1. Yesterday I got up early, read my scriptures, and prayed. I ran five miles, ate breakfast with my wife, and showered. I took my kids to school and was in my office by 8am. I taught a class, answered some emails, and graded some papers. I had lunch with a couple I home teach and spent the next few hours writing. I picked up my kids from school. While my wife taught a late afternoon class, I helped get their homework started, sped the two oldest off to piano lessons, and stopped in with our youngest to visit my parents. Then we made dinner. When my wife got home with the others from piano lessons, we ate. She took the oldest to young women’s and I took one of the boys to basketball practice. We got home and tucked them in. I read for a bit, read and prayed with my wife, kissed her, and turned off my light.
This kind of work is good. It is busy and simple and ordinary. As far as work goes, there is rarely any other kind. Some of your work is likely different than mine, but the bulk of it is surely just as busy, just as simple, and just as ordinary.
If we refuse to do this work, protect its goodness, or value its goals, then we have failed God in the most fundamental way. Task by task, day by day, you must lay down your life for it. And then do it again. And then again. Again!
2. But there is something else. Noble busyness is not everything. If religion were just this, we wouldn’t need religion. Joining the Boy Scouts would do.
Busy as we are, this something else is easy to miss. Its defenders are quieter, its practitioners fewer. God, in addition to insisting that we speak up, work hard, and show results, also insists that we be silent and still. He insists that we be still. And he insists that we know that he is God.
3. It’s hard to be both busy and still at the same time, so we set aside time for stopping and resting, for Sabbaths and jubilees, for withdrawing into our closets and closing the door. (Shut the door.) And when these times come, we practice being still. We bend our knees, we close our eyes, and we gather our attention. We listen.
4. More than anything else, I’m interested in this thing that happens when we, as God commands, are still. Especially, I’m interested in this thing that happens when we are still not just on the outside but on the inside. For years and years I have daily tried to pay closer and closer attention to what happens when I’m still in the hope of knowing more and more clearer that God is God.
5. What is it that happens when we are still?
The quieter we are, the firmer our concentration becomes, and the longer we wait, the deeper this stillness goes. Time slows, our horizons simplify, and our unbroken devotion contracts to a point. As time slows, the web of noble desires and legitimate fears that both constrain and animate our everyday busyness loosens, our blood cools, our minds unclench, abstractions of all kinds show their deep fragility, our teeth stop grinding, and, no longer harried to distraction, we become intensely alert. Our woken hearts come to rest on that still point and God’s grace shines through it.
6. In general, this doesn’t sound very useful. In fact, it sounds like a dodge. It sounds a bit like I’m avoiding the real work that needs to be done. If God had his way, wouldn’t he want me up and out of that closet, striving to improve, to bless my children, to prepare my Sunday school lessons, to take out the garbage, to care for my aging parents, to – for once – keep the commandments? What’s everyone else supposed to do while I’m in my closet? Just pick up the slack? Get out here!
7. It’s hard to be both busy and still at the same time, but it’s not impossible. We don’t have to choose one or the other. We may, though, have to choose which has priority: my busyness or God’s stillness.
My claim is that my busyness can only avoid idolatry if it’s anchored in God’s stillness. Otherwise, my busyness is vanity.
8. But with practice and grace, it’s possible to learn how to carry that stillness out of the closet and into our busyness. Its possible to learn how to root our busyness in a robust stillness that augments rather than enervates our work-a-day lives. This is the key to a life that is more than superficially religious.
9. This stillness is faithful to the revelation that God is God and its faithfulness empowers a selfless immersion in our ordinary work. As the world spins around us and we dance with it, part of us remains rock still, firm as the mountains around us, planted in a divinely inspired silence. Part of us is saturated with a peace that is not given as the world gives. This other peace does not dissuade us from pursuing measures of worldly peace. Rather, this unconditioned peace is the only real soil in which they can grow.
10. This stillness that persists in the midst of business is a sign of the Spirit. The Spirit dwells in us like a backbone. It bears up our hearts. It heals our rigidity. Its confidence frees us from the tyranny of our fixed and fragile abstractions and its revelation of their fragility returns them, mobile, to our service.
11. Filled with an imperturbable charity, the Spirit casts out my fear and frees me to resist a reduction of love to lust, of thought to opinion, of joy to satisfaction, of sexual difference to biology, of truth to what can be said.
A resistance to this reduction doesn’t mean that opinions aren’t necessary or that satisfactions don’t matter or that what can be said shouldn’t be said. It just means that they aren’t all and that they depend, in the end, on something that refuses to be identical to them.
12. But you’re familiar with these things. And, if you’ve made it this far, you’re certainly familiar with how hard they are to talk about. Something must be said even if the truth is never simply the same as what we say. My book, Rube Goldberg Machines, tries to talk about these things. Sometimes I think that parts of it point in the right direction. But, often enough, I think it fails.
13. Someone once told me about his copy of my book. His copy, he said, is filled with annotations - most of which consist of underlined passages accompanied in the margins by an emphatic “No!” I like the thought of this. I like the thought of those essays being so personally and materially disagreed with. I suspect our copies of the book may not look so different.
