Ask the Scholar: Adam S. Miller on grace, faith, theology, boredom, and other matters

05.20.2013 | Blair Hodges

Last week I requested questions for philosopher and Mormon theologian Adam S. Miller. In this post, Miller responds to queries about free will, the practice of Mormon theology, grace, the nature of faith, and other topics. Thanks to all those who submitted questions.  –BHodges


John Crawford asks: Why do you feel like you can get away with saying, as you recently did, “Last week I published something in a prominent series at a first-rate university press. It is, I think, the most rigorous, speculative, and systematic attempt at a professional take on Mormon philosophy, ever”? Do you think that there are other works of Mormon philosophy or theology that compete with yours for the title?

Adam Miller: Good question. There are a couple factors to consider here. First, I mean this claim about Speculative Grace as a provocation. I mean to invite others to read it and disagree.

But, second, the claim is specific enough that it doesn’t really risk much. Some, like Terryl Givens and Samuel Brown, have published work at first-rate university presses that explore the cultural and historical force of Mormon ideas, but I don’t think we (or they) would describe that work as explicitly philosophical (especially in a systematic and speculative mode). Others, like Blake Ostler, have published speculative work in Mormon philosophy but not with major university presses. While earlier work, like B.H. Roberts’s The Truth, the Way, the Life, is incisive and comprehensive but not the work of a professional philosopher working in a specific academic field.

So I intended the claim as a kind of dare. And then I threw in a lot of caveats to cover my retreat.

Richard Livingston asks: What does Adam S. Miller mean when he says the word “God” (in as direct, concrete, and plain language as he can bring himself to use)?

Adam Miller: It’s true that the word “God” doesn’t figure prominently in my work. Generally, I’m concerned with the theme of “grace” and the kinds of local, immanent forms that such graces take. That decision to focus on grace rather than God is, for me, both practical and personal.

It’s a practical decision in that, philosophically, I generally aim for a methodological modesty. God, apart from the local, indirect manifestations of his grace, feels like too big a topic for me to address in a concrete and defensible way. And this move is also a function, I think, of the degree to which my philosophical and theological work tends to be phenomenological.

But on the other hand, my decision to generally talk about grace rather than God is a very personal one. I want to save room for God. Especially if we take for granted the Mormon claim that God is an actual person with hands and feet, fingers and toes and that nothing can substitute for his person. I want to take that claim very seriously. And part of taking that claim very seriously is admitting that I’ve never met that person.

If I want to speak in my own name about the basic stuff of my religious experience, then I can talk about grace, love, spirit, service, agency, mercy, justice, family, etc. These things saturate my life. But I can’t talk about God, the person. God, as a person, is decidedly absent and that absence is a real and decisive.

I want to respect that absence, the shape that it takes, and the local graces that get foregrounded as a result.

Jake Jacobsen asks: Three of my sons have adopted atheistic determinism as their world view. What do you consider the best argument for free will?

Adam Miller: Arguments for the existence of free will are no philosophical speciality of mine and others who focus on the problem will likely have better answers.

Speaking personally, I don’t know of any really good arguments for the existence of free will. I generally find philosophical arguments against a robust notion of free will to be more convincing. But it’s also true that these arguments have never convinced me to stop living and acting as if I had agency. So there is that. And I expect that’s probably true for your sons as well.

On the whole, though, I think there’s room in Mormonism for atheistic determinists. They’re as welcome in our pews as anyone else. They’re certainly welcome to sit with me.

John Crawford asks: Adam, I’m interested in your thoughts on the origin of faith. It seems like you argue in places that it isn’t dependent on human choice. People are called to believe. If that is the case, is that different from, say, a Calvinist understanding of election?

Adam Miller: I want to make a distinction between faith as an ethical decision to practice fidelity to the grace and obligations that are given to me and belief as a cognitive judgment about what’s likely to be true. Faith and belief are related but distinguishable things.

As a cognitive judgment, the force of a belief lies in the fact that I don’t get to choose it. Truthfulness is imposed and its impact as a truth depends on the non-volitional character of this imposition. Sometimes a situation is ambiguous enough that we may get to “choose” what we’ll believe about something, but I think those kinds of circumstances are relatively rare. (I talk some about this here in reference to Fiona and Terryl Givens’s new book, The God Who Weeps.)

But my choice to be faithful to and have trust in the graces and obligations that shape me is an ethical decision. That part is up to me and the force of this faithfulness depends on its being a choice.

We could imagine a scenario, as in the previous question, where, as a cognitive judgment, an atheistic determinist involuntarily finds the existence of God to be radically implausible but then decides to be faithful to their covenants nonetheless. And we could as easily imagine a scenario in which someone involuntarily finds the existence of God to be an inarguable feature of their world but then decides that they are not going to be faithful to their covenants.

In one case, we have someone who doesn’t believe, but is faithful. In the other case, we have someone who isn’t faithful, but believes.

Shawn Tucker asks: Here’s [a] question that an LDS youth recently asked me: If the church is true, how is it that so many of my friends live without it and outside of its strictures but still seem about as happy as I am—doesn’t that at least tacitly refute such truth claims?

Adam Miller: There are a lot of assumptions at work in that question. It assumes, for one, a straightforward correspondence between truth and goodness, goodness and happiness, and truth and happiness. Those are common assumptions but not ones that, I think, we can take for granted. I won’t try to untangle (or tangle) them right now, but I think that their relationship is complex.

More important, though, there’s the assumption that the kind of truth most pivotally at stake in the gospel is proprietary and I don’t think that’s true. The gospel is not a proprietary system. It’s open sourced and many of the ideas and practices that are most decisive in living a joyful life are shared broadly across the world’s traditions and cultures. And I don’t think that’s an accident. We say: bring all the good you have (which is likely a lot) and see if we can’t add anything more.

