This is a review of and a response to Adam Miller’s recent book, Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2016). This book and others like it are part of the solution to one of the biggest problems facing 21st-century Mormonism: it’s shallow. It’s boring. It’s too programmed. There’s no meat in the sandwich. Miller puts some postmodern philosophical meat in the Mormon sandwich.
Back to the Future
I will note that Miller employs philosophical concepts only in places. The essays are aimed at the general LDS reader and draw largely on LDS scripture and works by LDS authors. In fact, he suggests the essays are aimed at future Mormon readers:
These essays are, I think, aimed at the future. They are aimed at my grandchildren. They practice what I would describe as a form of future tense apologetics. They mean to defend Mormonism, but not against the specifics of any past or present challenges to that faith. … I see these essays as an attempt 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. I have three children …. 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. (p. xi)
This looking into the future of Mormonism from the present, or maybe trying to look at present-day Mormonism from the perspective of the future, seems like a worthy project. One might ask what Mormonism will look like in 100 years. One might even ask whether there will be any Mormons in 100 years (my question, not Miller’s). Such exercises promote perspective and a long-term view. Other than building more temples and buying more Florida real estate, I really wonder what the LDS long-term strategic plan is.
Time? What Time Do You Think We Have?
In Chapter 4, “Early Onset Postmortality,” Miller plays with the concept of time. He contrasts “messianic time” (a concept he adopts from philosopher Giorgio Agamben) with “ordinary secular time.” Events don’t just happen, they take time to happen, sometimes a rather extended time. Messianic time is the period “following the accomplishment of the messianic event but preceding the end of time” (p. 38). So if you grasp the messianic event, you are living messianic time. The future looks different, and the life you live within that unfolding messianic time interval is different. Miller writes:
The good news, Paul announces, is that it’s possible to die while you’re still alive. It’s possible to survive your own death and, remarkably, to be all the more alive for it. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me …” (Gal. 2:20). … In early onset postmortality, you discover a time within time and your day of judgment arrives before your life ends. And then, in the time that remains between your final judgment and your final breath, you discover what it is like to be alive after death, to have faith persist beyond belief, and to have love abide on the far side of the law’s fulfillment. (p. 35)
Seeing time as a problem to be examined is not a contrived issue; it is a central question in metaphysics. Henri Bergson first raised the issue as presented here, noting the difference between experienced time and scientific time. Furthermore, we don’t actually perceive time directly; we perceive change or motion around us and only infer or construct time. So, contrary to common sense (that time is “out there” and it just sort of happens to everyone), there is a strong subjective aspect to the experience of time. Consider that in everyday conversation we can quite freely either speak as if time is moving (“This week just flew by”) or as if time is standing still and we are moving through it (“We’re halfway through September”). Time really is rather puzzling.
The natural theological question to pose in light of Miller’s discussion of time would have been: so how does God experience time? Does God experience messianic time? This is not so pressing for standard Christian theology, which sees God as transcending (as somehow outside of) space and time. In this view, God is The Eternal God not because he lives for an infinite number of years, but because God is not subject to time. But Joseph Smith’s theology places God’s primary abode somewhere near the Kolob system, with God firmly embedded in space and time. For God, in the LDS view, time passes. So I would offer “How God Experiences Time” as a topic to be treated in a future collection of Miller essays.
Text and Event
Chapter 10, “Jesus, Trauma, and Psychoanalytic Technique,” troubles me, not for the topic but for the approach Miller takes to the text he considers. “Curiously, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is willfully secretive about being the messiah” (p. 89). No, the author of the text of Mark presented Jesus as being secretive; other Gospel authors did not, and it is unlikely Jesus himself did. Miller uses Peter’s confession in Mark 8 (“You are the Messiah”) and the subsequent pointed exchange between Peter and Jesus to conclude: “Eluding facile reciprocity, Jesus gives us to hear precisely what everyday discourse means to silence: alienation, suffering, and death” (p. 91). No, the author of Mark, writing thirty years later, as events in Judea spiraled down into the First Jewish War, highlighted those difficult themes.
