of explicitly vicarious work.
A very bold doctrine, indeed.
Come back, now, to my original question. If all spirit is matter, what would it mean to save matter rather than escape it? What would it mean to redeem—rather than evade and deny—the bodies and lives that indwell us?
And here, now, is my full thesis: to save matter rather than escape it, we must learn how to live as vicarious agents who compassionately serve the wills and necessities that indwell us.
This is the pattern at the heart of redemption: to save matter is to act as a proxy on its behalf. Here, vicarious work for the dead isn’t just a model for redeeming the dead—or even, a model for participating in our own redemption. As Jesus demonstrates, vicarious work is a model for redemptive work of any kind.
Meanwhile, of course, Tim Farnsworth is still walking.
Day or night, scorching heat or wicked cold, it doesn’t matter. He can’t stop walking. In the summer, his skin cooks and peels. In the winter, frostbite claims fingers and toes. One frozen day, he removes his boot and sock to find a black pinky toe still inside, loose in the wool like a shriveled raisin.
Day after day, Tim walks until he blacks out. And then, exhausted and unconscious, he’s left exposed and vulnerable.
Tim survives his second bout of idiopathic perambulation only by strapping himself into a medical bed in one of his house’s many empty bedrooms. His arms and legs still pull against the restraints—dependably, rhythmically, automatically, as if he were upright and walking—but at least he’s inside. At least he’s sheltered from the sun and the wind. At least he can eat and drink. At least his wife and daughter know where he is.
But months of being restrained like this almost drive him crazy. And if his second bout of walking hadn’t ended as abruptly and arbitrarily as it had started, he might have lost his mind.
Now, for a moment at least, he can rest. As the tidal pull of material necessity ebbs, he can sit. He can stand. He can stay.
But this second remission isn’t a clean recovery. The costs of this last bout aren’t nominal. The losses he’s suffered aren’t temporary. Tim’s been voted out of his partnership at the law firm. He’s not the handsome, healthy man he once was. His face is scarred. His hair is thinning. His limp is permanent. He’s literally lost parts of himself. He struggles to reconnect with his wife and daughter. He doesn’t know what to do with his days. His mind lacks poise and balance. He’s afraid.
But, little by little, Tim starts to gather some of the pieces. His daughter goes off to college. He and Jane sell their house and their cars and their furniture and move into a small apartment in the city. He finds some legal work for modest wages. Tim and Jane survive by paring their lives to the quick, by sacrificing in advance all the things they know they cannot keep, by priming their hearts and minds for consecration.
This calm holds for a few fragile but priceless years.
Until, one day, it doesn’t. And the eye of the storm passes. And instead of coming home for dinner after work, Tim finds himself walking again.
This time, Tim will keep walking for the rest of his life. He’ll keep walking until the day he dies. He’ll never have another remission. He’ll never stop walking again.
But this time, instead of evading or denying his body’s will to walk, Tim finds himself surrendering outright. He can’t pretend again. He won’t. He knows that, whatever happens next, he can’t strap himself back into that bed. He can’t go back to those endless days and those four blank walls. He can’t deny necessity.
So, Tim makes a decision.
On that first new walk, before his phone’s battery dies, he calls his wife to tell her what’s happened. He tells her he loves her. He calls her, as always, “banana.” He asks her not to worry. He says he’ll call when he can.
But, unlike before, Tim doesn’t try to tell her where he is or guess where he may be going. He doesn’t ask her to come find him or rescue him or bring him home. He doesn’t pretend he’s going back to the office tomorrow. He doesn’t kick in the glovebox.
Instead, as his legs carry him across the bridge and out of the city and away from everything he wants, Tim just leans into the wind and walks, a hole in his chest where his heart used to be, an emptiness in his head where his ambitions used to be, lost to necessity.
Tim Farnsworth has passed over into the bardo.
Having crossed the river and left the city behind, he’s entered that no man’s land, that decisive space between two lives, that sacred—but trying and uncertain—place where he can no longer pretend that his will, alone, matters.
In this space, Tim is brought face to face with the hard kernel of truth at the center of every life: the truth that all spirit is matter, that his body is indwelt by other bodies, that his will depends on other wills, that his life is composed of other lives. The credits have rolled on his carefully blocked fantasy of autonomy and control and he’s been ushered out of the theater. Back on the street, he’s surprised to find the sun has already set and his soul’s dark night has already fallen.
