Book Review: Adam S. Miller’s Future Mormon

Book Review: Future Mormon, Essays in Mormon Theology, by Adam S. Miller

When I first saw the title for this book, Future Mormon, I immediately thought of the title of another book I first read as a teenager in the 1970s, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.  In Toffler’s book, he describes a future of rapid change, much of it caused by advancing technology, which he sees as causing psychological stress and instability in a society that struggles to keep up with all of the change.

Welcome to the present.  Welcome to 21st century Mormonism.

Since Future Shock, we have seen incredible growth and struggle occur in the Church.  Sometimes it has been hard to keep up with the changing times. The Church has grown from under 3 million to more than 15 million members, growing from a uniquely Utah religion to a world-wide phenomenon. Yet, we’ve also seen the archives open and many skeletons fall out, causing us to look time and again at what the Church really stands for and teaches:  Priesthood ban lifted and debated over almost 20 years, Joseph Smith’s polygamy and seer stones,  The Book of Mormon and DNA. The outflow of members over issues of feminism, sexual attraction, and gender identification.

But we’ve also seen triumphs: 150 temples worldwide, tens of thousands of young men and women serving missions, Joseph Smith Papers Project, a renewed focus on the Book of Mormon.

We’ve also seen an evolution of Mormon thought. In the early 1970s, the first generation of LDS scholars was coming out of the long shadow cast by Hugh Nibley. Amazing articles that supported the Book of Mormon came onto the radar by this new group of scholars. Mormon apologetics entered its heyday, and today is well established with many scholars and organizations.  Mormon history then took root and is now also established among LDS and non-LDS scholars alike.

Perhaps one of the most exciting groups to emerge over the last 30 years is that of philosophy/theology. Growing out of Eugene England’s early efforts, we now have a quality group of LDS men and women who do Mormon theology. One of the foremost LDS philosophers in our day is Adam S. Miller, and this is one of his best offerings to date.

“Future Mormon” is a brief book of about 130 pages and 13 chapters, including:

1. A General Theory of Grace
2. Burnt Offerings: Reading 1 Nephi 1
3. Reading Signs or Repeating Symptoms: Reading Jacob 7
4. Early Onset Postmortality
5. The God Who Weeps: Notes, Amens and Disagreements
6. A Radical Mormon Materialism: Reading Wrestling the Angel
7. Reflections on President Uchtdorf’s “The Gift of Grace”
8. A Manifesto for the Future of Mormon Thinking
9. Network Theology: Is It Possible to be a Christian but not a Platonist?
10. Jesus, Trauma, and Psychoanalytic Technique
11. Every Truth is a Work, Every Object is a Covenant
12. The Body of Christ
13. Silence, Witness, and Absolute Rock: Reading Cormac McCarthy

 

In Future Mormon, Adam suggests themes and ideas that move LDS theology from its current moorings to future development and evolution.  He recognizes the many current questions that young and old LDS minds have today about doctrine, and knows those questions must continue to evolve for our grandchildren, as well. However, many Mormons do not understand just how fluid much of our doctrine really is, and how little of it is actually core doctrine: doctrine that does not change. We believe in the atonement of Christ as a core doctrine, but how that atonement actually works or affects each of us, is open to discussion.  So it is with most doctrine, we have basic statements of faith, and then we seek to expand our understanding of it by “study and by faith” (D&C 88:118).