14. There are a number of different ways, I think, to approach my book’s weaknesses, each of them valuable.
One way is to do something like what Spencer and Handley have done in their responses. You can take the essays collected in the book and, in effect, say: I see what Miller was trying to say in a fragmentary fashion over here (exhibit a) and a bit awkwardly over there (exhibit b), and if you put the pieces together with some clarity and less metaphor they’re pointing at this! This is an act of charity that I welcome. This approach reads my essays against the grain of the reader’s better selves and, so, offers a kind of local redemption for them.
15. Another approach is to do as Baker did: take the essays as an opportunity to respond in kind. That is, take them as an occasion for speaking in your own name about something that, while reading them, happened to you. This kind of response is a great kindness and it is easily, for me, the most gratifying.
16. Or, finally, one might read the essays as Hancock does, noting their weaknesses, posting signs of warning for others less aware, and urging me to try again, to do better, to be smarter, to read more widely, to exercise more restraint, and to avoid the kinds of facile mistakes (especially the kind of ham-fisted overstatements) that young scholars are prone to make.
This last way of reading the essays is also an act of charity and, though it may hurt, I welcome it too. In some ways, the better parts of me, such as they are, welcome it all the more.
17. Let me try, then, in what space remains, to be gracious enough to respond in at least a piecemeal fashion to parts of the responses offered to me.
18. Richard Bushman suggests in the book’s introduction that my essays are both provocative and funny. Hancock suggests in response that it is difficult to be funny and discontented at the same time. I suspect, rather, that most all our humor is a response to recognized discontent (cf., The Daily Show).
19. Hancock suggests that my work belongs to a tradition that includes Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Pascal. (I suspect they might protest this identification more than I.) The point of connection, as Hancock puts it, is supposed to be a shared “attempt to liberate faith and grace from any association with nature and ‘works’” (emphasis mine).
There’s something here, but this reading is too strong. It is too strong a reading not only of that tradition, but of the way that my work is, to an exasperating degree, a continual attempt to strike a tender balance between stillness and busyness, a balance that does not abrogate the latter but redeem it. I may be wrong in how I attempt to balance my work with the priority of God’s grace, but that balance is always the aim.
20. Spencer suggests that Rube Goldberg Machines be understood as an attempt to strike such a balance. He argues that the essays represent a uniquely Mormon approach to this problem that is neither “Buddhist” nor “Pauline” but “Nephite.”
His account is original and clear: “Nephite Christianity thus refuses to see the world as irreparable, and yet it denies that anything else is on its way. Redemption is not to be accomplished, for the Nephite, through the breaking in of something transcendent, but through the reemergence of the overlooked.”
Hancock sees my denial that anything else is on its way (i.e., my commitment to stillness) as a confession that the world is irreparable. But, as Spencer remarks, it’s the opposite: my commitment to stillness is what reveals the world’s reparability.
Or, as Spencer puts it again: “History is, on the Book of Mormon’s vision, neither open-ended (as in Jewish messianism) nor interrupted (as in Christian messianism) but inconsistent – divided against itself and troubled by its transcendental conditions, from the outset and intentionally.”
I worry that Spencer’s reading of what I’ve actually accomplished in the book is too generous (as he himself makes good in such short order on so many of its deficiencies), but I think it’s a fair account of what I’m aiming for.
21. (If there is some worry about the influence of my book on young scholars like Spencer, then Spencer is good evidence that they are bright and faithful enough to improve on what’s worth keeping and lay the remainder to rest.)
22. Similarly, Handley gets this right as well. He reads Rube Goldberg Machines as a long, winding meditation on what it means to “Pray as if everything depends on the Lord” and “act as if everything depends on you.” In this light, my book is a commentary “on the strange duality of mind this ‘as-if’ theology requires, as if true faith requires remaining open to both possibilities simultaneously.”
Again, Hancock sees my insistence on “praying as if everything depends on the Lord” (i.e., my insistence on a core of stillness) as a subtle and sometimes outright denial of our need to act locally, with all urgency, as if everything depended on us. He reads it as a creeping denial of agency and responsibility.
My claim, as Handley clearly understands, is to say that (1) we must always hold this strange pair of imperatives simultaneously, and (2) that the second imperative (to act as if everything depended on us) only avoids vanity and idolatry if it is subordinated to the first (pray as if everything depended on God).
23. In the end, I’m not clear on the precise point of Hancock’s dissatisfaction. One could object to my actual position by saying that it is impossible to hold these two imperatives together and the very attempt is dangerous and misguided. Or one could say that we must hold them together but not prioritize a dependence on God as a condition for the meaningful exercise of our own agency.
Given the choices, I suspect that Hancock and I just misunderstand one another and actually agree. But if his objections are something like either of the above, then I’m happy to disagree.
