Author: Adam Miller

A Primer on Mormon Prayer: Deciding

Prayer can be approached as a means or as an end. You’re tired of using God as a crutch to get wherever else you want to go and finally decide, throwing it all over, to just make God your explicit destination. Consecration it is. The kingdom of God or nothing.

Be Ye Perfect

Sunlight

The gospel instructs us in a certain way of being imperfect. Here, salvation turns on practicing what Elizabeth Bishop calls “the art of losing.” Jesus famously describes this art of losing in Matthew 5:48. “Be ye therefore perfect,” he says, “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Here, the term “perfection” indexes that “certain way” that is peculiar to both Jesus and the Father. The baseline meaning of perfection, of teleios, is completion. But what kind of completion? My suggestion is that, rather than burying Jesus’ teleios beneath layers of curdled metaphysics and ripe fantasy, we ought to simply read the preceding verses in which Jesus tells us exactly what kind of perfection or completion he has in mind. Here are the preceding verses: 38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Apocalyptic Theology

Imagine I’ve just been made supreme chancellor of a graduate program in Mormon theology. Thousands of students throng. We need a syllabus. What’s our first reading assignment? We’re going to start with Jim Faulconer’s dramatically subtitled essay “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse” from Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010). On my reading, Jim’s essay lays out a couple of basic principles for engaging in theology as quasi-academic meta-reflection on Mormonism: 1. Theology should be “apocalyptic.” Apocalypse does not so much refer to the end of the world . . . as it refers to the moment when the nearness of the kingdom of God is revealed to the believer and the believer’s life is oriented by that kingdom rather than by the world. To hear the gospel preached is to experience a type or shadow of the Apocalypse” (110) Our theology must be a figure of the Apocalypse, a theology that reveals God himself, even if only as…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: True Believer

Wooden Chair

It’s unlikely that I believe the right things about God, Jesus, the gospel, or the Church. It’s even less likely that I could express my beliefs in a coherent and justifiable way. I used to think that, because my ideas were clever, I was at least closer to being right than most. This I took as a consolation. But cleverness isn’t much to live on. God, I think, has been working to pry this cleverness from my cold, dead hands. I have felt God more than once pushing me to echo Meister Eckhart’s deeply orthodox prayer: “I pray to God to rid me of God.” In the midst of such a prayer, the wind stops howling and God bestows a terrifying calm. In this stillness, God gives a precise revelation that bypasses belief and instructs practice. Here, the gospel is given as a certain way of sitting in a chair, a certain way of meeting a child’s eyes, a certain way of kissing a…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Secular Mormons

Bible

The irony of religious fundamentalism is that it is a profoundly modern and profoundly secular phenomenon. This is perhaps especially true of the scriptural literalism that often accompanies it. The result is that many of the most conservative Mormons are, in point of fact, also the most secular. Few Mormons are more secular than Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. Why is fundamentalism so profoundly secular? Because it cedes the field of truth wholly and without contestation to secular models of truth – and then tries to combat, contest, and outdo the secularists at their own game. Is there a better example of this acquiescence to the secular paradigm than Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny? Jim Faulconer levels a similar (but subtler) charge against the Protestant theologian Langdon Gilkey in the fourth chapter of Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010): Ironically, when people argue for creation science or for what is usually called a literal reading…

Sky

Clouds

I’d forgotten about the sky. For how long, I’m not sure. Months? Years? When I remembered, it felt like waking from a cramped dream. A few weeks ago, early in the morning, I was running. The sun climbed bright in the east. The moon, chalk white, lapsed in the west. And I was running beneath them – on the ground, next to water, up a hill, and around a bend. I had been worried, anxious, impatient. But, beneath this sky, I couldn’t remember what about. So I wiped my brow and leaned into the wind. Tolstoy remembered this sky. Here’s Prince Andrei, in War and Peace, just struck on the head by one of Napoleon’s men: “What is it? am I falling? are my legs giving way under me?” he thought, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the fight between the French and the artillerists ended, and wishing to know whether or not the…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: The Call

Hakuin - Blind Men Crossing Bridge

It is a commonplace in Zen that three things are necessary for liberation. If you want to wake up from the slumber of self-absorption, if you want to live your life outside the suffocating confines of that mason jar that is your own head, you need (1) great faith, (2) great doubt, and (3) great effort. As Mormons, we’re famous for valorizing the third. We’re also often good at promoting the first. But when was the last time you heard a talk extolling the need to cultivate great doubt? The Zen masters were likely right to see all three as essential. It is not enough to trust and build. Ground must also be cleared. In Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer makes a similar point in relation to reading scripture: We often speak of and use scripture as if it were a set of propositions that are poorly expressed or, at best, “merely” poetic. We then try to…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Pagan Faith

Stonehenge

Mormons are metaphysical heretics, backward pagans, country bumpkins, who claim that the world, rather than being one, is fundamentally many. We’re metaphysical pluralists and so break with the creeds. Unity is a product, not a starting point. God the Son is not God the Father and (moreover!) all intelligences are uncreated and co-eternal with God. As a result, rather than being reassuringly antedated by the simplicity of a Divine Will or the uniformity of a Providential Reason, we’re preceded by the mystery of a material plurality that is always already given. In this scenario, faith is a different kind of thing. Unlike many versions of creedal faith, pagan faith is no temporary, stop-gap measure. Pagan faith is eternal and, in a pagan universe, even the Gods must have and keep faith. Faith is not the foil of a (lost or future) knowledge, but the ageless bedrock of any trusting, active, and moral engagement with an uncreated world. Pagan faith originates in response to…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Making Room