There’s nothing to do now but walk.
And so Tim walks. And he walks. One foot in front of the other. One necessity after another.
But in this space, all is not lost. Captured by the necessities that indwell him, Tim may now find God. He may find himself indwelt, vicariously, by God. He may discover what the Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called—using a term of art I dearly love—“God-consciousness.”
Schleiermacher’s two volume magnum opus, Christian Faith, was published in Germany in 1830—an auspicious year. In it, he aims to retrofit the whole of Christian dogma for use in a world that is increasingly modern rather than medieval, increasingly scientific rather than superstitious, and increasingly oriented toward material bodies rather than the dream of immaterial spirit.
Whatever his other weaknesses, Schleiermacher’s genius is this: rather than appealing to tradition or history or dogma, Schleiermacher boldly grounds his defense of Christianity in the immediacy of God.
Like Paul, Schleiermacher claims that God is “not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28, emphasis mine). For Schleiermacher, to be alive, to walk about—to exist, even—is to already be “in” God. God isn’t absent or distant. God isn’t dead or asleep. God isn’t locked in the deep past or reserved for an elect few in the far future. God is here and now, in this room. I am in God. You are in God. And in some crucial sense, as Jesus insisted, God is already in us.
We are indwelt.
The Christian disciple’s defining work, as Schleiermacher sees it, is to become conscious of this indwelling, to become conscious of God.
Schleiermacher defines God-consciousness as “neither a knowing nor a doing but a distinct formation of feeling, or of immediate self-consciousness.”10 But—and this is the key—this kind of immediate “self” consciousness isn’t lonely or solipsistic or hermetically self-identical. The self isn’t independent or isolated. The self isn’t an island. Exactly the opposite: rather than being autonomous, every self is vicarious. Every self is composed of other selves. Every self consists of other bodies and other wills.
Every life is made of other lives.
Which is to say that, like Tim Farnsworth, every self consists, in part, of implacable and unchosen necessities.
In this way, self-consciousness, as God-consciousness, opens immediately onto an awareness of our dependence on necessities we cannot control. As Schleiermacher puts it: God-consciousness only arises when we become “conscious of ourselves as absolutely dependent or, which intends the same meaning, as being in relation with God.”11 Here, Schleiermacher echoes King Benjamin: to become conscious of divine indwelling is to become conscious of my moment to moment dependence on God (cf. Mosiah 2:20-21).
Or, in this same vein, Schleiermacher also defines God-consciousness as an intuition of the “infinite.” By the infinite, Schleiermacher means that vast, open-ended network of existential roots and branches, of selves, bodies, lives, wills, causes, and forces that intersect in us and, then, shape who we are and what service we’re called to render.
To be conscious of God “in” me is to be conscious of myself as just one vicarious node in that vast genealogical web of shared and divided forces.
To be conscious of God in me is to see myself from God’s perspective, from the perspective of eternity—sub specie aeternitatis—as someone who cannot save themself, as someone who cannot be saved alone, and as someone who cannot be saved without welding links of vicarious work that bind them to the endlessly blooming genealogy of bodies and lives to which they belong.
Or, to close this loop with a Restoration twist, God-consciousness names an intuitive grasp of the three “very bold doctrines” previously distilled from Section 128: that the heavenly and the material are not different in kind, that life is inherently vicarious, and that redemption is the work of reckoning with the proliferating lines of genealogical force that intersect in us.
But what does this mean for Tim Farnsworth? What does God-consciousness mean for a man who can’t stop walking?
It means, first of all, that surrendering to necessity is not enough. It’s not enough for Tim to give up. It’s not enough for Tim to resign himself and abandon his efforts to deny the wills that indwell him. To become conscious of God, Tim must not only feel in his bones—acutely, intuitively—his dependence on these necessities, he must also actively affirm them. He must come to love them. He must learn to work, in God’s name, on behalf of the good that opens from them.
This, again, is redemption: Tim must learn to live vicariously, as a consecrated steward, on behalf of the wills that indwell him—even if these wills present as his enemies. “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Matthew 5:44).
To be God-conscious is to love.