Morgan Davis asks: Adam, I’ve just read Speculative Grace and find it really provoking. One of the most compelling yet challenging ideas in Speculative Grace is that religion is the line of view by which we see more clearly the grace that is present in the mundane and the usual. It achieves this not with symbols, but with what you call “religious instruments.” Can you give an example or two from Mormonism of religious instruments and how they function to manifest the grace that is so close to us that we have a hard time seeing it?

Adam Miller: The notion of religious “instruments” is important to what I’m after in this book. By reframing what goes on at church in terms of “instruments” I mean to recuperate a really active, pragmatic understanding of our symbols, scriptures, ordinances, etc. Rather than viewing these things as answers, end points, or supernatural magic we should see them as pragmatic starting points, as places from which we can begin, or as instruments with which we could do something.

Take baptism as a religious instrument. What does baptism do? What relationships does it enable? Where does it allow you to go? What can you see by way of it that you couldn’t see before? Taking an instrumental approach, the ordinary, practical dimensions of the ritual take center stage.

Ask: what is this instrument doing right now, right here, and in plain sight? Don’t automatically project the religious object’s efficacy into another world or the next life.

Mike Berkey asks: Adam, in the past you’ve spoken of our church meetings as opportunities to “intentionally undergo boredom” as a practice of surrendering the will. Can you illustrate what intentionally undergoing boredom might look like? For example, during sacrament meeting I might read the scriptures, get absorbed in thoughts about something a speaker said 20 minutes ago, think really macabre thoughts about the atonement, stare meaningfully at the wood grains of the pew in front of me, or spend the whole time playing with kids. Or do all of these practices just amount to diversion?

Adam Miller: Boredom, as a religious phenomenon, plays an important part in the book I’m working on right now (tentatively titled The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace). I think that boredom is a very common (and potentially productive) religious experience. If we did a Family Feud style national survey asking people to name an adjective they most associate with church, I bet “boring” would be the number one answer. And I don’t think the results would be much different if we narrowed the range to just Mormons.

If you’re already someone who is naturally interested in and concerned about other people and things, then boredom may not be that helpful for you. (In fact, in that case, it’s likely not a common experience for you). But if you’re default setting is like mine (and, I think, like most us), then when you say you find something “interesting” what you really mean is that you’ve found something that it is “interesting to you.” That implied “to me” marks how our interests are mostly self-centered.

Why is boredom potentially important then? It has some religious significance because we get bored when interest fails. Boredom is the floundering of interest. In this sense, things at church may only just be finally kicking into gear when I start to feel bored. Boredom is a sign that church is working. Boredom is an invitation to step outside the limit of what interests me and to instead continue practicing interest and attention to people and things that aren’t about me.

Boredom is a kind of ascesis, like fasting, that’s initially uncomfortable but that can free us from selfishness and train us to pay attention to what other people are needing, doing, and saying. Boredom is the door through which love passes beyond self-interest.

Boredom is not the only thing that happens at church but it’s one potentially powerful thing that might happen. When you notice yourself getting bored, don’t automatically run away or look for a diversion. Sit with it, see what boredom feels like, and see if something other than your self-interest can hold your interest.

John Crawford asks: It seems like, on occasion, you argue that theology can only be done in Mormonism if it isn’t taken seriously. But on other occasions, you seem to argue that it is deadly serious work that should not be undertaken lightly. How do you resolve this tension?

Adam Miller: I think the key is to not resolve this tension. Let the tension hold. I think we need to simultaneously take very seriously our responsibility to think very hard and very long about the gospel while also never taking too seriously the things that we then happen to have thought.

But there is also the question of what we mean by “theology” when we use the word. If we mean a general obligation to think about God and the gospel, that’s one thing. But if we mean the kind of philosophically informed and methodologically cultivated reflection performed by professional academics, that’s another thing.

As a general rule, I think the first kind of theology is much more important than the second. But also, as a general rule, we need to be very aware in either case of how easy (and perhaps inevitable) it is to turn our theological ideas into false idols. When that happens, theology becomes just another way to sin.

John Crawford asks: On occasion, your writings have been kindly described as obscure. How do you justify writing about Mormonism in ways that, seemingly, isn’t meant to be understood by the majority of Mormons?

Adam Miller: I think there are different kinds of obscurity in my work. Sometimes what people mean is that my writing is obscure for them because they’re not familiar with the philosophical background some of my work depends on. These is especially true with the essays written in a technical vein for other professional philosophers. This is the kind of obscurity that the philosophical layman is likely to notice first.

But sometimes what people mean is that my writing is obscure for them because, as professional philosophers, they find my work too elusive and “poetic.” This is especially true of the personal essays that are not written in a technical vein for other professional philosophers.

In both cases, its a question of audience. Different things are written in different styles for different audiences at different times.

I suppose I’m generally doubtful that there is such a thing as “the majority of Mormons.” Some things will resonate with some audiences but not with others. That’s fine. Not everything is for everyone.

Rube Goldberg Machines, for instance, can be a frustrating book on one level just because it’s such an eclectic grab bag of essays written for a lot of different audiences and in a variety of styles. That’s just the kind of thing it is. And I think that’s okay. I’m not looking to provide the one answer for all people for all time. I’m just taking a stab at saying one thing, from one perspective, for one audience. If some people find some of it helpful, great.

Though, to be honest, even that modest goal is often more than I can manage because there is also always that third kind of obscurity lurking in my work. And that kind of obscurity just results from my writing or thinking poorly!