Rev. John Miller

John Miller, a native of Richmond, VA, is the retired Rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, where he served for 38 years in the vocations of minister to youth, Assistant Rector, and Rector. He’s a graduate of Washington & Lee University (1970); subsequently, he earned both a Master of Divinity (1974) and a master of Theology (1977) from Union Theological Seminary (Richmond, VA). In 1982 Dr. Miller graduated with the Doctor of Philosophy degree from Union Seminary. While at Union Seminary he was also awarded three graduate fellowships and was selected as a teaching fellow. Dr. Miller was interviewed because of his extensive knowledge of Christian history and theology, in general, and because of his known, life-long fascination with the Christian doctrine of grace, in particular.

A Pastor’s Formative Years

John Miller:

Yes. I was born in Richmond and raised in Henrico County and went to the Henrico County schools through Douglas Freeman High School. The formative experience though started when I was five. My father got polio and was taken away to MCV, the medical college of Virginia, now VCU, and stayed there nine months.

When he came home, he came home in a breathing machine called an iron lung. My mother had to really bear down and demand that he be sent home, because they were going to send him to some type of a facility like the VA because they didn’t expect him to live. He expected to live, and so did she, so she argued the case and he came home. He was 27 years old and my mother was 26. They had just about finished the building of a new house, not far from here, from the University of Richmond. My mother finished the job while he was at MCV, do it being the contractor. She taught us a lot about being a woman of substance and power and intelligence and means. She was amazing.

Dad was equally as amazing. When he came home, he basically lived in that machine. Most people don’t even know what the machine is because it’s a piece of antique technology. It’s really low tech apparatus for breathing, but it worked. He stayed mostly in that machine for 35 years with mom being his chief caretaker, visiting ministers, visiting doctors, occasionally. My brother and I were her assistants in taking care of the machine. Growing up like that, we thought that was normal. We were grateful to have him at home. He was a fantastic man. He was a quiet, kind, thoughtful person who never finished college, but was a voracious reader. I used to say, “Before there was Google, there was dad.” I could ask him anything. He had access to it somehow from his reading.

The way he read at the beginning was there was a rack over his head. Of course, he was in a lying down position, looking up with his head out of a rubber gasket in the machine. There was a reading rack over his head and we took turns turning pages for him, growing up. It was quite an experience, but he taught us, my brother and me, how to be a man and also taught us both that physical strength does not equal strength. He was extremely strong and not only kept it together all those years, but led us into manhood. That was the big experience.

When my friends would enter the house and hear the machine breathing, it was like a big bellows sound, they would sort of furrow their brows, “What is that?” We thought, well, doesn’t everybody know what an iron lung is? No they didn’t, but it worked for him.

He died in 1988 and my mother died just a few years ago. It was a long, beautiful marriage, and it taught us a lot about compassion and resourcefulness and sort of keeping it together in a discipline. He was so disciplined that his… Anybody with claustrophobia would’ve lost it. He maintained his composure all those years. He led me through an Eagle Scout project all the way but was unable, because of the machine, to attend anything we did. No graduations, no Eagle Scout Award, no going to visit colleges, no getting married. He wasn’t able to attend any of that. It was very definitely my background.

Educational Background

John Miller:

Sure. I went to Douglas Freeman High School, then went to Washington and Lee University and got a degree in economics and European history. And then applied to Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, which is here in Richmond. It’s changed its name to Union Presbyterian Seminary, but it was a great place to my master divinity degree, the basic ministerial degree there. And then went back in 1976, 2 years after I graduated with the MDiv, I went back to do a master of theology and a PhD degree, and I finished in 82.

Catholic + Baptist = Episcopalian

John Miller:

My parents were a mixed marriage, as the church would put it. My father, as the Roman Church would put it, dad was brought up in the Catholic Church, my mother, a Protestant, she was a Baptist. They both had questions about their traditions and intended to find a church that would suit the both of them, but never did because of dad’s illness. And so I was baptized in the Catholic church and then by about age six, dad because of his illness, told our mother to take us to her church. So I was baptized again in River Road Church Baptist, and so I had a dual background. I had a kind of, it’s sort of a dialectic. I was born into a dialectic and I think I became the synthesis and didn’t really know much about the Episcopal church, except what I had seen growing up. I’d seen the buildings.

I had even seen St. Mary’s Church, where I was, as a young guy, but had never stepped through the door. And my late wife, Margie, after graduating from Hollands College, got a job at St. Catherine’s School. So I saw an Episcopal school and then she got a job part-time as the organist for St. Mary’s Church out in Goochland, where I ended up. And that was my basic exposure to the church. And I found it to be welcoming, embracing of the differences in my background. It is deliberately Episcopal church suited me because it was kind of the synthesis. It was the outcome of the dialectic that I was raised in. And I’m glad to say that mom and dad are peacefully at rest in the St. Mary’s churchyard where I will take up residence someday. So the Episcopal church was a welcoming and inclusive place that had both Protestant and Catholic characteristics.

An Entire Pastoral Career at St Mary’s and the St Mary’s Story

John Miller:

I actually spent 38 years at St. Mary’s and I started as a youth worker while I was a graduate student. My predecessor, Holt Souder, hired me to work with youth. After about a year of that, I was learning all about St. Mary’s and about the Episcopal Church with his help, I felt called to ordination in the Episcopal Church and he supported it. And so I became ordained as a deacon and priest, and I became his assistant. And then in 1984, I was called as the rector and I stayed there to the end of my career.

The story of St. Mary’s is fascinating. It really began with the death of a little girl who was seven and a half months old. Her name was Mary Allen, and she lived at Tuckahoe Plantation for a very short while. She was born on Christmas Eve of 1864, a very dark time in these parts, and died August 14th, 1865, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery. Her parents at Tuckahoe Plantation wanted to do something to honor her short but beautiful little life. They raised money and got permission to build a mission church to farmers and later coal miners of the area, in Goochland. It remained a mission from 1878 until 1962. It was served by people who would come through occasionally to do services, but laypeople led most of the morning prayer services at St. Mary’s.

In 1962, they called their first full-time rector, which was Holt Souder. They were able to support the budget to have a rector. So I was actually the second rector in the history, since 1878. It has a mission kind of character and flavor to it. It’s Carpenter Gothic. It’s simple. It’s direct. It sits right on the road. On River Road, people will drive by and just see it and think, “That’s what a church should look like.”

How to characterize your experience?

John Miller:

Well, I went through several generations there, or at least two and a half. I followed these beautiful people from cradle to grave. There’s a cemetery at St. Mary’s that is still very much in the center of the life there. And being privileged to be a part of their families and being welcomed into their crises, their joys was a tremendous experience. And it’s very difficult when in retirement the tradition is that the retired rector does not come back, which is very hard for me. Only time I do come back is by invitation or occasionally I go back for a funeral and sort of stay out of the way and let the new rector do her job, and she’s done a fine job. But the privilege of being with people in a relationship where you actually are trusted with their most intimate life stories is part of the depth experience that I’ve enjoyed through my career.

Who most shaped your theological thinking?

John Miller:

Yes. When I started Union Seminary, my interests were extremely biblical, rather than theological. And John Bright, who was an authority on the Old Testament was my teacher. And I learned Hebrew and took many courses from John Bright and Patrick Miller and Dr. Mays, who were all Old Testament people and some really wonderful New Testament people. I had training in theology. I had training in pastoral care. I had training in ethics and a little bit of philosophy of religion. I graduated, went into the trenches, so to speak, with parishioners.

And the questions asked by the youngest and the oldest and everything in between, made me realize that my interests were biblical, but beyond. I wanted to probe what the Bible’s perspective had to say about big questions. And so I went back and did my graduate degrees in theology. And I focused on the problem of suffering. As you can imagine, from my family background, that was a perplexing thing for a young child to see his father in a very obviously unjustified manner, taken out of life at age 27, but who retained his composure and never doubted the existence of God through all of that. And that to me, was extremely impressive and I wanted to pursue that. It was the question of evil and suffering in the face of the God of love.

Who else influenced your theology?

John Miller:

I do want to mention a couple of people that influenced me. Once I went back, my doctoral mentor was Donald Dawe, who’s now deceased, was a wonderful man who introduced me to the philosophy of religion and systematic theology, and also the pluralism concept in looking at world religions. That was a big new thing. He took me to visit the Dali Lama in Washington, DC and it was an amazing experience of the presence of the holy in a completely different tradition than I was raised in. So I have to say kudos to my teacher, Donald Dawe and also to being introduced to Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr, Rudolph Bultmann and a host of other thinkers. And not the least of which was Alfred North Whitehead, who is the father of process theology and that’s what I did my work in that problem of evil.

Doug Monroe:

Question that’s not on here. Do you see those kind of thinkers around today?

John Miller:

No. They are not concerned with the same issues that were the concerns during the 1930s to the end of the century. Ecumenical theology is a big topic, liturgical theology is a big topic, ethics is a big topic, but not like that. And I’m glad I went through when I did. I had a tremendous appetite for what they had to say and write.

Who else influenced your theology?

John Miller:

I do want to mention a couple of people that influenced me. Once I went back, my doctoral mentor was Donald Dawe, who’s now deceased, was a wonderful man who introduced me to the philosophy of religion and systematic theology, and also the pluralism concept in looking at world religions. That was a big new thing. He took me to visit the Dali Lama in Washington, DC and it was an amazing experience of the presence of the holy in a completely different tradition than I was raised in. So I have to say kudos to my teacher, Donald Dawe, and also to being introduced to Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr, Rudolph Bultmann and a host of other thinkers. And not the least of which was Alfred North Whitehead, who is the father of process theology and that’s what I did my work in, in that problem of evil.

What does the Civil War mean to you?

John Miller:

Well, it’s the inevitable, probably necessary and tragic consequence of becoming a nation. And I think it’s still being worked out. But as Shelby Foote put it, “Before that war,” he said, “We were these United States. And after that war, we were the United States.” And seeing how those things work through, all the difficult questions, all the ambiguities and perplexities of the institution of slavery and who actually was involved, North and South, and what was the attitude of people towards the institution of slavery and the question of whether a nation could actually survive on that.

I do not think they could’ve and I was once asked by a young man from Italy, he went to a theme party and saw people in Civil War garb. And he said, “What is all this?” I said, “This is about the Civil War.” And he said, “Civil War? Was there a Civil War?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Who won?” I said, “We all did. We had to win that. We had to become a united nation after that.” And seeing how both President Lincoln and General Grant treated with respect and grace and generosity, the defeated South, it’s a tremendous story and its got all sorts of biblical proportions to it and we’re still working on it now.

Why do most people believe in God?

John Miller:

I think it begins in childhood and the influence of parents introducing the concepts of good and evil, of right and wrong, and using names to attach to it, like Jesus, like the Holy Trinity, and so forth. And then that’s reinforced in the community of faith, when you’re brought to Sunday school and you’re brought to the vacation Bible school and memorize scripture and have caring people lead you through that. That does help your formation, I think. But I think more than that, once people get a little more maturity on it and begin to question it in adolescence, they begin to realize that there’s a reason why someone showed them mercy or why a compassionate heart is important. And where does that come from? Because basic instinct would not say that you’d show mercy to your enemy or to show compassion to someone who adversary, but there is something beyond that, and they begin to sense it.

And I think that also, there are people who have enough discernment to look at the world and see its complexity, whether you’re a young person who’s studying science and introduced to the double helix or looking at the stars in the sky at night or the beauty of the change of the seasons or the awesome prospects around the world, whether it be in the mountains or the seaside, people ask questions of, why is there something like this and not nothing? And I think those kinds of experiences help people believe in God. The scriptures themselves contain stories and parables and personalities in which these values that we cherish about God are incarnate. And so we can see them and interact with them as historical figures. So, those kinds of things.

Also, when you think about it, when you’re growing up, you go to your first family funeral, and you realize there’s something important here beyond what you’re seeing, or you go to the baptism of your little brother, or you are serving as an acolyte in a wedding and lead the people in carrying the cross. There are rituals that give security. They give support, comfort, meaning in a pretty tough world. And I think that those are some of things that I thought about, just a plain explanation of mystery. Why is there something and not nothing? There are plenty more, but if you think about why people don’t believe in God-

Why do some not believe in God?

