Adam Miller is my favorite Mormon thinker today. Richard Bushman called him “the most original and provocative Latter-day Saint theologian practicing today”. I agree. Adam’s writings, to me, have been powerful and life changing. At least, the stuff I understand. The stuff I don’t understand I assume it’s equally powerful, and I’m working to understand it.
“Accessible” is a word scholars use to describe how easy it is for dumb people like myself to understand their material. All of Adam Miller’s material is extremely rewarding to read and struggle with, but I admit a lot of it goes over my head. I have heard Future Mormon described as being more accessible than some of his work, for example Rube Goldberg Machines, but maybe a little less accessible than his popular “Letters to a Young Mormon.”
Adam Miller is poetic and inspiring. I quote his testimony from a 2015 podcast frequently, as it is the best language I’ve found to describe my own feelings about the LDS church.
Given my careful, decades-long cultivation for doubt and skepticism, still even in that context it would be dishonest and in bad faith to say that regardless of how unlikely some of these beliefs are something very real and powerful and real is happening to me in the pew on Sunday when I bring myself back again. When I come back, again. When I kneel down, again. When I read the Book of Mormon, again. Regardless of all my skepticism of all the different kinds of questions we could raise, something is happening to me in a substantial, first person way that I can’t deny regardless of what doubts I have of these peripheral, historical third person questions. The pull for that is sufficiently strong that there’s no place else for me to go.
On to the review.
Miller introduces this book as a form of LDS apologetics. Most would assume that means we are going to cover all the CES Letter type issues, ie Book of Mormon historicity, polygamy, or Book of Abraham translation. But none of those topics are covered. These I believe would be what Miller calls thin questions (more on this later). When Miller does apologetics, he wants to see if and how Mormonism can address the thick questions of life. He wants to help show his children and future generations what Mormonism can mean to them.
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.
Chapter 1. A General Theory of Grace
In this book, Adam spends a lot of time going over what he refers to as “A General Theory of Grace”, which is his insight generally on the LDS Plan of Salvation with special focus on the concepts of grace, works, obedience and sin.
A few quotes will capsulize this view.
This quote from Miller’s short book Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (all other quotes in this article will be from Future Mormon, unless otherwise specified). This my favorite quote from any LDS publication right now. Memorize this please:
Those who are set right and sealed to God are brought back to life by their trust. But if your trust fails and you suppress the truth, God’s love will start to feel like an accusation. If, selfish and weak, you try to run from life and its troubles, you’ll feel trapped and smothered by the gifts God is giving. Sin is this too proud denial of God’s grace. It’s this refusal to be sealed to God. Grace isn’t God’s improvised response to sin. Sin is our ongoing refusal of God’s already given grace.
Deny it (God’s grace) if you want. But if you see what’s given and then fail to respond to that grace with grace of your own, your mind will go dark. You won’t be able to think straight and you’ll get stuck in your own head, left to cook in your own fears and fantasies. Claiming to be wise, you’ll be an idiot. You’ll have exchanged a life pulsing with Spirit for a wishful menagerie of dead things and dying applause.
If this is what you want, God’s love won’t stop you. He’ll let you make the exchange. He’ll let you bind yourself to things that can’t love you in return. He’ll let you exchange love for lust. He’ll let you exchange grace for money. He’ll let you choose distraction and addiction. And then you’ll simply get what you’ve chosen: envy, anger, gossip, frustration, vanity, etc. You’ll implode. And though your life may go on, you’ll be dead in a very real way.
And then in Future Mormon:
Why would we suppress God’s grace? Because it scares us. What God gives is beyond our control, much of it is difficult to receive, and a lot of it fails to line up with what we thought we wanted. More, because we’re incapable of receiving, all at once, everything that God wants to give, God can only give a few things at a time. And because God can only give a few things at a time, all of God’s giving also arrives as the passing away of what was previously given. That is, all of God’s giving arrives as a kind of taking.
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 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. Religion may be, in some respects, sin’s most successful strategy.
Chapter 2. Burnt Offerings: Reading 1 Nephi 1
Interesting essay looking at the story of Lehi and Nephi, similar to the way Grant Hardy would ask us to explore the text. In his book Letters to a Young Mormon, Miller encourages us to translate the Book of Mormon for ourselves, just like Joseph translated it from the Gold Plates originally. In this and the next chapter, Adam shows us what it looks like when we do that.
My favorite part was illustrating how Nephi discovers
God’s redemption doesn’t involve an elimination of all suffering but a transformation of our relationship to that suffering such that the suffering itself becomes a condition of knowledge and favor.
