Beyond Agency as Idolatry

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Review of Adam S. Miller, Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016)

Adam Miller has already established himself as the most venturesome and original of LDS thinkers exploring our complex inheritance of Mormon beliefs with the tools of contemporary academic philosophy. Richard Bushman, certainly the most highly honored living scholar of Mormonism, in a foreword to an earlier collection of Miller’s essays, Rube Goldberg Theology, praised the author as today’s “most original and provocative Latter-day Saint theologian.” This originality and provocation are all the more impressive given Miller’s institutional prominence in the LDS academic establishment as, practically, the leading philosopher/theologian of BYU’s Maxwell Institute, where he is a series co-editor as well as co-founder of the book publisher Salt Press, which was absorbed by the Institute in 2013.

Bushman also noted in that foreword that Miller was “utterly ambivalent about the theological enterprise.” If this was accurate in 2012, then to judge by the claims of the present work, it is no longer true. Miller has overcome his ambivalence and now proposes a distinctive and coherent (and, yes, certainly provocative) Mormon theology — and even one not for the mere present but for the future.

Adam Miller’s most important work has so far proceeded on two distinct but intersecting paths, one more religious and the other more philosophical. On the one hand he has explored scripture and drawn consequences for the religious life and for living Mormonism in particular; on the other he has produced rigorous commentaries on the work of challenging contemporary thinkers Alain Badiou, Jean Luc Marion, and Bruno Latour as well as on the fiction of Cormac McCarthy and of [Page 148]David Foster Wallace. The intersections between the philosophical (and Pauline) reflections and the exploration of the meaning of Mormonism were by no means incidental or neglected in his earlier work. He developed the philosophical significance of LDS belief and scripture most notably in Rube Goldberg Theology. This and the present work are both collections of essays affording all the advantages (variety, liveliness) and disadvantages (incompletion, unevenness, internal tension if not contradiction) inherent in that genre. But the present collection marks a significant step towards Miller’s goal: an integrated and coherent (if not exactly “systematic”) presentation of a distinctive way of being Mormon, a way informed by a thorough appropriation of what he regards as the best of contemporary philosophy (Badiou, Latour).

Adam Miller is convinced that Mormons of the future, including his three children, “will have to rethink the whole tradition [of Mormonism], from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world” (xi).1 Rather than defending Mormonism as most Mormons, including Church authorities, now understand it against the known challenges — historical, theological and ideological — it now faces, he offers this book, “a future tense apologetics meant for future Mormons” and “a modest contribution” (xii) to strengthening a radically different Mormonism of the future. Such a contribution of course presupposes that the author can already discern at least the contours of this emergent new Mormonism sufficiently to provide the coming generation “the tools, the raw materials and the room” (xii) for them to undertake this top to bottom re-appropriation.

The philosophical and theological tools he offers to his children and ours are impressive and set forth here, with Miller’s characteristically arresting formulations, in a style that is both engaging and highly evocative. The author defines the space to be inhabited by future Mormonism by a rigorously Pauline conception of grace married with a radical conception of Mormon materialism. And the terms of this marriage of materialism with grace are provided by a philosophical ontology of radical pluralism, or “network theory,” derived from the author’s close and appreciative studies of the thought of (especially) Alain Badiou and Bruno Latour.

Drawing persuasively on the Book of Moses, Miller argues that the revelation of grace “comes paired with the revelation of our own nothingness” (4). He then proceeds to define grace in opposition to a [Page 149]“law” by which we would presume to earn and thus to control what we will and will not receive. From this point of view of the radical gratuity of the given, obedience to law is a distraction, even a dead-end compulsion that prevents our openness to the gracious gift of love. Love is the end of the law; love accomplishes the law but without confirming the erroneous assertion of “the law’s inviolable priority” (9). “Our love must be practiced with a kind of disregard for the law” (12). Miller of course does not counsel disobedience — he concedes that “obedience is generally better than disobedience” (6) — but he is much more concerned that we will attach too much importance to obedience rather than too little. He sees that “strict obedience” is too often a “strategy for suppressing the truth and avoiding God’s grace” by attempting “to put God in your debt” (5). By forsaking this compulsive and futile effort to win over God by obedience, to “set ourselves up … as lords of the earth and judges of what graces we will and won’t receive” (4), we open ourselves to a world given by grace in which a love beyond law is revealed:

Dying to the law and living in Christ, we begin to carry ourselves with a characteristic grace, we begin to receive whatever is given with graciousness, and the whole of creation, regardless of its troubles, limitations, transience, acquires a kind of perfection. The world becomes perfect in the same way that God is perfect. It becomes perfect in love. (11)

Miller’s strongest and clearest insight, I think, lies in his insistence that grace is not mainly or first of all a response to sin — not “God’s backup plan” (to cite another of his titles) — but rather the defining characteristic of God’s relation to the world overall and from the outset. The grace of Creation precedes and encompasses the grace of Redemption. This seems to me to indicate a profound truth. Grace is not a fix for a particular problem (sin) but rather an effect of the love that sustains all things. Participation in this grace or sustaining love, I would suggest, is indeed the key to life’s meaning, both here and hereafter. But Miller, keen to produce a “‘general theory’ of grace” (65) takes this further, folding redemption into the grace of Creation in such a way that grace, “a fundamental and constitutive feature of reality itself,” becomes wholly identified with reality such as we now know it, grace “as an essential and ongoing feature of everything real” (67). “The world is graced not by a flawlessness but by a halo of perfection that shines from the world’s no longer being a means to some other end, to someplace else. It has, instead, become something to be loved as it is, for its own sake” (43; my emphasis). In his zeal to suppress any germ of idolatry, that [Page 150]is, the natural tendency of human desire to project itself on the world in the form of some supposed intelligible divine purpose, Miller is led to embrace the utter collapse of grace into nature or rather into the sheer givenness of reality as it overwhelms our nothingness.

From this point of view, “sin” is neither more nor less than our refusal to accept reality as it now presents itself; it is “our rejection of this original and ongoing grace” (67). Traditional Christianity (including conventional or “mainstream” Mormonism, even Mormonism as set forth recently by Terryl and Fiona Givens, for example), is in fact complicit in this sin because it consists essentially in Platonism or idealism, namely the refusal of what God is giving in the world as it really is in a vain attempt to shape or master the world according to some idealized assertion of human desire.

It must be said that Adam Miller is very hard on human desire, indeed on any conception of a good — even or especially a “higher” good — distinct from the “reality” of giving and taking away that defines the actual, ever-passing world in which he thinks God’s grace is fully present. His provocative radicalism stems most fundamentally, I think, from his insistence on a radical, even an absolute distinction between “what God, in all his goodness and wisdom and mercy, is actually trying to give” and “what we think we want” (24). He has nothing to say, certainly, on behalf of a plan of salvation or “great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8) by which human beings would deliberately seek, through obedience and repentance, some good superior to what is given in the ordinary, everyday world. For Miller our desires have no end beyond themselves, and to look for any higher end, to hope for a better world, is to sin against grace, to resist the love that has no purpose but the graceful sharing of suffering in the world that is actually, already being given (and taken away) here and now.

There is certainly some insight in this immanent view of grace. Miller is always at his best in describing the mysterious compatibility, even a certain essential communion, between suffering and the graceful acceptance of the meaning of existence as it is somehow immediately given, beneath the grasp of any theory or any intelligible story. Thus, in Letters to a Young Mormon, he wisely counsels his children and our children to resist the temptation to “try to ‘solve’ the problem of your hunger by (1) satisfying it or (2) purging it. Neither will work,” he argues, “and both amount to a rejection of life.”2 But he seems, to me, to go too [Page 151]far by reducing salvation to the patient “care for” or “attention” to our mortal hunger, thus reducing sin to attachment to stories (the story of salvation, for example) that disconnect us from “life’s hunger.”3 For Miller the desire to understand ourselves as part of some larger story or plan is always sinful, and agency and love reside wholly in the acceptance of affliction, which he regards as “the heart of the gospel” that “makes forgiveness and redemption possible” (23).