Now maybe Miller is just glossing over the difference between text and event because he is writing for a general audience. Maybe a casual reading is good enough for his purposes in this essay. But really, if one is going to to good theology, it has to be based (to the extent it uses scripture) on good exegesis. Bad exegesis gives rise to bad theology, which is why so much of what passes for doctrinal or theological discussion in Mormon circles is basically worthless. Miller’s references to typology later in the chapter, which seems to paint it as a serious and productive approach to deriving meaning from disparate events that are paired as type and antitype, is equally disturbing. Typology is a half-baked approach to interpretation, allowing one to read just about anything into the text. I just don’t see the use of typology as lending credibility to the analysis.
Chapter 1, “A General Theory of Grace,” and Chapter 7, “Reflections on President Uchtdorf’s ‘The Gift of Grace'” (which Miller calls “a long needed corrective to our Mormon tendency to read the gospel as a kind of secular manual for can-do humanism and self-improvement,” p. 65) are excellent. Chapter 8, “A Manifesto for the Future of Mormon Thinking,” invites a bolder and more confident approach: “In the future, Mormon thinking will be fearless” (p. 71). What is Mormon thinking like now: cautious? Defensive? Apologetic?
This collection of essays taken as a whole is, I think, more accessible than Miller’s earlier volume of essays. As I re-read several of the chapters while writing this post, I was struck by how engaging they are the second time around. This is one of those books this is better the second time through. Recommended reading for all future Mormons.
We’ve been here before, Jan 2015 to be exact. Read the entire exchange. Prob the most remarkable back-and-forth in the history of the archipelago.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a post-modern BoM is a sad sad substitute for a BoM that’s actually historical. If the BoM is not historical, the post-modern approach is a poor Plan B, it gets you exactly nowhere.
Thanks for the link to Adam’s earlier post, p.
Readers may also be interested in Angela C’s review of the book over at BCC:
I really enjoyed Adam’s book. I plan on commenting on individual chapters in the future. My post last week on theology was actually the first of three I’ve written as a way of getting at my view on theology before delving into Adam’s and others recent theological works.
P, I wish Adam had engaged with my critique in that threat that he’s equivocating over the meaning of Messianism. Although I also recognize he’s extremely busy. (I’ve no idea how he finds the time to write the books he does on top of his teaching load)
“This book and others like it are part of the solution to one of the biggest problems facing 21st-century Mormonism: it’s shallow. It’s boring. It’s too programmed. There’s no meat in the sandwich. Miller puts some postmodern philosophical meat in the Mormon sandwich.”
This is absurd. The gospel isn’t there to entertain you. “Mormonism” is only “shallow” “boring” and without meat, if you aren’t engaging in it with a sincere heart. There is incredible depth and meat to the scriptures and service.
Ugh. Thread not threat. LOL.
SJ (4) Honestly in many ways I think a certain class of complaints about Church reduce down to it not being entertaining. For those of a more intellectual bent that entails a certain way of engaging with ideas. I’d be the first to admit though that while I often find boring that this is much more on me than anything else.
We’ve been told for the longest time that the milk has to come before the meat. We seem to be stuck in infinite moo juice mode and the meat is forever out of reach. One might expect that a church led by the Holy Ghost and revelation and living prophets would eventually make some kind of headway in getting the meat, or at least a little of it, to be finally delivered. If it’s not happening, then I suppose there are probably multiple reasons for it, some of which are completely unthinkable for those claiming to have a testimony of the truthfulness of what Joseph Smith has wrought. Some what-ifs are completely out of bounds. Will there be any Mormons in the future? Good question.
Mark, I think there are two answers to that.
The first is what I’d call the Buddhist approach (as I know Adam is pretty sympathetic to many aspects of Buddhism like I am and it infuses his theology). This approach takes the view that the topic is the same for both meat and milk but when you reach the level of meat you appreciate them in a deeper way.
There’s an old Zen Koan that captures this:
I’d suspect Adam would say the same is true of theology.
The second answer is what I’d call the breadth of information approach. That is meat versus milk is really about relating the doctrines to more items. So to give an example you might understand the verse about washing of feet in the New Testament as a simple testament to Christ’s humility. Then you learn that it’s administered as a rite regularly where the prophet washing the feet of the other apostles to emulate Christ. Then you learn about washings and annointings in the temple and ancient Israel. Then you learn about its connection to seldom talked about higher ordinances administered in the Holy of Holies to certain people.
