Review of Adam S. Miller, Future Mormons: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).
A couple weeks ago, I dropped in on another ward’s Gospel Doctrine class as I was making my ward visits for my calling. The lesson was #20, which covered the angelic visitation and conversion of Alma the Younger. At one point, the class discussion turned to why Alma and the sons of Mosiah were unbelievers. One suggested reason was the generation gap and the difference in experiences (see Mosiah 26:1-3). It was noted that this generation was post-bondage, meaning that the rising generation had not experienced the Lord’s deliverance in Mosiah 24. While the discussion focused on a “lack of understanding” on the part of unbelievers, I pointed out that these generational differences may be extremely important in making sense of the disconnection. There had been significant social, cultural, and political changes taking place. Not only were these unbelievers living in a time of freedom (compared to the previous generation who had experienced bondage), but they were also living in a time when the separation of church and state had been established (Mosiah 26:8, 11-12). Furthermore, there was a population explosion with considerable urban expansion and increased prosperity (Mosiah 27:6-7). These social developments mean that the new generation would experience the world differently from their parents and grandparents, just as Millennials experience the world differently from those who witnessed World War II, Jim Crow, the Cold War, or life before the Internet. This means that the way they experienced the message of the gospel would likely be different as well. For example, if the older generation only knew how to teach the gospel’s message of deliverance in light of their previous bondage, how would this resonate with a generation that was experiencing relative peace and freedom? In short, cultural baggage could have been hindering the transmission of the gospel from one generation to the next.
Appearing to understand this possible predicament, Adam Miller has written a book that “attempt[s] to proactively gather for future Mormons tools and resources that may be useful to them as they try, in the context of their world, to work out their own salvation” (pg. xi). Referring to his own children, Miller says,
I worry that a lot of what has mattered most to me in this world—Mormonism in particular—may be largely unintelligible to them in theirs. This problem isn’t new, but it is perpetually urgent. Every generation must start again. Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world. To the degree that we can help, our job is to model that work in love and then offer them the tools, the raw materials, and the room to do it themselves (pg. xi-xii).
Miller’s Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology is an attempt at “a future tense apologetics” that models “a thoughtful and creative engagement with Mormon ideas while sketching, without obligation, possible directions for future thinking” (pg. xii). If future Mormons are anything like what I read here, then they will (compared to my experience with the average present-day Mormon):
- Place grace at the center of the gospel where it belongs.
- Take the materialist metaphysics of Mormonism seriously.
- Be more aware of the implications of their unique and/or innovative doctrines.
- Find the sacred in the mundane and embodied.
- Take a more holistic, almost cosmic view of Mormonism.
- Read the scriptures carefully and recognize the people within them as people, warts and all.
However, I want to focus on the two main themes that seem to permeate throughout book: grace and materialism (metaphysics).
Grace in particular is a reoccurring theme throughout Miller’s essays, stemming largely from what he calls a general theory of grace. Too often, we see grace as a response to sin; a backup plan to the Fall. In this view, sin is ultimately “in the driver’s seat” (pg. 66).
But this gets things completely backwards according to Miller. “Grace,” he writes, “is original. Grace is what comes first, and it is sin that then comes in response. Or, creation is what comes first, and it is the fall then comes in response. Sin, at root, is a rejection of what God, by way of creation, has given as a grace” (pg. 2). This inversion of grace transforms the entire narrative, animating the whole of existence with a sense of givenness. This goes far beyond even President Uchtdorf’s wonderful 2015 address on grace (to which there is an essay dedicated). Perhaps surprisingly, Bruce R. McConkie had a somewhat similar view of grace: “God’s grace consists in his love, mercy, and condescension toward his children. All things that exist are manifestations of the grace of God. The creation of the earth, life itself, the atonement of Christ, the plan of salvation, kingdoms of immortal glory hereafter, and the supreme gift of eternal life–all these things come by the grace of him whose we are.” Furthermore, this interpretation of grace touches on the very ancient concept in which the gift of the beneficent and the gratitude of the benefactor were coupled together as acts of grace:
The fact that one and the same word can be used to speak of a beneficent act and the response to a beneficent act suggests implicitly what many moralists from the Greek and Roman cultures stated explicitly: “grace” must be met with “grace,” favor must always give birth to favor, gift must always be met with gratitude. An image that captured this ethos for the ancients was three goddesses, the three “Graces,” dancing hand-in-hand in a circle…From this, and many other ancient witnesses, we learn that there is no such thing as an isolated act of “grace.” An act of favor and its manifestation (the gift) initiate a circle dance in which the recipients of favor and gifts must “return the favor,” that is, give again to the giver (both in terms of a generous disposition and in terms of some gift, whether material or otherwise). Only a gift requited is a gift well and nobly received. To fail to return favor for favor is, in effect, to break off the dance and destroy the beauty of the gracious act.
