Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Theology is full of ingenious, even dazzling formulations, and of lovely, often bracing and sometimes startling insights. Beyond these particulars, of which I intend to offer a sampling here (however modest and inevitably somewhat arbitrary), Miller invites the reader to consider the question just what theology is, and what its purpose is or might might be, especially for Latter-day Saints (generally considered, for good reason, a notably non-, if not anti-theological people).
It is worthwhile to note at the outset that Adam Miller is a founder of Salt Press, which has recently merged with the newly reconfigured Maxwell Institute at BYU. Along with Joseph Spencer (another Salt Press founder and participant in this symposium), he will edit a book series for the Institute. In light of these important developments in LDS intellectual life, this symposium on Miller's theology takes on additional importance, and provides a perhaps critical opportunity to examine and discuss an approach that bids fair decisively to influence the assumptions of intellectually ambitious Latter-day Saints.
RGT will likely not reach a wide audience, and is probably not intended for one. It operates at a different level and in a different idiom from more popular religious writings, and though it does well not to indulge needlessly in much technical or arcane theological or philosophical vocabulary, it does reflect the influence of a broadly post-Heideggerian philosophical sensibility that may leave uninitiated readers scratching their heads. (There is some explicit mention in a few essays of contemporary continental authors such Jean-Luc Marion, Walter Benjamin, and Alain Badiou.)
To say Miller’s book is unlikely directly to reach a wide audience is not, however, to say that it will not be influential. Indeed, it is already very highly regarded among an alert and thoughtful cluster of LDS thinkers (especially younger ones), including those represented in this symposium, and this high regard bodes well for the long-term and indirect impact of this book and of Adam Miller’s thought more generally.
This is not at all to say that the not-so-young (which would include myself) have been untouched. In the first sentence of the book, the eminent Richard Bushman, not generally given to extravagant expressions, praises Miller as “the most original and provocative of Latter-day Saint theologians practicing today.” Further on he states that the book is “beautiful as well as funny,” which is not to say that the author aims mainly at amusement. For, as Bushman accurately observes, Miller “is discontented with the piety we have achieved and points insistently towards something higher and better.”
It is difficult, though, to be funny and discontented at the same time. Bushman regards Miller as “the moralist and pastor, without being preachy.” But it is unclear that an author can “tell us there is more to life than we think” (Bushman again, on Miller) without claiming to see more clearly the meaning of life than we do. Miller’s ingenious and whimsical likening of his non-assertive, humble or “gratuitous” theology to a “comically circuitous Rube Goldberg Machine,” a simile that he develops and exploits brilliantly, even pyro-technically, and at some length, in his Introduction, seems hard to square with the work’s obvious moral-religious earnestness and its “pastoral” quality (as noted by Bushman), however non-“preachy” the style may be in the conventional sense. It is also hard to square with Miller’s own very earnest praise of “the theologian,” who is there praised as “indispensable,” despite, or, rather, I suppose, because of her “nothingness.” “She is the reason for the other reasons (and, as such, she embodies that place where the rational and the absurd touch). She is God’s work and glory.” (157; Ch. 1, Benedictus)
A “Rube Goldberg machine” intentionally resists summary, or even straightforward characterization – but a reviewer must try, if only because some readers may need help grasping the point of the (certainly unconventional) preaching. The point of the Goldberg simile is to disavow any synoptic or systematic ambition, as well as any pretension to completeness or to finality. “Mine is not the one true Rube Goldberg Machine, but I hope there is enough gratuity in [these essays’] artifice to make them worth your trouble.” Much depends in this lovely formulation on the link between “gratuity” in the sense that would apply to a RGM (functionally superfluous, arbitrary, even, finally, pointless, at least as far as any assignable purpose is concerned) and grace in the theological sense. Miller helps us to hear the overlap between these meanings: “Theology is gratuitous because theology is a grace, and grace, by definition, is unearned, unwarranted, unnecessary, unconditional, gratuitous.” Theology, according to Miller, has no purpose in the usual sense, because it’s only purpose is a gratuitous purpose, namely the chief Christian virtue or good, charity. “Charity is a willingness to have our lives made difficult by people we did not have to help, objects we did not have to save, thoughts we did not have to think.” RGT is a collection of “thoughts we did not have to think,” and in that sense is avowedly gratuitous and would be self-deprecating: “Mine is not the one true Rube Goldberg Machine.”