John Miller:

I think it’s a combination of things. One is that the experience of loss or the experience of betrayal, particularly if a child has been abused by parents, by other people, by teachers, and especially by clergy. There are lots of reasons to reject the notion of a loving God when people that are supposed to be holders of the faith are hurting you. There are disappointments, there are discouragements.

The awareness 24/7, we are bombarded by information technology and social media that let us know just how bad things can be. Whereas in the 19th century and earlier, we had to depend upon a very slow means of communication to understand the horrific nature of things like the Civil War, for instance. Matthew Brady and others helped us see it. But basically it was a very, very slow process of coming to understanding of the nature of evil and sadness and death. Today, that is not the case. All you have to do is turn on the news media and you’ve got it right there, or the newsfeed on your phone. It’s right there.

So there are experiences that turn off the person to the quest to look for what is beyond the here and the now and they settle for something less. And it’s very easy in today’s world to settle for something less. People are far more interested, it seems these days, in their new iPhone or the statistics for a football team or a fantasy baseball team or something to do with sports culture or the idea of the social media and what that can do for you. That forms the function of a church. I know people who don’t darken a church door, but have a caring bridge on their phone that will be their church. That’s how it functions for them. It’s a virtual church.

So there are reasons and I respect those reasons. I far more rather talk to someone who’s been turned off than someone who’s too turned on. Someone who’s too certain he knows, or she knows the mind of God. That frightens me.

What did you think of Dr. Anderson’s worldview test?

John Miller:

I thought it was ingenuous, actually. He’s asking very tough questions and he sets up a pattern by which if you answer yes to something, you go to one page or no to something, you go to the other. And it becomes a maze or a labyrinth that you’re walking through and interestingly today in liturgical life, there are a lot of people who loved the idea of contemplation by walking a maze, thinking about their life. Well, this is a logical maze that he’s putting through and I think the questions are extremely important. I began to wonder about things when it got to “Is there more than one valid religion”? And obviously for me, Christianity is the valid religion but Donald Doe, my teacher, introduced me to the concept that someone who is a Sheik or someone who is a Hindu or someone who is a Zen Buddhist might have something going in terms of getting in contact with the holy.

And so I got side sidetracked right there and basically put into a spot where I couldn’t make it to being a Christian. That was a little disconcerting and I think that the way he patterned it’s very much like someone who is developing the New York Times crossword puzzle. The puzzle maker knows exactly where he wants things to go. And if you complete everything, the puzzle maker challenge you for, you end up with a complete puzzle and you know that there was a puzzle maker. It’s almost as if you’re looking at the design of nature and thinking, “Yes, there must be a God because somebody has put this together.” So while I compliment him for his effort to ask big questions, these are the questions that I’m interested in. I found it difficult to be side barred just because I didn’t agree with what he thought the next step should be.

What do you think of the order of the test’s questions?

Doug Monroe:

… Have you answered that?

John Miller:

I mostly have. I would say it’s the order in which he has asked them. There’s no room for moving around laterally and I’m a far more just by nature, a dialectical thinker. And so therefore, one of the things that I… I’m fascinated by your interest in Praxis, because I believe it begins on ground zero. There is a dialect between experience and belief, and in my case, it has worked out that my beliefs have been confirmed by my experience. I have grown in a far more dialectical than linear fashion.

Doug Monroe:

… Question.

John Miller:

The way you’ve posed the question about qualifying as a Christian, that’s the problem. I don’t think you qualify as a Christian. The whole business is about grace. And so therefore it goes the opposite direction; it’s the grace of God in Christ that actually contacts you where you are, not where you should be. And that’s, for me, the crux of the matter, so to speak.

Does the average educated person know the word worldview?

John Miller:

I do think that a reasonably well educated person knows the word worldview. I think, however, that the way they would define it would be more in terms of point of view or frame of reference. So it might be an economic worldview. It might be a political worldview. It might be a religious worldview. But it might also be an atheistic worldview or a pluralistic worldview. The way he’s using the word might not suit everybody’s vocabulary.

Do Christian theologians address the worldview topic?

John Miller:

Well, the ones that I read and the ones that I’ve heard do talk about worldview, but not in the same vocabulary. Like for instance, if you were talking about Martin Luther. Martin Luther had a very, very definitive worldview and that was justification by grace through faith. It was the lens through which he saw everything, Old and New Testament. But don’t think he would use the word worldview. I think that there are other Christian ministers, like for instance, I’ll again mention my teacher, Don Dawe, he did talk about pluralism and actually hosted a couple of big conferences on religion and pluralism and Christ in a pluralistic age.

And they were gathering places for people of all different points of view, looking at the important issue of Christ and the meaning of Christ for us. So my experience is they do talk about it in different words. And I think that there are some people who got ahead on the curve on media and have gotten really good at it. And they have a very strong point of view about, or maybe even hard edged or a black and white view, about what the proper worldview should be. And they’re way ahead of the traditional church or the mainstream church in use of media to get their point across.

Is worldview an important concept?

John Miller:

Yes. The reason is they’re bumping into each other constantly, either online or in social media or actually global economics. Any of these things that we’re looking at today in these big economic conferences and so forth, it’s a collision of worlds. Therefore, a collision of worldviews. To be able to talk to someone from a different culture and a different frame of reference, it’s important to know what their frame of reference is. I think that sometimes we fail to do that and it causes hurt feelings. Just one little Twitter sentence can really do it to a person who feels offended.

These are questions that belong to metaphysics and to an ontology or study of being, the nature of reality. I’m afraid that not enough people take these things seriously. I wish more people were taking philosophy of religion and people were asking these hard questions about the different religious faiths. I’m afraid what they’re doing is they’re getting most of their data from social media. Many people do not read. When it comes to things like the church, I would even go so far as to say that biblical illiteracy is rampant in the church. There was a time when I could use a parable. I could refer to a parable like the prodigal son and every one would know what that meant, which contributed to all sorts of questions like this in theology. But today, you hear crickets from the pulpit when you say things like that, because people are not reading. So, yes, I think they’re extremely important and I also believe that people are not considering them as they should.

Do all humans rely on faith? “Spiritual but Not Religious”

John Miller:

There’s a variety of faiths. If you think of faith as an attitude, such as trust, then everyone trusts something. If you think of faith in terms of content, there’s a great diversity in what’s there. And there’s also this category today. You mentioned the fact earlier that the question, “Do you believe in God,” produces a very high percentage of yes. But if you also look at the statistics, you ask the question, “Do you belong to a denomination?” The fastest growing category is answering none, none of the above. And that means that they are not connected to a community, which actually has a tradition of talking about God in certain ways. They tend to talk about being spiritual, but not religious, being a sort of, a big sort of cloud of I know not what that they are putting in there that would say, “This is what I believe in.”

It’s very generalized. They only get specific when they need it today. If someone needs to get married and their parents want them to get married in a church, that’s when they show up. If you look at the big cities in America, not to mention the ones in Europe and elsewhere, the churches are not growing the way they were. People really understood, say, what a Presbyterian believes back in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, there are all sorts of practices that pass for Presbyterian, for instance. If you ask a Presbyterian, “Do you believe in predestination,” most of them have no idea what that means, which is really disconcerting to me because I spent nine years in a Presbyterian seminary and I learned to speak the language pretty well, and I’m married to a wonderful Presbyterian elder.

And so I attend and I see what’s said. Occasionally there are teachings, and there’s been an interim pastor in her church that has really taken that on, and I really applaud that. He even celebrated the Reformation, which was shocking. 500 years, and I don’t think there’s even going to be a commemorative stamp for Martin Luther. I mean, it’s a different world. And so finding out how your group has wrestled with these questions is not as easy a practice as it used to be. I mean, people who were Catholics, Baptists, whatever, they knew what their group said about these things.

Do normal people consider worldview questions?

John Miller:

Yes, they do and I would call it frame of reference or viewpoint. And/or another way to look at it is a lens through which they see a reality. They may not be conscious of it, but they functionally do. There’s a way they get up in the more morning and go through their days, and go to bed at night, trusting something. And it’s up to higher education philosophers, theologians, and others to challenge people to ask the questions, what do these things mean? Because when the crunch comes, their worldview may be totally inadequate to it.

For instance, the little book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” it’s still a major bestseller because people are genuinely shocked when a good person dies. It’s not supposed to happen that way. It’s almost like a little child, pre-Sunday school child or early Sunday school age child jumps up and down and says, “It’s not fair, you can’t do that.” I find that happening over and over again, people have not examined the questions or their point of view. And when it comes to the crunch time, sometimes they just toss it out completely. And I don’t blame them, but they can be asked to come back and talk some more.

Are the diagrams here good indications of naturalism and supernaturalism?

John Miller:

It’s very much you asked a question for me to consider something about Thomas Aquinas and I’m not really a Thomistic person, but I know enough to know that he would approve of the God above and the natural order below, but the natural order below the diagram would be the arrow would point from natural world to God. In other words, point up. In fact, if you look around this campus and all these Gothic windows all around here, they all have a point to them. They are shaped like this to draw your eye in a vertical fashion to look up because that’s where the final truth is going to come from. And so Aquinas would say that the natural world has in it, many, many traces of the creator. All the systems are set in motion by the creator and you can see God’s fingerprints, so to speak all over it.

And by reason you can get to the point where if you look up in a sense, you can see coming down from above the completion of what you’re looking for. It’s coming from outside, it’s transcendent knowledge. And that’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it would be for someone who was a process thinker like Whitehead. God in the world are not separate, God in fact is the chief exemplification of all the characteristics of the creation. And so it’s not separate from the world. It’s actually in contact with the world all the time as a part of God, that does transcend the world in terms of appreciation of perfection and so forth. But there is a connection between God and the world, such that God can feel the world, God can actually pick up from the world things that get God to change God’s mind and so forth.

And you look in scripture and you find those things and you go, what? Yes, it’s there. God changing the mind of the deity in trying to deal with things like should he ever have flooded the entire world? Just because he was upset at the humanity, it was one of the greatest tragedies ever told, and we make it into a nursery rhyme or a little on a nursery wall, got the Noah’s Ark sitting up there. It was an inundation in the entire world. And God decided not to do that again. In fact, the rainbow in the sky is God’s reminder according to the story that whenever it starts raining, it can’t rain that long. So you can always feel that the world is a safe place to live. Anyway, the idea is that there are different ways in which God and the world are connected.

Sometimes you see God entirely outside the world, dropping into the world from above. You have sometimes God and the world together and other forms. So this is very interesting. Ancient Hebrews would’ve looked at the number two and said, “That looks very much like the universe to me.” Because they thought of God as being high above the firmament in heaven. And that through holes in the firmament, God sends rain and snow and sends down angels to visit the earth. And God drops down from above to save the earth. And that’s the way they depicted transcendence.

Is secularization increasing or decreasing?

John Miller:

Well, I don’t have a transcendent point of view of my own. But I do believe that the pace of secularization was slowed down significantly with the halt of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. I was brought up as a Cold War baby. I grew up in that atmosphere of the nuclear deterrence and so forth. And when it stopped, I mean… The prediction was that religion would go away after a while. There’d be a free and classless society, according to Marx, and a withering away of the state. Well, none of that happened. And in confrontation with the US, in a Cold War fashion, when that form of championing of secularism stopped, and all of a sudden you open a door and there’s all this faith in the former Soviet Union, it’s all over the place. It had been all over the place. It was just under wraps. It let it loose again.

I was in Cuba this year, and I asked the question about what percentage of the population attends church to a professor from University of Havana. And she said about 8% to 10%. I said, “Well, I saw pictures of the pope and his visit here, and it was throngs of people surrounding him.” She said, “Oh, well that was the pope.” I said, “What’s the difference?” She said… Basically, she was old enough to have believed that the revolution and its tenets were going to work out. And on that score, she saw the withering away of religion. But when the pope came, it showed just where the people were. So it was not computing, in other words, the contact points were not making it.

