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Note: This introductory chapter from the book is reprinted with the permission of Greg Kofford Books.


A comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.
—“Rube Goldberg,” Webster’s New World Dictionary

Designating a device that is unnecessarily complicated, impracticable, and ingenious.
—“Rube Goldberg,” Oxford English Dictionary

Theology is a diversion. It is not serious like doctrine, respectable like history, or helpful like therapy. Theology is gratuitous. It works by way of detours. Doing theology is like building a comically circuitous Rube Goldberg Machine: you spend your time tinkering together an unnecessarily complicated, impractical, and ingenious apparatus for doing things that are, in themselves, simple. But there is a kind of joy in theology’s gratuity, there is a pleasure in its comedic machination, and ultimately—if the balloon pops, the hamster spins, the chain pulls, the bucket empties, the pulley lifts, and (voila!) the book’s page is turned—some measurable kind of work is accomplished. But this work is a byproduct. The beauty of the machine, like all beauty, is for its own sake.

Theology, maybe especially Mormon theology, requires this kind of modesty. As a scholarly discipline, Mormon theology is for people who like that kind of thing. The Church neither needs nor endorses our Rube Goldbergian flights. The comic aspect of the arrows we wing at cloudy skies must be kept firmly in mind. The comedy of it both saves us from theology and commends us to it. It is painful to watch a theologian who thinks he’s finally bolted together “the one true Rube Goldberg Machine.” But there is joy in a shared comedy that invites us to laugh and wonder as ordinary religious objects are lovingly pressed into doing unusual and amazing things. Thomas Aquinas is a model. At the end of his life, embraced by God’s own mystery, Thomas throws up his hands and claims that all he’s written—the sum of Catholic theology—seems like straw. Theology is only worth doing if, in full light of this admission, we can take Thomas’ confession as a punchline to be celebrated rather than a disgrace to be brushed under the rug.

Self-aware, such comedy never starts from scratch. It never gets its feet planted. Like an amateur juggler, theology weaves around the room chasing its borrowed pins. Theology works with found objects. It repurposes ordinary stuff in pursuit of ad hoc projects. Nothing is ordered to specification. Our Rube Goldberg Machines are made out of ordinary, mismatched, everyday religious objects. Start with a couple of doctrines here, a few rituals there, a pew, and a prayer, then throw in some historical qualifications for good measure, grease the wheels with a sociological observation or two, and wind the whole thing up. The more ordinary the stuff, the more material the objects, the sturdier their composition, the better for theology. You can’t build a working machine if you rely too much on supernatural ephemera. When the gears crank, the wheels turn, and the hammer swings, you want that head to connect—whack!—with a satisfyingly solid thump.

Good theologians need two skills above all others: they must be shameless packrats and they must be imaginative tinkerers. Because they work with found objects, theologians need to be collectors of religious texts, rituals, and objects of every sort. The collector needs to gather a wide variety of objects from a wide field of sources—Eastern, Western, ancient, modern, literary, scientific, etc. Working just with what is at hand, it is best to have a lot on hand. Repurposing these ordinary gestures, altars, and texts—sometimes subtly, sometimes wildly, sometimes both—for theological ends requires invention and sensitivity. Tinkering requires patience and care. The only way to successfully exapt an object is to be sensitive to its given shape, heft, strength, and history. Then, in light of this attention, the object can reveal what untapped work it can do. Constellated into an unnecessary apparatus, the object can show both itself and the objects aligned with it as possessing a new and surprising strength. Yoked together, the whole thing can shamble along handsomely, showing us the gods and moving us closer to them.

Engaged in this work, theology has only one strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity. Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg Machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit—tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. This is their joy. Here, the impromptu body of Christ is a Rube Goldberg Machine. In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide. 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. Theology is gratuitous because theology is a grace and grace, by definition, is unearned, unwarranted, unnecessary, unconditional, gratuitous. Theology is free. Theology isn’t gratuitous because it receives without giving but because it gives without thought of return.