There is surely an elusive and exquisite insight here and one that our upbeat, goal-oriented approach to the gospel often misses. But it seems clear that Miller, in his ambition to produce a pure theory of grace in the framework of the philosophies of radical materialism (his “area of professional expertise” (60n3)), is led to make this insight a template for overturning elements of Christian and especially Mormon teaching that appear to be essential. His campaign of graceful love against works righteousness in some sense goes too far and excludes too much. For Miller there can be no better world where all our tears are wiped away; to hope for such a world is to worship an idol rather than receiving the graceful world God is always already offering. Thus he candidly endorses “Nietzsche’s sharp critique of our Christian tendency to devalue the present world by anchoring its true meaning and substance in another” (47).

I have no alternative “general theory” of the gospel to offer; I would only suggest that a true and truly Mormon understanding of grace would have to be compatible with the deliberate pursuit of eternal happiness or “exaltation” (albeit a pursuit ready progressively to sacrifice imperfect conceptions along the way) or the fulfillment of the highest and best human desires (and yes, I know that I am committing “Platonism”), and with an understanding of agency as a partner of grace and not merely as the passive acceptance of the world as God gives it and allows it. Put another way, whereas, in Miller’s materialist and Pauline conception of Mormonism, hope tends to collapse in the fusion of faith and love, I would hold to hope as the Christian virtue that holds faith and love together.

This short review must pass over the subtle insights and provocative hyperbole that characterize every chapter of this rich collection of essays. There is much of value, for example, in Miller’s “thoughtful disagreement” (45) with Terryl and Fiona Givens on the character of the self and its agency and on the meaning of pre-existence, all points on which I think Miller succeeds at least in showing the need for significant qualifications [Page 152]of or corrections to the Givens’ insistence on the self-subsistent eternity of the individual subject. But Miller’s uncompromising rejection of the “Platonism” implicit in any hope for a better world leads him to a number of positions that I cannot examine here but that point up the significant stakes of his position. Thus, while he reasonably criticizes an understanding of agency as a “simple and internal” “freedom from outside influence” (53–54), his radical rejection of a stable distinction between beings that act and beings that are acted upon leads him to argue that agency “isn’t a freedom from the conditioned world but a freedom for that world” (54–55) — that is, for that world simply as it is and not a freedom to act upon the world or to participate in any divine work of improving the world or building a better world. What’s left of agency in this view is swallowed up in grace understood precisely as “this massive, ongoing act of divinely organized creation that involves an uncountable host of agents, human and nonhuman, embedded in irreducible webs of stewardship, consecration, sacrifice, and interdependence” (67). It is not easy to see just what shape “stewardship” or responsible agency (67) can have when embedded so deeply in a massive material creation from which intelligible higher purposes have been excluded a priori.

We cannot here trace all the implications of this dilution of agency in a fusion of grace and materialism. We can only note for now that among the consequences of Miller’s reduction of agency to an effectively blind participation in the welter of material causes are his steadfast refusal “to grant the premise that religion and secularism are enemies” (74) and his celebration of “democracy,” in which “power is not delivered from the top-down, but produced from the bottom up” “as inherently sacred” (84). Following a logic inherent in the democratic and materialist denial of all intelligible higher purposes, Miller links the “democratic” or “flat” character of truth to stale progressive idea that “truth” is “not a static product” but “a process” (84). The essential question is suppressed, as is always the case in this progressive rhetorical mode: how are we to distinguish a good process from a bad process and thus to contribute to or even direct the process? And the suppression of this question leads here, as always, to the implicit imperative to trust the experts who, emancipated from Platonic idolatry, offer themselves as guides to an unprecedented future existence that it would be wrong to try to judge from the perspective of our present, “static” prejudices. A future Mormon must not be bound by the categories of a present Mormonism.