So I would say that secularization has slowed down dramatically. There is an unleashing of religious spirit around the world. Some of it is frightening, in the more extreme fundamentalist forms in many cultures, but also it’s heartening to see that people are actually wanting to know more about this spiritual beyond or depth experience of life. And they’re asking questions. The people with the answers, the ready answers, tend to be more on the more conservative end. And they have really made contact with this hunger. And if you look at the conservative churches growing, there are people who are going to get answers to life’s biggest questions.

So it behooves the mainstream church to see which way the society’s going and trying to tap into where the questions are, rather than hoping that when you open the door to the church, that people will flood in to ask those questions. So it’s a long answer to a question about secularization, but I do believe it is slowed significantly.

Is this a local issue?

Doug Monroe:

Growing.

John Miller:

I think of the locale, the recent tragedy in Texas with the slaughtering of 26 people going to church, did not cause their faith to go away. In fact, the whole community has embraced that church and are surrounding them with care and compassion and are trying to transform tragedy into something with meaning. I think that’s a sign of the times. And I think that there are in certain areas of the country, it is not only is faith alive and well but it’s growing rapidly. It’s sometimes in the sort of the older established cities that if you go to church you might be one of a handful. But not so in Richmond, Virginia and not so in a lot of other places that I know.

 Is it said Grace is the essence of Christianity?

Doug Monroe:

… and the next question-

John Miller:

That is true. Without grace there is no life. Without grace there is no hope. Without grace there is no salvation. Without grace there is no wholeness, because we’re not going to make it on our own. So without grace we would be in a real bad shape.

Doug Monroe:

Do you have a definition? That’s dangerous.

John Miller:

Actually, there are lots of definitions of grace. But one of favorite comes from Donald Dahl, and he would refer to grace as the “Godness of God.” The very essence of God is grace. And I think that’s something that Luther rediscovered from Paul; and that is that the central issue was it was not about conditional love, or steps, or merit, it was about the fact that God is grace, and that is the grounds for hope.

You can go on and say that grace, being the essential nature of God, is God is a giver in a perpetual, relentless, patient, loving way, in ways that cajole, and ways that encourage, and ways that forgive.

One of my favorite people is a monk named Curtis Enquist. And when asked the question, “What is one word that could sum up Christianity?” And he chose to say mercy. I would say, “That’s exactly right.” Mercy is the basic component of grace, but it doesn’t in there. It is also a power that can help propel the person into the right direction of living. So it’s a kind of pardon or mercy, and it’s also power that sustains and transforms the person.

What is trending in Christianity?

John Miller:

I think it’s healthy to know what others are experiencing. I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to just adopt what they’re doing as part of our own tradition. What I’ve been noticing is not a fascination with other faiths so much, but a fascination with a kind of monastic spirituality. On the rise are things like Celtic Evensong services, where a person walks into a dark church with 150 or 200 candles burning and beautiful music playing and a kind of long contemplative period of silence. Walking a maze, visiting monasteries. I’ve done that myself. It was fascinating. And going on silent retreats and things that Protestant Christians just didn’t do. And I don’t think that many Catholic Christians did either except for the monastics. But today there’s a fascination with that. And I think trying it on to see how it feels is important.

But I find myself when I go to one of those experiences, being grateful that is, for knowing the basic Christian paradigm, the stories, the parables, the meanings, and then be able to sit in silence and contemplate that. If I were a person with no background and walking in off the street and just went into a place where it was silent, I might get a good period of rest and relaxation and that kind of experience, but it might not be spiritually nurturing as it could be. So I’m grateful for knowing what I know and have been taught what I’ve been taught and also trying on new things.

How does Grace play out in the Bible?

Doug Monroe:

People typically think about grace in terms of Jesus’ life as grace entering the world. But it’s also in the Old Testament.

John Miller:

Oh yes.

Doug Monroe:

I just wondered if you could give us three or four examples in the Old Testament of grace.

John Miller:

Grace is the one concept that unifies both Testaments. It’s the story of the unfolding of grace and the adaptations that grace has made to help save humans from themselves. And so it begins with creation and goes from creation to the choosing of a people and the nurturing of those people. The release of those people from bondage. The Exodus experience is the lens through which many adherence of the Jewish tradition see life. It is the saving, it’s the redemptive lens of what God is like. The giving of the law, the structuring of grace into a codified rules for behavior, the call of the prophets, regular infusions of critique based on grace. Go through the whole list. David the king is… As difficult as part of his life was, he was essential to the wellbeing and self understanding of the Jewish people and still is today.

And of course that forms a part of the messianic tradition for Christians. And so, yes, the Old Testament is loaded with grace. Every covenant that was made in the Old Testament was a grace covenant. And yet there was, at the very end of Jeremiah’s prophecy, “‘Behold the day is a coming’, says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Not like the old covenant,'” it says. The idea is that there would be direct contact between God and the people. “‘They shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest’ says the Lord.” That is known as the prophecy of the new covenant. And when you look at the term New Testament, that’s what it means. The whole story of Jesus and the letters of Paul and others are all testimonies to the fact that the grace covenant was fulfilled in Christ and the early church, and is an ongoing concept.

 Is Grace still going on in history? In your life? Radio Tuning and the Holy Spirit

John Miller:

The basic miracle of my life was my parents and their marriage and what the hardship that they went through to raise my brother and me. And to keep setting goals for dad’s survival and what dad gave to my brother and me, and my mother gave to my brother and me. Putting us through private college on a teacher’s salary. My mother was the breadwinner. They may seem a little mundane for the term of miracle because I don’t see that as a suspension of the natural, but I do believe that it’s an occasion of grace. It was the formative period of my life. And everything else being… Becoming a young husband to a wonderful wife who later died of cancer way too early in life, was her life cut short. And the fact that I actually was loved back to life by a whole congregation of people.

Having had the loss of my wife when I was 50 years old. She was 49 and standing up in front of the congregation and trying to proclaim good news every Sunday in the pulpit was a challenge. And I believe that the grace of God, through the people of St. Mary’s church and the Episcopal church, my bishops, and others was the saving episode and it propelled me forward into life. So I think that occasions of grace is going to… The fulfillment of, “Lo, will be with you to the end of the age,” that Jesus, that there… Christ is present but present as Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit is the sanctifier. It is all around us. Sometimes I think we’re like an old-fashioned radio with analog controls where you have to actually tune a dial-in. I think that many people are living on white noise between the stations, but the broadcast is always there.

And if you choose to focus on it and to try to tune in, you will make contact with meaning. And that is my experience. That’s the presence and the life. In our tradition, we give thanks to the Holy Spirit as Lord and giver of life. There’s never been a time when the Holy Spirit wasn’t present at creation throughout the history of Israel but is more focused in the life of Jesus to become the witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And so when… The fact that I’ve been able to understand anything about life, about sacrificial love, about the meaning of the cross or transformation is because of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think… I don’t think any of us has within us the capacity to figure it all out.

What works to get to God? Can we reason our way?

John Miller:

There’s been a lot of discussion about using pure reason to prove the existence of God. Aquinas was very, very optimistic about doing this. And I think it is helpful to look at those proofs for the existence of God. But it’s also helpful that someone like Immanuel Kant or David Hume was able to critique that and say, well, that’s not exactly standing on the ground, the ice is thinner beneath that argument, then you think. And so there were critiques of these proofs and refutation of these proofs. And yet Kant turned around and said, but I can prove the existence of God on the basis of morality, the moral arguments, you need a God, you need an immortal soul, you need to have a final judgment. He said for all of this to work for any of the morality to work something to hold you accountable.

And so there are philosophers that have wrestled with those problems. But for me, although I really think those things are valuable, for me it is the direct experience of compassion, of love that I don’t deserve or forgiveness or encouragement when things seem the darkest. It says to me that… The biblical word is Immanuel or Emmanuel. It means God is with us. And I believe that I don’t believe that there’s no part of my life that hasn’t been in contact with odd or being influenced by God.

I’ve done a very imperfect job of listening. My tuning of the radio has not been all that accurate sometimes, but when I really pay attention, I see the presence of something bigger than God. I think it was Einstein that said, “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” Another person, a guy named John Polkinghorne is very interested in the interface of science and theology and he made a statement about music. I could also do it in the form of a painting, but in terms of music, if you analyze it only by natural categories, all you’re going to hear is a set of vibrations.That’s all it is. It’s a set of vibrations, but who would dispute the transcendental quality of something like the fifth symphony or Mozart, or even the simplest hymns. It goes beyond the physical to the metaphysical.

And the same thing is true of a painting. It’s not just pigment and oil and brush, strokes, and canvas. It is a work of art and that art transcends the canvas. That’s the kind of thing that I rely on. I’m a guy who starts an experience and sees belief confirmed over and over again, in my experience.

St. Paul and Grace

John Miller:

He was definitive. I mean, Paul was the first Christian theologian. What my teachers would say is he wrote occasional theology, meaning he rose to the occasion by an incident that he needed to answer in a letter except for the Epistle to the Romans, which is more of a major opus.

Paul believed firmly in the value of legalism. He was a Pharisee. He was also a Roman citizen. In his early life he devoted himself to the persecution of this group of people, rabble rousers, they would say, or revolutionaries, that were turning the world upside down who were followers of Jesus. It was in the process of being a persecutor that he came face-to-face with what he described as a vision of the risen Lord, who said, “Why are you persecuting me,” and knocked him off his high horse onto his keister.

He went blind. During that period of darkness, he considered what he was doing and wondered what he was doing wrong. As he emerged from that, by the grace of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, he developed the notion that the just shall live by faith. It is not the other way around. Jesus mentions that a good tree bears good fruit, but good fruit don’t make a good tree. That point is what he finally understood. It wasn’t by what you do, it’s because of who God is in Christ that we are saved.

He came up with this basic paradigm of justification or getting into a right relationship with God by grace. It’s a gift. Unmarried, undeserved through faith. That is all you need to do is trust it, and it begins to change in your life. Without Paul, there would be no church.

So that’s the big movement of grace after AD 30 that you see. He interpreted Jesus. Although Jesus never used those exact words that Paul did, his parables were all about that. He was a sophisticated guy, and he knew that in the long run because he was a Roman citizen, he could make an appeal directly to Rome to deal with his case, to try his case. He said the magic words, “Civis romanus sum, I am a Roman,” and went immediately to Rome.

So without entering Western Europe, without entering the areas of Greece and Italy and Asia Minor, these concepts, which meant so much to people in Palestine, to the Jews in Palestine like Messiah, a Roman citizen would have no idea what that is. He had to translate it for them, and that translation is what resulted in the first theologies of the church.

St. Augustine and Grace Again

John Miller:

Augustine is extremely important. He was in a way the father of the reformation in his doctrine of original sin and he was also the father of Roman Catholic system of grace and his idea of sanctification. So on one hand, Augustine said basically people were incapable of saving themselves because of sin and Pelagius, who is his big nemesis, was basically very optimistic about human nature and said that humans have the capacity to choose the good and to do it. And that was compounded in later years by people like in the Renaissance and some of the early radical sects that came out the perfectionist and so forth. And also, when you get to modern liberalism and the American spirit, which is a can-do spirit, Pelagius is still alive and functioning and Augustine said that for Pelagius, you have no need of a Christ, really, except as an example.

In Augustine’s work, you said that it’s the triumph of grace. It is the necessity of grace and that changed the whole course of a Christian orthodoxy. And then what he did later, was to say that this sanctification process of grace, this building up of holiness in a person basically takes a will that is imperfect and not destroyed by sin and resurrects it by a kind of infusion of power and sanctifying grace, and this comes through the sacraments. And so the Roman Church, all the way through to Aquinas, and then a Council of Trent and so forth, where they solidified the Roman Catholic position on salvation, depended on this idea of the sacraments as being the media through which an infusion of grace could help build a impaired will into a position of doing the good. And the more good you do, the better off you are. So it begins to look like a merit system again, and that’s where Luther and Calvin and others took off.

