Future Mormon 8: Future of Mormon Thinking

Welcome to the eighth chapter of the not quite weekly reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism if they disagree or even just see flaws in the logic. That’s when we tend to all learn the most.


The very work of seeing truth as truth, of bearing that truth truthfully, depends on our willingness to take up the perpetually necessary project of thinking through the truth again—always once more—from the position of the enemy.

This chapter is Adam’s conception of theology and apologetics. He doesn’t call it that, but I think it’s fundamentally about how he thinks we should think about our religion. There are two main aspects. First is the idea of bravery and love as foundational for thinking in truth. Truth can be used as a weapon which means it’s not part of the essence of truth. Second we have to be able to think truth not just from our perspective but from the perspective of an enemy. For truth to be truth it can’t only work from a single perspective.

Adam’s next step is to question the secular. If secularism is the enemy then from the above we ought love it more and think our truths through secularism. That is if truth to be truth must persist in any perspective, then we have to be able to explain our truths in terms of secularism. Otherwise we’re just caught in subjectivity. To Adam this is not appeasement but resistance. The secular defines itself against the religious, framing the debate. Our first step must thus be to rethink what secular and the religious are, reframing the opposition. To truly engage secularism is thus to rethink what the secular is rather than letting the secularists define it.

Finally Adam attempts to engage with the objective & subjective opposition. If religion is seen as pure subjectivity, as most foes and even some defenders say, think through the issue. In doing this Adam notes that “subjectivity” or “minds” can’t be separated from body. The opposition between mind and body, and thereby objectivity and subjectivity, is a false one. Adam thinks the real task of Mormon thinking is this ground below objectivity and subjectivity.

Adam concludes with a more controversial claim that the “supernatural” is rare and peripheral and not what service is really about.  


I suspect for many readers the end of this chapter is a bridge too far. It’s also not really argued for beyond a claim that “the supernatural” is rare and peripheral. But is it? To apply Adam’s same method we might well call into question the traditional opposition between the so-called “supernatural” and natural. After all as materialists, aren’t all things from revelation to angels just natural? And are they really rare? For those who believe they’ve gained their testimony via such an experience they clearly aren’t. Those who feel they’ve received answers to prayers, or received inspiration when giving a blessing, or even stronger experiences don’t think it peripheral. Indeed many would see it as the center to the point that the service Adam wishes us to focus on can be best focused on by paying attention to this manifestation of the heavenly here on earth. It seems odd that in a book that focuses in on grace so heavily that this key common aspect of the Father’s grace is dismissed as peripheral. Adam says “you can sit in church for three hours each Sunday for decades and never see anything supernatural.” That may well be true for some. However for others it is nearly impossible to go to church without encountering the divine grace manifesting itself, if only through the physical manifestation of the Holy Ghost during sacrament.

I get what Adam is getting at with his move, but I think it an unfortunate way of putting it. Further it calls back into question the very meaning of Grace that he is pushing. Put an other way, a critique of the secular might be that is misses Grace. Yet an other critique of Adam’s grace is that he misses Grace for a broader kind of secular Grace which is just manifestation in general. This gets us back to what I brought up in the first chapter. Is a Grace conceived of too broadly missing the Grace before us?

Of course to be fair to Adam he’s not arguing this in a general case. Rather he’s asking how, in love, we are to approach our secular “enemies.” (Of course if we love the secular they’re not our enemies at all) He’s suggesting that by focusing on these aspects of common ground we can reach them in a way that the so-called “supernatural” can’t. This might well be wrapped up in the recognition that even many atheists still recognize the spiritual in say nature. They can be filled with awe at contemplating the universe. But even if we agree on that common ground, how far does it take us? Not very far I fear.

6 comments for “Future Mormon 8: Future of Mormon Thinking

  1. Clark, my sense is that you’re not taking Miller’s challenge in the manner intended. Insistence upon the reality and intervention of the Holy Ghost as a causal factor in one’s experience, for example, is a refusal to “occupy secularism,” in Miller’s parlance. I take him to mean something related to, but more than, the traditional principle of charitable interpretation or Caplan’s ideological Turing test. He’s suggesting we try on secularism for size, looking back at that blessing, that testimony meeting, that answered prayer, the production of that holy book, etc., with a rationalist’s perspective, tools, and presuppositions. Is everything easily explicable from that vantage point? If not, what isn’t? Do any interesting things come into relief? He’s not urging anyone remain in that state, but claiming that making the effort (a) extends a hand of friendship rather than raising sword or shield, (b) can help those we may have considered “enemies” see something they otherwise wouldn’t have, and (c) can transform our own understanding in unexpected ways.

    Miller is correct in saying that “supernatural things…are pretty rare and peripheral [to our lived religion],” unless one is inclined to dilute the supernatural down to a point where it’d be indiscernible from an otherwise thoroughly natural world. In all my years in the church, I’ve never met anyone claiming to have seen God, Jesus, or any scriptural figure, nor have I heard such claims from the pulpit in General Conference. I’ve never heard of a blessing bringing back sight, defeating paralysis, or resurrecting the dead. I’ve never seen a body of water parted or a mountain moved by the mechanism of faith. Claims of bona fide miracles are rare in the church. Whenever we do hear of them, they’re often hearsay or from individuals whose credibility might not be exactly bulletproof. If that *were* the church’s primary business and claim to fame, we’d all be sadly disappointed—customers demanding refunds from the Vegas magic show that turned out to be a stale college lecture. That point doesn’t seem controversial at all.