24. Hancock states: “Miller holds that a 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.”
Again, the language is too strong and its strength misses the point. Let’s not say “abandonment” or even “bracketing” (though this is much better and not nearly the same thing as “abandonment”) but “suspension.” My claim is that the busy pursuit of all our natural human desires and purposes must be “suspended” from the priority of God’s stillness as the only thing capable of redeeming them, not by having us abandon them but by having us consecrate them.
25. Hancock finds in my essay “Overwritten, Written Elsewhere” an emphasis on “non-hierarchical interdependence.” I use the language of interdependence but say nothing about a lack of hierarchy. That’s Hancock’s idea. Rather, I would describe the situation as one composed of complex sets of hierarchical cross-dependencies in which each element is always both acting in respect to some things and acted upon by others.
26. Hancock reads my critical redemption of our everyday moral judgments as a flat-out “debunking of our moral judgment” that “seems to me very remote from the real, concrete experience of human existence, with its inevitably moral dimension.” Again, the reading is too strong and misses both the letter and the spirit of the text. Our human judgments (perhaps especially our moral ones) need to be called into question insofar as they refuse to take a charitable reception of what is given as their starting point. Our judgments and preferences, unredeemed by God, are the shovels with which we dig our own graves. Redeemed by God, they pave the path that leads back to him.
27. Hancock is worried that my conception of theology in “A Manifesto for Mormon Theology” – a conception that sees the essence of the theological project as neither doctrinal nor historical nor institutional nor devotional - is too toothless, especially insofar it fails to be politically engaged.
This may be true, but his analysis misses a couple of basic things. It misses first, that in this essay I’m giving not giving a general definition of theology but a definition of theology as a contemporary academic project. Second, it misses the fact that, while I’ve distinguished theology from doctrine and history and devotion, I’ve also identified doctrine and history and devotion as the material upon which theology ceaselessly works. Theology attends to all these things, but then does something different with them.
Hancock seems to want the kind of academic theology we’re carrying on to have more bite and more say about how the church decides what is doctrine (pro or con) and what it should look like as an institution (pro or con).
Others can pursue that kind of intervention (pro or con) if they want, but it’s not for me. At least, it’s not for me qua theologian. You can understand this academic restraint as a failure to take political responsibility for my own intellectual work, but I think substantial restraint with respect to the boundaries of academic theology as an inherently weak project is probably better understood as itself an act of political responsibility. Modesty and circumspection and restraint are themselves an ethical stance.
28. Here, Baker’s reflections on what it means to be a theologian, especially in the Rube Goldberg mold, are valuable and pointed. Though intensely personal, I commend them to you.
29. As for the “Atonement and Testimony” chapter from the book – I wrote it more than ten years ago, mostly as an undergrad and, despite the kinds of useful lines Hancock generously highlights, I don’t care for much of it myself.
30. Hancock’s piece wrap ups with a reading of “The Gospel as an Earthen Vessel” essay. This final bit is, to me, illegible. I can see a lot of Hancock’s legitimate concerns reflected in this section, but how they connect with positions I actually hold is unclear.
I think there are probably a couple of reasons for this illegibility: (a) Hancock seems to be reaching for a fitting and dramatic conclusion to the 8000 word critique he’s offered so far (much of which is worth paying attention to), but the problems with the book, though many, don’t add up to anything especially fitting or dramatic, (b) Hancock reads into this essay, in particular, an a-cosmic disavowal of the natural world that (as I’ve written about at length above) simply isn’t there, especially in this essay, (c) Hancock’s grasp of the essay is hobbled by a lack of familiarity with the primary sources upon which it draws (i.e., not Martin Heidegger but Alain Badiou, whose work, though complex and Continental, might best be described as fundamentally anti-Heideggerian) and this leads to a misreading of key technical terms like “world,” “event,” “truth,” and “traverse,” (d) Hancock reads the essay in light of his having explicitly rewritten part of it with a substitution of “freedom” for “capital,” a substitution that has substantial effects on what the essay would mean, if that had been the essay I’d written.
31. For instance, in this part of his response, Hancock argues that “the risk of this formulation, though, is that it may succumb to a radical historicization 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.”
Two thoughts in response. First, this passage exemplifies a rhetorical move that is frequently made in Hancock’s critique: it identifies a legitimate “risk” in taking a certain position and then, without further ado, briskly assigns that risk as an accomplished failure.
For example, saying that we must prioritize God’s stillness over our busyness will always risk encouraging apathy and irresponsibility. Agreed. But under what conditions? What are the alternatives? And does the argument, as given, meet those conditions? It surely “risks” failure, but does it fail?
Second, I won’t try to address Heidegger here (or, maybe, anywhere), but it is axiomatic for Badiou (upon whose work the essay explicitly depends) that enduring truths always bear a very precise, intimate, and inextricable relation to the historical situations that they may, with our hard work, noble busyness, and fidelity, reconfigure.
Here, some familiarity with Badiou would make all the difference. Spencer, for instance, is deeply familiar with Badiou (and also likely knows more Heidegger than Hancock or myself) and it shows in how well he accurately understands my sometimes abbreviated formulations.