Grace v. Works or Merit – The Protestant Reformation

John Miller:

No, no. I think he was perhaps like Augustine but maybe even more so. He was premature in the institutionalization of grace. I think he was too confident in what the church’s role would be and the dispensing of this infusion of grace and that ends up in a merit system that the reformation countered. And the counter-reformation from the Catholics solidified. It’s still the same today. In talking about what the sacraments do for you, the way ecumenical talk happens today, it’s a little bit vague as to what everyone is saying. Like for instance, both the Roman Church and the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church are saying today is that Christ is really present in the sacrament. But the Roman Church’s doctrine is far more intricate because of Aquinas and because of his theology as to what it’s doing for you. The Episcopal Church is deliberately vague on this. Christ is really present. It’s going to do a good thing for you, but it does not define it like Aquinas did.

How to minister to a church with widely varying opinions?

John Miller:

Well, that’s in a way true of church life. It’s very difficult being a pastor of a wide spectrum of people. I know that I have people on the right and on the left and everywhere in between, and I’m a pastor to all of them. So when a tough question comes up, like same gender marriage, I know that there are people all over the map there, and I am the pastor of all those people. And some of the people want me to take a stand that’s super hard right, and some people want super hard left and want me to take a partisan position. And I always saw myself as a kind of, my job as a pastor in dealing with all of those people, was to serve as the keel of the boat to keep it from healing over and tipping over. And it can, and I’ve seen congregations go under because of partisan stands made by pastors. But now that I’m retired, I’m a little freer to be able to say things that I wouldn’t have said before.

Does Christian praxis matter?

John Miller:

It does require it. It is not just a set of theories. It is boots on the ground, it’s in the trenches kind of thing. And I would say that the way Reinhold Niebuhr used to describe his work in ethics was to say that he taught applied Christianity, which is the same for me as seeing a practical testing and use of a theory in real life settings. And for me, that’s what practice is. So yes, absolutely.

The 500th Year Since 1517: Have Protestantism and Catholicism merged?

John Miller:

I don’t think so. I believe the Roman position hasn’t changed a bit on all of that. But I do believe that certain practices have changed. For instance, the mass is now in the vernacular. The priest turns around and faces the congregation. The sermon is given more attention than it was way back in time.

There’s a famous cartoon from the Middle Ages that has a bishop standing in a Roman church saying… And there was a cartoon with a little bubble off the character. And the bishop says, “Thus sayeth the church,” in Latin. And over on this other cell of the cartoon was Martin Luther in his pulpit. And he’s saying, in German, “Thus sayeth the Lord.” So, the old idea that the sermons from in the Roman tradition were mostly a discussion of Roman practices and dogma. Now, they’ve become more or biblical. In that sense, they have been affected by the Protestant Reformation and modernity, after the Vatican II conference and so forth. There’s an awful lot that has changed that way.

However, if you look at the Protestant churches, that’s where it gets a little iffy for me. And that is, the practices that Protestants have adopted from the Catholic tradition, without questioning what they are, are immense. Everything from what you wear to religious jewelry to various traditions of bowing to the cross or any of the things that would have been anathema to someone like John Calvin or Martin Luther. These things are commonplace today. And no one seems to ask the question, “Why?”

For instance, if I went to a Baptist installation of a young minister as the new pastor. And he was wearing Roman Eucharistic vestments. They had a professional cross. They were wearing stoles, which are not worn in the Baptist tradition, normally. There was bowing towards the cross and so forth. I thought, who won? When you see that you wonder who won. There’s an awful lot of what has happened in the Episcopal church, in the same direction.

When I started out, virtually no one called my predecessor Holt or me “Father.” But it became more and more commonplace for someone, especially outside of Virginia, coming to our parish, to refer to me as “Father.” There are many other things that have changed, in terms of vestments; where the gospel is read and how often the Eucharist is celebrated.

In the early Protestant churches in Virginia, the communion or Eucharist was celebrated once a quarter in all the Protestant churches, including the Anglican church. Now, most of the Anglican churches, that is the Episcopal Church, celebrate the Eucharist at all services. There are no other services than that. That seems to me, a triumph of the mass. In fact, I have friends, who are colleagues of mine in the Episcopal Church, who would refer to it as “the mass.” So, who won? It’s hard to say.

What do you think about the U.S. Constitution?

John Miller:

I think the Constitution is a brilliant document. And it is affected by the Christian tradition, especially the consciousness of the tendency to concentrate power in places that would make tyranny of a majority over a minority. So building in checks and balances and the way the government is arranged, the way the office of President and the offices of the Congress and the Supreme Court are set up, it is just an incredibly brilliant document. And the First Amendment is extremely important, but it also has that disestablishment clause and at which, I think, is more likely to be influenced by the enlightenment rather than scripture. I mean, Calvin wanted to put together a Holy Commonwealth in Geneva. Basically, it was a theocracy. I’m glad we don’t have a theocracy. I’m glad that my own tradition, the Anglican tradition was disestablished by that First Amendment. And I’m grateful for it because none of us should have sway over the other.

A Definition of Justice

John Miller:

Well, justice, I told you that I started at Union Seminary, focusing on biblical concepts and justice is an extremely important concept. It’s usually paired with righteousness in the Hebrew scriptures. It is part of the nature of God to be just and that influences me to say that in a religious, as well as a civil sphere, I would see justice as equanimity, as fair treatment of protecting the rights of minorities and the disadvantage, just making sure that no one group of people gets the upper hand over the other and persecutes the other and redresses grievances, when there have been breaches. Like for instance, after the Civil War, reconstruction was a just institution. Now, many of my fellow southerners would not agree with that, but without reconstruction, I don’t know where we’d be. But that was also, justice was tempered by mercy in that case. So another sense of justice is that it’s paired with mercy and that’s again, a biblical pairing.

The Key Functions of Government

John Miller:

I think keeping civil or maintaining civil order is one of the key functions of government. Provision for the common good or public welfare is also a part of what government does. A provision for the maintenance of peace and the cessation of violence, of protecting society. I think a just government would take care of the people who can’t take care of themselves and also give them impetus to try to start taking care of themselves.

Is the Welfare State functioning well?

John Miller:

It’s a conundrum. Lyndon Johnson and the great society, where it was a philanthropic and noble effort that ended up creating dependency on the part of a whole group of people that really were incentivized to stay on the dole rather than try to get off the dole, and to break up families to get more. And there are tragic cases in this. I used to be called by people who used the phone book to go through the listing of churches, and they call constantly to keep themselves afloat, even in section eight housing, or their children have come in and taken all of the food that they got assistance buying and what can they do?

So I actually had firsthand experience with people on the welfare list. And there’s one in particular that I just, I continue to keep in my prayers. She’s my age. And she just called to talk to me all the time because she knew it was hopeless. She couldn’t get out. And she had such great skills. If there’s a way. I used to tell her, “You should be a bill collector because of the way you persist in getting me to put that little tiny check in the mail to you.” And she said, “You’re making in fun of me.” I said, “No, actually not. You have the skill to do this.” But she didn’t have the education to do it, and she didn’t have the incentive to do it. The incentive was to not work and to take more in welfare.

I believe that it was one of those consequences of the institution of slavery in America. And it’s not just African Americans that I’m talking about, but the whole institution. What do you do with that after it has been declared illegal? What are those people going to do to compete in the marketplace when they’ve not been educated and trained? And what are people do who are once soldiers from the Appalachians who’d never had any education when they fought in the army, once the army was disbanded, what are they going to do? Well, they’re still out there.

I don’t know if you’ve read the book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s amazing what’s out there. And I think that it’s one of those lasting effects of creating a whole group of people dependent on another. And I don’t know the way out of it except to incentivize getting out in some ways that I’m not smart enough to dream up.

What do you think of capitalism today?

John Miller:

I’m not sure that Adam Smith would recognize what we’re doing today as capitalism. My final exam in macroeconomic theory was to compare and contrast Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. And it was a big challenge to look at it this way. I think that capitalism has, it’s based on human nature. And I believe that it works. It works very well. It can run amok very easily if it’s not managed and checks and balances are not in place to keep people from victimizing others. Right now, we’re facing this whole issue of restructuring the taxes. And I’m afraid that there’s a whole group of middle class Americans that are hoping that they’re going to be helped by this. When in fact, just about every economist I’ve listened to, said it’s really going to help the less than 1%. And the idea that perhaps that 1%, once their capital from offshore is brought back in and once they get this big tax cut, they’re going to redistribute it in America in the ways that will create jobs.

I hope they’re right, but human nature tells me that’s not going to work, but we’ll see. I think capitalism worked better than any other system I’ve seen. As I told you, I went to Cuba and the older people in Havana that I talked to, professors and various other church leaders and so forth, they’ve all pretty much drunk the Kool-Aid in the sense they still believe the revolution’s going to work. When in fact, what is working in Havana as a doctor who might get paid about $30 a month in Cuban currency can drive his old rebuilt American car and get $30 a ride from tourists who are coming in to look at the old Havana. Or someone can open a restaurant and serve good food, instead of the stuff that’s coming through the subsidized markets. So capitalism works, but it must be worked within bounds. There have to be limits on capitalism them to keep it from going amok.

 What about parents designing children and parent-child rights?

John Miller:

Well, starting at the end, I think the idea of designer marketing of children to parents raises so many ethical questions and moral questions that I am opposed to it. I’m very conservative on that level. But if you back up to the earlier questions about rights, does a child have a right to a mother and a father, well, by definition, a child has a mother and a father or the components, male and female components that would make a child. But by right, I’m not so sure of that. I’m not sure a child has a right to a mother and a father. By definition, there is a mother and father, but by right, I’m not so sure. An entitlement, that is.

Does a mother or father have a right to parenthood of a natural child? They have the possibility of parenthood unless by biology they are not able to conceive a child, but I don’t know about a right, unless someone were to try to take that away. In China today, I think there is a one family, one child policy. And the reason for it is trying to get a hold on this geometrically expanding population and what that does to the environment and to the economy and so forth. So they are limiting the right of a family to one. If they were to get into real trouble, they might try to limit to zero or have a lottery as to who gets a right. I think that’s wrong, but for a society like theirs, it may be a case of a necessity. Hope not.

The other question is, does a mother have a right to a child with no father? I believe so. I believe so. And in fact, I have baptized children of women who have gone to a clinic to have a sperm donor, and the child raised in a congregation and family has done very well. And it was interesting to me that, in one case, we used to baptize in public worship, obviously, at St. Mary’s, and standing there, I’m sure people did the count and realized there was somebody short, and there was one male short in the group and there was no father there. But the mother function is both mother and father in that case.

And does a father have a right? I think kind of the same thing applies within limits. If someone just wants to have one as a commodity, and I worry about that more about young parents today. One of the things that I’ve noted as a pastor is the fact that young parents in the congregation, where these people are mostly of means, young parents would often complain that their time was being inconvenienced by these children that they had. And so they would complain to one another about it, and that led to a preschool.

And the preschool was taking the place of the parental care, and I worried about that. I thought, is this because people want a nice car, a nice club, a nice house, nice friends, and some children? Is this just one more a thing you have, and then you decide that it’s inconvenient? I don’t know. I used to worry about that quite a bit. So I don’t know where I’m going with that after that, but getting back to the consumer preferences, I would say at this point, absolutely not.

Are you optimistic about America?

John Miller:

I’ve been optimistic all my life until recently. I’m worried that we are so locked into a kind of cold Civil War within Congress, within the government itself and in the nation, red states, blue states. The divide is great and there doesn’t seem to be any bending. And without getting into really difficult questions, I would say that the fact that behavior of certain leaders doesn’t seem to matter to anyone, that the base, so to speak of a leader will justify anything that the leader says or does. It’s frightening to me. And it leads me to question whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I believe that the constitution is there for… it’s almost a God given gift. If we had no constitution like that, we’d be in super trouble right now.