And yet Miller’s is a RGM that earnestly holds out the promise that, in the end, when “all the levers are pulled, all the buttons are pushed, and all the switches are switched, it is a small, hard, round, red, shiny ball of charity that rolls out of the machine…” (132) No metaphor could be more arresting, even oddly endearing than this little red ball of charity; but still it is not clear what the gratuity of an ingeniously superfluous device has to do with the pure love of Christ. What they have in common seems, so far (and at this point we are only commenting the Introduction), purely negative: the renunciation of ordinary human interests and of the functionality that serves them. Both RBMs and Grace are pointless from the standpoint of the “natural man” and thus unconditioned by corrupt human purposes. This is the basis, it seems, of the plausibility of Miller’s brilliant and ingenious metaphor. But we shall have to ask whether this negative consonance between what is gratuitous and what is grace-full is adequate to sustain Adam Miller’s ambitiously humble project.
Despite Miller’s sometimes playful self-presentation, he does have a purpose and even a teaching, if not a doctrine. We will not accuse him of having a system, much less a complete system, especially since he presents us, not with a unified treatise, but with a collection of essays. Still, there is a very distinct set of concerns and a distinct voice that resonates throughout these essays (the earliest of which appear to date from about 2006). Here I will attempt to tease out some of these recurrent themes and to show that, despite the author’s gratuitous intention, these essays are indeed parts of a more or less intelligible whole, that they tend in fact to trace the outlines of a kind of system that ought to be appreciated and scrutinized.
Chapter 2, “Notes on Life, Grace and Atonement,” is a good place to start. This is at once one of the more ambitious and (intentionally, to be sure) more manifestly incomplete of Miller’s statement. It is therefore as much poetry as it is theology, and the poetry is often richly suggestive and lovely. But this is, after all, and despite the Goldbergian protestations, poetry that aims at theology, at some articulation, however provisional and incomplete, of the whole, at some “big picture” of what it all means.
The powerful central thought of this poetic-theological essay is the underlying unity of the themes Atonement, Resurrection, and Family. “Christ’s atonement: that which catalyzes the life of the body (resurrection), the life of the soul (repentance), and the life of the family (gathering).” (186) This triad of concerns as indeed as deeply Mormon as can be (although the omission of the theme of agency may be significant), and Miller contributes to an important reflection on just how they belong together. Miller’s key to gathering them together into a whole is, as we might expect, the idea of grace or gratuity, and the understanding of “life” he associates with this gratuitous grace:
Discussions of atonement should begin with and lead back to life. Not life in the abstract, but life as it is lived in the everyday. Life with its damp, earthy smell, its messy embeddedness, its sticky embodiment. Life with all of its breathing, sleeping, speaking, eating, defecating, building, feeling, figuring, copulating, and gesturing. (189)Some readers may judge that Miller’s evocation of all this “sticky embodiment” is a case of his extravagant verbal gifts carrying him away a bit, but certainly this appeal to “life” as in concrete material existence rings true for us Latter-day Saints. Still, it is natural to ask (whether it is good or faithful to ask is, to be sure, a further question) whether all this messy, sticky dampness must not draw meaning from some “higher” principle or purpose. But to ask such a question is, from Miller’s point of view, a critical misstep towards “life in the abstract” that immediately removes us from the sheer “givenness” of “life as it is lived in the everyday.” Echoing Edmund Husserl’s project of a “phenomenology” that would pierce through the sedimentation of philosophical and scientific abstraction inherited from our intellectual traditions and return our attention to “the things themselves,” a project reformulated with distinctive religious accents by Emmanual Levinas (Jewish) and Jean-Luc Marion (Catholic), Miller invites us to “practice a kind of focused attention that we don’t generally employ” in order to “attend to the immediacy of life with a kind of awareness that we rarely bring to bear.” As in Husserl’s project, to achieve this special kind of attention requires a radical suspension or bracketing of our ordinary, everyday concern for outcomes or ends or purposes. Like Husserl, Miller thus doubles down on the modern rejection (a rejection as least as old as Descartes) of classical (Plato, Aristotle) and high-medieval (Thomas Aquinas) teleology, that is, of all modes of philosophizing oriented towards a “higher purpose.” Purpose-driven thinking, Miller argues, is fundamentally mythological and “sequential,” and is thus “biased in favor of works in a way that obscures grace.”