    To the extent Miller does tread on thin ice, it is that he is, in effect, arguing for the possibility of a Mormonism without God (and angels and Nephites and life-after-death and…). And not just the possibility of such a thing, but the notion that it might be valuable and sufficient to motivate “works of faith.” He’s said as much before, and more plainly. (“On the whole, though, I think there’s room in Mormonism for atheistic determinists. They’re as welcome in our pews as anyone else. They’re certainly welcome to sit with me.”) As on the point above, where he clearly stated that he was not denying the supernatural (despite its non-centrality to our lived religion), he is not advocating acceptance of Mormonism-without-God here. Nonetheless, I expect some (maybe most) Mormons would not share his openness to such a thing. Even among those who might accept it, many would view it as inherently defective—a disqualifying mind-crime. (I find much to disagree with in Miller’s book, but not that.)

  2. I think what I’m talking about is the “enchanted world” view. I think that enchanted world can be seen through the eyes of the secular. Part of the problem though is that what “the secular” is tends to be ambiguous. I should have brought that out more. Certainly for most secular, what we take for granted via the holy ghost is alien. And I get that to a degree Adam is trying to think through that. The question then, from my take, is how to get the secular to see the enchanted. I’m not sure Adam’s approach really gets us terribly far even acknowledging charity.

    Ultimately though my critique is that there’s a big middle ground between the amazing that you list and the disenchanted world most commonly associated with secularism. However if there’s an opposition between the secular and the religious, I’d argue that ultimately what is at issue isn’t the common ground Adam points to but that there are things unseen that are seeable from the secular.

    Your point about “works of faith” is apt, but really what I’m attempting to bring into question is whether that’s enough. That’s why I again raise the distinction between secular grace and our more normal sense of grace that includes the workings of the holy spirit. Effectively he’s excluded the latter to focus on the former. (And that’s a running theme in the book going back to the early chapters) I’m just not sure it gets us too far precisely because works of faith means something different in each area.

  3. BTW – I think when Damon Linker was a guest poster here back in the blog’s heyday he got at my concerns. There was an extended back and forth over this enchanted world Adam and I disagree somewhat on. I think your critique of me gets at some of the same issues. Fundamentally Damon saw the issue is “how to live” and I think that’s what Adam is getting at too. My critique ultimately is that “how to live” in some ethical sense isn’t enough. When we think through secularism we can’t merely limit ourselves to the ethical common ground but must think through the world itself.

    A good way of getting at what I’m trying grasp at (somewhat unsuccessfully) can be found in Richard Feynman’s famous discussion of learning art from and artist and trying to teach science to the artist. Feynman picked up the more artistic view but wasn’t able to really get the artist to understand why the extra knowledge of science allowed a deeper view of reality without obscuring what the artist could see in say a flower.

    Now the analogy breaks down somewhat since the fundamental issue for a secularist isn’t that the enchanted world would subtract from their knowledge but whether it’s there at all. Yet I think that “extra” that is in the secular world ultimately is the debate.

  4. “That point doesn’t seem controversial at all.”
    I think the controversy is that to a believer, the lack of miracles is evidence of a lack of faith. The issue for believers isn’t that a lack of miracles implies secularism is correct, it is that a lack of miracles implies a church relatively lacking in true faith.

  5. Clark, I wrote reply to you yesterday that I submitted, but am not seeing. Unless it’s hung up awaiting moderation, it’s probably lost. Bummer. I hope to find some time in the next week or two to come back and try again. (I find this the most interesting chapter of that book.)

    Martin, yes, for some believers, a lack of signs and wonders might be cause for self-flagellation. (“We’re just not believing hard enough!”) Self-blame is uncomfortable, which can lead to other explanations, such as defining miracles down (e.g., “speaking in tongues” => “learning some Spanish after a couple of months at the MTC”) or insisting that if we *did* see dramatic miracles, it would make believing too easy (though both of those approaches are hard to square with the robust Mormon 9 view).

  6. sc. I checked but there’s nothing in the spam or waiting for approval queues.

    Martin, I’m not sure the controversy is over the lack of faith, although that’s an interesting critique I’d not thought of. I just think there’s plenty of miracles going on rather regularly. Particularly relative to genealogy I’ve heard a ridiculous number. Church leaders seem willing to recount miracles that have happened to them just not in large settings – and usually with a request it not end up on Facebook or other Internet venues. I think the problem is a kind of false dichotomy where people want the rare miracles like parting the red sea but aren’t willing to listen to pretty profound miracles of protection, speaking in tongues, promptings and so forth that do get told. (And by speaking in tongues I don’t mean MTC learning abilities – but first hand accounts of people speaking a foreign language they didn’t know)

    Now keeping in tune with Adam’s chapter, a secularist will be skeptical of such things of course. They’ll raise the question of placebo effects, misinterpretation, and coincidence. And I actually do think one has to keep those in mind. I rather suspect a large portion of purported miracles recounted may well not be miracles. But there’s enough that one can’t explain away that one has to be careful. To me though the issue is just in getting a secularist to open their eyes to seeing the world as being more than how they conceive of it. That’s the first step to merely entertain the possibility.

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