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St. Mary’s Episcopal Church:

https://www.stmarysgoochland.org/

Overview

Rev. John Miller

John Miller, a native of Richmond, VA, is the retired Rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, where he served for 38 years in the vocations of minister to youth, Assistant Rector, and Rector. He’s a graduate of Washington & Lee University (1970); subsequently, he earned both a Master of Divinity (1974) and a master of Theology (1977) from Union Theological Seminary (Richmond, VA). In 1982 Dr. Miller graduated with the Doctor of Philosophy degree from Union Seminary. While at Union Seminary he was also awarded three graduate fellowships and was selected as a teaching fellow. Dr. Miller was interviewed because of his extensive knowledge of Christian history and theology, in general, and because of his known, life-long fascination with the Christian doctrine of grace, in particular.
Transcript

A Pastor’s Formative Years

John Miller:

Yes. I was born in Richmond and raised in Henrico County and went to the Henrico County schools through Douglas Freeman High School. The formative experience though started when I was five. My father got polio and was taken away to MCV, the medical college of Virginia, now VCU, and stayed there nine months.

When he came home, he came home in a breathing machine called an iron lung. My mother had to really bear down and demand that he be sent home, because they were going to send him to some type of a facility like the VA because they didn’t expect him to live. He expected to live, and so did she, so she argued the case and he came home. He was 27 years old and my mother was 26. They had just about finished the building of a new house, not far from here, from the University of Richmond. My mother finished the job while he was at MCV, do it being the contractor. She taught us a lot about being a woman of substance and power and intelligence and means. She was amazing.

Dad was equally as amazing. When he came home, he basically lived in that machine. Most people don’t even know what the machine is because it’s a piece of antique technology. It’s really low tech apparatus for breathing, but it worked. He stayed mostly in that machine for 35 years with mom being his chief caretaker, visiting ministers, visiting doctors, occasionally. My brother and I were her assistants in taking care of the machine. Growing up like that, we thought that was normal. We were grateful to have him at home. He was a fantastic man. He was a quiet, kind, thoughtful person who never finished college, but was a voracious reader. I used to say, “Before there was Google, there was dad.” I could ask him anything. He had access to it somehow from his reading.

The way he read at the beginning was there was a rack over his head. Of course, he was in a lying down position, looking up with his head out of a rubber gasket in the machine. There was a reading rack over his head and we took turns turning pages for him, growing up. It was quite an experience, but he taught us, my brother and me, how to be a man and also taught us both that physical strength does not equal strength. He was extremely strong and not only kept it together all those years, but led us into manhood. That was the big experience.

When my friends would enter the house and hear the machine breathing, it was like a big bellows sound, they would sort of furrow their brows, “What is that?” We thought, well, doesn’t everybody know what an iron lung is? No they didn’t, but it worked for him.

He died in 1988 and my mother died just a few years ago. It was a long, beautiful marriage, and it taught us a lot about compassion and resourcefulness and sort of keeping it together in a discipline. He was so disciplined that his… Anybody with claustrophobia would’ve lost it. He maintained his composure all those years. He led me through an Eagle Scout project all the way but was unable, because of the machine, to attend anything we did. No graduations, no Eagle Scout Award, no going to visit colleges, no getting married. He wasn’t able to attend any of that. It was very definitely my background.

Educational Background

John Miller:

Sure. I went to Douglas Freeman High School, then went to Washington and Lee University and got a degree in economics and European history. And then applied to Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, which is here in Richmond. It’s changed its name to Union Presbyterian Seminary, but it was a great place to my master divinity degree, the basic ministerial degree there. And then went back in 1976, 2 years after I graduated with the MDiv, I went back to do a master of theology and a PhD degree, and I finished in 82.

Catholic + Baptist = Episcopalian

John Miller:

My parents were a mixed marriage, as the church would put it. My father, as the Roman Church would put it, dad was brought up in the Catholic Church, my mother, a Protestant, she was a Baptist. They both had questions about their traditions and intended to find a church that would suit the both of them, but never did because of dad’s illness. And so I was baptized in the Catholic church and then by about age six, dad because of his illness, told our mother to take us to her church. So I was baptized again in River Road Church Baptist, and so I had a dual background. I had a kind of, it’s sort of a dialectic. I was born into a dialectic and I think I became the synthesis and didn’t really know much about the Episcopal church, except what I had seen growing up. I’d seen the buildings.

I had even seen St. Mary’s Church, where I was, as a young guy, but had never stepped through the door. And my late wife, Margie, after graduating from Hollands College, got a job at St. Catherine’s School. So I saw an Episcopal school and then she got a job part-time as the organist for St. Mary’s Church out in Goochland, where I ended up. And that was my basic exposure to the church. And I found it to be welcoming, embracing of the differences in my background. It is deliberately Episcopal church suited me because it was kind of the synthesis. It was the outcome of the dialectic that I was raised in. And I’m glad to say that mom and dad are peacefully at rest in the St. Mary’s churchyard where I will take up residence someday. So the Episcopal church was a welcoming and inclusive place that had both Protestant and Catholic characteristics.

An Entire Pastoral Career at St Mary’s and the St Mary’s Story

John Miller:

I actually spent 38 years at St. Mary’s and I started as a youth worker while I was a graduate student. My predecessor, Holt Souder, hired me to work with youth. After about a year of that, I was learning all about St. Mary’s and about the Episcopal Church with his help, I felt called to ordination in the Episcopal Church and he supported it. And so I became ordained as a deacon and priest, and I became his assistant. And then in 1984, I was called as the rector and I stayed there to the end of my career.

The story of St. Mary’s is fascinating. It really began with the death of a little girl who was seven and a half months old. Her name was Mary Allen, and she lived at Tuckahoe Plantation for a very short while. She was born on Christmas Eve of 1864, a very dark time in these parts, and died August 14th, 1865, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery. Her parents at Tuckahoe Plantation wanted to do something to honor her short but beautiful little life. They raised money and got permission to build a mission church to farmers and later coal miners of the area, in Goochland. It remained a mission from 1878 until 1962. It was served by people who would come through occasionally to do services, but laypeople led most of the morning prayer services at St. Mary’s.

In 1962, they called their first full-time rector, which was Holt Souder. They were able to support the budget to have a rector. So I was actually the second rector in the history, since 1878. It has a mission kind of character and flavor to it. It’s Carpenter Gothic. It’s simple. It’s direct. It sits right on the road. On River Road, people will drive by and just see it and think, “That’s what a church should look like.”

How to characterize your experience?

John Miller:

Well, I went through several generations there, or at least two and a half. I followed these beautiful people from cradle to grave. There’s a cemetery at St. Mary’s that is still very much in the center of the life there. And being privileged to be a part of their families and being welcomed into their crises, their joys was a tremendous experience. And it’s very difficult when in retirement the tradition is that the retired rector does not come back, which is very hard for me. Only time I do come back is by invitation or occasionally I go back for a funeral and sort of stay out of the way and let the new rector do her job, and she’s done a fine job. But the privilege of being with people in a relationship where you actually are trusted with their most intimate life stories is part of the depth experience that I’ve enjoyed through my career.

Who most shaped your theological thinking?

John Miller:

Yes. When I started Union Seminary, my interests were extremely biblical, rather than theological. And John Bright, who was an authority on the Old Testament was my teacher. And I learned Hebrew and took many courses from John Bright and Patrick Miller and Dr. Mays, who were all Old Testament people and some really wonderful New Testament people. I had training in theology. I had training in pastoral care. I had training in ethics and a little bit of philosophy of religion. I graduated, went into the trenches, so to speak, with parishioners.

And the questions asked by the youngest and the oldest and everything in between, made me realize that my interests were biblical, but beyond. I wanted to probe what the Bible’s perspective had to say about big questions. And so I went back and did my graduate degrees in theology. And I focused on the problem of suffering. As you can imagine, from my family background, that was a perplexing thing for a young child to see his father in a very obviously unjustified manner, taken out of life at age 27, but who retained his composure and never doubted the existence of God through all of that. And that to me, was extremely impressive and I wanted to pursue that. It was the question of evil and suffering in the face of the God of love.

Who else influenced your theology?

John Miller:

I do want to mention a couple of people that influenced me. Once I went back, my doctoral mentor was Donald Dawe, who’s now deceased, was a wonderful man who introduced me to the philosophy of religion and systematic theology, and also the pluralism concept in looking at world religions. That was a big new thing. He took me to visit the Dali Lama in Washington, DC and it was an amazing experience of the presence of the holy in a completely different tradition than I was raised in. So I have to say kudos to my teacher, Donald Dawe and also to being introduced to Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr, Rudolph Bultmann and a host of other thinkers. And not the least of which was Alfred North Whitehead, who is the father of process theology and that’s what I did my work in that problem of evil.

Doug Monroe:

Question that’s not on here. Do you see those kind of thinkers around today?

John Miller:

No. They are not concerned with the same issues that were the concerns during the 1930s to the end of the century. Ecumenical theology is a big topic, liturgical theology is a big topic, ethics is a big topic, but not like that. And I’m glad I went through when I did. I had a tremendous appetite for what they had to say and write.

Who else influenced your theology?

John Miller:

I do want to mention a couple of people that influenced me. Once I went back, my doctoral mentor was Donald Dawe, who’s now deceased, was a wonderful man who introduced me to the philosophy of religion and systematic theology, and also the pluralism concept in looking at world religions. That was a big new thing. He took me to visit the Dali Lama in Washington, DC and it was an amazing experience of the presence of the holy in a completely different tradition than I was raised in. So I have to say kudos to my teacher, Donald Dawe, and also to being introduced to Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr, Rudolph Bultmann and a host of other thinkers. And not the least of which was Alfred North Whitehead, who is the father of process theology and that’s what I did my work in, in that problem of evil.

What does the Civil War mean to you?

John Miller:

Well, it’s the inevitable, probably necessary and tragic consequence of becoming a nation. And I think it’s still being worked out. But as Shelby Foote put it, “Before that war,” he said, “We were these United States. And after that war, we were the United States.” And seeing how those things work through, all the difficult questions, all the ambiguities and perplexities of the institution of slavery and who actually was involved, North and South, and what was the attitude of people towards the institution of slavery and the question of whether a nation could actually survive on that.

I do not think they could’ve and I was once asked by a young man from Italy, he went to a theme party and saw people in Civil War garb. And he said, “What is all this?” I said, “This is about the Civil War.” And he said, “Civil War? Was there a Civil War?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Who won?” I said, “We all did. We had to win that. We had to become a united nation after that.” And seeing how both President Lincoln and General Grant treated with respect and grace and generosity, the defeated South, it’s a tremendous story and its got all sorts of biblical proportions to it and we’re still working on it now.

Why do most people believe in God?

John Miller:

I think it begins in childhood and the influence of parents introducing the concepts of good and evil, of right and wrong, and using names to attach to it, like Jesus, like the Holy Trinity, and so forth. And then that’s reinforced in the community of faith, when you’re brought to Sunday school and you’re brought to the vacation Bible school and memorize scripture and have caring people lead you through that. That does help your formation, I think. But I think more than that, once people get a little more maturity on it and begin to question it in adolescence, they begin to realize that there’s a reason why someone showed them mercy or why a compassionate heart is important. And where does that come from? Because basic instinct would not say that you’d show mercy to your enemy or to show compassion to someone who adversary, but there is something beyond that, and they begin to sense it.

And I think that also, there are people who have enough discernment to look at the world and see its complexity, whether you’re a young person who’s studying science and introduced to the double helix or looking at the stars in the sky at night or the beauty of the change of the seasons or the awesome prospects around the world, whether it be in the mountains or the seaside, people ask questions of, why is there something like this and not nothing? And I think those kinds of experiences help people believe in God. The scriptures themselves contain stories and parables and personalities in which these values that we cherish about God are incarnate. And so we can see them and interact with them as historical figures. So, those kinds of things.