According to Miller, “the law cannot be fulfilled by way of obedience. It can only be fulfilled by a love that, unlike obedience, must be freely given and cannot be commanded or compelled” (pg. 8). The response to God’s grace must be one of love and gratitude; an act of consecration if you will. It must be the nature of grace itself. This realization makes the following paragraph one of the most powerful in the book:
Potential strategies for avoiding grace span the whole of human behavior, but we should note, in particular, one surprising approach to sin: strict obedience. One strategy for suppressing the truth and avoiding God’s grace is to put God in your debt. Here, the more obedient I become, the less I figure I’ll be indebted to God, the less grace I’ll need, and the more in control I’ll become. Obedience, as a strategy for avoiding God’s grace, is, of course, highly ironic. But religion, though it is meant to reconcile us to God’s grace, always casts this distorted shadow. It always bears the this alternate possibility for abuse. Religion, practiced as a way of indebting God to us–as a way of canceling God’s grace and our own indebtedness–can be a powerful means of suppressing the truth [Rom. 1:18-23]. Religion may be, in some respects, sin’s most successful strategy (pg. 5-6).
This has major implications for the way Latter-day Saints understand their covenants. Hugh Nibley described consecration as “a limitation on the innate selfishness of the other four [covenants.]” Miller’s conception of grace means that consecration is ultimately ceasing the “sinful suppression of the grace offered through and displayed in creation” (pg. 3) and, implicitly, the divine love behind it.
Miller’s immanentization of grace acts as an extension of Mormonism’s materialist metaphysics. In one of the most interesting essays, Miller explores what he calls network theology: a theology that rejects the transcendence and abstraction of Platonism in favor of an emergent, spontaneous order. The gods and heavens are no longer static molds of perfection, but dynamic, innovative, self-organizing agents and principles that churn-and-burn in a state of constant cosmic creation. In short, the change and activity we witness on a day-to-day basis is not a mistake: it is the state of things both natural and supernatural. As one who takes a great interest in organizational theory and economics, I was intrigued by what struck me as an almost Hayekian–a label Miller might be uncomfortable with–theology of the universe. Miller’s tantalizing section title “What if God is not a king?” and its focus on Christ’s servitude as the essence of God’s kingdom echoes sentiments found among Christian anarchists–another label Miller might be uncomfortable with–and the “unKingdom of God.” Even Miller describes this theology as one for an “age of democracy, evolution, and globalization…a complex, dynamic, open, distributed, looped, nonlinear, historical, local, and flat set of overlapping material systems in which order and meaning unaccountably intervene as emergent, self-organizing phenomena” (pg. 83). As one who tends to embrace creative destruction, I approve.