To question Miller’s democratic-materialist Mormon future is not to deny the high theoretical and poetic qualities of the author’s project [Page 153]or the value to Mormons and to other Christians of his unflinching and systematically coherent case for a radical understanding of Grace and thus for a view of the gospel that keeps in focus the teaching that “man is nothing.” At one point Miller, much to his credit, recognizes that “the costs” of his “radical and thoroughgoing materialism [may] start to seem too high,” which he acknowledges would be “an indication that Mormonism is not actually committed to a radically monistic materialism” (60n4). In fact I believe that Miller’s hyperbolic case for radical grace as radical materialism brings to light the impossibility of building a whole “general theory” of Mormonism on those foundations. But this is far from saying that this work is fruitless. Those of us inclined to defend or to seek a conception of redeemed agency that retains significant continuities with the Christian “Platonist” tradition and with conventional Mormon common sense now, thanks to Adam, have a clearer picture of the work that is cut out for us. We owe it to future Mormons as well as to Adam Miller and his present readers to take up this work.4

1. Parenthetical citations refer to page numbers.

2. Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2013), 59.

3. Ibid.

4. Whether our argument is with Paul himself and not only with Adam Miller is a question that cannot be decided in advance, although a powerful reading of Paul’s teaching by such an eminent Christian scholar as N.T. Wright (After you Believe) suggests a much greater continuity with Aristotelian virtue than would be possible on Miller’s account.

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About Ralph C. Hancock

Ralph C. Hancock holds degrees from BYU and Harvard, and has taught political philosophy at Brigham Young University since 1987; he is also President of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs, an independent educational foundation ( His most recent book is The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age (Rowman & Littlefield), and a new edition of his Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics has recently been published by Saint Augustine’s Press; he has also translated numerous works from French. His chapter, “Mormon Apologetics and Mormon Studies: Truth, Relativism and the New Mormon Love-In,” is forthcoming in Van Dyke & Ericson, eds., Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics. Dr. Hancock is also a contributing editor of the quarterly Perspectives on Political Science, an editor at the online scholarly journal, which addresses public affairs for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a regular columnist for the Deseret News. Ralph and his wife, Julie, are parents of five and grandparents of thirteen.

12 thoughts on “Beyond Agency as Idolatry

  1. “and to look for any higher end, to hope for a better world, is to sin against grace”

    It is perhaps this section that leaps out at me. I really hope that isn’t Miller’s position.

    “Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.” – Ether 12:4

    There seems to be all in this, at least from an initial impression, also little of the fall, no acknowledgement that neither the world as it presently is nor ourselves as we presently are are as God ultimately intends us. If one is speaking of risking idolatry, there seems a risk of idolatrous worship of the present world as some sort of perfect reflection of God’s will; in Pauline terms to risk worshipping “the creature more than the creator” (Romans 1:25 – and it seems really hard to separate *Paul* from hopes for a future and better world).

  2. I was particularly struck by this passage from the review:

    Thus, while he reasonably criticizes an understanding of agency as a “simple and internal” “freedom from outside influence” (53–54)…

    I don’t have a copy of Miller’s book, so I can’t check for myself whether I’m understanding the point correctly, but if Miller is arguing against the idea that agency means (or at least requires) freedom from outside influence, then I’m not sure whom it is that he’s arguing against. Certainly not against traditional LDS teaching, which (it seems to me) could hardly be clearer: not only does agency not mean freedom from outside influence, but on the contrary, agency is positively dependent on the existence and impingement of outside influence. We can be agents only if we a) know good from evil (Moses 6:56) and b) are subject to temptation (D/C 29:39). If nothing outside of us could influence us, how could we exercise agency? This principle has been taught as recently as the April 2016 general conference, by Elder Oaks.

    Again, though, it’s very possible that I’m understanding Miller’s point less than perfectly.