Thus Miller’s project (as well as Levinas’s and Marion’s) seems to me (although I know Adam disagrees with this characterization) to carry on and indeed to re-radicalize the legacy of a venerable tradition of Christian thought that attempts to liberate faith and grace from any association with nature and “works,” a tradition founded, arguably, by Augustine and radicalized by Reformers such as Luther and especially Calvin and by their Catholic respondents such as Pascal and his Jansenist associates. As with others in this tradition, Miller holds that an faithful embrace of grace requires a rigorous abandonment or perhaps rather bracketing of all perceptions and conceptions driven by natural human desires and purposes, which are inevitably oriented towards “what is not given,” that is, what is aimed at and desired. A gratuitous philosophy must “uncouple work from its outcomes and consider it non-sequentially.” This uncoupling moves us from an approach to life dominated by choices between good and evil to one in which the choice, or rather, the alternative, is between “life” and “death”:
Good and evil are the root values of a mythological, works-based, sequential approach. Life and death are the root values of a non-sequential approach. (364) … If good and evil are foregrounded (however legitimately) and used as a screen for sifting and judging the givenness of life, then we will have neither life nor good nor evil, but only death. Only a fearless and faithful submission to the givenness of the present moment in its entirety opens the way to a world in which goodness can live. (367)Concern for what is “good” in “sequential,” purpose-driven thinking, according to Miller, channels experience into a mythological narrative structured by concepts of past/ present / future, whereas his non-sequential theology would return us firmly, resolutely to “the present moment,” for “life is forever and always and only given in the present.” (This move seems to represent a notable reversal of Heidegger’s resolutely temporal reading of human existence. But the “present” to which Miller returns is not, of course, the intelligible eternity of the Hellenistic-Christian tradition, but rather the sticky materiality of an alleged actual experience.)
Miller’s move from a “sequential” to a “non-sequential” mode of thought is based upon a still more fundamental distinction (inspired, surely, by the work of Jean-Luc Marion) between “what is given” and “givenness” itself. “[E]veryday language … tends to fail because [it] focuses our attention on the what of whatever is given rather than on its givenness.” We must, Miller urges, address ourselves “to the givenness of life “and not just to what is given.” This access to “the immediacy of life” is thus by no means natural and ordinary; it in fact requires a radical break with ordinary life and, one could say, a radical transcendence of ordinary human experience in all its sinful purposiveness, its relentlessly sequential character. It might seem, then, that the purposive abstractness of our common “life” can only be overcome by a more radical and resolute abstraction of life’s “givenness” from the ordinary, purposive or sequential context that tends to foreground the particular, even concrete goodness of what is given. But I would argue that a certain “abstraction” is inherent in ordinary life, and this “natural” abstraction in fact accounts for the continuity between life and philosophy. This is the abstraction inherent in deliberate human action or moral agency: to act is to try to bring about some good, to make present or effective some good that is not yet actual. This is a lesson, by the way, that has often been repeated (but not often enough appreciated) in the history of philosophy: nothing is so abstract as the will to negate abstraction. Miller’s abstraction of “givenness” from what is given produces an abstract conception of life that makes it hard to distinguish human from other (“lower”?) forms of life: “Here, to be alive, to give and receive, is to be in an open relation of interdependence with the world for food, air, words, materials, sensations, and companionship.” (201) Note that, in this conception, all purposive hierarchy is abolished or somehow bracketed in favor of an “interdependence” without the highs and lows that are the correlates of choice and agency.
This emphasis on non-hierarchical interdependence is further developed in Miller’s ch. 4, under the very Derridean title, “Overwritten Written Elsewhere: Names, Books and Souls in St. John’s Apocalypse.” Much of this chapter is a quite venturesome and stimulating commentary on D & C 88:15: “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” “A soul,” Miller writes, “is a conjunction whose existence depends on the ‘and’ that joins ‘the spirit and the body.’” (891) This emphasis on the “and,” on the “conjunction” is intended as an alternative to the idea of “a free-standing, self-enclosed spirit” which “would be a contradiction in terms.” (960)
Spirit, like body, is dependent on and traversed by the ideas and feelings that compose it, ideas and feelings that, like our cells, are born, reproduce, arise, and pass away. (960) … Think of spirit, at any given moment, as a single narrow point of passage where thousands upon thousands of independent but converging lines of thought, habit, and desire intersect before they are spun off along new vectors of distribution in my own life and in the lives of my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. (972)Miller’s emphasis on interdependence, and especially on the way our life’s meaning depends upon our participation in “eternal lives,” a “tree of lives” in which our names, our very identities have meaning only in being distributed through a myriad of ramifications, is a lovely articulation of a deeply Mormon insight. But again I wonder whether the author does not go too far in suppressing, I would not say the autonomy, but rather the responsibility of the moral agent, who must see him- or herself in some way as “free-standing” and as purposive in order to take responsibility for action. With this problem in mind, we might do well to ponder the unity of spirit and body and the pre-reflective interdependence of our cells and our generations in relation to the primacy of vision and intelligence, which is another great theme of D & C 88: “And If your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light… and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.” We souls or spirit-bodies are indeed embedded in complex webs of meaning not subject to our own mastery, but we are also distinctively intelligent beings responsible for choosing and comprehending.