Adam dedicates two chapters specifically to Grace. In chapter 7, he reflects on President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s April 2015 talk, “The Gift of Grace”.  For me, this General Conference talk was a seminal discussion on grace, as previously much Church teaching on grace was more of a knee-jerk reaction against the cheap grace taught by some Christians, and so led the Church to emphasize obedience to the point of diminishing grace.  I personally know of Institute instructors teaching that we earned our own salvation through our works, with Christ just filling in the gaps.  For President Uchtdorf to state that we are saved by grace through Christ, not by our own works, was a great day for students of the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

Upon hearing the talk, I was anxious to know Adam’s thoughts on it. He surprised me by saying it was a good start, but was not a complete description of what grace is.  In this chapter, he explains that President Uchtdorf gave an excellent Special Theory of Grace, one focused on how grace works to save us from sin. However, as Adam teaches us in chapter one with his own “A General Theory of Grace,” he rightly expands our understanding that grace is not an afterthought to sin. Instead, grace is tied to Creation, Fall and Atonement. Grace equals creation and is eternal and ongoing with creation, and so it is omnipresent. Adam tells us that sin is a negative response to the grace God offers us, wherein we decide we do not want the type of grace being offered, and so seek to replace it with something else. Adam connects the dots between Creation, Fall, Atonement, faith, love, grace and works.

Moving to another important theme that Mormons should and must ponder upon in order to expand faith and understanding of God’s gospel, in chapter 2 “Burnt Offerings,” Adam focuses on Lehi’s two visions in 1 Nephi 1. For me, it is a sad witness that most LDS focus on the first verse, where Nephi says he has nice parents, then skip the rest of the chapter, for in it we see some very important concepts regarding Lehi’s mission and his entering into the presence of God. He describes the few instances in scripture where prophets have experienced something similar to Lehi’s seeing a rock/altar that God sets ablaze. While it is easy to assume that Lehi had long been a prophet, Adam shows how this was the beginning of his  prophetic call.  He notes that Lehi was disturbed by his first vision, but when in the second vision reading the book that prophesied of Jerusalem’s demise, Lehi rejoiced in the Lord. We learn that God’s grace was upon Lehi, but did not save Jerusalem from destruction, rather saved Lehi through his trials. It is through our trials that God also saves us.

In several of the chapters, Adam shares his thoughts on important books he has read. These include Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God That Weeps. While one may or may not agree with his points of disagreement, they provide incentive for two things: first a desire to read the books he reviews, and also to review one’s own views on such topics.

Adam challenges us with other concepts as well for the development of Mormon theology of the future. While most of us consider truth as a group of facts that are static, he asks us to see truth as fluid and ever growing, inviting us to keep an open mind to new facts that can add to truth, regardless of where those facts come from. He also deconstructs Platonic Christianity’s God, changing him from an immutable King to the servant of all.  These are just a few concepts among several upon which Adam goes into greater detail.

While there are a couple of chapters that seemed to go very deep into technical details, which would probably lose the average LDS reader, most of the chapters are at a level for most LDS students to access with a little mental reaching.  This is a foundational book for the current and upcoming generations. Your testimony will be richer, your love of the Book of Mormon will be deeper, your ability to deal with living in this world will have greater meaning (especially when you read his concepts on meaning in the world), and your gratitude for the Creation, Fall and Atonement will be enhanced. Having read many of Adam’s previous books (reviews for 3 of them are here at Millennial Star – 1, 2, 3), and having previously discussed online with him some of his ideas, I have had much to ponder on over the last few years on the theme of Grace, alone. His ideas on grace have transformed me and my faith. This book offers me much more to ponder, and will have me reading scripture, especially the Book of Mormon, with new eyes.

His chapters will make you think and think again, and perhaps reconsider some closely held beliefs about important themes in LDS teaching. This is not your grandfather’s Mormon Doctrine. This is the future of Mormon theology, and Adam establishes a strong and powerful foundation upon which we can develop a richer and greater LDS doctrinal base.

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Adam S. Miller’s Future Mormon

  1. I suggest the reason most people focus on the first verse of First Nephi is that that is the first they are pretty sure most everybody’s actually read.