  3. Fantastic review. Now I have a sense as to what Future Mormons is about. Miller’s description of Grace sounds similar to Daoism – in that the Grace of the Savior’s Atonement is the very life-force (qi) that Daoists seek to be in harmonious alignment with.

    Personally, I agree with this perspective and share the belief.

    But I’m probably reading to much into this review. I’ll get Miller’s book and read it for myself.

    • Jason

      Several years ago I attended an “emotional healing” session conducted by a relative who had served a mission in Taiwan. He charged people to draw down the power of qi to heal them of their emotional afflictions. During this session that I attended he placed his left hand on the person’s head while raising his right arm to channel the qi into the person. A few years later, after rejecting counsel from his stake presidency to stop the practice, he was excommunicated for practicing priestcraft. His pride has kept him out of the church and he still practices the emotional healing through the power of qi.

      I am not inferring that you are headed down that path. I just find the story interesting and sad. This relative of mine has headed down one of the forbidden paths in Lehi’s dream. Hopefully he will find his way back to the tree.

  4. To hope for a better world is to sin against grace? My ancestors froze on the plains because they hoped for a better world–a Zion–for themselves and their children. In the world we live in today, I long for a better world too. If that is sin, so be it, but in God’s grace I hope to endure and have trust in God that it will be so.

    • Brett

      You and David Richards expressed my sentiments exactly. Thanks you for your comments. I am surprised that both reviewers gave such glowing reports of the book’s contents. I visibly cringed (as my wife can attest) with some things that I read. Maybe my bottle is too old for such new wine.

      • Ralph Hancock is a former student of mine and long ago replaced me. I think I know him well. I do not read his review of Adam Miller’s book as a “glowing report of the book’s content,” but as a very cautiously worded, setting out of problems in trying to fashion a presumably new and better “theology” to replace what is clearly taught in our scriptures.
        Instead of drawing upon contemporary French philosophers in an effort to fashion a future “Mormonism,” we should be seeking the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and hence actually becoming genuine Saints, who both long for a Zion here and now, and expect a glorious world in our own life after life.
        My own complaint about Adam Miller’s book is that it seems to me to be Protestant. What I mean is simply that what gets labeled as “Pauline” is not the Paul of someone like N. T. Wright, but the gargled Paul of Luther and Calvin. Put bluntly, we should be striving to understand what is taught in our scriptures and not be busy trying to improve upon them by drawing on some currently fashionable, highly subtle philosophy.

      • Both Adam S. Miller (in his book “Future Mormons: Essays in Mormon Theology” [Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016) and the reviewer Ralph C. Hancock have complicated the marvelous simplicity of the Gospel. Moses 1:39 states in marvelous simplicity:

        39 For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

        As John said, God is love. To gain eternal life or exaltation, we must become Christlike, godlike in our nature. All exalted beings – like God – are beings of love, perfect love. That is the ultimate goal of life. Don’t complicate it. It’s that simple.

        How we may achieve that Christlike, godlike nature is also explained in marvelous simplicity:

        Being inherently imperfect BEFORE the Fall and especially after the Fall, we needed an atonement to enable God to be just in giving us the opportunity to become like Him. We needed to be in a fallen world in order to have the freedom to become like God, or to become like Satan, or to become anything in between. Our fallen world with the atonement and other of God’s gifts enables us to have the full array of choices. It’s just that simple. That fact tell us how much God treasures our free agency.

        I agree with the reviewer and the author that the concept of grace is often misunderstood by members of the Church, but again the reviewer and the author both complicate what grace is. Miller is right about our “nothingness” in the atonement. Jesus did ALL of the suffering. We did none of the suffering; we did NOTHING to achieve the atonement. Jesus suffered the greatest injustice in history: He suffered for my sins and yours, and for all of our pains even though He did NOTHING wrong, NOT ONE THING wrong both in premortality and mortality. And Jesus suffered this greatest injustice of all, in order to fulfill the will of the Father: to bring to pass the immortality (resurrection) and eternal life (exaltation) of man. That’s grace. That’s perfect love. It’s that marvelously simple.