32. Hancock’s reading of this essay crescendos with what I found to be a deeply chilling account of what I’m proposing for the “traditional” family.
If I thought I thought what Hancock seems to think I think, in this essay, about the family, then I would, without hesitation, call my own mother and suggest she disown me.
Now, I admit, Hancock’s account does provide a really effective and dramatic ending to his critique – watch out! – but it attributes to me motives that go beyond being misguided about how some of the details in an academic debate work out. Rather, I get charged with the willful destruction of all natural goods, gender identities, marriages, children, helpless babies, family pets, and apple pie. Rube Goldberg Machines is a harbinger of the end times and risks ushering in a post-apocalyptic techno-scientific pseudo-Marxist nightmare.
33. That conclusion seems a bit much.
34. Especially in light of the rest of the book.
35. And especially in light of the essay (“Love, Truth, and the Meaning of Marriage”) that follows the one under discussion. That essay offers a complex, nuanced, and extended consideration of just what it might mean to say that God must redeem our families from their natural busyness. That essay, as Hancock well knows, argues that God’s redemption of the family enshrines sexual difference and insists that marriage, as something sealed by God, cannot be reduced to this world or to the natural pursuit of satisfaction, be it economic or romantic.
To say that marriage cannot be reduced to its traditional dimensions of economics and/or romance, is not to say that it doesn’t or shouldn’t further those ends. But it is to say that they are not enough. And it is to say that, in all their intimate weakness, God has promised to save us for our marriages, not from them.
36. And I’m pretty sure Ralph and I already agree about this.
Full Citation for this Article: Miller, Adam S. (2013) "Be Still and Get to Work: Responses," SquareTwo, Vol. 6 No. 1 (Spring), http://Sq2ArticleMillerSymposiumMillerResponse.html, <give access date>
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I. Ralph Hancock
Adam Miller’s reply puzzles me. At first he seems to take my reading seriously, and even is ready to ask for some statements to be excused as expressions of youthful enthusiasm. But then he seems to accuse me of trumping up charges just to have a dramatic way of finishing what he regards as an extravagantly long review. He claims not to recognize some of the arguments I attribute to him, but does not seem to consider whether some of the dots I am trying my best to connect might include those youthful excesses (the “facile mistakes” or “hamfisted overstatements” of “young scholars”) that he mentions. He does not identify those excesses for me, which would leave me with fewer dots and perhaps help me redraw connections, but I am more than happy silently to leave them behind – along with the whole of “Atonement and Testimony” (!) which seemed to me to fit with arguments prominent throughout the book – and simply to pursue our conversation towards insights we can share, ready to shed any of my own baggage that does not prove helpful along the way, too—even without the excuse of youth. (I will refer to Adam’s usefully numbered points.)
Adam provides a characteristically lovely preface to his engagement with his readers by reflecting on the goods of ordinary business on the one hand and godly stillness on the other. All this I welcome, even though I’m pretty sure I’m not as good at stillness as Adam, and so probably not as good at busy-ness, either. I agree that anchoring our busy-ness in a stillness beyond words is the key to avoiding vanity and idolatry (7, 11), though I’m not sure I would give “stillness” the same prominence is naming divinity, or the divine moment in our awareness, as Adam does. I’ll leave that open – I really don’t know.
I like Adam’s formulation (10) of the Spirit’s stillness returning our imperfect “abstractions” (these would include moral and political concepts, notably) to our service, but I would simply point up the risk (there I go again with my “risk”) of highlighting their “fragility” and “mobility.” This may in a way point to the whole question between us: I think the moral categories (normative “abstractions”) by which we order our individual and collective lives already appear as plenty fragile and mobile (relative), and that to emphasize this does not really, on the whole, serve our purpose of spiritual stillness.
In other words, we agree that the truth cannot be exhaustively said (11), but we seem to disagree concerning the implications of this negative insight. I applaud Adam in resisting “the reduction of love to lust, of thought to opinion, of joy to satisfaction, of sexual difference to biology, of truth to what can be said.” But I think he tends to neglect somewhat the task of mediating between thought and opinion, joy and satisfaction, sexual difference and biology. This I hope will become clearer further on.
20. I am second to none, I think, in my admiration of Joe Spencer’s readings of the Book of Mormon, but I haven’t yet grasped just how “the re-emergence of the overlooked” illuminates what it means to say that the world needs to be repaired and is reparable. Or, by asking what this means, am I already succumbing to the idolatrous compulsion to resort to what is fragile and mobile? Is it ungodly to want to talk about what it means, concretely, for the world to be in a better or worse state of repair?
22. So Handley, Miller and I all agree that we must both pray (be still) and act (be busy). Maybe the word “locally” (in “act locally”) is where we begin to diverge, since I might put more emphasis on our responsibility (especially as intellectuals, or talkers-writers) to think about the meaning of the whole situation and of our whole condition than George or Adam. Maybe.