Theology helps us to find religion by helping us to lose it. Theology makes the familiar strange. Theology ratchets uncomfortable questions into complementary shapes. Theology recovers the trouble that is charity’s substance. When, in the end, 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—or, otherwise, theology is nothing.
This book is itself a Rube Goldberg machine, cobbled together from sundry sources and erstwhile projects. It’s virtue depends on my wager that its circuitous whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken individually, it might be missed that these essays offer a coherent vision of an alternate path for the future of Mormon theology. Rather than taking their cue from the generally systematic, analytic work of David Paulsen and Blake Ostler, they borrow from and extend the hermeneutic approach advocated by James Faulconer. These essays articulate this alternate vision in terms of explicit reflections on what it means to practice theology as a modern Mormon scholar and they stake out substantial and original positions on the nature of the atonement, the soul, testimony, eternal marriage, contemporary politics, humanism, and the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Mine is not the one true Rube Goldberg machine, but I hope there is enough gratuity in their artifice to make them worth your trouble.


Full Citation for this Article: Miller, Adam S. (2013) "Symposium on Adam Miller's "Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology": Introduction," SquareTwo, Vol. 6 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMillerSymposiumIntroduction.html, <give access date>

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

I. Thomas F. Rogers

Review:  Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (SLC: Greg Kofford Books, 2012)


“Sin: judging life by the standard of goodness,”

“It is through the strait gate of anachrony that the Messiah enters.”

“All sinners are expatriates.”

“Religion...is revealed geography..”

“Whether our lives are filled with or bereft of Spirit depends on learning to see these small, unrequested contingencies of time, place, and family as a grace rather than a spoil.”

“Theology explores the range of meaning that scripture can produce beyond the bounds of its historical, doctrinal, and devotional responses.”

“Who would be more horrified about people having a testimony of Joseph Smith than Joseph Smith?”

“Testimonies are essential because they reveal, in light of the Atonement, how things can be....A testimony is to be found only in the bearing of it.”

“Mormonism inflects God’s grace into an entirely new conception of the family.”

“Truth and knowledge must be conceived of as distinct.”

“Mormonism consists, first and foremost, of fidelity to the event inaugurated by the declaration of Christ’s resurrection.”

“Love and freedom coincide in gratuity and there is...no better one-word summary of Christ’s atonement than grace.”

“Mormonism...is called to shelter and defend every truth.”

“The family, as an event, marks love’s global intervention.”

“I have long been puzzled by the consistent association of Mormon beliefs with all things ‘conservative‘ or traditional.’”

“We claim not only that marriage is central to the meaning of life but--more radically--that it is also central to what it means to be God.”

“There is not just life (singular) but lives (plural).”

“Moroni models for us a hermeneutic approach that inverts our natural expectations about the meaning and desirability of human weakness.”

“Faith faithfully acknowledges our weakness.  Disbelief actively veils it.”

“Mormonism and humanism converge in their commitment to the new....To be human is to be more than human.”

“We might more accurately identify the heart of apostasy as a failure to be truthful rather than simply as a loss of doctrinal correctness....Wherever we are truthful, the grace of God will abound.”  

“The truthful declaration of a truth is...more important than the truth itself.” 

“It is easy enough...to treat the true Messiah and a prophet in a way that is not truthful.”

“Heaven, for Mormons, is what seals our union with the mundane rather than terminates it.”


Do the foregoing aphorisms startle you as they do me?  Do some of them raise your hackles?  They come from a small book by philosopher Adam S. Miller, who teaches at Collin College in McKinney, Texas, and presently serves as director of the prestigious Mormon Theology Seminar. 

In his thoughtful preface, historian Richard Bushman asserts that “Adam Miller is the most original and provocative Latter-day Saint theologian practicing today” and that, like other philosophers and theologians, his aphorisms reflect his possible doubt that his subject “can be reduced to a rational orderly system.”  But, for me, there is immense continuity to the book’s fourteen essays, each of which interfaces with the restored gospel in impressively universal terms--speaking not only in philosophical abstractions but also addressing every day human concerns.  It is clear that Miller got his initial scholarly training at BYU: he in fact credits particularly Jim Fauconer, Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet.  He also shares supportive utterances by a number of recent and present day General Authorities--including President Benson, President Packer and the late Bruce R. McConkie--that may further surprise you. 