Returning to Adam Miller’s “Notes on Life, Grace and Atonement,” we should note that the author cites and discusses scriptures to illustrate his theses, although he wisely does not pretend to scriptural proof. Unsurprisingly, he takes some cues from the Sermon on the Mount: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” Now, this is a challenging saying, and I would not want to make it an easy one. But I note that Mormons have ordinarily understood this to mean, not that we should eschew all purposiveness, but that we should be guided by a higher and more ultimate purpose. Typical is this modest commentary by Harold B. Lee (October 1970 General Conference): “Do all that you can do and leave the rest to God, the Father of us all. It is not enough to say I will do my best, but rather, I will do everything which is within my power; I will do all that is necessary.” And it does seem to make sense to understand this radical injunction to “take no thought” in the light of the purposive priorities that is explicitly stated a few verses later: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” The promise of “all these things” would be contrary to the meaning of “taking no thought,” it seems, if this were understood as the absolute renunciation of purposiveness. (I leave aside another factor that might be taken into account in interpreting this injunction to “take no thought,” namely, the fact that, in the Book of Mormon text, this injunction seems to be addressed to the twelve disciples in particular, and not to the saints in general. 3 Ne 13:25)
Similarly, Miller cites Matthew 7:1, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” as evidence in favor of his suspension of judgments of good and evil in favor of “the absolute givenness of the present moment.” (372) I will just say that this seems a very wide application of the warning against judgment. And this application requires Miller to reduce all judgment of good and evil to mere “preference”: “The screen of preference inserts into the present moment a self-escalating feedback loop of craving and repulsion.” (433) All purpose-driven choice thus appears as pathological. “Grace, in its prodigality, is relentlessly and single-mindedly concerned with just one thing: the givenness of whatever is given, regardless of how such things may or may not comport with my preferences.”( 342) Miller thus invites us to “lay down the burden of judgment and preference. Lay aside your defensive goals, projects, and explanations. Stand in the fire of the present moment.” (491) All choices and purposive decisions thus seem reducible to “defensive goals, projects, and explanations.” There is no good that can serve as a standard by which to judge our “preferences.” Despite Miller’s stated intention to point us back to “life as it is lived in the everyday,” this debunking of moral judgment seems to me very remote indeed from the real, concrete experience of human existence, with its inevitably moral dimension.
I do, however, see the pertinence of Miller’s renunciation of “judgment” and deliberate purposiveness in his discussion of the familial dimension of “Atonement.” There is wisdom in accepting the givenness of our origins within a family, an ancestral web, an often gravely flawed situation that no one (as far as we know) can be said to have chosen. “To embrace one’s dependent origination: to willingly suffer the grace of life as something that we cannot master or repay.” (460) It is certain that “liberation from the bonds of sin cannot be disentangled from the work of sorting out our family relationships” (471), and that “reconciliation with one’s family [is] an absolutely integral element of any and all salvation from one’s own sinfulness.” (475) Thus we can see how, for Adam Miller, Atonement embraces Resurrection and Family. “Atonement” is “a name for how the resurrection of my body, my reunion with the grace of God, and the sealing of my family all coincide as one in the absolute givenness of this present moment.” (512) Still, it seems that here the accent is heavily on the remedial aspect of atonement, on reconciliation as a healing from dysfunction, from “these tangled and co-dependent knots of familial fears and desires [that] we use to screen and judge our experience of the world.” (447) It is only in a quotation from Parley P. Pratt that Miller draws our attention to the positive goods for which atonement liberates us. “Spirit,” Pratt writes,
inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity. It develops beauty of person, form and features. It tends to health, vigour, animation and social feeling. It develops and invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. (501)This is a striking evocation of a supremely good and praiseworthy fulfillment of our humanity. It seems to me to have little to do with the celebration of or resignation to sheer “givenness” that is the foundation of Miller’s distinctive theology; here Pratt plainly draws our attention to the inherent goodness of this fulfillment, a fulfillment continuous with certain natural desires. But, according to Miller, we must not seek after these things lovely and virtuous things, but rather regard them as mere “preferences” that must be resolutely bracketed in order to release the meaning of sheer, non-sequential “givenness.”
