Future Mormon: Chapter 4

Welcome to the fourth week of the 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. We’ll be trying to discuss a chapter each week. 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 as that’s when we tend to all learn the most.

My apologies for the delay on this chapter. It’s a pretty complicated chapter in certain ways and I’ve been swamped with work and kids starting school. I do think this is a key text in understanding Adam’s theology even though it only opens up certain discussions. It’s also where I start to differ with him in certain strong ways. I should also note that several of the themes in this chapter were the topic of a post by Adam here at Times and Seasons. Particularly in the comments some related ideas get discussed.

Future Mormon Chapter 4: Early Onset Postmortality

Repentance is only possible if time is complex and the past persists unfinished, kept alive beyond itself by a remnant of time that no amount of pride or sinful pretension to self-possession could smother.

Summation

Paul introduces the idea of dying while you’re still alive. To be saved is to experience what Adam calls early onset post mortality. This is a time where judgment arrives before your life ends.

Adam uses an example from that great metaphysical novel, Moby Dick, to explain this. Expecting to die Ishmael makes his will. After doing this he feels content comparing himself to Lazarus brought back to life by Christ. Small worries no longer matter. Because he’s already finished he opens up an unique kind of freedom.

To Adam this is like having ones calling election made sure. Judgment arrives prior to death. You know you are sealed up to eternal life. Events happen out of the usual order of time. Contra ones calling and election though Adam thinks this should not be rare. Repentance itself should be the practice of this early post mortality. “Repenting, you submit a request for a speedy verdict and ask for judgment now rather than later.”

It’s here that Adam turns to his more unique view of Paul[1] – adopting the more traditional Protestant sense (here caught up with the atheist Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben. The focus is on a legal verdict and overcoming law. Adam’s focus is on how the law becomes dead to us (or us to the law) This period of early post mortality allows one to fulfill the law without becoming subject to it. For Agamben reading Paul, this period is called Messianic time and comes from Paul’s term “time of the now” (“ho nan kairos” Romans 11:5 meaning the interim period between Christ’s death and return in Luke 12:56 & Mark 10:30) Agamben argues Paul is not a prophet but an apostle, distinguishing them through their relationship to the future. A prophet talks of the future but Paul talks of a present unveiling.

The distinction Agamben makes with time is between normal secular time and messianic time. Here I think he means our experience of time and not absolute time such as in the sense of physics. Messianic time is not separate from regular time but at work within secular time. Messianic time is the time to represent something – to be complete. Whereas secular time (again in this experiential sense) is completed representations. Probably a better way to explain this is where in other writings Adam speaks of saying versus said. One is process and the other a complete representation. Any representation does no include within it the production. Adam uses the analogy of a photo of the night sky that hides the time it took for the light from each start to arrive at the camera. Extending the metaphor Adam mentions stars moving away from us so far that their light can never reach us. Messianic or operational time is this light from stars that hasn’t reached us.

Extending the analogy Adam argued that the messianic requires us to understand things not just in terms of product but in the present ongoing production. The implication of this is that the past is always incomplete and the present because it contains this process, has more than it can possible contain. (Meaning the representations of the present miss this future activity of the ongoing process) The messianic is neither complete nor incomplete, nor past nor future but the inversion of both. By inversion I think he means primarily this distinction between process and representation.

Adam next moves to his key claim that repentance is only possible if the past is unfinished, kept “alive” because the process can’t be restricted to either the past moment nor the present but is ongoing. An other way to say this I think is just to say that the meaning of the past depends on future events.[2] Adam appeals to an odd translation of 1 Cor 7:29-32 by Agamben. The KJV translates this as “the time is short: it remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none.” Adamben puts this as “time contracted itself, the rest is, that even those having wives may be as not having…”

The idea is that God wants each of us to accept a messsianic vocation. This means taking up the things that already define us in a new messianic way. I confess here I have a bit of trouble figuring things out in this chapter. Part of the issue are some pretty complicated metaphors. I think he wants to say that time as production or meaning-making in the present continues entails that there is always new potential meaning for any past experience of time. The past is never finished since this production is always possible. To live in the experience of of this other time entails an openness to possibility that normal time doesn’t happen. So, as Adam says, we take up the same properties that always described us essentially only in a new way since the meaning of those properties is seen in this open way.