  2. Meg, that is true. However, it becomes an issue when the very important teachings in the rest of the chapter are ignored or bypassed, because they found a gem in verse one. It would be like skipping the Sermon on the Mount, because we’ve already read about the wise men visiting the child Jesus…

  3. Without having read the book, I’m a little hesitant to comment. But I would like to share a thought I’ve had about one subject you addressed, where you said: “While most of us consider truth as a group of facts that are static, he asks us to see truth as fluid and ever growing, inviting us to keep an open mind to new facts that can add to truth, regardless of where those facts come from.”

    I believe truth is, in fact, static, unchanging. However, our human representations of truth (in language, as well as in our minds) are probably so imperfect, that we can be constantly learning the truth–and there will still be more to learn, until we are brought to perfection. I believe that is one of the reasons we should be 1) humble, 2) thankful, and 3) tolerant of others. That is also why the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is so necessary–lest we become Pharisaically dependent on rigid rules and practices.

  4. I must admit that I find your description of Mr. Miller’s book as “foundational” a bit troubling. I guess it depends a bit on what you are going to build on that foundation provided by Mr. Miller. Your next sentence states that this book will have the following effects:

    “Your testimony will be richer, your love of the Book of Mormon will be deeper, your ability to deal with living in this world will have greater meaning (especially when you read his concepts on meaning in the world), and your gratitude for the Creation, Fall and Atonement will be enhanced.”

    That is certainly lofty praise. It may just be my own natural distrust of LDS folks who label themselves theologians or of those who are permabloggers at BCC, but we have better foundations upon which to build. They may not include the promise of uncoupling “LDS theology from its current moorings to future development and evolution.” Frankly, they don’t give much hope to those who see a need or desire to see the teachings of the Church to evolve or develop in an increasingly modern world.

    You conclude by observing that “[t]his is the future of Mormon theology, and Adam establishes a strong and powerful foundation upon which we can develop a richer and greater LDS doctrinal base.” This observation reminds me of a lesson learned from the building of the Salt Lake Temple. You will recall that after the invasion of Johnston’s Army, it was discovered that the original foundation was insufficient to support the temple the Lord had commanded the Church to build. While it seemed sufficient during the early days of the construction, after it had been buried for some time it had deteriorated, and could not have served its intended purpose. The entire foundation was necessarily torn up and replaced with more durable materials at considerable expense and wasted effort. Do you recall what the original foundation was made of? Sandstone.

    I will admit the Mr. Miller has a way with words and ideas, but if we don’t build upon the rock the Lord has provided then we are building upon sand, regardless of how rock like that sand may appear at the time.

  5. You’ve misread my post. I was stating that Adam’s book is a good foundation, not as Christ is our corner stone and prophets and apostles are the foundation of the Church, but as a beginning point for a higher understanding of certain teachings related to the gospel.
    For example, the term “Grace” has evolved greatly in the 40 years I’ve been a member. This is true even among GAs. Elder McConkie’s definition was very different from the definition recently given it by Pres Uchtdorf in General Conference (as I note in my post). Adam proposes further consideration on what grace means, not disagreeing with the prophets, but by helping us see additional concepts (tying it to Creation, Fall and Atonement – all important issues).

    In reading the book, you may or may not agree with all he writes. I’m still pondering on some of his disagreements with Terryl Givens’ The God That Weeps. That said, I do not have to agree with all things to find the great pearls in the book.

    As it is, Elder Christofferson actually quoted one of Adam’s books in the Ensign.

    https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/ces-devotionals/2014/01/saving-your-life?lang=eng

    (see footnote 7).

    Clearly, at least one apostle thinks Adam’s writings are worth reading (and quoting). Calling Adam a “thoughtful professor” seems like a glowing endorsement to me. BTW, you can find my review of “Letters to a Young Mormon” here at Millennial Star, as well.

  6. C.S. Lewis gets quoted by a lot of general authorities as well, and actually by name in the text of their talks, but no one should take that as an endorsement of the sum of his work. Plus, I’ve known many people who I would concurrently describe as thoughtful and mistaken. Most of my professors in law school would fall into that category.