While that’s a simple approach, I think it also hints towards a problem. That is as ones breadth of information increases the errors in ones conclusions increase. So there’s been a lot written on anointings as a context for many aspects of Mormon thought but how many of them are correct and how many are somewhat distorting. A popular book called Hamlet’s Mill highlights this. It goes through the “historic origins” of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. As one goes back farther some of the parallels become more and more dubious. This is an example of Eco’s open text in that one can always multiply connections. At a certain point (and the point is always unclear) the readings become very unpersuasive. This happens theologically within Mormonism as apologetic writings of varying qualities are then used as premises for theological conclusions.
“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.”
Sorry, but I simply can’t imagine the concept of “messianic time” somehow being more intelligible to the future generations of Mormonism along with other postmodern mumbo jumbo than what the LDS leaders are currently teaching. I strongly doubt that Adam Miller Mormonism will save the day. The LDS leaders are actually pursuing the most pragmatic and sustainable method of keeping the core membership as strong as possible against secular forces. Teach a semi-literalist approach to scripture with heavy emphasis on the didactic value of the stories. If anyone questions the historicity of scripture or what-not, just tell them that you know it is true because you felt the spirit, and then make them feel that they bear the burden of proving it wrong. Read any ex-Mormon blog or site and you will see that this method has the ex-Mormons on the defensive. If the Mormon leaders have convinced them of anything, it is that the doubter bears the burden of proof. Mormonism will last another 100 years, but not everywhere. For Sale signs in front of the Scandinavian temples may be not long off.
Postmodernism is a fad, friend. The 1970s Kimballist Mormonism, the Religion for the Space Age, is alive and well, but it’s not always transmitted through official meetings. Those are always meant to be welcoming to investigators, and so, well, they’re always serving milk. Meat is served around kitchen tables late at night. It’s served in vans driving home from temple trips, in phone calls with old friends and at dinner with missionaries. We serve the meat. A divinely appointed purpose of this website – and ask God if I’m speaking falsely – is meat-testing.
Brad, you make it all sound so simple, historicity problems solved w/ a testimony. This could be a line from the musical.
Mars, won’t you be surprised one of these days when you learn that post-modernism is the only meat there is. Bro Miller, one of the best minds in the Church, is not just deploying PM for the hell of it, believe me.
Po-mo’s myriad problems won’t be solved with a testimony either. I trust that your guy is very smart, but high IQ doesn’t prevent intellectual disasters any more than fast cars prevent car accidents.
The greater blessings of the gospel, learning its mysteries are always tied in with Christ like service, faith, and patience. A very long time ago, when I was newly married I studied time like no one business! I read books, watched shows, prayed about it, dreamed about it, etc. For years all I did in my free time was think about time and space. I kept a diary for my thoughts. I wrote many many things down. Slowly but surely I found some of the mysteries of time as it relates to us and God. I was super excited. I told everyone I knew. But sadly, no one seemed to care, no one even at church when explained gave it much thought. Years passed away and with it, so too my thoughts on it faded. I sometimes hear the same questions repeated again but now I just remain silent, no one wants the simple truth, they want some grand magical mystery that would still explain nothing but sound intellectual.
So too it is with the meat of the doctrine of our church. We want to know all this meat without the work of processes that take years to hold and hash out. Arriving at the conclusion is in reality all the little parts of the journey itself. We don’t even understand our own plan of salvation. So how are we going to arrive at the meat when the sips of milk arent being digested properly?