        However, the 4th Article of Faith also makes it marvelously clear and simple that we need at least one other Gift from God to achieve God’s purpose for us (eternal life or exaltation): the Gift of the Holy Ghost, the constant companionship of a god – which companionship guides us, comforts us, and, most of all, purifies and sanctifies us, thus making us godlike, Christlike in our nature, making us one with God. With the constant companionship of a god, we can learn to think like a god, talk like a god, and act like a god. That’s why the sacrament is considered so sacred and important: we remember the atonement, renew our covenants, and receive the Spirit.

        Having majored in English and minored in philosophy in both my B.A. and M.A. degrees, I read much philosophizing that overcomplicated simple truths and often distorted those simple truths. I’m afraid that both Miller and Hancock have been guilty of this.

  5. It is bemusing, and I suppose should be amusing, to be read as giving a “glowing report” of Miller’s book. Maybe there is some difference between the reader and me in our experience of the rhetoric of academic reviews. The response is a little ironic, because I’m used to being accused of performing “hit jobs.” Well, consider what I wrote:

    Rather than defending Mormonism as most Mormons, including Church authorities, now understand it against the known challenges, historical, theological and ideological, it now faces, he offers this book, “a future tense apologetics meant for future Mormons.” asand “a modest contribution” (xii) to strengthening a radically different Mormonism of the future. Such a contribution of course presupposes that the author can already discern at least the contours of this emergent new Mormonism sufficiently to provide the coming generation “the tools, the raw materials and the room” (xii) for them to undertake this top to bottom re-appropriation.

    It’s true I leave it to the reader to judge what my opinion might be of such an ambition for “top to bottom re-appropriation.” But I didn’t think I had really made it all that hard.

    As for readers who wish that Miller and I would just state the simple truths of the gospel and leave philosophy alone: the point is at least arguable. But I was asked to review a very philosophical book, and I did my best to engage it philosophically. If that’s not to your taste, well then, we really don’t have any quarrel — except perhaps with the editor who asked for the review.

  6. Ralph Hancock,

    I don’t think the complaint against Miller and your review is that you didn’t “leave philosophy alone.” Having minored in philosophy, I love playing with ideas, especially gospel ideas. For example, as I have pondered about the atonement, a question occurred to me about the Savior that had never occurred to me before. What is that question? The question is:

    When in mortality did Jesus know that He was going to have to suffer for the sins of the world?

    I personally believe that Jesus had this knowledge at least by the time he was 12 and was teaching the elders in the temple. The reason why I pondered about this question (When in mortality did Jesus know that He was going to have to suffer for the sins of the world?) was that it must have been a horrifying experience to live with the knowledge of the pain that He was going to have to endure. How would you feel if you knew you were going to be tortured in a hour, tomorrow, next week, or next year? How would the anticipation of that torture affect your every day thinking and doing? I confess that I would probably be obsessed with that anticipation. Thus, as I pondered, I realized that the Savior did even more than suffer in Gethsemane; He had to live with the anticipation of experiencing the worst suffering in history, suffering that would make Him bleed from every pore.

    Then my thoughts went to Jesus in premortality. What must have it been like for Jesus to stand in the midst of billions and billions of future sinners, and accept the calling to suffer for their sins? I cannot imagine how anyone could live with the anticipation of experiencing such suffering. What would it feel like if you or I were told that we would suffer for someone else tomorrow, next week, next month, next year? And Jesus had to anticipate suffering for billions and billions of future sinners.

    We know that Jesus sought an alternative in the greatest prayer ever offered: Let this cup pass from me, but thy will, not mine, be done. Oh, my, it makes me gasp to think of Jesus’ having to live even in premortality with that anticipation of such suffering.

    This kind of philosophizing does NOT detract from the simple, glorious truths of the Gospel but invites a deeper appreciation of those simple, glorious truths.

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