A Review of
Grace and Grit
Written and Directed by Sabastian Siegel
(Skyline Entertainment, 2021)
(Rated R for some language)
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Perhaps life’s greatest challenge is coping with suffering — or how to suffer well. All religions address this, but not in the same way. Christianity uniquely gives meaning to suffering because of the redemptive suffering of its founder, Jesus Christ. Grace and Grit is a film by Sebastian Siegel (who wrote the script) about the suffering of a real-life young couple, writer Ken Wilber (played by Stuart Townsen) and his wife, Treya Wilber (Mena Suvari), who is diagnosed with cancer shortly after their wedding. The film is, among other things, a study in how one’s deepest convictions influence one’s approach to suffering. I did not want to watch this film, since I knew it would remind me of my own tragic journey. But I thought I should.
You see, Ken Wilber and I have two things in common. We are both philosophers and we have both buried our wives. As philosophers, we have little in common. You might say we are antipodes. I am an academic and he is an independent scholar. He is a nondualist pantheist, and I am a Christian theist. Over many years, I have evaluated his philosophy and reviewed his books.1 Since his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness (Quest Books, 1977), Wilber has defended the worldview that all is one (nondualism or monism) and all is divine (pantheism). He has developed an account of consciousness in which the highest state of consciousness is the realization of oneness with an impersonal god. While Wilber wants to integrate truths from all religions and philosophies, and puts his theories into an evolutionary scenario, he is essentially a Zen Buddhist and has written a book called Integral Buddhism.2 The film displays this perspective.
Wilber has been an apologist for a worldview that I have written against for decades, starting with Unmasking the New Age (IVP) in 1986. In 1991, he published the memoir called Grace and Grit, upon which this film is based.3 In 2017, I published a memoir called Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness — A Philosopher’s Lament (IVP) about losing my wife, author and editor Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954–2018), to dementia. Ken was forty when Treya died. They were married only six years. Becky and I were in our sixties when she died. We were married nearly 34 years. Given these facts, I have a rather personal interest in Ken and Treya Wilber’s story of loss, so please indulge me some personal reflections.
My apologetic instinct is to demonstrate the rational superiority of Christian theism to nondualism, but I want to tread lightly, since losing one’s wife to a disease is a grief like no other. After recently seeing a new edition of the book Grace and Grit, I sent Wilber a handwritten card to his Integral Institute, which offered my belated condolences, told him of my book of lament, and asked him to consider doing a public dialogue (not debate) on how our worldviews informed our understanding of suffering and grief. I have not heard back.
It might be considered bad taste to critically review a film about a subject so close to the heart and so filled with tragic memories. Nevertheless, I will press on, since the philosophy behind the film cannot explain the meaning of life or death or give concrete guidance in suffering. The Wilbers somehow got through their journey and loved each other to the end. For that, I am grateful; but for the sake of the gospel, I must say more. Not being a film critic, but a philosopher, I will not offer much about the cinematic or acting quality of the film, but rather focus on its worldview. However, the acting was convincing by both lead characters, particularly the role played by Mena Suvari, which required great emotional range.
A brief, condescending, and heartless review in the New York Times judged Grace and Grit to be maudlin, cheesy, and annoyingly New Age.4 The review is right that the opening ten minutes of falling-in-love scenes are too sentimental and a bit embarrassing. Nevertheless, I don’t want to minimize the depth of real love this couple experienced. In a poetic peroration, Ken says, “I’ve waited a hundred lifetimes for you,” thus revealing a belief in reincarnation and karma.5 While the Times article ridiculed this worldview, I will critique it.
Just ten days after their wedding in 1983, Treya was diagnosed with breast cancer. They spend their honeymoon in the hospital. The rest of the film tells that story up until her death in 1989. Their journey begins with using traditional medicine (augmented by alternative therapies) and has its ups and downs. Ken and Treya love each other madly, but also quarrel, which is understandable in dire circumstance. Ken begins to drink too much and even leaves Treya for a time. Eventually the cancer’s severity — multiple tumors throughout Treya’s body — lead them to seek alternative treatments. Their hopes rise and fall, the couple entertains avant-garde theories, and in the end, the cancer wins. In a long and painful death scene in which Ken and Treya confess their love to each other, Ken promises to find her again.
Along the way, Wilber’s worldview is evident. We hear Ken recite to Treya his “perennial philosophy,” as he gives six points of supposed agreement between Christianity and Buddhism.6 During a time of stress, Treya asks Ken to recite portions of his book, No Boundary: “I have a body, but I am not my body…”7 The upshot is that there is an eternal and divine self that never changes. Treya says thinking of this helps, but not for long. Later Ken reads the following words to Treya, perhaps from one of his books: “So why not abide in the self here and now. Grace is there all along.” Treya then writes this in her journal: “It takes grace and grit.”
Although Ken and Treya showed considerable grit through their sad journey, Ken Wilber’s philosophy allows for no grace. I am not saying they received no grace from God. They did, since all good gifts come from the Father of Lights (James 1:17). Any real love is a gift of God’s grace. Rather, given a nondualistic–pantheistic worldview, the concept of grace from a personal God does not obtain. But since Wilber’s worldview is ultimately impersonal, there is no personal meaning to the word “grace,” however many positive connotations it may have from its long association with Christianity.