The negative or remedial bent of Miller’s theology is still more pronounced in his sixth chapter, “A Manifesto for Mormon Theology.” The title, I would note at the outset, is a bit jarring or surprising, since the programmatic function of a “manifesto” seems at odds with the whimsical gratuity of a Rube Goldberg machine. Be that as it may, this chapter further develops the close linkage Miller wishes to affirm between theology and charity: “Theology is worth only as much charity as it is able to show… Unsatisfied with the work of simply reflecting on charity, theology should be undertaken in such a way as to simultaneously enact it.” (1282, 1329) This, I think, is a stringent demand, but one that rings true. If charity, or Christ-like love, is the ultimate touchstone of a life’s meaning, and then surely any theology is vain that does not somehow issue in this virtue of all virtues. True knowledge or understanding would seem to be the obvious proximate goal of theology, but Miller must be right that this knowledge must itself serve or somehow be integrated with charity. But just how is theology to issue into charity? Theology, Miller proposes, is inherently “critical,” but not in the usual, “petty and defensive,” self-justifying sense.
Genuine criticism is compelled by krisis, by the critical moment’s demand for discriminating judgment. Human suffering, from blunt trauma to quiet desperation, is the perpetual crisis that precipitates theology. Charity is a name for the critical care that clears away the rubbish of self-regard, penetrates to the root of suffering, and dresses the wound. (1275)Such a theological practice of charity would not build a doctrinal system but instead would read scripture in such a way as to illuminate “patterns that show charity, produce meaning, and dress suffering.” (1292) Thus theology for Miller is most of all a practice of scriptural interpretation characterized by openness to “latent patterns” that reveal themselves in the light of “hypothetical questions” that are not driven by a concern for systematic doctrine but rather by charitable solicitude.
This is a lovely notion of theology, and certainly rings true for me, as far as it goes. But I am not sure it is a complete one. What I call Miller’s “negative” or “remedial” emphasis (charity as the relief of suffering) seems to me to cohere with his anti-doctrinal interpretation, and I wonder whether his emphases do not obscure other legitimate and indeed valuable possibilities. Why should “theology” not only “dress the wound” of our suffering mortality, but also celebrate and explicate the positive goods of Eternal Life as these begin to appear even in this life? And why would not this celebration and explication include a conceptual organization of teachings that, without claiming exhaustiveness or finality, would help articulate principles to guide us in this life? But Miller insists on distinguishing theology from such moral and intellectual tasks:
Where historical work is concerned with reconstructing past events, doctrinal work with the determination of what is institutionally normative, and devotional work with the expression of personal piety, theology is concerned with charity. … If we read a text doctrinally, then the history and specificity of the text recede as the machine produces general information about what beliefs and principles may be normative and binding for members of the Church. (1283, 1301)I find it surprising that Miller should so insist on distinguishing his interpretive hypothetical scriptural theology from what is “institutionally normative … and binding” as well as from what informs “the expression of personal piety.” Are the norms that govern and in fact define institutions unrelated to the charitable potential of scripture? And would we not want both these to provide the bases of our personal piety? And would not all these sources of meaning point to a positive albeit imperfect understanding of the goods of Eternal Life? Miller would like the discovery of scriptural patterns that prompt charity as the relief of suffering to be insulated from the sometimes more prosaic and even more controversial work of articulating norms and concepts that order our lives as individuals and communities.
But can charity and order do without each other? And can we properly and fully address suffering without offering the edification and the shelter of institutional and conceptual order? This same question emerges in another form in Miller’s reflection on “Atonement and Testimony” (ch. 7). Miller insists on confining testimony to Atonement: “a testimony of anything other than the Atonement is a testimony only in an attenuated sense.” (1372) This seems right, in that the Atonement must be at the center of our testimony, as it is at the center of the gospel’s meaning. But I think he goes too far in severing testimony from our understanding of the world.
[A] testimony expresses a kind of unconditional certainty that is foreign to every objective sign that belongs to our thoroughly conditioned world. A testimony can express this kind of certainty because it depends on a direct experience of the Atonement in which the world, in its strictly conditioned chains of cause and effect, is contradicted by the gracious restoration of lost or impossible possibilities. (1433)In Miller’s view “the world” is delivered over entirely to the authority of science, and testimony refers to a possibility that is altogether other than the world of our actual experience. But if God, Christ, and angels really appeared to Joseph Smith (just to take a ready example), then materialistic science cannot adequately account for the reality of the world, and our testimony of Atonement has ramifications for our understanding of the very world in which we live and breathe. But rather than allowing a testimony of the gospel to order and give meaning to our worldly experience, Miller insists on the absolute otherness of “how things can be” as revealed “in the light of the Atonement.” (1444) If it is true that a testimony of anything other than the Atonement is an attenuated testimony, I would add that a testimony of the Atonement that is divorced from our understanding of the world is a constricted and impoverished testimony – and, I think, a fragile one. It is hazardous to severe our testimony from our understanding of the world in which we live, and thus from our rational responsibility.