This is one of the best and most important commentaries on the gospel and on life itself that I have ever read.  It can perhaps be best compared to Ecclesiastes, The Annals of Confucius or the compact wisdom of the Tao de Ching.  Save for the electrifying thought of the French Jewess, Simone Weil, one of Christ’s most astute disciples, whom, to my mind, Miller resembles--I can think of no one else who has so 'universally extended' (Miller’s very phrase) my understanding of the gospel’s essential concepts and their implications for an authentic and blessed spiritual life.  In their approach both Weil and Miller profoundly grasp the essence of the Sermon on the Mount, which in later chapters Miller also references.  His book’s seemingly facetious title is ironically self-effacing.  Don’t allow it to  keep you from what it contains, which is deadly serious and utterly orthodox in its devotion to the Mormonism we all know but don’t fully enough fathom.  That’s why you need to read this book. 

Toward its outset Miller introduces the less familiar term ‘givenness,‘* which he equates with Christ’s, again, universal bestowal of grace upon all humankind, whatever our circumstances.  This concept reminds me of the grim Necessity (Weil’s term for which is “Force”) that she invokes in her renowned essay on The Iliad and to which we must submit and properly resign ourselves but which enables our lives to be increasingly meaningful.  In repenting and coming to the Lord we sacrifice our personal preferences and recognize our weaknesses, entitling us for his healing, sustaining grace.  This prompts in me the realization that the countervailing 'works' we most need to bring forth are not more nor less than a broken heart and contrite spirit and all else they invariably lead to.  For Miller, this links with Mormonism’s “revolutionary” appreciation of eternal marriage and the perpetuation of family ties--”the task of unknotting the threads of fear and desire that have prevented me from unconditionally embracing my family and my family from unconditionally embracing me.”  The role in all of this of the Spirit of truth is underscored by choice quotations from the late Seventy, E. Enzio Busche and from Parley P. Pratt, the latter’s same statement twice cited, like bookends, in the work’s early pages and at its end.

Transcendent, messianic phenomena are viewed as non-sequential, anachronistic ‘events‘ that periodically intrude upon the uncomprehending minds of rational beings: “an event is an immanent eruption of the eternal in time.”  We should not expect ‘the world‘ to give them credence.  Truth and truthfulness are not the same.  Those imbued by the latter can touch other hearts by testifying of the Atonement, but only as they share their subjective response to it, their deeply felt conviction..  Further, Miller helps me better understand than I ever did just why the Book of Mormon is such a distinctive scripture: besides its recurring testimony of the Savior, the travail and subjective witness of its various prophets--their confession of vulnerability and renewed commitment, with which all can identify--reaches deep into a reader’s heart.  Such witness is as potent as that of living peers.  Miller further elucidates the underlying doctrinal thrust of the Book of Revelation as well as Mormonism’s subtle distinctions between spirit, body and soul and the Lord’s imperative to “overcome” (reiterated, incidentally, in D&C 76:60): “If we do not choose to wear out our lives in the service of God and in the service of others, then our names will not be found elsewhere [i.e. in the Lamb’s book of life].

In the essay entitled “Recompense,” which superficially resembles Emerson’s “Compenation,” but which, transcendentally, conveys even more, Miller’s simple yet vivid metaphors come to the fore:  “You will get lots of practice.  The world will resist you.  It will exceed your grasp.  It will practice indifference toward you.  Like a borrowed shirt, it will fit you imperfectly, it will be loose in the neck, short in the cuff, and the tag will itch....Suffering the indignity of these rounds, you will, by default, be tempted to just flit from one offense to the next, simmering in frustration, stewing in quiet desperation.  But to live, you will have to let these things go.  You will have to learn how to make and accept recompense.  You will have to forget the fiction of cash equivalences and barter with whatever is at hand.  You didn’t get what you wanted?  Or even what you needed?  Your life was repurposed by others for something other than what you had in mind?  Join the party.  I’m sympathetic, but in the end these objections are going nowhere.  That bus, while always idling, never actually leaves the station....Ask instead: what were you given? where were you taken? what was your recompense?  Learn to like lemonade.”