Honestly, like I mentioned repeatedly in the thread P linked to I don’t see what postmodernism has to do with much of this. Adam’s writing through his philosophical background and interests. I don’t think he even considers himself a postmodernism. I know at times he thinks thinking through these issues via Latour (a philosopher of science) allows one to avoid the many epistemological problems of postmodernism and reach a more objective approach. One can disagree with his use of Latour and Badiou but I’m not sure the postmodern label does much. (Except perhaps demonstrate one hasn’t read Adam) The only place the term “postmodern” appears in the book is in a chapter on what psychoanalysis can teach us about the eurochrist. But there I’d say the objectionable thing is thinking psychoanalysis has much worth rather than postmodernism. (I’m not a fan of psychoanalysis especially as science – although typically it’s been critics appealing to it rather than people doing theology)
As I also mentioned in that linked thread I’m not sure it’s fair to call Adam an apologist at all. Indeed I’d say one big issue in the whole Maxwell Institute kerfuffle of a few years back is to what degree apologetics should be part of Mormon Studies. Most of the people who wanted a strong apologetics presence formed the Interpreter. Calling what the Maxwell Institute does apologetics might somewhat apply in a few cases but in general I think they’re much more interested in Mormon Studies without the types of debates apologetics engages in.
As one perpetually bored in Church pews, I would like to bear testimony that I know with every fiber of my being that it’s not entirely or even mostly my fault. I surely share some small portion of the blame, but books like Future Mormon–I loved most chapters–make me realize how painfully shallow our current services generally are. Miller’s chapter on Jacob 5, elegant in its simplicity, reveals how we barely scratch the surface during our three hour block.
“What our religious culture does to encourage these spiritual disciplines, mature narratives, and encounters of God’s co-suffering will make a significant difference in Mormonism’s post-nova navigation.”
MTodd, it is obvious that Rachael Givens Johnson (above) and Adam Miller are not writing for the Brethren, that in our edict-driven, top-down institution, the change agents are us.
This will be interesting.
I haven’t read the book yet, so this comment is limited to the content of the OP. You write ” No, the author of the text of Mark presented Jesus as being secretive; other Gospel authors did not, and it is unlikely Jesus himself did.” While I agree that it is necessary to make a distinction between the attitude of author of text and that of the subject of the text, but I don’t know why you would favor the portrayal of Christ (and his attitude) in the other gospels over the account in Mark. Yes, they were all writing with a specific end or argument in mind, but as Mark’s is the earliest text, its description of Christ should be accorded more weight than the other, rather revisionist accounts in the other gospels.
I don’t want to mean things aren’t validly boring to some people. As I said they are to me. However usually if I come with some questions about the reading I can be reading my scriptures and thinking about them to keep myself somewhat on topic and occupied. I always find PH more interesting as it’s much more laid back and practical. While there’s the occasional boring lesson by and large there’s usually good discussion.
The problem is making lessons of interest to everyone given the diversity in the typical ward is nearly impossible. The number of people who would enjoy Adam’s book the way you or I might really is pretty small.
Rachel I’m really sympathetic to the idea of Jesus being more secretive. Of course there are compelling reasons to want that to be true for Mormons given our idea of inner circle teachings. Apologists have tried to use Mark and related texts to argue for secret inner teachings not given to the masses (and thus not passed down in the 2cd century) While some of these arguments rely on questionable texts like Morton Smith’s Secret Gospel of Mark others are a little more defensible such as various quotes from Clement in that direction.
Comparing Mark and Luke is interesting here though. Mark 4:11-12 is the classic text for hidden teachings. There’s strong reason to take that as an initiation into some secret. Lots of scholars note the parallels to the Eluesian Mysteries. However the parables in Mark 4 are presented in the other gospels such as Luke 8 and Matt 13 somewhat expanded and explained. Luke even takes the warning of Mark 4:11-12 and gives us instead “nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.” Although how one takes that isn’t clear. After all the warning that some will hear and not hear and have things taken away remains. (Luke 8:18) Even in Matthew which is even more expansive than Luke there’s still the note that he spoke to the masses only in parables (13:35) despite his speaking things that were secret. Matthew only has the mysteries explained clearly to the disciples (13:11).
So Jesus definitely is more open in the other gospels. I’m not sure though that the secret aspect of Mark is somehow effaced.
Now this raises the question of what they are explained in the gospels but not before. And there’s lots of theological dispute over that point. The typical mainstream Christian view is that it’s only when Christ is resurrected and the temple ripped asunder that it’s made known. A lot ends up getting pinned on how one reads Acts 1:6-8 even though that’s more talking about the second coming. The question ends up being how much of the mysteries of Mark are simply the prophecies of Christ’s death and resurrection combined with the end times. i.e. by and large topics different from what Mormons focus in on when we get concerned with mysteries and inner teachings.