Grace and Grit is a tragic love story, but Wilber’s worldview does not ground love in the character of a personal God of love. The highest state of awareness for Wilber is beyond individuality, personality, love, and reason. In A Brief History of Everything, Wilber writes, “The radical secret of the supreme identity is that there is only God.”8 When the Spirit recognizes itself, “there is no one anywhere to watch it, or even sing its praises.”9 But a worldview without worship is emaciated.
To the contrary, the Bible claims that the creator of finite persons (human beings) is an infinite-personal God, who is supremely worthy of worship.10 As Walter Martin put it, “God performs the acts of a personal being: God hears (Exodus 2:24), God sees (Genesis 1:4), God creates (Genesis 1:1), God knows (2 Timothy 2:19, Jeremiah 29:11), God has a will (1 John 2:17); God is a cognizant reflectable ego, i.e., a personal being, ‘I AM that I AM’ (Exodus 3:14; Genesis 17:1). This is the God of Christianity, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Personality, who manifests every attribute of a personality.”11
Having made these worldview distinctions, consider some existential matters in light of them. Those who trust and serve the living God of the Bible — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — approach tragedy and suffering much differently than those who believe in an impersonal absolute or a universal Self. All men and women in this fallen world suffer, but our worldview and our orientation to God Himself makes all the difference in the world — and even beyond it. Let me relate something from my story.
A few years before her death, when my wife Becky and I were driving to a restaurant, she lamented her fate of suffering from a rare form of dementia that was taking away all her intellectual brilliance and much more. I said that I knew it was terrible, but it was not forever. One day she and I would dance and laugh in the New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21–22). She then said, “But is it really true?”
Becky had been a Christian her whole life and had never experienced profound doubts. But intense suffering and a degenerative brain disease can upset everything. To my own surprise, I replied, “Do you think I’m smart?” She agreed. I went on, “Do you remember that big apologetics book I wrote?”12 She did. I continued, “You edited every word of that book and you agreed with the arguments. I assure you that Christianity is true.” She looked a bit relieved and said that she agreed. That was not her only time of wrestling with the Lord, but my comment comforted her. We had worked hard at our Christian worldview throughout our marriage. We knew God was there, and, as we say in the Anglican liturgy, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Surely, God would bring good out of evil.13
I was with Becky when she died. When she breathed her last, I knew that her body had stopped working, but I also knew that her soul had been released to be with her Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). I further knew that she would one day be resurrected into a new and deathless world suffused with God’s presence and populated by the redeemed down through the ages — just as I had assured her so many times before. Although Wilber tells his dying wife that he will find her again, their worldview does not affirm a personal existence after death. In fact, before the final scene, Treya says to her doctor, “I’m not afraid of death. I’ll just dissolve.” How sad.
Because there is hope for eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, I will close with a promise for the Christian. Because Jesus went through the grit of suffering and death on our behalf, and because He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, we have a hope based on the fact of His grace.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 NIV) —Douglas Groothuis
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary.
- See Douglas Groothuis, “Ken Wilber,” in H. Wayne House, ed., The Evangelical Dictionary of World Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019); Douglas Groothuis, a review of A Brief History of Everything, 20th anniversary ed. in Denver Journal, October 12, 2017, https://denverseminary.edu/article/a-brief-history-of-everything.
- Ken Wilber, Integral Buddhism: And the Future of Spirituality (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2014, 2018).
- Ken Wilber, Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1991, 2000). I will not compare the account given by Wilber in his book to the film version, but there is substantial overlap.
- Jeannette Catsoulis, “‘Grace and Grit’ Review: You Transcend Me,” New York Times, June 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/03/movies/grace-and-grit-review.html.
- Grace and Grit, directed by Sabastian Siegel, written by Sebastian Siegel and Ken Wilber (book), Skyline Entertainment, 2021.
- His claim of the unity of Buddhism and Christianity is false. See Douglas R. Groothuis, “Jesus and Buddha: Two Masters or One?,” Christian Research Journal 25, 4 (2003), https://www.equip.org/article/jesus-and-buddha/. On perennialism, see Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 577–79.
- See Ken Wilber, No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (Boston: Shambhala, 1979, 2001), 114. Also quoted in Wilber, Grace and Grit, 125.
- Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996, 2000), 466.
- Wilber, A Brief History, 370.
- Francis Schaeffer often referred to God as “infinite-personal” in order to give philosophical content to the theological word “God” and to emphasize both God’s relationality as a person (like human beings) and his unlimitedness or perfection (unlike humans). See Francis Schaeffer, He is There and He is Not Silent (New York: Tyndale House Publishers, 1971).
- Quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age: How to Resist a Growing Religious Movement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 109–110 Kindle Edition.
- Groothuis, Christian Apologetics.
- This paragraph and the one preceding it are adapted from my essay, “Autobiography as Apologetic,” Christian Research Journal, Christian Research Institute, July 30, 2020, https://www.equip.org/article/autobiography-as-apologetic.