23. In any case, Adam provides a very useful analysis of possible disagreements and invites a direct answer. We agree that the two imperatives (stillness and agency) must be held together, but I must confess I suppose that I am not satisfied with the simple (dare I say “absolute”) priority that Adam assigns to “dependence on God.” Please don’t take me to be denying our dependence on God here. But it is true that I would argue the importance of a more dialectical relationship between agency and holiness. You can say I’m more pagan and humanistic (or Thomist, or Pelagian, or even hermeneutical) in a certain way than Adam is. And one argument I would make for this position is that our conceptions (Miller’s “abstractions”) concerning goods and purposes, however “fragile” and “mobile”, inevitably inform the meaning we attribute to holy stillness. And vice versa, of course. If our beliefs are theomorphic (we think we are constituted in some way like God), then we are already implicated in anthropomorphism in our understanding of God.
Take, for example, the problem of reducing sexual difference to biology (11). I agree in resisting the reduction. But then I say that we wouldn’t even know what “sexual difference” means, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about, or to praise, or to work towards, if we weren’t sexually differentiated in various ways that are all bound up with our biological differences. We should see actual, biological differences as embedded in and pointing to something higher, something eternal – which, it seems to me, is a very different rhetorical strategy from insisting on the non-biological character of sexual difference. Similarly re the relation between “thought and opinion”: like Aristotle, I would honor the distinction, but not be too hard on right opinion. It’s a good place to start, and we can’t do without it. Again, the relation is dialectical: if Truth’s stillness has no speakable relation to right opinion, then we’re in trouble.
25. Adam says “nothing about a lack of hierarchy”?? Well, was I wrong to read this in the light of Ch. 2 (“Notes on Life, Grace and Atonement”), which indeed seemed to me to set the tone and establish a kind of framework for the whole book. There he deplores purpose-driven thinking as “sequential” and “mythological” and resistant to the “sheer givenness” of life. This seems to me very consonant, at least, with his emphasis in chapter three on “interdependence,” in which any ordering in view of say, vision and intelligence (D&C 88) is conspicuous for its absence. So at least you can see why I took his “interdependence” to be notably “non-hierarchical.”
26. OK, here we seem closer – but then what can we say of these “redeemed … judgments and preferences.” Even redeemed, would such judgments not involve distinguishing good and bad within what is “given”? Adam things my reading is too strong when I speak of his “debunking our moral judgment.” But does his emphatic, repeated fidelity to the “given” (which strikes me as a fairly onerous abstraction, by the way) leave much room for talk of moral judgment. To the degree that this is just a difference of emphasis between us, I am happy to live with this difference. But I’m not sure it’s just that.
27. Adam may miss my point if he thinks I am promoting “political engagement.” Political-moral responsibility, yes, but I wouldn’t equate the two. And he seems to understand the “academic project” as more removed from the moral-political world than I do. Would that academics were not in fact actors in the moral-political world!
And I would urge no academic to try to influence Church doctrine or institutions. So we are both in favor of modesty and circumspection. I would in fact invite professors modestly and discretely to help explain and defend LDS doctrines and institutions, or perhaps rather to defend the intellectual space within which these can appear in the best light. Adam and I may differ only, or mainly, as to whether insisting on the distinction between stillness and agency is the best way to do this. I think we must take into account the shape of the academic space in which we writers-talkers live and breathe, which is not a space overly friendly to moral agency. Holy stillness may be too convenient for us professors, therefore. And such stillness may have a moral-political meaning, whether we like it or intend it or not.
30. It’s a pity that Adam Miller gave up on my discussion of his “Gospel as an Earthen Vessel,” since it seems to me this is where the rubber hits the road. It’s a little ungenerous of him to conclude that I’m just reaching for something dramatic to conclude an essay he already finds too long, and that I can’t understand him because I haven’t mastered Badiou. (Actually I did read Miller’s book on Paul, Marion & Badiou, but didn’t want to extend my essay any further by discussing it. And since when does an author complain that a reader pays too close attention to his work? Since I am unable simply to praise or to echo Miller’s book, I must undertake the challenging task of engaging it from a very different standpoint. It seems in fact that my essay was too short, since I still haven’t adequately explained my reading. Thus the present…) Of course I understand that the perspective of a new and to many unfamiliar author (such as Badiou) can help us to reconsider our beliefs from a fresh point of view, but still, isn’t it fair to ask, after all, whether it makes sense to link our understanding of “the Gospel” so closely to the ideas of a certain contemporary French thinker, and an atheist and neo-communist at that? If Badiou had never existed, would we never understand the Gospel? Any any case, the proof of the pudding has to be in the eating – and it’s the pudding I’m doing my best to understand and to evaluate. If Miller can comprehend Badiou, I think he can, with a little more patience, understand the connection I am trying to trace between his dots. His bewilderment leaves open the possibility that I may see some connections more clearly than he does (despite his being the greater expert on Badiou).