The question of the status of “the world” in Miller’s theology, as well as that of the moral and political implications of a certain un-worldliness or acosmism that pervades Miller’s thought, comes to the fore in a number of his later chapters, which we can here address only briefly and inadequately.
Ch. 8, “The Gospel as an Earthen Vessel,” deals directly and at length with the political situation and the political implications of Mormon theology. At first in this chapter Miller seems to have reversed his acosmic commitment, though it soon returns in the post-Heideggerian language of “the event.”
Miller begins by noting that the problem of theology has an inevitably public and therefore political dimension: “an idea is thinkable only if it has public intelligibility… to ask if Mormonism is thinkable is to ask if Mormonism can be articulated within the horizons of contemporary thought. This is both a question about Mormonism’s potential political efficacy and a question about the possibility of Mormon theology.” (1522, 1523) This is a true and important observation, I believe: ideas make sense only within some common framework of meaning, and such a framework always conditions and is conditioned by the ways our lives are governed politically and legally. The risk of this formulation, though, is that it may succumb to a radical historicism or historical relativism, according to which the “horizons of contemporary thought” (a historical dispensation of Being, Heidegger would have said) have no relation to and thus offer no access to an enduring truth. It follows that there is no rational appeal beyond the categories, or the idols, of one’s age. Unfortunately, Miller seems to succumb to such a radical historicism.
How are “the horizons of contemporary thought” defined? According to Miller, “the shape of our public space for thought is dominated today by two factors: (1) science and (2) capital.” (1526) There is much truth, I would say, in this broad statement, but I would suggest substituting “freedom” for “capital”: individual freedom is a deeper and more general commitment, and economic practices and institutions follow from this premise. Is it not obvious that it is quite possible, within the contemporary zeitgeist of “developed” societies, to question capitalism as a form of economic organization, but hardly thinkable to question the commitment to individual freedom as an axiomatic value?
We should pause here to note (if I may extend Miller’s analysis a bit) that “science” and “freedom” may seem to be opposites, but that they are in fact two sides of the same coin, two implications of the very powerful paradigm that shapes our ways of talking and of being. Science proposes to explain everything in the world (including us) in terms of purposeless processes describable by formal, mathematical formulae; and freedom posits that we can do whatever we want to do (subject only to necessary formal rules protecting the like freedom of others). The modern mind is happy to suppress the theoretical question of how beings determined by laws of universal and impersonal causation can be “free,” since, practically, the reduction of the world to such laws removes any natural or divine barriers to human freedom (if only by depriving it of any purpose). If I’m willing to accept a scientific definition of myself as a product of socio-biological evolution, then my reward is to recognize no moral or religious constraints on my behavior – including, for example, my use of science to manipulate or re-engineer my own biology.
There is no doubt, then, that we are considerably constrained by “the horizons of contemporary thought.” The key question, though, is to what extent “our public space for thought is dominated” by the twin powers of science and freedom/capital. Certainly these notions, taken together, enjoy tremendous prestige and tend to crowd out and intimidate other conceptual frameworks within which the meaning of our lives and of our communities might be articulated. But it would be a mistake to concede that alternative articulations are impossible, that is, purely imaginary or nonsensical. If I say that I ought to be chaste, even if science can show that no scientifically verifiable harm would follow from my freely pursuing sexual pleasures in any way I wished, including purchasing them as a commodity, and I begin to explain this “ought” by referring to God, to my soul, to covenants, (or, with, say, Thomas Aquinas) to natural goods of fidelity and offspring and to the graceful good of sacrament, then, to be sure, there are many who will be surprised, some no doubt offended, but it does not follow that my words have no meaning. They continue to have meaning because they refer to and participate in alternative frameworks that were more common among our forebears but that are still operative to varying degrees in our world, despite the very marked dominance of the science/freedom framework.
What then of the place of Mormonism in our contemporary world, in our contemporary public space of meaning? “But if Mormonism can only be imagined,” Miller writes, if the thought of it has no traction in the world, then it also risks forfeiting its redemptive power. Mormonism must have traction in the world without being reducible to the world.” (1531) This seems right to me, although I don’t think it squares with Miller’s insistence on the un-worldliness of “testimony.” In any case, the question then arises, how to get this “traction.”