On the topic of secrecy and the Gospels; I insert a blurb from an article I wrote. Note that my approach is oriented through literate and oral cognitive models. Secret ritual was “the word of god” for thousands of years before and beside the forthcoming texts. This is true all the way up thru early Christianity. Our pervasive literalism is a product of our all consuming literatism. Not so in the ancient world.
“Numerous scholars have scoffed at the notion of secret rituals behind the Christian message, but oral and semi-literate cultures are orthopraxic. In such cultures the “word of God” turns out not to be the written word but rather the spoken and enacted word. Centuries of literate biblical exegesis seems to have blurred the reality that non-literate peoples must perform their religious beliefs as the only real way of conceptualizing them. Why are rituals not prominent in the surviving texts? Problematically, ritual initiation was sacrosanct and there were terrible taboos against writing about sacred liturgies. Clement of Alexandria insists that the most sacred things of deity were kept oral and could never be written down (Lundwall 70). The center of ancient religious practice was never textual. If this was true for early Christianity then the reality is rituals were not only a necessary part of the new religion but most likely the foundation of its very ethos—a part that never makes it into the New Testament.
[…] What are we to make of this? Whatever the religion of Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, the writers of the Testaments lived in a different conceptual world that was rooted in a cosmological relationship between heaven and earth. This world was not accessed by texts but by rituals. This was all changing by the time of Jesus, where the old cosmological models were slowly being turned into the mechanical spheres of Greek astronomy. This happened with the advent of writing and fully literate consciousness. Science as we recognize it was being born from the fertile world of textual thought. And so was religion. We have forgotten that fantastic cosmos the pre-literate world had imbued upon all of its cultural artifacts. It was this older cosmology that underwrote the theologies of rebirth long before that new star shone in the heavens announcing a resurrecting god. In the context of biblical studies, perhaps the greatest gift from this god was not the secrets of rebirth—but finally a religion of the book.”
On the topic of Adam Miller’s book: I have not read it. Yet another to put in the pile. At least this time it is a Mormon book with a Mormon author about Mormonism. I don’t have any books in my pile like that, so this is good.
On the topic of this thread: interesting exchange eternally set between the paradigms of “intellectualism” and “traditionalism” using those terms as horribly generic descriptives. This tension will never die out though.
I believe (Clark #17) the general stupor of Sunday meetings is by design, i.e., it’s correlated. This is the only possible explanation, general anesthesia for the crew and passengers of a starship on autopilot. We think we have some idea where we’ve been and where we’re going, but as for the present, well, whatever…
I think it has more to do with in many units half the ward being converts. For those of us already familiar with all the topics we have a pretty different reaction. Also as was mentioned in that thread on Sunday School a month or two ago many of the good teachers are often in other callings. Many times I think people get assigned for their own growth. Heaven knowns I’ve been assigned callings I was no good at that I learned a lot from.
So I don’t think what we have is necessarily the intended result, but I think one has to look at what variables one is juggling. I remember when I was in an EQ Presidency the people we felt inspired to call as teachers often weren’t good teachers (although some were) but needed to feel a part of the quorum. So I think how we look at this is often a bit misdirected. Sunday School and EQ/RS shouldn’t be about entertainment.
That said, as I mentioned in that other thread were I in charger I’d definitely do things differently. Fortunately though I’m not in charge. (The calling I’d hate the most!)
# 18 Clark
Are you referring to Clement of Alexandria or Clement the third bishop of Rome? I have a copy of the latter,(the first and second epistles to the Corinthians) and they seem to have several Mormon themes.
Yup, Morton Smith for instance appeals to Clement to back up elements of the more controversial (and typically considered fraudulent) Secret Gospel of Mark. The providence of the Secret Gospel is in a previous unknown letter of Clement.
Even ignoring that controversy Clement seems to have the idea of secrecy as a common theme. Nibley of course loves Clement although from my limited view he seems to twist him in a few places. Eusebius attributes to Clement the idea of secret inner teachings taught to Peter, James, and John and then only taught to select few. (Of course Mormon apologists go crazy for that although I suspect they push that too far at times)