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Divining Grace

Grace — a word of such command, and, yet, one seldom spoken today. Has the word fallen out of favor? Or has grace itself? And, if we aren’t talking about grace, does that mean we are not living it? Do we prefer to keep our distance from matters (or reminders) of a fall from grace?

I sensed any number of such currents and crosscurrents in Anna Deavere Smith’s new documentary theater, Conversations on Grace, performed in Chicago’s Harris Theatre.

I could also feel something larger at work, from the show’s soulful opening to the finale, in the notes played by cellist Joshua Roman and vocalized by Ms. Smith. Her acting and Joshua Roman’s cello music create a pas de deux of 12 conversations about grace. Each “conversation” is an artistic rendering of Ms. Smith’s dialogues and interviews with scholars, religious figures (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish), citizens, politicians, singers, and academics.

Ms. Smith’s 12 conversations on grace call to mind the Kharites, or Three Graces, of ancient Greek mythology whose plurality signified the many ways in which beauty manifests itself beyond our own individual selves, bringing us into relation with others and raising questions of reciprocity — moral, ethical, and aesthetic. They also bring to mind American philosopher and psychologist William James’s ideas on a pluralist universe. Think of pluralism, writes Mr. James, as a “strung-along type, the type of continuity, contiguity or concatenation.” Grace is a string of lived experiences, observations, wishes, hopes, fears, dreads, loves, reconciliations, and struggles that form neither an absolute whole nor unity.

Snippets from Ms. Smith’s conversations illuminate this plurality. In the words of one religious leader, and recalling the I-Thou of the Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, grace unfolds in “relations with others.” That is, relations are pieces of others already in us. A whole heart is a heart in pieces.

Another religious leader finds that grace is not something one possesses but rather how God works through us. And, for yet another leader, to inquire into grace in this way is already to name (and limit) grace as Christian.
Is the question of grace, contemplation on what God wants one to be?

There are many words in Islam to describe God’s self-disclosure. Grace? Hear it in the call to prayers. In voice.
Or, find the idea of grace in Buddhist thought about the symmetry between happiness and goodness, in being free from suffering.

Or, as a philosopher asks: could one have grace without subscribing to a religion? Keeping in mind the story of Job, the philosopher conceived of grace as remaining intentionally open in the face of loss (material or spiritual) — indeed, a moment of openness often marks recovery — and then moved to her association of this with the song “Is that all there is,” a song is inspired by Thomas Mann’s nineteenth-century short story, “Disillusionment” (“…death, I know it already, death, that last disappointment!”).

Listening to Ms. Smith’s conversations I began to think about author Terry Tempest Williams’ meditation on beauty in a broken world as akin to the workings of a mosaic: “a conversation between what is broken.” To Ms. Smith’s question about grace, one academic replied that communities shy away from talk of beauty (in museums and in universities). But grace as beauty finds its place in justice and hope, twisting itself around other inspiring manifestations of “non-selfing” ways. Grace could, we imagine, disarm violence or reconcile injustices; when Ms. Smith asked a politician about grace, he recalled a police chief who had recently apologized for the treatment by police officers of civil rights activists in Montgomery decades ago.

We can ask ourselves what it means to tell of grace or find grace in a world where conflicts are not local, as one rabbi put it. To think of grace as a pluralistic universe may prove useful. Also useful — to explore the contrast between grace in William James’ notion of “more” and our “union with it,” and grace as an immanence visible in the here and now, composing us whether we talk directly about it or not (see Miller below).

Starting our own conversations about grace may serve to loosen the hardening boundaries between those who call themselves religious and those who call themselves spiritual-but-not-religious (or “None”), redirecting fruitless conversations about values and voting blocs (or political theater) to the art of dwelling here together, in the polis, with grace.

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