So let me take another pass at identifying what seem to me to be the bigger dots and how they connect, in this chapter in particular. I was drawn to and drawn into this chapter of Miller’s because I think it starts with a very important (though perhaps overstated) insight: namely, that an idea, to be thinkable, but must have “public intelligibility”; it must somehow engage the horizons of our world. (I would hesitate to reduce this, as Miller does, to “the horizons of contemporary thought” – as if our world is exhaustively framed by the construct or ideology of capitalism / science. I think these represent strong tendencies within our contemporary world; I do not think they define it exhaustively. We can still talk of things that do not fit within the field defined by these terms. Just for example, to speak of “natural law” or of things “supernatural” may go against a very powerful grain of contemporary thought, but this does not prove that such ways of talking are pointless or irretrievable. It is because Miller does not seem to consider or to make anything of this possibility that I conclude that he does indeed succumb to a kind of radical historicism, a reduction of possibilities to the peculiar (and I would say narrow) horizon of our times.
It is here that Miller introduces the notion of “event,” which, whether it is best understood as a creation of Badiou’s or as owing much to Heidegger, has the character of not carrying with it any alternative understanding of the world, of being a sheer “interruption” or “disruption.” It is not any kind of worldly “knowledge,” but a “truth” with no content. I am puzzled, or else shocked, by Miller’s interest in characterizing the revelation of the restored gospel in terms of such a sheer, world-less (“acosmic”) “event.” I would have thought it pretty obvious that the Restored Gospel, however open-ended, indeterminate, fuzzy-around-the-edges, has some pretty distinct content, and is not empty of implications as to possible configurations of the world. But Miller believes the event of revelation needs to be stripped of all “metaphysical” content (any articulation of the world, a big picture … a “Great Plan of Happiness,” with its own laws and order, for example?) in order to operate as an “event” that “reconfigures knowledge” without proposing any alternative knowledge, or understanding of the world, the context, the horizon.
And so it seems to me that Miller’s content-free revelation serves precisely to remove any friction between the Gospel and the secular process defined by science / capital (freedom, I say). Is this not the meaning of Miller’s imperative to “render [Mormonism] sufficiently generic for the entire world to be transformed by it. My complaint is simply that Mormonism so rendered might appear apt to transform the entire world simply because … it has already, through the reduction of transcendence to the untouchably holy and hollow “event,” been transformed to fit the shape of this post-metaphysical world.
This rendering “generic” of Mormonism is, I would say – to return to Miller’s new beginning – is the upshot finally of Miller’s extreme separation of holy stillness from our busy-ness in the world. Our conception of transcendence, I would say, must always indeed find some traction in the world of public intelligibility, and therefore of agency, of moral and, finally, political choices. Miller emphasizes the exemption of our holy stillness from our business, which corresponds to the radical otherness of the Truth “event” from our worldly, contextual, practical “knowledge.” But because his holy event-stillness is radical, it cannot guide our choices through the articulation of purposes connected with our worldly existence. But the result of this radical transcendence (as I tried to show before) is the embrace of radical immanence: there’s nothing left for the event to mean, there are no available resources of public intelligibility, except the “generic” modern project of freedom and science. Mormonism is radically compatible with modernity precisely because its evental revelation is radically other than modernity (or any other intelligible world).
This Rube Goldberg whimsy indeed turns into a dynamo, and I don’t think this is accidental – though it may not be exactly Adam Miller’s deliberate intention.
At this point, let me say that I wondered whether Adam could really be intending the radical re-reading of the Gospel that seems to me to emerge from his ostensibly incidental theological project. That this was indeed his intention seemed to me to be confirmed by his “revolutionary” proposals regarding the family. (See below, # 32.)
I hope this now makes it possible for readers to see just what dots impress me and how I see them connected in Miller’s arguments. With this in mind, I invite Adam and other readers to go back and read my discussion of the Earthen Vessel and see whether there is not at least some coherence to my reading. Once this coherence is grasped, it might then be possible to show me how the dots might be connected otherwise than as I have proposed.
Of course, I am more than willing to accept Adam Miller’s repudiation of any of the extreme (“revolutionary”) implications I draw from his arguments. If terms like “revolutionary” are to be left behind as youthful excesses, so be it. But is there any other way to connect the dots? Most fundamentally: can the radical, unworldly (“acosmic”) notion of “stillness” or of “event” – a notion the whole point of which seems to be to lift the essence of revelation far above any merely practical concern with choosing and judging – can such a notion have any other outcome other than the paradoxical but in its own way logical embrace of radical immanence? If Miller wishes to avoid this radical implication, it seems me some of the major dots have to be, not only otherwise connected, but reconsidered in themselves.
30 d. I made a suggestion that “freedom” (in the modern, anthropocentric sense) lies deeper than “capital.” The point is that it’s easy to win academic friends by attacking capitalism. But what if capitalism is rooted in (and is just one version of) a deeper commitment to “freedom”? Now that’s harder, because we would like to keep our modern secular freedom without its economic implications.
31. “Risk” was my polite way of saying that it seems to me there is a characteristic a blind spot in Miller’s treatment of themes touching on moral-political responsibility. I politely left it to readers, including himself, to decide whether this constitutes a “failure.” A “risk” that is not recognized is indeed perhaps more than a risk; I wasn’t sure I needed to explain that.