Chapter 3. Reading Signs or Repeating Symptoms: Reading Jacob 7
Miller shows us how Sharem and Jacob’s biases are clouding them from understanding each other. He ends with a beautiful insight into the doctrine of Christ, exemplified in how Jacob was able to reframe his perspective of his brothers Laman and Lemuel.
Chapter 4. Early Onset Postmortality
Through Christ, we can experience salvation not just in the next life but also in this life, something Miller calls “early onset postmortality”. We can die to this world and start a new life in Christ.
Chapter 5. The God Who Weeps: Notes, Amens, and Disagreements
Miller’s review of Terryl Givens’ The God Who Weeps. I enjoyed this, as Givens is also one of my favorite Mormon voices.
It seems to me that the most salient feature of belief is often its involuntary character. Our beliefs are generally given as common sense conclusions that are drawn from a shared but unchosen background of practices, institutions, and assumptions. Depending on the infrastructures we inhabit, God’s existence may or may not show up as a common sense conclusion. But, in either case, it is a conclusion that is unlikely to be freely chosen.
In most situations, faith is not a choice about what to believe but a choice about how we respond to beliefs we did not choose.
Chapter 6. A Radical Mormon Materialism: Reading Wrestling the Angel
A review of another Givens book. Miller praised Givens as the high water mark of Mormon studies, but then also was willing to show some disagreement to some of his specifics.
Personal tangent: I have a problem with the way many LDS have taken King Follett and run with it and developed an extreme materialism view of Mormonism, which I believe is speculative and non-binding but admittedly pretty mainstream. ie God was once a man, we will become exactly like God and create worlds of our own. God had sex with Mary to produce Jesus. God is part of a God hierarchy and is beholden to natural and eternal laws. etc, etc. I don’t like it for two reasons. 1) the level of specificity implies that we know more absolutely about God than I think we do. Claims of precision and certainty on such difficult to understand subjects are not always a good thing. 2) the resulting God, in my opinion, is a small God that’s not as big and expansive and powerful as the God I’d like to believe in. I don’t like the idea of my God being beholden to any law. He is the author of law.
I like the way Givens uses the idea of materialism. He uses it as a way to illustrate that God is personal. He has emotions. He loves us. He weeps for us when we suffer. He loves the King Follett kind of doctrine. I personally don’t think it is necessary to make the point Givens makes. We experience God through his condescension as Jesus Christ, taking on human form and emotion and passion. It’s not necessary to add this other speculative doctrine to show God is a passionate God. </end of personal tangent>
Adam Miller disagrees with Givens, but I think in a different way and for different reasons than I do. I’m still trying to understand, and if I do, I’ll tell you later. But I think what he’s saying is that he appreciates the materialism we give to God in Mormonism, but if we really want to take it seriously, we need to work harder and think deeper about what that materialism means. This segues into another theme of Miller’s, which is a critique of Christian Platonism discussed in this chapter and others.
Chapter 7. Reflections on President Uchtdorf’s “The Gift of Grace”
Miller is at his best when he’s talking about grace. And this is another great chapter. I see Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk coming from Brad Wilcox material who borrowed from Robert Millet and Stephen Robinson, who found Evangelical grace concepts flowing all through the Book of Mormon and started popularizing them to a Mormon audience.
Here, Miller goes deeper into his “General Theory of Grace”, where God’s grace existed from the beginning as a defining characteristic of God, not just as a response to sin, which Adam calls a “Special Theory of Grace”.
We need a sense of grace that is grounded not just in God’s redemption of the world but that is grounded principally in his creation of the world. Grace isn’t just a name for how God saves us. It’s a name for God’s global modus operandi, and this M.O. is manifest originally and fundamentally in God’s work of creation. To understand grace as it’s operative in our redemption, we need to understand redemption as just one of the “three pillars” of eternity: creation, fall, atonement. To understand atonement, we need to understand the fall. But to understand the fall, we need to understand creation. To understand God’s special, redeeming act of grace, we need to understand our own fall in relationship to God’s general and original act of grace: creation.
Chapter 8. A Manifesto for the Future of Mormon Thinking
Miller invites us to be fearless thinkers. He spends some time talking about secularism in a way that should ease a lot of fears for those that view “the world” as this big, bad, scary place.
Religion never understood itself as the “not-secular” until secularism defined it that way. And if religion wants to be serious about contesting secularism, it shouldn’t start by granting that point.