And while God is not the stubborn necessity that indwells Tim, God is decisively manifest in the necessity of loving this necessity that indwells Tim. God intervenes in the necessity of loving this stranger—this strange indwelling will—as if it were God himself.
“Lord . . . when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? . . . And the King shall answer and say unto them . . . Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these . . . ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:38, 40).
This is the vicarious principle at the heart of life and redemption: inasmuch as you’ve done it unto one of the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.
Not only must we love those indwelling strangers, we must also love them vicariously on God’s behalf. And by loving them on God’s behalf, we succeed in vicariously loving God.
This, too, is circumincession. This is the tightly braided round of indwelling described in Jesus’ great intercessory prayer. Working vicariously in God’s name as his agent, I work vicariously on behalf of those strangers that indwell me, and thus vicariously love God through vicariously loving them.
Them in me. I in them. And, thus, God in us.
Here, every “in” marks a vicarious relationship, every vicarious relationship marks an occasion for love, and every vicarious expression of love marks the vicariously indwelling presence of God.
This is the onset of redemption. And this, then, is what Tim slowly learns to do.
Tim keeps walking. He’s always still walking. But he stays in sporadic contact with his daughter as he wanders westward. He reaches out when he can find a phone or send an email. He drops a postcard as he’s able.
But mostly he just walks. And over time, he not only stops denying the stubborn will that indwells him, he learns to work with that will. He learns to work on its behalf.
Tim learns to stay ready. He learns to keep his boots on his feet and his hat on his head and his backpack at hand. He keeps his water bottle full and his bag stocked with protein bars. He pieces together a wardrobe out of interleaved layers that he can take on or off in sync with the weather.
And, through these efforts, Tim also learns how to prop open a door inside himself.
He learns how to stretch out that gray block of quiescent time between the end of a walk and the moment exhaustion claims him. And in that gray space—stretched a little farther each day—Tim gives himself room. He gives himself room to love and affirm. He gives himself room to turn and look down the length of the road he’s just traveled, to wipe his brow or wash his face in a cold stream, to fill a water bottle or mail a postcard, to choose a spot and pitch a tent and hunker down for the night.
Tim walks for years and years. His learning curve is rough and gradual. Progress is slow. As a rule, he tries not to think about Jane. He tries to keep his eyes on the road. Thinking about Jane is too hard. It’s too painful. She’s too beautiful. Tim wants Jane to have a life of her own, untethered from his wandering. He wants to set her free. He wants her to live again and to love again.
So Tim walks and walks, alone. He wanders, aimless, from the East Coast to the West. Until one day a new necessity intervenes. And his daughter confesses, despite her mother’s strict instructions, that Jane has cancer, that her treatments have failed, and that she’s dying. Hearing this, all Tim’s resolutions crumble to dust. Every promise he’s ever made himself to leave her alone and set her free is immediately annulled.
Tim decides that distance doesn’t matter. The fact that Jane is in a hospital on the opposite coast doesn’t matter. Only necessity matters.
But the difference now is that necessity has itself undergone a qualitative change: Tim has willingly doubled the number of necessities in play. He’s added to the necessity of his walking the necessity of seeing Jane.
He’s added to blind necessity the necessity of love.
So, Tim determines to will something new with that gray block of time that remains after a walk. Tim decides that, when the day’s compulsory walk ends and matter’s grip loosens, he’ll point himself back in Jane’s direction and keep walking, now of his own free will, until his feet can no longer carry him.
This plan is mad. A continent separates him from Jane. But Tim starts walking that same day. He walks for months and months, through fire and flood, through rain and sun. He walks through spring and summer and fall. He walks in circles. He walks three steps forward and two steps back. He walks two steps forward and three steps back. His route across the country traces a dizzy, spiraling pattern of aimless deviations and resolute redirections that only haltingly add up to miles crossed in the right direction.
But this just is what it is. Things just are what they are. So be it. Tim doesn’t evade or deny. He doesn’t rage against matter. He doesn’t put his foot through the glove box. Necessity must be honored. And, anyway, Tim isn’t walking for and on behalf of Tim. Rather, Tim is walking vicariously. He’s walking, by turns, for and on behalf of the strange will that indwells him and, now, for and on behalf of Jane.
And by walking this way—by walking vicariously—Tim’s love for these indwelling wills has begun to bleed into a consciousness of God.
