Every Grain of Sand


Every Grain of Sand
Brian Zahnd

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

–Bob Dylan, Every Grain of Sand

I had a dream. I dreamed I was riding a yellow bicycle. While riding my yellow bicycle I was intently observing the beauty of creation, especially the vibrant colors — the green of the grass and trees (the human eye is more attune to the green spectrum than any other), the blue sky, the red roses, the yellow dandelions. During my colorful dreamland bike ride I was thinking about the nature of salvation. When I awoke I wrote down my nocturnal thoughts:

When we make salvation mostly postmortem, all about the afterlife, we create a barrier — a wall of separation between redemption and the land of the living. No wonder so many shrug their shoulders in disinterest. But when we locate salvation here and now we achieve a stunning relevance.

Salvation is about being human. This is why the Logic (Logos) of God became human flesh. Jesus came to give us back the life we lost ever since we stumbled out of the garden to wander in the violent land east of Eden.

When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden Creation lost its gardener. Is it any surprise that the faster our technology has advanced the more rapacious we have become in the pillage and plunder of our planet? When we lost our vocation as gardeners, the planet lost its God-ordained caretakers. From the stone age to the dawn of the industrial age the planet has been able to muddle by without its caretakers, but now human civilization, divorced from its original vocation, threatens to imperil the earth.

Mary Magdalene’s Easter “mistake” of thinking Jesus was the gardener is a poetic hint of how the Last Adam leads us back to our first vocation. Any understanding of salvation that doesn’t lead us to love God’s creation is far more Gnostic than Christian. Or perhaps it’s just voracious capitalism dressed up in Christian garb — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If we cannot love the primeval forest I’m not sure we can love either God or neighbor. The wise Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov gives this counsel to the novice monk Alyosha:

“Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

If you say that sounds like tree hugger theology,
I say a theologian can do worse than to hug a tree.

When Karl Rahner famously predicted that “the devout Christian of the future will either be a mystic or he will cease to be anything at all,” he was keenly prescient. Indeed, the hope for a vibrant Christianity in the West lies, in part, in a recovery of mysticism. The tyranny of empiricism so characteristic of modernity is at last coming to an end. A Christianity that has no room for the mystics can expect to be increasingly ignored, left to molder in its own arrogant assumptions.

The rise of global Pentecostalism in the 20th century is just one portent of the type of spirituality that is capable of addressing the spiritual hunger of the postmodern world. This is a return to our ancient roots. There was a time when mysticism was not tangential to Christianity but an integral aspect of Christian experience. After all, we Christians claim it is possible to communicate with God, that miracles are credible, and that the rightful ruler of our planet is a crucified man who was raised from the dead two thousand years ago. Mysticism is no outlier to orthodox Christianity.

Which is why I have increasing interest in what might be described as aboriginal spirituality. From the point of view of Christian theology, aboriginal spirituality is not heterodox, but simply a spirituality rooted in something other than the European Enlightenment — a spirituality not of the ivory tower, but of the moss covered forest.

Today most of us have enough good sense to lament that Christianity arrived in the “new” world as a stowaway in the company of gold-crazed Spanish conquistadors and English pilgrims driven to cruelty by the lie of Manifest Destiny. What if Europe and America had met in another way? What if there had been a genuine exchange of ideas, a gracious cultural cross-pollination? How much richer might Western spirituality be today if this had occurred? Or do we still cling to the lie of a European hegemony in all things, including spirituality?

Because of a twist of geographical fate Europeans had the advantage of an earlier reception of the gospel and access to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. But by the time Columbus made his blundering “discovery,” Europeans had also lost much of their aboriginal wisdom — which is to say, they had forgotten that humans belong to the earth. Europeans had learned how to dominate nature, but not how to live with and care for nature.

Half a millennium of that trajectory has left our planet in peril. Perhaps, while there is still time, we should become humble enough to consult the wisdom of those who knew how to live in respectful relationship with the rest of God’s creation. This was the instinct of Saint Francis, the spiritual savant who spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Fire and Sister Water. It’s this type of integrated spirituality — Christian theology and aboriginal wisdom — that compels me to read both the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the Native American poet John Trudell. I benefit from both.

With Western culture exhibiting so clearly the symptoms of a deep spiritual malaise, a poverty of soul that is harming both people and planet, we need to bring an end to European hubris. Maybe with chastened humility we can ask if cultures that have lived in close harmony with creation for thousands of years can teach us how to become custodians instead of conquistadors, participants instead of plunderers. For in plundering the planet we have pillaged our souls, leaving us with an emptiness that systematic theology alone cannot fill.

So mysticism beckons. We have our scriptures, we have our creeds. These are sufficient to keep us safely within Christian orthodoxy. But can we also learn to listen to the wise poets and sages of aboriginal spirituality who can teach us much that has been forgotten? I hope so. Because secularism, which appears to be the only other alternative, leads to nothing but a spiritual dead end. Either we become mystics or it won’t be long before we are nothing at all.


(The artwork is The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rosseau, 1897)