Yet, it is within Miller’s writings on materialism that I become the most fascinated and the most frustrated. At times, I find myself applauding his materialist convictions. At other times, I’m left scratching my head. The latter may be due to my lack of philosophical training (quite possible). It may be due to the difficulty of the subject matter and the limitations of language and knowledge (also quite possible). It may also be the fact that Miller is knowingly only scratching of the surface of these topics in hopes of sparking greater discussion and thought (very possible). It could also be that for a non-Platonist who sees abstractions as material, Miller’s descriptions of materialism are, well, immaterially abstract. At times, these abstractions take on a life of their own to the point of confusion. Furthermore, his proposal of a radical materialism during his criticisms of Terryl Givens’ Wrestling the Angel leaves the primary sources of Mormonism virtually untouched. While Miller’s criticisms are largely of Givens’ version of Atonement (I have my own reservations about the “consequential substitution” theory), there is little to no engagement with scripture, prophetic teachings, or historical documents within the essay. This doesn’t make Miller’s views wrong, mind you. (The entire book is about reconstructing and rethinking Mormonism anew.) However, the criticisms do seem a bit misplaced, seeing that Givens’ book is mainly a work of intellectual history and not a philosophical treatise. I think Miller’s radical materialism could be refined by incorporating more of this history into his philosophical musings. But tackling the nature of Being and Becoming is no easy task and certainly not the goal of a 130-page book. If anything, reading his criticisms made it fairly clear to me that we don’t really have any idea what matter truly is and we haven’t really focused on the tensions and paradoxes within Joseph Smith’s brand of materialism. They do, however, give us a place to start.
Where Miller’s materialism shines brightest is the way in which he uses it to re-enchant the material world by sacralizing the ordinary. Truth in Miller’s vocabulary is less a proposition or factoid and more of a work; a process: “truths are not reflections of the one true world. Rather, truths are one way of talking about the hard work of making new worlds and assembling new coalitions of agents. Truth-making is the work of creation. It is ontological rather than epistemological.” Existence, even, is “to be an agent” (pg. 105). Truthfulness is about “world-building, alliance-making, and covenant-keeping” (pg. 110). Truths are “specialized processes that trace novel paths through the network, revealing inconsistencies and displaying overlooked constellations of meaning” (pg. 85). This definition informs his response to the common question, “Is the Church true?” Without dismissing the importance of verification, Miller encourages the task of making the Church true: “Rather than asking if the church is true, ask something like: Is this the body of Christ? Is Christ manifest here? Does his blood flow in these veins? Does his spirit breathe in these lungs? Does forgiveness flourish here? Is faith strengthened? Is hope enlivened? Is charity practiced? Can I see, here, the body of Christ?” (pg. 114.) This is how Miller’s theology becomes grounded in our everyday lives and where it becomes the most important. This is where we–as those created in the image of God–dig our hands into the dirt and tend to the garden. And this is where Miller reminds us that this seemingly mundane work is sacred and those dirt-covered hands are consecrated hands. To work in the very real world and relate with very real people is at the heart of Truth and, therefore, the heart of Mormonism.
Whether you agree with everything (or anything) in Future Mormon is beside the point. Miller wants you to wrestle with these ideas. Having reread the last few paragraphs, I realize that this sounds less like a review and more like my own personal theologizing of Miller’s ideas. However, this is the best way I can think to represent exactly what Miller’s book does: it starts conversations, gets the mental wheels turning, and begins to transform the reader into a theologian. Miller’s book is the very world-building and alliance-making he describes. In it, he helps lay the foundation for a more thoughtful, earthy, and creative Mormonism; all while extending his hand to readers as an invitation to join him in the process. At least in my case, his hope of inspiring “a thoughtful and creative engagement with Mormon ideas” has not been in vain. And when you pick up Future Mormon and reflect on its pages, I think you’ll find your case to be similar.
- Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 338-339.
- David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 105-106.
- For example, see Mark Van Steenwyk’s short publication That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity & Anarchism (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012).
- This reminds me of a story told by Richard Bushman in which a Catholic colleague asked him “how is it that you believe in Mormonism?”: “As a Catholic theologian and philosopher of religion, he probably was looking for an answer along the lines a Thomist would give–something reasoned and philosophical. Not stopping to think, I told him I remained a Mormon because when I followed my religion I became the kind of man I want to be. No philosophy, no evidence, nothing elaborate. Simply the personal reality that my religion helps me get better. That’s what it comes down to in the crunch. The scripture verse explains what will happen when you listen to the spirit speaking in the wilderness: “My Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound.” For me that promise becomes a simple matter of fact: when I hearken to the spirit, truth seems to abound in me as the verse promises. By that I mean not just truth as propositions about the world but truth as in the true and highest way to live.”