Also, when you think about it, when you’re growing up, you go to your first family funeral, and you realize there’s something important here beyond what you’re seeing, or you go to the baptism of your little brother, or you are serving as an acolyte in a wedding and lead the people in carrying the cross. There are rituals that give security. They give support, comfort, meaning in a pretty tough world. And I think that those are some of things that I thought about, just a plain explanation of mystery. Why is there something and not nothing? There are plenty more, but if you think about why people don’t believe in God-

Why do some not believe in God?

John Miller:

I think it’s a combination of things. One is that the experience of loss or the experience of betrayal, particularly if a child has been abused by parents, by other people, by teachers, and especially by clergy. There are lots of reasons to reject the notion of a loving God when people that are supposed to be holders of the faith are hurting you. There are disappointments, there are discouragements.

The awareness 24/7, we are bombarded by information technology and social media that let us know just how bad things can be. Whereas in the 19th century and earlier, we had to depend upon a very slow means of communication to understand the horrific nature of things like the Civil War, for instance. Matthew Brady and others helped us see it. But basically it was a very, very slow process of coming to understanding of the nature of evil and sadness and death. Today, that is not the case. All you have to do is turn on the news media and you’ve got it right there, or the newsfeed on your phone. It’s right there.

So there are experiences that turn off the person to the quest to look for what is beyond the here and the now and they settle for something less. And it’s very easy in today’s world to settle for something less. People are far more interested, it seems these days, in their new iPhone or the statistics for a football team or a fantasy baseball team or something to do with sports culture or the idea of the social media and what that can do for you. That forms the function of a church. I know people who don’t darken a church door, but have a caring bridge on their phone that will be their church. That’s how it functions for them. It’s a virtual church.

So there are reasons and I respect those reasons. I far more rather talk to someone who’s been turned off than someone who’s too turned on. Someone who’s too certain he knows, or she knows the mind of God. That frightens me.

What did you think of Dr. Anderson’s worldview test?

John Miller:

I thought it was ingenuous, actually. He’s asking very tough questions and he sets up a pattern by which if you answer yes to something, you go to one page or no to something, you go to the other. And it becomes a maze or a labyrinth that you’re walking through and interestingly today in liturgical life, there are a lot of people who loved the idea of contemplation by walking a maze, thinking about their life. Well, this is a logical maze that he’s putting through and I think the questions are extremely important. I began to wonder about things when it got to “Is there more than one valid religion”? And obviously for me, Christianity is the valid religion but Donald Doe, my teacher, introduced me to the concept that someone who is a Sheik or someone who is a Hindu or someone who is a Zen Buddhist might have something going in terms of getting in contact with the holy.

And so I got side sidetracked right there and basically put into a spot where I couldn’t make it to being a Christian. That was a little disconcerting and I think that the way he patterned it’s very much like someone who is developing the New York Times crossword puzzle. The puzzle maker knows exactly where he wants things to go. And if you complete everything, the puzzle maker challenge you for, you end up with a complete puzzle and you know that there was a puzzle maker. It’s almost as if you’re looking at the design of nature and thinking, “Yes, there must be a God because somebody has put this together.” So while I compliment him for his effort to ask big questions, these are the questions that I’m interested in. I found it difficult to be side barred just because I didn’t agree with what he thought the next step should be.

What do you think of the order of the test’s questions?

Doug Monroe:

… Have you answered that?

John Miller:

I mostly have. I would say it’s the order in which he has asked them. There’s no room for moving around laterally and I’m a far more just by nature, a dialectical thinker. And so therefore, one of the things that I… I’m fascinated by your interest in Praxis, because I believe it begins on ground zero. There is a dialect between experience and belief, and in my case, it has worked out that my beliefs have been confirmed by my experience. I have grown in a far more dialectical than linear fashion.

Doug Monroe:

… Question.

John Miller:

The way you’ve posed the question about qualifying as a Christian, that’s the problem. I don’t think you qualify as a Christian. The whole business is about grace. And so therefore it goes the opposite direction; it’s the grace of God in Christ that actually contacts you where you are, not where you should be. And that’s, for me, the crux of the matter, so to speak.

Does the average educated person know the word worldview?

John Miller:

I do think that a reasonably well educated person knows the word worldview. I think, however, that the way they would define it would be more in terms of point of view or frame of reference. So it might be an economic worldview. It might be a political worldview. It might be a religious worldview. But it might also be an atheistic worldview or a pluralistic worldview. The way he’s using the word might not suit everybody’s vocabulary.

Do Christian theologians address the worldview topic?

John Miller:

Well, the ones that I read and the ones that I’ve heard do talk about worldview, but not in the same vocabulary. Like for instance, if you were talking about Martin Luther. Martin Luther had a very, very definitive worldview and that was justification by grace through faith. It was the lens through which he saw everything, Old and New Testament. But don’t think he would use the word worldview. I think that there are other Christian ministers, like for instance, I’ll again mention my teacher, Don Dawe, he did talk about pluralism and actually hosted a couple of big conferences on religion and pluralism and Christ in a pluralistic age.

And they were gathering places for people of all different points of view, looking at the important issue of Christ and the meaning of Christ for us. So my experience is they do talk about it in different words. And I think that there are some people who got ahead on the curve on media and have gotten really good at it. And they have a very strong point of view about, or maybe even hard edged or a black and white view, about what the proper worldview should be. And they’re way ahead of the traditional church or the mainstream church in use of media to get their point across.

Is worldview an important concept?

John Miller:

Yes. The reason is they’re bumping into each other constantly, either online or in social media or actually global economics. Any of these things that we’re looking at today in these big economic conferences and so forth, it’s a collision of worlds. Therefore, a collision of worldviews. To be able to talk to someone from a different culture and a different frame of reference, it’s important to know what their frame of reference is. I think that sometimes we fail to do that and it causes hurt feelings. Just one little Twitter sentence can really do it to a person who feels offended.

These are questions that belong to metaphysics and to an ontology or study of being, the nature of reality. I’m afraid that not enough people take these things seriously. I wish more people were taking philosophy of religion and people were asking these hard questions about the different religious faiths. I’m afraid what they’re doing is they’re getting most of their data from social media. Many people do not read. When it comes to things like the church, I would even go so far as to say that biblical illiteracy is rampant in the church. There was a time when I could use a parable. I could refer to a parable like the prodigal son and every one would know what that meant, which contributed to all sorts of questions like this in theology. But today, you hear crickets from the pulpit when you say things like that, because people are not reading. So, yes, I think they’re extremely important and I also believe that people are not considering them as they should.

Do all humans rely on faith? “Spiritual but Not Religious”

John Miller:

There’s a variety of faiths. If you think of faith as an attitude, such as trust, then everyone trusts something. If you think of faith in terms of content, there’s a great diversity in what’s there. And there’s also this category today. You mentioned the fact earlier that the question, “Do you believe in God,” produces a very high percentage of yes. But if you also look at the statistics, you ask the question, “Do you belong to a denomination?” The fastest growing category is answering none, none of the above. And that means that they are not connected to a community, which actually has a tradition of talking about God in certain ways. They tend to talk about being spiritual, but not religious, being a sort of, a big sort of cloud of I know not what that they are putting in there that would say, “This is what I believe in.”

It’s very generalized. They only get specific when they need it today. If someone needs to get married and their parents want them to get married in a church, that’s when they show up. If you look at the big cities in America, not to mention the ones in Europe and elsewhere, the churches are not growing the way they were. People really understood, say, what a Presbyterian believes back in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, there are all sorts of practices that pass for Presbyterian, for instance. If you ask a Presbyterian, “Do you believe in predestination,” most of them have no idea what that means, which is really disconcerting to me because I spent nine years in a Presbyterian seminary and I learned to speak the language pretty well, and I’m married to a wonderful Presbyterian elder.

And so I attend and I see what’s said. Occasionally there are teachings, and there’s been an interim pastor in her church that has really taken that on, and I really applaud that. He even celebrated the Reformation, which was shocking. 500 years, and I don’t think there’s even going to be a commemorative stamp for Martin Luther. I mean, it’s a different world. And so finding out how your group has wrestled with these questions is not as easy a practice as it used to be. I mean, people who were Catholics, Baptists, whatever, they knew what their group said about these things.

Do normal people consider worldview questions?

John Miller:

Yes, they do and I would call it frame of reference or viewpoint. And/or another way to look at it is a lens through which they see a reality. They may not be conscious of it, but they functionally do. There’s a way they get up in the more morning and go through their days, and go to bed at night, trusting something. And it’s up to higher education philosophers, theologians, and others to challenge people to ask the questions, what do these things mean? Because when the crunch comes, their worldview may be totally inadequate to it.

For instance, the little book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” it’s still a major bestseller because people are genuinely shocked when a good person dies. It’s not supposed to happen that way. It’s almost like a little child, pre-Sunday school child or early Sunday school age child jumps up and down and says, “It’s not fair, you can’t do that.” I find that happening over and over again, people have not examined the questions or their point of view. And when it comes to the crunch time, sometimes they just toss it out completely. And I don’t blame them, but they can be asked to come back and talk some more.

Are the diagrams here good indications of naturalism and supernaturalism?

John Miller:

It’s very much you asked a question for me to consider something about Thomas Aquinas and I’m not really a Thomistic person, but I know enough to know that he would approve of the God above and the natural order below, but the natural order below the diagram would be the arrow would point from natural world to God. In other words, point up. In fact, if you look around this campus and all these Gothic windows all around here, they all have a point to them. They are shaped like this to draw your eye in a vertical fashion to look up because that’s where the final truth is going to come from. And so Aquinas would say that the natural world has in it, many, many traces of the creator. All the systems are set in motion by the creator and you can see God’s fingerprints, so to speak all over it.

And by reason you can get to the point where if you look up in a sense, you can see coming down from above the completion of what you’re looking for. It’s coming from outside, it’s transcendent knowledge. And that’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it would be for someone who was a process thinker like Whitehead. God in the world are not separate, God in fact is the chief exemplification of all the characteristics of the creation. And so it’s not separate from the world. It’s actually in contact with the world all the time as a part of God, that does transcend the world in terms of appreciation of perfection and so forth. But there is a connection between God and the world, such that God can feel the world, God can actually pick up from the world things that get God to change God’s mind and so forth.

And you look in scripture and you find those things and you go, what? Yes, it’s there. God changing the mind of the deity in trying to deal with things like should he ever have flooded the entire world? Just because he was upset at the humanity, it was one of the greatest tragedies ever told, and we make it into a nursery rhyme or a little on a nursery wall, got the Noah’s Ark sitting up there. It was an inundation in the entire world. And God decided not to do that again. In fact, the rainbow in the sky is God’s reminder according to the story that whenever it starts raining, it can’t rain that long. So you can always feel that the world is a safe place to live. Anyway, the idea is that there are different ways in which God and the world are connected.

Sometimes you see God entirely outside the world, dropping into the world from above. You have sometimes God and the world together and other forms. So this is very interesting. Ancient Hebrews would’ve looked at the number two and said, “That looks very much like the universe to me.” Because they thought of God as being high above the firmament in heaven. And that through holes in the firmament, God sends rain and snow and sends down angels to visit the earth. And God drops down from above to save the earth. And that’s the way they depicted transcendence.

Is secularization increasing or decreasing?

John Miller:

Well, I don’t have a transcendent point of view of my own. But I do believe that the pace of secularization was slowed down significantly with the halt of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. I was brought up as a Cold War baby. I grew up in that atmosphere of the nuclear deterrence and so forth. And when it stopped, I mean… The prediction was that religion would go away after a while. There’d be a free and classless society, according to Marx, and a withering away of the state. Well, none of that happened. And in confrontation with the US, in a Cold War fashion, when that form of championing of secularism stopped, and all of a sudden you open a door and there’s all this faith in the former Soviet Union, it’s all over the place. It had been all over the place. It was just under wraps. It let it loose again.

I was in Cuba this year, and I asked the question about what percentage of the population attends church to a professor from University of Havana. And she said about 8% to 10%. I said, “Well, I saw pictures of the pope and his visit here, and it was throngs of people surrounding him.” She said, “Oh, well that was the pope.” I said, “What’s the difference?” She said… Basically, she was old enough to have believed that the revolution and its tenets were going to work out. And on that score, she saw the withering away of religion. But when the pope came, it showed just where the people were. So it was not computing, in other words, the contact points were not making it.