That’s kind of complex, but the move Adam is making is to say that our properties (he uses the term predicates) are the same but have a different meaning due to their very meaning being tied to future events. Adam uses the examples of tall, male, and so forth and I’m not quite sure those are good examples for what he’s arguing. I think what he really wants to say is that we’re the same person but our meaningfulness is different. In other words we have our meaning the same way a book has a meaning.

Moby Dick becomes the example of this where Queequeg has his coffin prepared and lies in it. This involves carvings which are a kind of prophetic script whose meaning is a riddle. To Adam this is akin to our life. We have our life written but the meaning of the life requires dying to read. Once you die in one sense you can understand your life.

Critique

There’s much here I agree with. The basic idea that our life’s meaning is unfixed seems undeniably true. We can always change what anything means. We see this every day where how we view events from our past changes not just with deeper understanding but because of how we’ve changed. A traumatic experience can be devastating and destroy a person or be key to their strength as they overcome the experience. Philosophically the basic idea is that events are always vague and need to be filled in to have meaning. Yet there are many ways to fill them in.

Where I think most people get a bit uncomfortable with Adam’s view is both the embrace of a certain Protestant (especially Lutheran/Calvinist) conception of justification without sanctification. Now Adam most definitely gives it an unique Mormon twist. Among Protestants there actually has been some debate over this very point. The so-called New Perspectives on Paul best represented by Anglican scholar N. T. Wright tends to see justification primarily as joining a new covenant and being associated with that covenant people. Justification is thus seen in covenant terms with righteousness not being an imputed righteousness but the righteousness of God who can be trusted to fulfill his covenants. It’s not a judgment of morality but a judgment of a court that you are not guilty. Wright’s view is very close to the typical Mormon view and elements of Wright’s view are in this chapter. Many more traditional Protestants, especially of the Calvinist type, think Wright is wrong. To them we are judged righteous after we are born again. We can only be judged righteous if we are righteous, so God sees us through Christ’s righteousness. To them fundamentally we are changed even if we are still sinners. (I admit this view seems incoherent to me)

You can see the element of this more Calvinist element of imputed righteousness in Adam’s text. Because we will one day be righteous once we have died, Messianic time is this taking up the whole of our life right now. The question is whether it works.

Adam appeals to the Mormon concept of having ones Calling and Election made sure. Yet this is deeply problematic theologically. The question is whether once one has had ones Election made sure whether one can fall. While we don’t think our election is made sure when we are born again, we do think it can be made sure. This debate was actually raging during Joseph Smith’s own life. Joseph felt that while you could be sealed up to eternal life, you could still fall from this grace.[3]

There are thus two problems with Adam’s theology. If we use Calling and Election, then that’s simply not something most of us will experience in this life. If Adam takes up this more Calvinistic/Lutheran conception of election, he has to address the distinction between being born again and being elected in Mormon theology. But even if he accepts that it only applies to being elected, he has to deal with the philosophical import of falling from grace. That is his whole line of reasoning depends upon the meaning of our events being determined by this out of time aspect.

What I suspect he wants to do is really embrace a certain psychological element of this “out of time” element. That is ones calling and election is just an analogy but his focus is on experience rather than judgment. What he wants us to realize is that all the events we experience are vague and thus open to new meaning. We (or God) can change their meaning here and now, by anticipating that one day we will be like Christ. Further, he thinks there is a change of perspective this brings. I’ve discussed it in the past as a kind of eschatological perspective.[4] Eschatology is the study of end times or from a certain perspective death. However psychologically how we act when we think we are about to die is different from when we’re caught up in the trivial elements of the world. If we were to find out we had only a few weeks to live, psychologically we’d simply act differently. We’d re-evaluate what’s important.

This is definitely part of what Paul gets at. Both early Mormonism and early Christianity were very millennialist in outlook. They literally thought the end days were approaching. After the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD the prophecies of the end seemed much closer. So when reading Paul, it’s worth keeping that in mind. That’s very much wrapped up in how he speaks about time. The community he was calling people to join wasn’t just a new form of Judaism. Rather it had that strong feeling that the end was near. And, in a certain sense, they were correct. There was the initial slaughter and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. But only a few decades later Jerusalem was utterly destroyed and completely reworked into the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. All Jews were cast into exile or enslaved. From a Mormon perspective the apostasy begins and the very community Paul spoke about was taken away.