Still, Tim is afraid he’ll be too late. He’s afraid he’s taking too long. He’s afraid Jane won’t recognize him. Or, worse, that he won’t recognize Jane. And if he ever arrives at her hospital room, Tim is afraid he won’t know what to say, that he won’t have any words, and that he’ll be stranded without a way to cross that last small gap between them.
But Tim keeps going. He keeps walking. By the time Tim arrives on the east coast, he’s nearly ground himself to powder.
He finds the hospital. Limping, he shuffles across the threshold of the hospital’s sliding glass doors. He leans against the wall of the elevator as it ascends. He counts room numbers out loud to make sure he’s walking in the right direction.
But then, Ferris tells us, when Tim finally cleared the door to Jane’s room and he “saw her in the hospital bed, swimming in that awful blue gown,” reduced to skin and bone by the cancer,
he knew at once what it had all been for, why he had started off and why he had struggled, and it wasn’t to win . . . and it wasn’t stubbornness or pride or courage. He went to her and she looked at him standing over her. All time and distance between them collapsed, and without any mental searching for the word, he said to her, “Hello, banana,” and then reached out to take her hand.12
Tim held Jane’s hand, and Jane his, for a long time. She waited for Tim to speak. Tim pulled up a chair. He made space for more words to come. When he finally started talking again, Tim tried to explain “where he had been and how he come to be there.”
“I thought the worst,” she said.
“That I would be alive and look like this?”
The film of tears that glazed over her dark and hollowed eyes quivered as she smiled. She squeezed his few fingers, no less bony and fragile than her own. “I think you look devastating,” she said.
“As handsome as you ever were.”
“Now there is a tender lie,” he said.13
In Part Five of his Ethics, Baruch Spinoza introduces a blueprint for what Schleiermacher, a hundred and fifty years later, will call “God-consciousness.”
There, Spinoza describes a state of blessedness that follows when we discover that we already live and move and have our being in God. And, pointedly, Spinoza’s description of blessedness involves the same basic elements we’ve already identified: blessedness requires a keen awareness of our dependence on God. Or, blessedness requires a keen awareness of ourselves as just one small node in an infinite genealogy of causes and effects, of actions and consequences, of parents and children, of life and death.
But true knowledge of these genealogies, Spinoza argues, can be discovered in two distinct ways.14
You can, of course, reason your way back through the decision tree of causes that resulted in your being what you are and the world being what it is. You can reconstruct lines of family history, back through a body’s material branches to its causal roots.
And this kind of cognitive reasoning can facilitate blessedness. It can prime God-consciousness. It can help. But the weakness of this approach is that it remains finite. It can add up the numbers, but those numbers will never add up to infinity.
However, there is, Spinoza suggests, a second way to acquire true knowledge of causes, an approach that works not through reason but through the gestalt of a global intuition. It’s possible, Spinoza claims, to have an immediate intuition of the infinite in the form of a feeling or affect.15
While you can’t think your way into God-consciousness, you can learn to intuit God.
You can learn to feel God in you.
What does an immediate intuition of the infinite feel like? What does it feel like to become conscious of yourself as a node in an infinite genealogy? To become conscious of God in you?
It feels, Spinoza says, like necessity.
God feels like necessity.
God-conscious sees all things in light of God, under the aspect of necessity—sub specie necessitatis.
This necessity is not, of course, a dumb fatalism. (Determinism and predestination are incompatible with materialism.)16 It is, rather, the redoubled necessity that follows when we work vicariously to redeem blind necessities by adding to them the necessity of love. And this redoubled necessity is—ironically—the lifeblood of true agency. It supplants the immaterial fantasy of “free” agency with the material reality of a moral agency. Free agency is the fantasy that follows from denying our dependence on God, the reality of consequences, and the inherently vicarious nature of our bodies and lives. Moral agency, in contrast, willingly affirms the necessity of our dependence on God, the reality of consequences, and the gospel’s governing imperative to always act as loving proxies on behalf of the wills that intersect in us. At the end of the day, the only way to have real agency is to act in God’s name, in line with his will, as his vicarious agent.
To have agency, we must be God’s agents.
But this kind of vicarious love is impossible without an intuition of necessity because to love someone is to affirm the joint necessity of both who they now are and what they now need.