    I may be an overly simple guy, but I don’t have foundations that extend beyond the scriptures and the prophets and apostles. Those are the beginning points of my understanding of everything in the gospel. I will concede that there is some value from commentators on the fringes, occasionally, but if one’s understanding of “grace” (to pick a topic out of the air) is grounded and based on Mr. Miller’s exposition on the topic, if the scriptures and apostles only provide “a good start,” and Mr. Miller does the heavy lifting of telling us the rest of it, then that understanding is only so good as the accuracy and reliability of Mr. Miller. I would rather not put my trust there and would warn others not to do so either.

  7. You are reading way too much into these things. The fact that Elder Christofferson trusts his writings enough to read and quote from them should let you know they are safe to read and consider.
    No one is equating Adam’s book with the scriptures, except for you in a trollish attempt to speak on something you have not read. I feel like I’m discussing the Book of Mormon’s teachings with an anti, who has never even opened up the BoM, yet insists he knows what he is talking about.
    Joseph Smith said we cannot be saved in ignorance. Yet, you speak from an ignorant stand point, regarding this book. Do you read LDS books from non-GAs? Perhaps John Bytheway, Wilcox, or perhaps Hugh Nibley or FARMS? Some of them are also quoted by GAs. That Elder Christofferson calls Adam a “trusted professor” tells me that he is okay to read and consider. Your attacks are just like those I’ve seen while working with FAIR and other pro-LDS groups, from antis who speak out of ignorance and emotion.

    Adam’s books, for me, are like Hugh Nibley’s books. They do not replace scripture nor prophetic teachings. However, they do allow me to understand scripture and prophetic teaching on a new level. I can appreciate the story of Nephi’s swearing an oath to Zoram more, because Nibley taught that for the ancient Middle East, swearing by God’s name or one’s own name meant you could not lie – so Nephi and Zoram did not have to fear one another. The Book of Mormon remains the same scripture, but my understanding of it is enhanced.
    Perhaps you would do well to first read some of Adam’s work, before judging him and those works – regardless of whether you end up agreeing with them or not. It may be that you would then understand how powerful of an impact his writings can be.
    Adam’s teachings on grace, for instance, have increased my love and faith in God and Christ. I know I cannot save myself by keeping commandments, as King Benjamin explained. Now, with a better understanding of how grace really works, I can have joy in being saved AND keep commandments as part of that joy, knowing they are an outward expression of my inner testimony of God’s grace (just like baptism is).
    Now, further discussion will be encouraged in conjunction with discussing the topics in the post. Any further attacks on the post or Adam, written out of ignorance, will be deleted.

  8. Ram, to be clear, I haven’t attacked Adam or said anything about him or his books, other than to say he had a way with words and ideas. Rather, my comments were directed to your review of his book, which I have read more than once, and my comments are direcrly resppndimg to your original post. You seem to think I have misread you, but it isn’t out of not having read you. I quoted you extensively.

    You have, however, put words in my mouth. I have not said that he is not safe to read, just that anyone who bases their understanding of the gospel on his books, or any other noncanonical sources, is not standing on as firm a foundation as possible. This is such a basic idea in the Church as to be noncontroversial most of the time.

    I took issue with your strong praise of the book, calling it foundational. I don’t have to read Mr. Miller’s book to opine on whether any noncanonical books should be considered foundational in questions of LDS doctrine. That opinion doesn’t require a knowledge of the contents of Mr. Miller’s book, just a knowledge of the simple fact that we are not talking about scripture or the words of the prophets.

    But, I am glad to hear that you don’t place Mr. Miller’s books in the same category as the scriptures and the words of the prophets. I think there are inconsistencies in your original post and your last comment on this topic, as I read your words, but it is what it is.

    P.s. I have read a great deal of Mr. Miller’s writings, and find him to be good on some topics, damnably wrong on others and a bit pretentious for my tastes overall, but that wasn’t the point of my other comments.

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