So I would say that secularization has slowed down dramatically. There is an unleashing of religious spirit around the world. Some of it is frightening, in the more extreme fundamentalist forms in many cultures, but also it’s heartening to see that people are actually wanting to know more about this spiritual beyond or depth experience of life. And they’re asking questions. The people with the answers, the ready answers, tend to be more on the more conservative end. And they have really made contact with this hunger. And if you look at the conservative churches growing, there are people who are going to get answers to life’s biggest questions.

So it behooves the mainstream church to see which way the society’s going and trying to tap into where the questions are, rather than hoping that when you open the door to the church, that people will flood in to ask those questions. So it’s a long answer to a question about secularization, but I do believe it is slowed significantly.

Is this a local issue?

Doug Monroe:

Growing.

John Miller:

I think of the locale, the recent tragedy in Texas with the slaughtering of 26 people going to church, did not cause their faith to go away. In fact, the whole community has embraced that church and are surrounding them with care and compassion and are trying to transform tragedy into something with meaning. I think that’s a sign of the times. And I think that there are in certain areas of the country, it is not only is faith alive and well but it’s growing rapidly. It’s sometimes in the sort of the older established cities that if you go to church you might be one of a handful. But not so in Richmond, Virginia and not so in a lot of other places that I know.

 Is it said Grace is the essence of Christianity?

Doug Monroe:

… and the next question-

John Miller:

That is true. Without grace there is no life. Without grace there is no hope. Without grace there is no salvation. Without grace there is no wholeness, because we’re not going to make it on our own. So without grace we would be in a real bad shape.

Doug Monroe:

Do you have a definition? That’s dangerous.

John Miller:

Actually, there are lots of definitions of grace. But one of favorite comes from Donald Dahl, and he would refer to grace as the “Godness of God.” The very essence of God is grace. And I think that’s something that Luther rediscovered from Paul; and that is that the central issue was it was not about conditional love, or steps, or merit, it was about the fact that God is grace, and that is the grounds for hope.

You can go on and say that grace, being the essential nature of God, is God is a giver in a perpetual, relentless, patient, loving way, in ways that cajole, and ways that encourage, and ways that forgive.

One of my favorite people is a monk named Curtis Enquist. And when asked the question, “What is one word that could sum up Christianity?” And he chose to say mercy. I would say, “That’s exactly right.” Mercy is the basic component of grace, but it doesn’t in there. It is also a power that can help propel the person into the right direction of living. So it’s a kind of pardon or mercy, and it’s also power that sustains and transforms the person.

What is trending in Christianity?

John Miller:

I think it’s healthy to know what others are experiencing. I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to just adopt what they’re doing as part of our own tradition. What I’ve been noticing is not a fascination with other faiths so much, but a fascination with a kind of monastic spirituality. On the rise are things like Celtic Evensong services, where a person walks into a dark church with 150 or 200 candles burning and beautiful music playing and a kind of long contemplative period of silence. Walking a maze, visiting monasteries. I’ve done that myself. It was fascinating. And going on silent retreats and things that Protestant Christians just didn’t do. And I don’t think that many Catholic Christians did either except for the monastics. But today there’s a fascination with that. And I think trying it on to see how it feels is important.

But I find myself when I go to one of those experiences, being grateful that is, for knowing the basic Christian paradigm, the stories, the parables, the meanings, and then be able to sit in silence and contemplate that. If I were a person with no background and walking in off the street and just went into a place where it was silent, I might get a good period of rest and relaxation and that kind of experience, but it might not be spiritually nurturing as it could be. So I’m grateful for knowing what I know and have been taught what I’ve been taught and also trying on new things.

How does Grace play out in the Bible?

Doug Monroe:

People typically think about grace in terms of Jesus’ life as grace entering the world. But it’s also in the Old Testament.

John Miller:

Oh yes.

Doug Monroe:

I just wondered if you could give us three or four examples in the Old Testament of grace.

John Miller:

Grace is the one concept that unifies both Testaments. It’s the story of the unfolding of grace and the adaptations that grace has made to help save humans from themselves. And so it begins with creation and goes from creation to the choosing of a people and the nurturing of those people. The release of those people from bondage. The Exodus experience is the lens through which many adherence of the Jewish tradition see life. It is the saving, it’s the redemptive lens of what God is like. The giving of the law, the structuring of grace into a codified rules for behavior, the call of the prophets, regular infusions of critique based on grace. Go through the whole list. David the king is… As difficult as part of his life was, he was essential to the wellbeing and self understanding of the Jewish people and still is today.

And of course that forms a part of the messianic tradition for Christians. And so, yes, the Old Testament is loaded with grace. Every covenant that was made in the Old Testament was a grace covenant. And yet there was, at the very end of Jeremiah’s prophecy, “‘Behold the day is a coming’, says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Not like the old covenant,'” it says. The idea is that there would be direct contact between God and the people. “‘They shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest’ says the Lord.” That is known as the prophecy of the new covenant. And when you look at the term New Testament, that’s what it means. The whole story of Jesus and the letters of Paul and others are all testimonies to the fact that the grace covenant was fulfilled in Christ and the early church, and is an ongoing concept.

 Is Grace still going on in history? In your life? Radio Tuning and the Holy Spirit

John Miller:

The basic miracle of my life was my parents and their marriage and what the hardship that they went through to raise my brother and me. And to keep setting goals for dad’s survival and what dad gave to my brother and me, and my mother gave to my brother and me. Putting us through private college on a teacher’s salary. My mother was the breadwinner. They may seem a little mundane for the term of miracle because I don’t see that as a suspension of the natural, but I do believe that it’s an occasion of grace. It was the formative period of my life. And everything else being… Becoming a young husband to a wonderful wife who later died of cancer way too early in life, was her life cut short. And the fact that I actually was loved back to life by a whole congregation of people.

Having had the loss of my wife when I was 50 years old. She was 49 and standing up in front of the congregation and trying to proclaim good news every Sunday in the pulpit was a challenge. And I believe that the grace of God, through the people of St. Mary’s church and the Episcopal church, my bishops, and others was the saving episode and it propelled me forward into life. So I think that occasions of grace is going to… The fulfillment of, “Lo, will be with you to the end of the age,” that Jesus, that there… Christ is present but present as Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit is the sanctifier. It is all around us. Sometimes I think we’re like an old-fashioned radio with analog controls where you have to actually tune a dial-in. I think that many people are living on white noise between the stations, but the broadcast is always there.

And if you choose to focus on it and to try to tune in, you will make contact with meaning. And that is my experience. That’s the presence and the life. In our tradition, we give thanks to the Holy Spirit as Lord and giver of life. There’s never been a time when the Holy Spirit wasn’t present at creation throughout the history of Israel but is more focused in the life of Jesus to become the witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And so when… The fact that I’ve been able to understand anything about life, about sacrificial love, about the meaning of the cross or transformation is because of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think… I don’t think any of us has within us the capacity to figure it all out.

What works to get to God? Can we reason our way?

John Miller:

There’s been a lot of discussion about using pure reason to prove the existence of God. Aquinas was very, very optimistic about doing this. And I think it is helpful to look at those proofs for the existence of God. But it’s also helpful that someone like Immanuel Kant or David Hume was able to critique that and say, well, that’s not exactly standing on the ground, the ice is thinner beneath that argument, then you think. And so there were critiques of these proofs and refutation of these proofs. And yet Kant turned around and said, but I can prove the existence of God on the basis of morality, the moral arguments, you need a God, you need an immortal soul, you need to have a final judgment. He said for all of this to work for any of the morality to work something to hold you accountable.

And so there are philosophers that have wrestled with those problems. But for me, although I really think those things are valuable, for me it is the direct experience of compassion, of love that I don’t deserve or forgiveness or encouragement when things seem the darkest. It says to me that… The biblical word is Immanuel or Emmanuel. It means God is with us. And I believe that I don’t believe that there’s no part of my life that hasn’t been in contact with odd or being influenced by God.

I’ve done a very imperfect job of listening. My tuning of the radio has not been all that accurate sometimes, but when I really pay attention, I see the presence of something bigger than God. I think it was Einstein that said, “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” Another person, a guy named John Polkinghorne is very interested in the interface of science and theology and he made a statement about music. I could also do it in the form of a painting, but in terms of music, if you analyze it only by natural categories, all you’re going to hear is a set of vibrations.That’s all it is. It’s a set of vibrations, but who would dispute the transcendental quality of something like the fifth symphony or Mozart, or even the simplest hymns. It goes beyond the physical to the metaphysical.

And the same thing is true of a painting. It’s not just pigment and oil and brush, strokes, and canvas. It is a work of art and that art transcends the canvas. That’s the kind of thing that I rely on. I’m a guy who starts an experience and sees belief confirmed over and over again, in my experience.

St. Paul and Grace

John Miller:

He was definitive. I mean, Paul was the first Christian theologian. What my teachers would say is he wrote occasional theology, meaning he rose to the occasion by an incident that he needed to answer in a letter except for the Epistle to the Romans, which is more of a major opus.

Paul believed firmly in the value of legalism. He was a Pharisee. He was also a Roman citizen. In his early life he devoted himself to the persecution of this group of people, rabble rousers, they would say, or revolutionaries, that were turning the world upside down who were followers of Jesus. It was in the process of being a persecutor that he came face-to-face with what he described as a vision of the risen Lord, who said, “Why are you persecuting me,” and knocked him off his high horse onto his keister.

He went blind. During that period of darkness, he considered what he was doing and wondered what he was doing wrong. As he emerged from that, by the grace of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, he developed the notion that the just shall live by faith. It is not the other way around. Jesus mentions that a good tree bears good fruit, but good fruit don’t make a good tree. That point is what he finally understood. It wasn’t by what you do, it’s because of who God is in Christ that we are saved.

He came up with this basic paradigm of justification or getting into a right relationship with God by grace. It’s a gift. Unmarried, undeserved through faith. That is all you need to do is trust it, and it begins to change in your life. Without Paul, there would be no church.

So that’s the big movement of grace after AD 30 that you see. He interpreted Jesus. Although Jesus never used those exact words that Paul did, his parables were all about that. He was a sophisticated guy, and he knew that in the long run because he was a Roman citizen, he could make an appeal directly to Rome to deal with his case, to try his case. He said the magic words, “Civis romanus sum, I am a Roman,” and went immediately to Rome.

So without entering Western Europe, without entering the areas of Greece and Italy and Asia Minor, these concepts, which meant so much to people in Palestine, to the Jews in Palestine like Messiah, a Roman citizen would have no idea what that is. He had to translate it for them, and that translation is what resulted in the first theologies of the church.

St. Augustine and Grace Again

John Miller:

Augustine is extremely important. He was in a way the father of the reformation in his doctrine of original sin and he was also the father of Roman Catholic system of grace and his idea of sanctification. So on one hand, Augustine said basically people were incapable of saving themselves because of sin and Pelagius, who is his big nemesis, was basically very optimistic about human nature and said that humans have the capacity to choose the good and to do it. And that was compounded in later years by people like in the Renaissance and some of the early radical sects that came out the perfectionist and so forth. And also, when you get to modern liberalism and the American spirit, which is a can-do spirit, Pelagius is still alive and functioning and Augustine said that for Pelagius, you have no need of a Christ, really, except as an example.

In Augustine’s work, you said that it’s the triumph of grace. It is the necessity of grace and that changed the whole course of a Christian orthodoxy. And then what he did later, was to say that this sanctification process of grace, this building up of holiness in a person basically takes a will that is imperfect and not destroyed by sin and resurrects it by a kind of infusion of power and sanctifying grace, and this comes through the sacraments. And so the Roman Church, all the way through to Aquinas, and then a Council of Trent and so forth, where they solidified the Roman Catholic position on salvation, depended on this idea of the sacraments as being the media through which an infusion of grace could help build a impaired will into a position of doing the good. And the more good you do, the better off you are. So it begins to look like a merit system again, and that’s where Luther and Calvin and others took off.