32. Miller finally leaves restraint behind and finds it ridiculous that I should find anything amiss in his treatment of the family – as if I were charging him with the willful destruction of everything good and decent, even “apple pie.” Well, I may have misread Miller, but I did read him, quote from him, try again to connect his dots. I would have appreciated an actual engagement with a serious attempt at reading.
The dots are there, so it might be useful to propose another way of connecting them than my “chilling” reading.
For example: Adam, do you not radically distinguish between “truth” and “knowledge”?? This seems to me to lead straight to what I call “acosmism,” a tendency I had already noted in earlier chapters. “Truth” you say is exempt from “horizons of intelligibility within which we live, eat and breathe… [it is] not hermeneutical, nor is it contextual.” Is this not absolving Truth radically from any “world”? To be sure, Truth’s breaking-in foments a reconstitution of worldly horizons; but in doing so you say it 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.” (My emphasis, of course. But I am not making up the hyperbolic nature of the argument, am I?)
Do you not then go on to argue that this radical transcendence forecloses any old-fashioned discourse such as “natural law” and opens us to the truth of scientific materialism and of Marxism in particular – which provides, you think, a model of the Incarnation, a way of understanding that we are in one sense wholly material but also “not strictly bound by nature or limited by our bodies”? Do you not then say that Mormonism must “render itself … generic” – that is, I take it, embrace its likeness with late-modern freedom from natural law + scientific materialism, in order to be able to “transform” the world?
This is too “generic” for me. Do your other, more favorable, readers, understand and accept this rendering “generic” (compatible with modern freedom/science) of Mormonism?
It was against this background that I read your remarks on the family. You are very clear that there is nothing worth preserving in the family – just in case anyone should suspect a Mormon author, heaven forbid, of having any truck with those disreputable “conservative” voices that threaten our allegiance to freedom and science. “No event is an event of conservation. No truth is a truth of perpetuation. The operation of all truths and all events is revolutionary.” These are your words. I am not making them up – though, to be sure, there is no mention of apple pie.
Do these words not imply that there is nothing good in our “conventional,” ordinary, everyday understanding of the family that we should want to preserve or conserve? I’m not sure there’s another way of reading what you wrote. Are we supposed to take your enthusiasm for “revolution” seriously, or just as a youthful expression? Are the “finite interests” (attaching fathers to mothers and babies, for example) that have structured the family as we know it (despite permutations, of course) to be left altogether behind in favor of “an infinite fidelity” open to “love’s global intervention” that apparently has nothing to do with any local or particular or traditional world or context or horizon now familiar to us?
Yes, I found this a little chilling. I wasn’t sure you meant your reader to take your revolutionary talk seriously, and that’s what I meant to ask in my overly long review essay. I still don’t know your answer, even though we have agreed that apple pie should survive the revolution. But is there nothing else worth conserving?
Adam S. Miller: Thanks, Ralph, for the additional response. You’re doing really well, I think.
It looks like you have two main objections to RGM:
1. I place too much emphasis on a quiescent stillness and, thus, give short shrift to action and engaged responsibility (especially political responsibility).
2. I place too much emphasis on revolutionary action and, thus, fail to properly conserve and defend the virtues of tradition and the status quo.
I think that, though these objections make contact, they don't really hit RGM in its solar plexus.
Your critique founders, I think, on its failure to really nail down how these two objections don’t just identify an incoherence in my work but are two symptoms of the same problem. And I think this failure has mostly to do with your reading of how Badiou figures into some of the essays.
For instance, your reading of the “Earthen Vessel” essays gets caught up in critiquing some of its overheated rhetoric about “newness” and “revolution” (and that’s good as far as it goes) but, as a result, you get pushed into a bad reading of Badiou’s notion of the event. The rhetorical critique hampers you when it comes time to show how your first and second objections work together.
If you pulled back on your critique of the surface rhetoric and saw more clearly what Badiou is saying, you’d have an easier time identifying RGM’s deeper structural problem.
For Badiou, there is no such thing as “the world,” there are only a multitude of overlapping and partially compatible “worlds” or “situations.” So that, by definition, nothing can be straightforwardly “acosmic” as you describe it because there is no “world.”
This is especially true of what Badiou means by an “event.” Events are evental only because they super belong in a fundamental way to a situation that then fails to acknowledge their inclusion.
The difference between “truth” and “knowledge” in Badiou is not an absolute difference between something that is other-worldly and something that is this-worldly. (Badiou’s both a communist and an atheist after all.) It’s a local, relative difference between two ways of belonging to a situation. And, more, the element that prompts a truth procedure in one situation may just count as ordinary and commonsensical knowledge in relation to another situation. (E.g. Mormon ideas about marriage may be ho-hum for us but revolutionary for sexually liberated Canadians.)