Doorstop

We like to shut doors. Jim’s book is a doorstop. Quick! Wedge it in. Of Truman Madsen’s book, Eternal Man, Jim says: More than teaching a particular doctrine or suggesting any particular solution to a philosophical or theological problem, the book gave its readers permission to think about these kinds of problems, to read the books listed in its many footnotes and books like them. . . . By writing Eternal Man, Truman Madsen said to me – and, I believe, many others – “Take seriously the admonition of the Prophet Joseph Smith that introduces chapter two: ‘When things that are of the greatest importance are passed over by weak-minded men without even a thought, I want to see truth in all its bearings and hug it to my bosom.’” Reading Eternal Man made me not want to be one of the “weak-minded.” The book gave me an intellectual goal and told me that my new goal was not only…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Memory

Infrastructure

Say someone asks if you know the time. You say yes and then look at your watch. Did you really know the time? Say someone asks you how to get downtown to the museum. You say yes. They ask you to write down directions. You can’t, but you offer to drive them there instead. If you can see the landmarks, then you’ll know where to turn. Did you really know how to get there? Say that, walking past a bakery, you’re struck by the smell of a pastry and then vividly recall a time when, six years-old, you made those same rolls with your grandmother. You can feel again the weight of her hand on your shoulder as she helps you roll the dough. This is the only time you’ve thought of that event in the past thirty years. Did you remember this? Or did the pastry? Who is doing the knowing in these examples? Who is doing the remembering? You? The watch?…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: A Typology of Readers

Peeking

In the introduction to his Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Neal A Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer gives us a kind of typology of religious subjects. Imagining the different kinds of responses he might get to the difficulty of his philosophically inclined essays, he picks out four basic types. I. Typology 1. Those who enjoy a kind of childish naivete. Those with childish faith will find what I say difficult because it makes the obvious difficult. They are likely to be bored or, at best, indulgent of me, and their reaction is the right reaction. I have nothing to say to those who are naive in a childish way because anything I say would be superfluous. (xv) 2. Those who enjoy a kind of mature naivete. Those with more mature, childlike faith have moved from their initial naivete to one that knows the obstacles to faith and has faith anyway – not necessarily in spite of those obstacles, but aware of them and able to cope with…

Home Waters: Recompense

Mountain

Of his awakening, Dogen says, “I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars.” Tinged with enlightenment, you see what Dogen saw: that life is borrowed and that mind itself is mooched. Every day you’ll need something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. Mind borrows mountains and rivers, earth, sun, and sky. But you can’t just keep these things forever. Even if they weren’t quite what you wanted, they gave what they had and now some compensation is needed, some recompense is required. “Recompense is payback,” Handley says. “It means to weigh together, to bring back into balance” (xi). What was loaned must be returned or replaced. What was given must be given back. Nobody gets to start from scratch, not even God. To make a world is to borrow, recycle, and repurpose the matter that, even if disorganized, is already out there…

Home Waters: Gene/ecology

Canyon Walls 2

Earth is stratified time. Use some wind, water, and pressure. Sift it, layer it, and fold it. Add an inhuman number of years. Stack and buckle these planes of rock into mountains of frozen time. Use a river to cleave that mountain in two. Hide hundreds of millions of purloined years in plain, simultaneous sight as a single massive bluff. It’s a good trick. Bodies, made of earth, are just the same: in my face, unchosen, generations of people are stratified in plain, simultaneous sight. My father’s nose, my grandfather’s ears, my mother’s wink, the lines my kids have etched into my squint. My wife pats my cheek and says: “Dear, your genealogy is showing.” She’s right. The lines on my face and in the palms of hands are family lines. But these lines aren’t easy to follow because, counter to expectation, time’s line isn’t straight. Time piles up. It loops around, knots up, peters out, and jumps ahead. It…

Home Waters: Soul as Watershed

Provo River

Spurred by Handley’s Home Waters, I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner. Like Handley, Stegner is interested in the tight twine of body, place, and genealogy that makes a life. On my account, Handley and Stegner share the same thesis: if the body is a river, then the soul is a watershed. Like a shirt pulled off over your head, this thesis leaves the soul inside-out and exposed. You thought your soul was a kernel of atomic interiority, your most secret secret – but shirt in hand, everyone can see your navel. Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, opens with the narrator’s own version of this thesis. An aging father, writing about his pioneer grandparents, names the distance between himself and his son: Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn’t believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on. What I established is already buried under layers of tape. Before I can say I am, I…

Home Waters: Overview

Home Waters

George Handley’s Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River (University of Utah Press, 2010) practices theology like a doctor practices CPR: not as secondhand theory but as a chest-cracking, lung-inflating, life-saving intervention. Home Waters models what, on my account, good theology ought to do: it is experimental, it is grounded in the details of lived experience, and it takes charity – that pure love of Christ – as the only real justification for its having been written. It is not afraid to guess, it is not afraid to question, it is not afraid to cry repentance, and it is not afraid to speak in its own name. The book deserves some time and attention. It’s what you’ve been wanting to read. It may also be what you’ve been wanting to write. At the very least, it made me want to write about it. I’ve planned a few posts that will air some of my ideas about Handley’s ideas:…