Adam believes in science and values the learning we obtain through secular study of the world, and sees no conflict with religion or Mormonism. His wife is a Biology professor, and he has referred to Darwinian Theory of Evolution as a revelation from God.
Fearless Mormon thinking will refuse to play this game. It will refuse to carve up the world into the secular versus the religious (or the liberal versus the conservative), and it will, instead, roam the whole world searching for truths, extending truths, transfiguring truths, and thinking through every manifestation of truth—always once more, always again—wherever those truths happen to show themselves.
Miller’s Mormon church is heavy on naturalistic, pragmatic religion. And light on the focus on the supernatural and speculation about life in worlds to come.
…religion is not, fundamentally, about supernatural stuff. This is not to say that supernatural things aren’t real or that your neighbor down the street may not be entertaining angels. But I think it’s fair to say that, even if granted, such things are pretty rare and peripheral. I think it’s fair to say that they are clearly not what a Sunday service is aiming at. Church isn’t magic and prayers aren’t incantations. You can sit in church for three hours each Sunday for decades and never see anything supernatural.
Chapter 9. Network Theology: Is it Possible to be a Christian but not a Platonist?
Good stuff, here. I need to read this about ten more times to really get it. But I love the notion he talks about here of the soul as a network.
The soul, as a network, is given to itself only in and by its relationships, relationships that precede, both logically and temporally, its relation to itself.
Out of this can come some interesting analysis of sin and atonement as it relates to this grand network.
Chapter 10. Jesus, Trauma, and Psychoanalytic Technique
Here Adam gleans gospel insights from Bruce Fink’s work in the field of psychoanalysis.
Fink organizes his treatment of the most common psychoanalytic techniques around the difference between two ways of hearing: one way of hearing attends to the imaginary dimension of what is said, the other gives itself to the symbolic dimensions of those same statements. All discourse is intelligible in either of these registers. Where the imaginary mode settles meanings into predictable and univocal patterns, the symbolic mode of listening proliferates meanings, calls the imaginary into question, and opens onto the real.
Miller goes into the concept of typology in religion and scripture, especially related to the atonement. And ends the essay by telling us that the aim of religious discourse is to expose us to the real.
Chapter 11. Every Truth is a Work, Every Object is a Covenant
I’m obsessed with Book of Mormon historicity. I’m grateful for Mormon theologians like Adam Miller that can tell me to chill out about the historicity and focus on the meaning.
Don’t ask if the Book of Mormon is true. Make it true.
What other kinds of truths can you make with the Book of Mormon? Can you make a ward with it? Songs? Chapels? Psychiatric treatments? Movies? Paintings? Pharmaceutical advances? Poetry? Political campaigns? Can you make a life with it? Can you step out of the zombie-like haze of anxiety and distraction you tend to live in by way of it? Can you make joy with it? Can you assemble the body of Christ? Circulate Spirit? Can you, as the Book of Mormon itself demands, make a family with it? Can you turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers? Can you use it to keep the children from being cast off forever? Can you adapt and extend and strengthen the promises made to the fathers? Will you allow the book to claim you and counter-claim it in return? The question isn’t: is the Book of Mormon accurate? Does it harmonize with some simple, pristine, ready-made, pre-established real? The question is: given the claim and counter-claim of the covenant that mutually composes us, what kind of worlds can the book and I make and how many can those worlds gather in?
Chapter 12. The Body of Christ
Oh this might be my favorite essay in the book. So good. So inspiring.
Is the church true? Many ask this question. But Adam doesn’t think this is a good question. He calls it a thin question. It’s not the kind of question that’s going to lead you to build a relationship with Christ. Yes it’s true. But how is it true? And what does that mean? Here are some better questions.
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?
Chapter 13. Silence, Witness, and Absolute Rock: Reading Cormac McCarthy
Where Miller reviews Cormac McCarthy’s writing, known by many as dark and nihilistic. He uses McCarthy to identify three views of the world and subtly apply it to religion, which I will probably poorly express. If I get it wrong, blame me not Adam, please.
The Mute: the stereotypical soul-crushing, depressed atheist, who sees no meaning or beauty in life.
The Dreamer: whose idealized and fundamentalist, religious view of the world reduces meaning in a different way. He’s missing out on life because he’s obsessed about the next one.
The Witness: who “is faithful both to the fact that the world is not its shadow, and to the fact that it nonetheless casts one.”
In summary, Adam Miller is my favorite LDS author right now. And this ranks as one of my favorite LDS books. Adam Miller will challenge his readers. But if you work at it, you will leave spiritually fed, inspired to be a better person, and proud to be a Mormon.