Grace v. Works or Merit – The Protestant Reformation

John Miller:

No, no. I think he was perhaps like Augustine but maybe even more so. He was premature in the institutionalization of grace. I think he was too confident in what the church’s role would be and the dispensing of this infusion of grace and that ends up in a merit system that the reformation countered. And the counter-reformation from the Catholics solidified. It’s still the same today. In talking about what the sacraments do for you, the way ecumenical talk happens today, it’s a little bit vague as to what everyone is saying. Like for instance, both the Roman Church and the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church are saying today is that Christ is really present in the sacrament. But the Roman Church’s doctrine is far more intricate because of Aquinas and because of his theology as to what it’s doing for you. The Episcopal Church is deliberately vague on this. Christ is really present. It’s going to do a good thing for you, but it does not define it like Aquinas did.

How to minister to a church with widely varying opinions?

John Miller:

Well, that’s in a way true of church life. It’s very difficult being a pastor of a wide spectrum of people. I know that I have people on the right and on the left and everywhere in between, and I’m a pastor to all of them. So when a tough question comes up, like same gender marriage, I know that there are people all over the map there, and I am the pastor of all those people. And some of the people want me to take a stand that’s super hard right, and some people want super hard left and want me to take a partisan position. And I always saw myself as a kind of, my job as a pastor in dealing with all of those people, was to serve as the keel of the boat to keep it from healing over and tipping over. And it can, and I’ve seen congregations go under because of partisan stands made by pastors. But now that I’m retired, I’m a little freer to be able to say things that I wouldn’t have said before.

Does Christian praxis matter?

John Miller:

It does require it. It is not just a set of theories. It is boots on the ground, it’s in the trenches kind of thing. And I would say that the way Reinhold Niebuhr used to describe his work in ethics was to say that he taught applied Christianity, which is the same for me as seeing a practical testing and use of a theory in real life settings. And for me, that’s what practice is. So yes, absolutely.

The 500th Year Since 1517: Have Protestantism and Catholicism merged?

John Miller:

I don’t think so. I believe the Roman position hasn’t changed a bit on all of that. But I do believe that certain practices have changed. For instance, the mass is now in the vernacular. The priest turns around and faces the congregation. The sermon is given more attention than it was way back in time.

There’s a famous cartoon from the Middle Ages that has a bishop standing in a Roman church saying… And there was a cartoon with a little bubble off the character. And the bishop says, “Thus sayeth the church,” in Latin. And over on this other cell of the cartoon was Martin Luther in his pulpit. And he’s saying, in German, “Thus sayeth the Lord.” So, the old idea that the sermons from in the Roman tradition were mostly a discussion of Roman practices and dogma. Now, they’ve become more or biblical. In that sense, they have been affected by the Protestant Reformation and modernity, after the Vatican II conference and so forth. There’s an awful lot that has changed that way.

However, if you look at the Protestant churches, that’s where it gets a little iffy for me. And that is, the practices that Protestants have adopted from the Catholic tradition, without questioning what they are, are immense. Everything from what you wear to religious jewelry to various traditions of bowing to the cross or any of the things that would have been anathema to someone like John Calvin or Martin Luther. These things are commonplace today. And no one seems to ask the question, “Why?”

For instance, if I went to a Baptist installation of a young minister as the new pastor. And he was wearing Roman Eucharistic vestments. They had a professional cross. They were wearing stoles, which are not worn in the Baptist tradition, normally. There was bowing towards the cross and so forth. I thought, who won? When you see that you wonder who won. There’s an awful lot of what has happened in the Episcopal church, in the same direction.

When I started out, virtually no one called my predecessor Holt or me “Father.” But it became more and more commonplace for someone, especially outside of Virginia, coming to our parish, to refer to me as “Father.” There are many other things that have changed, in terms of vestments; where the gospel is read and how often the Eucharist is celebrated.

In the early Protestant churches in Virginia, the communion or Eucharist was celebrated once a quarter in all the Protestant churches, including the Anglican church. Now, most of the Anglican churches, that is the Episcopal Church, celebrate the Eucharist at all services. There are no other services than that. That seems to me, a triumph of the mass. In fact, I have friends, who are colleagues of mine in the Episcopal Church, who would refer to it as “the mass.” So, who won? It’s hard to say.

What do you think about the U.S. Constitution?

John Miller:

I think the Constitution is a brilliant document. And it is affected by the Christian tradition, especially the consciousness of the tendency to concentrate power in places that would make tyranny of a majority over a minority. So building in checks and balances and the way the government is arranged, the way the office of President and the offices of the Congress and the Supreme Court are set up, it is just an incredibly brilliant document. And the First Amendment is extremely important, but it also has that disestablishment clause and at which, I think, is more likely to be influenced by the enlightenment rather than scripture. I mean, Calvin wanted to put together a Holy Commonwealth in Geneva. Basically, it was a theocracy. I’m glad we don’t have a theocracy. I’m glad that my own tradition, the Anglican tradition was disestablished by that First Amendment. And I’m grateful for it because none of us should have sway over the other.

A Definition of Justice

John Miller:

Well, justice, I told you that I started at Union Seminary, focusing on biblical concepts and justice is an extremely important concept. It’s usually paired with righteousness in the Hebrew scriptures. It is part of the nature of God to be just and that influences me to say that in a religious, as well as a civil sphere, I would see justice as equanimity, as fair treatment of protecting the rights of minorities and the disadvantage, just making sure that no one group of people gets the upper hand over the other and persecutes the other and redresses grievances, when there have been breaches. Like for instance, after the Civil War, reconstruction was a just institution. Now, many of my fellow southerners would not agree with that, but without reconstruction, I don’t know where we’d be. But that was also, justice was tempered by mercy in that case. So another sense of justice is that it’s paired with mercy and that’s again, a biblical pairing.

The Key Functions of Government

John Miller:

I think keeping civil or maintaining civil order is one of the key functions of government. Provision for the common good or public welfare is also a part of what government does. A provision for the maintenance of peace and the cessation of violence, of protecting society. I think a just government would take care of the people who can’t take care of themselves and also give them impetus to try to start taking care of themselves.

Is the Welfare State functioning well?

John Miller:

It’s a conundrum. Lyndon Johnson and the great society, where it was a philanthropic and noble effort that ended up creating dependency on the part of a whole group of people that really were incentivized to stay on the dole rather than try to get off the dole, and to break up families to get more. And there are tragic cases in this. I used to be called by people who used the phone book to go through the listing of churches, and they call constantly to keep themselves afloat, even in section eight housing, or their children have come in and taken all of the food that they got assistance buying and what can they do?

So I actually had firsthand experience with people on the welfare list. And there’s one in particular that I just, I continue to keep in my prayers. She’s my age. And she just called to talk to me all the time because she knew it was hopeless. She couldn’t get out. And she had such great skills. If there’s a way. I used to tell her, “You should be a bill collector because of the way you persist in getting me to put that little tiny check in the mail to you.” And she said, “You’re making in fun of me.” I said, “No, actually not. You have the skill to do this.” But she didn’t have the education to do it, and she didn’t have the incentive to do it. The incentive was to not work and to take more in welfare.

I believe that it was one of those consequences of the institution of slavery in America. And it’s not just African Americans that I’m talking about, but the whole institution. What do you do with that after it has been declared illegal? What are those people going to do to compete in the marketplace when they’ve not been educated and trained? And what are people do who are once soldiers from the Appalachians who’d never had any education when they fought in the army, once the army was disbanded, what are they going to do? Well, they’re still out there.

I don’t know if you’ve read the book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s amazing what’s out there. And I think that it’s one of those lasting effects of creating a whole group of people dependent on another. And I don’t know the way out of it except to incentivize getting out in some ways that I’m not smart enough to dream up.

What do you think of capitalism today?

John Miller:

I’m not sure that Adam Smith would recognize what we’re doing today as capitalism. My final exam in macroeconomic theory was to compare and contrast Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. And it was a big challenge to look at it this way. I think that capitalism has, it’s based on human nature. And I believe that it works. It works very well. It can run amok very easily if it’s not managed and checks and balances are not in place to keep people from victimizing others. Right now, we’re facing this whole issue of restructuring the taxes. And I’m afraid that there’s a whole group of middle class Americans that are hoping that they’re going to be helped by this. When in fact, just about every economist I’ve listened to, said it’s really going to help the less than 1%. And the idea that perhaps that 1%, once their capital from offshore is brought back in and once they get this big tax cut, they’re going to redistribute it in America in the ways that will create jobs.

I hope they’re right, but human nature tells me that’s not going to work, but we’ll see. I think capitalism worked better than any other system I’ve seen. As I told you, I went to Cuba and the older people in Havana that I talked to, professors and various other church leaders and so forth, they’ve all pretty much drunk the Kool-Aid in the sense they still believe the revolution’s going to work. When in fact, what is working in Havana as a doctor who might get paid about $30 a month in Cuban currency can drive his old rebuilt American car and get $30 a ride from tourists who are coming in to look at the old Havana. Or someone can open a restaurant and serve good food, instead of the stuff that’s coming through the subsidized markets. So capitalism works, but it must be worked within bounds. There have to be limits on capitalism them to keep it from going amok.

 What about parents designing children and parent-child rights?

John Miller:

Well, starting at the end, I think the idea of designer marketing of children to parents raises so many ethical questions and moral questions that I am opposed to it. I’m very conservative on that level. But if you back up to the earlier questions about rights, does a child have a right to a mother and a father, well, by definition, a child has a mother and a father or the components, male and female components that would make a child. But by right, I’m not so sure of that. I’m not sure a child has a right to a mother and a father. By definition, there is a mother and father, but by right, I’m not so sure. An entitlement, that is.

Does a mother or father have a right to parenthood of a natural child? They have the possibility of parenthood unless by biology they are not able to conceive a child, but I don’t know about a right, unless someone were to try to take that away. In China today, I think there is a one family, one child policy. And the reason for it is trying to get a hold on this geometrically expanding population and what that does to the environment and to the economy and so forth. So they are limiting the right of a family to one. If they were to get into real trouble, they might try to limit to zero or have a lottery as to who gets a right. I think that’s wrong, but for a society like theirs, it may be a case of a necessity. Hope not.

The other question is, does a mother have a right to a child with no father? I believe so. I believe so. And in fact, I have baptized children of women who have gone to a clinic to have a sperm donor, and the child raised in a congregation and family has done very well. And it was interesting to me that, in one case, we used to baptize in public worship, obviously, at St. Mary’s, and standing there, I’m sure people did the count and realized there was somebody short, and there was one male short in the group and there was no father there. But the mother function is both mother and father in that case.

And does a father have a right? I think kind of the same thing applies within limits. If someone just wants to have one as a commodity, and I worry about that more about young parents today. One of the things that I’ve noted as a pastor is the fact that young parents in the congregation, where these people are mostly of means, young parents would often complain that their time was being inconvenienced by these children that they had. And so they would complain to one another about it, and that led to a preschool.

And the preschool was taking the place of the parental care, and I worried about that. I thought, is this because people want a nice car, a nice club, a nice house, nice friends, and some children? Is this just one more a thing you have, and then you decide that it’s inconvenient? I don’t know. I used to worry about that quite a bit. So I don’t know where I’m going with that after that, but getting back to the consumer preferences, I would say at this point, absolutely not.

Are you optimistic about America?

John Miller:

I’ve been optimistic all my life until recently. I’m worried that we are so locked into a kind of cold Civil War within Congress, within the government itself and in the nation, red states, blue states. The divide is great and there doesn’t seem to be any bending. And without getting into really difficult questions, I would say that the fact that behavior of certain leaders doesn’t seem to matter to anyone, that the base, so to speak of a leader will justify anything that the leader says or does. It’s frightening to me. And it leads me to question whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I believe that the constitution is there for… it’s almost a God given gift. If we had no constitution like that, we’d be in super trouble right now.

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Reference

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church:

https://www.stmarysgoochland.org/

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