Miller hopes to find the key to this “traction” in “the work of Contemporary French philosophy” which “has developed an alternative, immanent model of transcendence in the figure of the ‘event.’” (1536) (I would have thought, by the way, that Martin Heidegger deserved credit for the philosophical prominence of this notion of “event/ ereignis”.) The advantage of the “logic of an event” is that it does not attempt directly to contest the dominance of a reigning worldview or interpretive framework. Instead, the event represents an “interruption” or “disruption” of the ruling paradigm, but not an attempt to modify or replace it (which, Miller thinks, is impossible because strictly unthinkable).
The “event” is radically immanent because it is radically transcendent. The paradigmatic event is Christ’s resurrection. Such an event is radically transcendent in that it breaks radically with a given horizon of meaning. It reveals a “truth” that must be distinguished from “knowledge.” Whereas “knowledge consists primarily of our everyday understanding of the world, the taken for granted horizons of intelligibility within which we live, eat, and breathe” (1642), the truth of the event is “not hermeneutic, nor is it contextual. It is universal precisely because it is not bound to any interpretive context.” (1649) Such an evental truth comes out of the blue and utterly blasts the existing categories of knowledge. “Truth is a break with knowledge, an interruption that challenges the legitimacy of our presently constituted horizons” (1647); such truth thus opens us to “the possibility of an entirely new life in an entirely new kind of world;” it operates on a wholly other plane from hermeneutical or contextual or worldly “knowledge.”
The evocation of such an altogether un-worldly truth is intriguing, even fascinating, if apparently somewhat extravagant. But let us not forget the question from which we started: how is Mormonism to get “traction” in a modern world defined by a paradigm that would seem to exclude it, and to render it strictly unthinkable? Miller believes the philosophy of “the event” provides an answer to this question or an escape from this dilemma. Precisely because of the “event’s” radical transcendence of contextual or worldly “knowledge,” it promises “an interruption that challenges the legitimacy of our presently constituted horizons.” (1647) “An event is a brief burst of light, the consequences of which must then be patiently, faithfully, and tenaciously worked out for the whole of the situation to which it belongs.” (1726) But how, one must ask, can Truth challenge knowledge if it operates on a plane that is wholly other? Miller’s ingenious reply is that Truth can effectively reconfigure knowledge precisely because it operates on a radically different plane. Truth does not compete with knowledge on knowledge’s own terms – the Event does not, cannot re-order worldly knowledge from the inside; it does not so much produce a new configuration within the world as a new configuration of the world in relation to the radically transcendent event. Thus the operation of the event is at once radically transcendent (beyond all implication in the order or hierarchy of a given world) and radically immanent (without reference to any particular claims of order or hierarchy within the world). “Neither metaphysical speculation nor appeals to anything supernaturally transcendent remain publicly intelligible” (1559), given our ruling paradigm as determined by science/freedom, but the Event renounces such speculative appeals and “reconfigures” the meaning world in relation to the event without reconfiguring the world in itself. God is absent from the world (1538) precisely because he is revealed in a wholly acosmic “event.”
“Only the event, in its capacity for universal reconfiguration, can traverse and oppose the ubiquitous, denaturalizing work of capital.” (1637) The event “traverses” (1637) the modern world, the world of “capital” precisely because it does not challenge it directly or on its own terms, it does not propose an alternative to it. The possibility of an entirely new kind of world” does not intrude upon the existing world, the only world we can really know (according to Miller’s historicism); instead it reveals this world in a radically other- or non-worldly light.
Now, Mormon readers unaccustomed to the radical thinking of the event may well be wondering, what on earth can this have to do with our religion? Everything! is Miller’s reply. For it turns out that there is a deep congruence between the spirit of Mormonism and the world of late-modernity, rightly understood. “Mormonism is more thinkable today than in any previous epoch.” (1540) Marx is right that “the work of capital is nowhere more apparent than in its capacity to dissolve all our traditional, natural, and local bonds in…the icy waters of fungibility.” (1628) But what is hardly understood and appreciated is that this is good news, and that Mormonism, properly understood, is uniquely suited to grasping and advancing this good news of the dissolution of all that is traditional and natural. In fact, Mormonism – again, properly understood, of course – “is more thinkable today than in any previous epoch.” Conventional Mormons, tempted by nostalgia for some alternative paradigms to the reign of science/freedom, might be inclined to “turn back the hands of time… to retreat in search of some natural law.” But this would be “to retreat from our humanity as such,” (1633) since we have no access to our humanity other than through the categories of our historical moment. Marxism and, more generally, scientific materialism, reveal the Truth of the Incarnation and of immanence (1661, 1663), i.e., that we are in one sense wholly material beings; but they also reflect the other face of this truth, i.e., the Truth of our radical transcendence, our infinite surpassing of all worldly necessities, the Truth that “we are human precisely because our identities and social relations are not strictly bound by nature or limited by our bodies.” (1631) Incarnation and non-worldly Truth, materialism and the Event that frees us from bodily limitations, radical immanence and radical transcendence, are two sides of the same coin.