When you wake up in the morning, this is your work, this is your prayer, this is the substance of a Christian life: to dig out from under all the noise and nonsense and wishful thinking and vain ambitions the load-bearing cornerstones of necessity that will uphold the truth of that day.
As a Christian, your aim is to be as conscious of God as possible by hewing as closely to necessity as you’re able, both in terms of your acceptance of what cannot now be changed and in terms of your willingness to do now what must be done.
This is your prayer: what, Lord, is necessary? What cannot be changed? What must now be given?
You must answer such questions again and again. What wills indwell you? What necessities compel you? What vicarious work claims you? What enemies must you, today, love?
As sinners, we continually ask: what if?
As Christians, we continually pray: what must be?
When God answers this prayer—when you become God-conscious—you’ll know it. You’ll know you’ve found God’s will because it will arrive with the force an imperative.
God always feels like an imperative.
And that imperative, in its necessity, will always give two inseparable commands: you must continually forgive all things the necessity of what they now are and you must continually give all things whatever good they now necessitate.
Tim Farnsworth can’t stay in that chair next to Jane’s hospital bed—he must walk—but he circles back every day.
When Jane, confined to that bed, asks him what he sees when he leaves, Tim finds he can hardly answer. He hardly knows. His gaze, over so many years and so many miles, has turned decisively inward. He hardly notices what is right in front of him.
An old woman? he offers lamely. A pair of boots? A chain-link fence?
“In all that time?” Jane asks.17
So Tim takes up a new kind of vicarious work: he tries to see the world for and on behalf of Jane.
For the first time he began to pay attention to the things he saw on his walks, so that when he returned to her, he had observations of the outside world to share. They were fleeting, they were middles without beginnings or ends, but they were diverting—for him to witness, for her to hear. She soaked them up. They seemed just as much nourishment as whatever the doctors were providing.
He realized he might have been doing it wrong for years. He might have seen interesting things had he been able to let go of the frustration and despair. He wondered what kind of life he might have had if he had paid attention from the beginning. But that would have been hard. That would have been for himself. It was easier now, doing it for someone else.18
Soon, Jane dies.
And Tim is walking again. His eyes are open now and necessity is still redoubled but without the strain now of getting back to Jane, without the strain of adding a second walk to the walk he cannot avoid.
Ferris tells us that Tim Farnsworth “maintained a sound mind until the end . . . . He took care of himself as best he could, eating well whenever possible, sleeping when his body required it.” What’s more, now “he was paying attention, as Jane had taught him, and had learned to distinguish a hundred variations of unnamed winds” and a hundred anonymous bird songs that he knew by heart.19
He carried on like this until one winter night, safe in his tent,
he relaxed into the warmth of the [sleeping] bag and felt his body, still humming with the jangle of his recent walk, wind down into a stillness that eventually made its way into his deepest interiors. The wind was just starting to pick up, but beneath its bellowing he became aware of his heart whispering listen . . . listen . . . listen . . . . He heard the blood pump out of his chest and flow down his arteries to pulse faintly at his wrist and in the hollow beside his anklebone, and his breathing lifted him up and down, up and down, and he heard the calmness, like the coals of a settled fire, of his rested bones.20
In the morning, Tim Farnsworth woke again but, instead of rising,
he chose to do as he had done the night before: settle deep inside himself and listen to the strange, subtle operations going on inside his body. He listened for his heart to whisper its soft word. He listened for the breathing that lifted him up and down inside his bag . . . . [But] he detected nothing but an enormous, gentle stillness from the things he could name and those he couldn’t inside him, the organs and muscles, the cells and tissues. He never had to rise again, the silence informed him. . . . and in a measure of time that may have been the smallest natural unit known to man, or that may have been and may still remain all of eternity, he realized that he was still thinking, his mind was still afire.21
This is the test: can you love necessity? Can you forgive it, care for it, bless it?
Friedrich Nietzsche called his version of this test “the eternal return.”22 Imagine, Nietzsche says, that your life—composed as it is of material troubles, indwelling wills, and unchosen necessities—imagine that your life were to repeat, again and again, for all of eternity.
