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.