While I understand what Adam is getting at, I do think it’s important to distinguish our conception of grace and being born again from what Adam describes. Adam’s drawing on sources much more wrapped up in the Calvinistic and Lutheran conceptions. That’s not to say there aren’t useful elements to their analysis. But I think we have to be careful. More importantly though I think we have to be careful thinking through the philosophical element of being disjointed and out of time. I don’t have trouble with the philosophical notion. Nor do I have a problem with God sanctifying us through the spirit so we act like the people we could one day be if we endure to the end. I certainly don’t deny the difference in how we view the world when we truly think what it means to die soon. Yet philosophically I just don’t think the analysis of time works.

Now, anticipating the rest of the book, I recognize that Adam is in certain ways setting up a concept that could be fruitful in other arenas. Yet I think that particularly in this chapter several elements are conflated that we ought keep clear in our minds. In particular the way we experience things when we know we are about to end has to be separated from the type of experience we have when we are born again and live in the spirit. My sense is Adam wants to find something common to both, but I’m not sure I buy that.

1. By unique I mean in a Mormon context. This is very much how Paul is read in many traditions. Now I think many recent Mormon readings of Paul including those by Jim Faulconer and others embrace a similar view to Adam. Romans in particular is a Pauline epistle that’s been the topic of heavy conversation the last decade.

2. This is a point that Jim Faulconer raised a long time ago and is worth keeping in mind. The analogy is to a note within a piece of music. What gives the note its meaning is it’s relationship to the whole piece. That means it’s meaning is open in a certain sense until it is complete. In our regular lives this means that the meaning of a sinful act always has it’s meaning open in some sense. The repented for past sin and the unrepented past sin have different meanings even though the event in the past is the same.

3. See Joseph’s March 10, 1844 sermon. For Joseph this only took place once God had completely declared you elected. To fall after this declaration was to choose to knowingly crucify Jesus and become a son of perdition.

2 comments for “Future Mormon: Chapter 4

  1. August 27, 2017 at 3:33 am

    Thanks for these thoughts, Clark.

    I’m wondering if you can say more about the following point you express in your penultimate paragraph: “I think we have to be careful thinking through the philosophical element of being disjointed and out of time. I don’t have trouble with the philosophical notion. . . . I certainly don’t deny the difference in how we view the world when we truly think what it means to die soon. Yet philosophically I just don’t think the analysis of time works.” I don’t understand what you agree with and what you have a problem with (and why you hav a problem with it).

    I’m especially interested in this topic from a practical perspective. On the one hand, I seem to draw closer to the Spirit when I don’t worry too much about the future and just try to trust that everything will work out (a “take no thought for the morrow” mindset).

    On the other hand, however, I feel irresponsible when I’m not at least somewhat “worried about” or “concerned with” or “attentive to” (these three expressions are easily conflated for me and represent a continuum starting from a less-healthy attitude and moving toward a more-healthy attitude) my daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly affairs/matters/business.

    Anyway, I think my struggle to properly grapple with the balance of feeling “in grace” and “free of stress” vs. being properly attentive to my tasks/projects/affairs is just a kind of existential manifestation of what you’re saying about what Adam is saying about time. And so, my hope is that if you express your philosophical qualms more clearly, it will help me figure out the tensions I’m struggling with myself (both existentially and philosophically!).

  2. Clark Goble
    August 28, 2017 at 9:56 am

    More or less what I’m getting at is the idea that we become this future person in some sense. Yet, because we are free, can the logic of this really work? I think for the logic to work you have to either shift to an “as if” or else embrace a strong sense of determinism.

    If we reject the strong sense of this messianic time where it’s something real, then we’re left with the more psychological sense ala Nibley’s example of eschatology I linked to. That I have no problem with, but if messianic time is just a psychological different it seems to lose much of its weight.

    What you outline is more of an analysis of how the psychology might work, if I’m understanding you. I think that’s an important point. Frequently there’s an assumption we’ll all react the same with a pending death. I don’t think that’s true.

Charitable Comments Welcome