(Not just some of it, but all of it. Your knee has gone out. Your hands are arthritic. You’ve had cancer. You’ve had back surgery. You can’t have children. You suffer migraines. Your teeth ache. Your heart is weak. You can’t sleep at night. You’re allergic to nuts. You can’t sit on these chairs. Your skin burns easily. Your hair is thinning. Your vision is blurry. Your metabolism is low and your blood sugar is high.)
Could you still love your life? Could you will, joyfully, its repetition? Could you add to life’s blind necessities the necessity of loving them? Could you shelter these strangers and love these enemies? Could you, as their proxy, weld yourself to them, baptize yourself for them, and live your life for and on behalf of them?
Could you, by caring for them, become conscious of God?
This is the strait gate, the narrow path, that leads to eternal life: if you had to keep walking for eternity—if there were no such thing as immaterial matter—could you learn to love walking?
Adam Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. He is the author of eight books and serves as the current director of the Mormon Theology Seminar.
Artwork by Clyfford Still.
Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed (New York: Little, Brown, 2010), 33.
See Jacques Fantino, “Circumincession,” in Jean-Yves Lacoste, ed. Encyclopedia of Christian Theology (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005 [French 1998-99]), 315-16.
I have taken a strong position here with respect to how tightly intertwined traditional Christian beliefs are with various species of metaphysical idealism and, thus, the extent to which they may require a fundamental restructuring to be compatible with a metaphysical materialism. For a contrasting opinion on the possible compatibility of traditional Christian metaphysics with matter (and one that also engages with Latter-day Saint beliefs) see Stephen H. Webb, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012). For my own review of Webb’s book, see Adam S. Miller, “Stephen H. Webb, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter,” Mormon Studies Review, 1 (2014), 182-187.
Ferris, The Unnamed, 14.
To say that something is material is not to say that it must simply be, in the ordinary sense, a “physical” object. This kind of naïve physicalism is, I would argue, just a disguised form of metaphysical idealism. For my part, I take something like Plato’s classical definition of matter as a crucial starting point: matter is defined by the fact that it is composite. All material things are composed of a plurality of parts and, in turn, all material things are also parts that help compose a plurality of other material things. Further, the composite nature of material things dovetails with their other defining trait: the fact that matter, as created or composed, is subject to time. Matter is in motion. Matter has potential. Matter is energetic. Matter is subject to change. This approach to matter aligns, then, with the possibility of defining materiality itself in terms of composite bodies vicariously composed of other composite bodies. All this in contrast to the classical definition of what’s immaterial as simple (rather than composite), as a self-contained whole (rather than a distributed and complex part), and as fixed or unchanging (rather than mobile and energetic). For more on this point, especially in relation to Latter-day Saint theology, see Adam S. Miller, “A Radical Mormon Materialism: Reading Wrestling the Angel,” Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and Theology 7, no. 1 (spring 2018).
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, 2 vols., trans. Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L. Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 1:8.
Ferris, The Unnamed, 283.
See especially Proposition 40 in Part 2 of Spinoza’s Ethics.
While Spinoza clearly claims both that it is possible to grasp the infinite by way of an intuitive knowledge and that we must affirmatively grasp the necessity of our emotions to redeem them, the move to explicitly interpret this intuition as an affect that takes the felt form of necessity is an interpretive gesture that combines his claims about necessity in Propositions 6 and 14-16 from Part 5 with Propositions 25-30 from Part 5.
Allow me to add a brief note here about my reading of this intuited “necessity,” a reading that amends Spinoza’s version of determinism in relation to the metaphysical claim that “all is matter.” Given that reality is material and vicarious all the way down—and, thus, irreparably open and dynamic and plural rather than closed and static and self-identical—we shouldn't say that necessity means “things could not have been otherwise.” Rather, we should say that necessity means “things are not otherwise.” Here, we still get the affective weight of a felt necessity, but this necessity is always retroactive in character. Things cannot have been otherwise—now. But the future is not closed. And apart from the constraints imposed by matter as such, the specific shape of our present necessities are never predetermined or predestined in advance.
Ferris, The Unnamed, 287.
Ibid., 309, ellipses original.
Nietzsche introduces this thought experiment in Aphorism #341 in The Gay Science. For an especially productive interpretation of this idea, see Gilles Deleuze’s account of “eternal return” as an ethical test rather than a deterministic cosmology in Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia UP, 1983), 68-72.