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.