In his arresting “Manifesto for Mormon Theology,” Miller contends that “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.”  He then meekly adds: “Theology...is not an institutional practice.  It has no force beyond the charity it demonstrates and it decides no questions beyond what the Brethren have settled.”  In “Atonement and Testimony” he declares that “Testimonies are essential because they reveal, in light of the Atonement, how things can be.”  And: “In the strict sense, we do not have testimonies, testimonies have us.”  Much later he again returns to the subject of testimony, reiterating that “In order for the gift of grace to be received, we must take up the truth as our own, as something spoken truthfully with our own mouths about our own selves”--once more suggesting what is so distinctive about prophetic utterances in the Book of Mormon.

I have myself audaciously asserted that Mormonism is the ultimate form of Humanism.  Miller backs me up in a later chapter entitled “Humanism, Mormonism,” suggesting that “The humanities remain essential to any genuine education not because they directly address the question of the being of the world (this is the work of science), but because they are faithful to the question of what is other than ‘what is.‘  Religion, art, fiction, music, film, theater, poetry, etc. are all essential because they protest the vanity of the world and aim to induce the birth of the new.”  Thus, Humanism and Mormonism have in common their quest for the yet unknown.  In commenting on the Sermon on the Mount, Miller sagely observes that “Jesus concludes this series of reinscriptions [of the Mosaic law] by clearly formatting the principle on which novelty is based: non-reciprocity (i.e. grace).  He then cautions that “Mormonism intertwines with humanism in a complex way....The new must be new for us without being reducible to us.” 

Miller’s ecumenical reach is equally generous: “It is comforting to note the way that the primacy of the Sprit of truth‘ over the ‘word of truth‘--the primacy of truthfulness over accuracy--makes possible transformative edification even if what one says may not be entirely correct....it is just as possible for the new convert to speak in ways that are powerfully truthful even if what they say lacks the accuracy and orthodoxy that comes from a lifetime of study....we might also detect in this difference a powerfully ecumenical spirit: edification and transformation are present wherever a transforming truthfulness is induced, regardless of whether it happens in a Catholic mass, a Buddhist temple, an Islamic mosque, or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”

Toward book’s end, one of Miller’s subheadings reads: “Speaking truth truthfully, because it undercuts our perpetual pride, is hard.”  Then, “as the prophets have continually warned, we must beware the prophet who tells us what we want to hear (Hel. 13:26--27).  Moreover, we must be especially careful of the danger when we are convinced that we belong to the true Church it is easy enough...to treat even the true Messiah and a true prophet in a way that is not truthful.”  Bedrock integrity recurs throughout Miller’s argument as an essential criterion and key.  He then concludes with his own fervent, simply put testimony: “The substance of my conviction about Mormonism amounts to a running account of the ways in which, because of Mormonism, I have been and increasingly am awake.  For my part, I can conceive of no other measure for religion.  Does it or does it not conduce to life?  Does it or does it not roughly shake me from the slumber of self-regard, from the hope of satisfaction, from the fantasy of control?  Does it or does it not relentlessly lead my attention back to the difficulty of the real?  Does it or does it not reveal the ways in which my heart, my mind, and my body have always already bled out into a world not of my own making, into the hearts and minds and bodies of my parents, my wife, my children?”

The “running account” that binds Miller to Mormonism includes “Joseph Smith, handcarts, extra-Biblical scriptures, modern prophets, Jello-O molds, temples, missionary work, and all the rest.”

In its pitch for another of its titles--Blake T. Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought Series-- Greg Kofford Books cites this glowing review from BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute:  “These books are the most important works on Mormon theology ever written.  There is nothing currently available that is even close to the rigor and sophistication of thee volumes.  B.H. Roberts and John A. Widtsoe may have had interesting insights in the early part of the twentieth century, but they had neither the temperament nor the training to give a rigorous defense of their views in dialogue with a wider stream of Christian theology.  Sterling McMurrin and Truman Madsen had the capacity to engage Mormon theology at this level, but neither one did.” 

Well, Adam S. Miller has done so.  Brother Miller wakens us.

Tom Rogers

*A term Miller takes from the work of the French phenomenologist, Jean-Luc Marion in Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness (tr., Jeffrey L. Kosky.  Stanford: Stanford U. Press, 2002).