Indeed, this truth where materialism and Mormonism converge looks very much like the dominant paradigm to which we might have thought we were seeking an alternative: the paradigm of Science and Freedom. But in fact we are not seeking, we must not seek such an alternative. Rather, according to Adam Miller, we must embrace this convergence; we must allow Mormonism to “reconfigure” our world without actually challenging it. Thinkers less open than Badiou-inspired theologicans to the radical transcendence-immanence of the event might believe that Mormonism is threatened by the growing dominance of the paradigm of science/freedom, but Miller proposes the exciting possibility that Mormonism, in slowly making its peace with the modern world (becoming more progressive or liberal, less peculiar or distinctive), “has not been watering itself down and moving ever farther from its original impetus. Rather, it has been moving ever closer.” (1780) Mormonism and modernity share the same destiny, but to grasp this destiny, and to “revolutionize the world,” Mormonism must “render itself sufficiently generic for the entire world to be transformed by it” (1780) – that is, it must catch the wave of the irresistible ongoing revolution of science/freedom. Mormonism must, it seems, eschew all efforts to configure the world from within, in view of a particular, governing understanding of concrete goods and definite human attachments, and “self-consciously and consistently purify and universalize its own potent inflection of our generic declaration of the universality of God’s love for all his children” (1780).
According to Miller’s RGT then, the Christian revelation of love can only become effective, can only transform or revolutionize the world, by shedding its commitment to an obsolete understanding of the world as ordered by certain definite goods and by embracing the ongoing modern revolution driven by the irresistible alliance of purposeless science and boundless freedom. If this seems rather abstract and removed from any recognizable religious or political concerns, one only has to consider Miller’s teaching regarding the ethics and politics of the family.
Mormonism is an original inflection of the event of Christ’s love into a profoundly new figure of the family. (1752)
It is my argument that Mormonism is not proposing that the traditional family be preserved and sustained within and against the hostile horizons of our given world. It is a mistake, I would argue, to conceive of our efforts as an operation of conservation. No event is an event of conservation. No truth is a truth of perpetuation. The operation of all truths and all events is revolutionary. We are not attempting to preserve the family or return the family to some previously viable historical configuration. We are attempting to revolutionize and transform the family itself. Our aim is to traverse the family as it presently exists and convert it into something entirely new. We want the family to be something that it has never yet been. And in doing so, we want to reconfigure the horizons of our world as a whole. (1758)
In the world reconfigured by an Event that embraces the authority of modern science and of limitless freedom (the dissolution of all “natural bonds”) and re-interprets charity to serve this alliance, all supposedly “natural bonds” and accompanying “gender hierarchies” will be laid low; “the ‘traditional’ meanings and functions ascribed to marriage are insufficient because they are firmly grounded in finite interests rather than an infinite fidelity” (1825); the family understood as “natural, closed, and finite” must give way to the family as “infinite,” and thus susceptible to “love’s global intervention.” (1773)This, it is fair to say, is not your mother’s “family.” Whether this infinitizing of the family is in fact a plausible way to articulate the deep and ultimate meaning of Mormon revelation, I leave it to the reader to judge. In any case, it is Adam Miller’s understanding of the effectual truth of the shiny red ball of charity that issues from the apparently merely whimsical and almost pointless if delightful machinery of a Rube Goldberg Theology. If this machinery, in its eventual alliance with the juggernaut of modernity, seems less harmless than first appeared, it may be time to reconsider the responsibilities of theology and of philosophy in relation to religion and politics. Do Latter-day Saints need to seek another kind of “traction” in the world, a way other than the radical transcendence-immanence of “the event” to engage public ideas and concerns and thus better to understand both ourselves and our responsibilities?
Full Citation for this Article: Hancock, Ralph (2013) "Adam Miller's Rube Godlberg Dynamo," SquareTwo, Vol. 6 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMillerSymposiumHancock.html, <give access date>
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