Now if we straighten that out, it becomes possible to explicitly identify the deep structural problem at the heart of RGM as the conjunction of your two objections. And, as a result, I think your critique becomes much more effective. (This is, I think, the advantage that both Spencer and Handley have over your responses thus far: they both deal explicitly with the conjunction as such. They just put a generally positive rather than negative spin on it.)
In the case of both objection 1 and objection 2, RGM’s basic problem is that it is interested not in what transcends a situation, but in what is constitutively and exceptionally situational (e.g. silence or the event).
In other words, RGM is consistently trying to articulate an emphatically this-worldly and immanent account of grace.
Another way to put this (a way that, I think, has real teeth) is to say that the fundamental structural problem at the heart of RGM as a volume of Mormon essays (a problem that still shows up as two divergent symptoms in your objections) is that it’s account of grace is godless.
The structural problem is RGM’s godlessness.
Now that’s a critique with some bite!
But the current version of your second objection obscures this point with all its misapplied talk of acosmic transcendence, etc., and, thus, it obscures the compatibility of your first and second objections and weakens the whole approach.
The truth is (and this may be a point that is, in general, too obvious) that I'm always interested in asking different versions of just this same question: What does God’s absence mean?
In some ways, this is a deeply religious (and Mormon) question. In other ways, the form of the question may itself compromise all of my attempts to answer it.
That is something people should worry about.
And that is something I’ll certainly have to take responsibility for.
Ralph C. Hancock: Thanks, Adam. I am optimistic we’re making progress here. That’s not a bad statement of my twin objections (which I am not sure you see I understand as two sides of the same coin: radical immanence = radical transcendence. God kicked upstairs = world given over to secularism. Calvin and the Foundation of Modern Politics. …. Further: subjective freedom as boundless mastery = scientific determinism, closure. Sartre as existentialist/ Marxist.)
Adam S. Miller: Right! All of my work turns on this same point: how do you think about immanence without slipping into a radical immanence that then automatically flips itself into a radical transcendence?
My whole first book (Badiou, Marion, and St Paul) is about exactly this problem. (In fact, Speculative Grace is also entirely about this.) Recall my own 60pp. critique of Marion: my critique of Marion's position (really, everybody's critique of Marion's position) is that his attempt at a radical immanence by way of saturated phenomena can't avoid slipping into an unworldly transcendence!
Why, then, is Badiou helpful on this front (and, as a I've just recently argued, Latour as well)? Because Badiou and Latour both offer models for how to think about immanence in novel ways that address this problem. Now you can disagree with the models, but if we don't see that we're after the same thing here, then we've really missed the boat.
So, with respect to RGM, the trouble is that you've overread me as favoring a radical immanence that then is indistinguishable from a radical transcendence. Rather than holding the two objections together in an irresolvable tension (as both Spencer and Handley do), you keep collapsing them for me.
My position only ends up actually being troubled by the kind of "godlessness" I've indicated if I'm not advocating that kind of radical immanence because, as we both agree, if I opt for that kind of radical immanence, then I've just reimported a strong traditional transcendence through the back door.
Ralph C. Hancock: OK then, good. We both recognize the complicity between radical immanence and radical transcendence. Now we can compare and contrast our strategies for articulating an alternative.
Adam S. Miller: Excellent. Look at us! Plus this will be really good because, though I've been on the receiving end, I really have no clear idea of what your position is, its ontology, or even its epistemology.
Ralph C. Hancock: Still, do you stand by your remark that 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.” … or how about “the possibility of an entirely new life in an entirely new world”? (How would that square with: “this same sociality…” (D&C 131)
And how about the enthusiasm for capital’s capacity “to dissolve all our traditional natural, local bonds”?? Did you not mean to connect this with your “generic” (non-metaphysical-transcendent) re-reading of Mormonism? Obviously this dissolution is of a piece with your declaration that “no event is an event of conservation.” (Of course I would say myself that no event is an event only of conservation.)
I’m not trying to burden you with any particular formulation to which you may not be fully attached, or to make you an offender for any number of words – just as you have shown goodwill in allowing me to re-explain myself. I’m just trying to identify that “solar plexus” of your argument, so I can decide whether to punch it! ☺
At this point I don’t see how you can avoid “radical immanence” without revising what I took to be your intransigent view of what still seems to me the worldlessness and wordlessness of the event of stillness.
No doubt, as I said before, this question needs to be discussed in relation to the event/ world(s) problem.
I’ll look again at your presentation of Badiou. Thanks for your patience in striving for mutual understanding.
Adam S. Miller: Yes. These are still good questions and I think I've already conceded some of their force. But I think we're likely best served at this point to just start fresh with something else. Otherwise, we'll just have to start a Being and Event reading group and that is a very long and complicated book.
Ralph C. Hancock: Well judged, Adam – this indeed seems a good point at which to suspend the present tete-a-tete and to be open to occasions for fresh starts, which will present themselves. I’ll try, for example, to find a promising point of engagement in your treatment of Badiou. And I’ve got your new book to read, of course.
Meanwhile, as for “my position”: here’s a sample (you’ll see that it’s all about sustaining the pagan/Christian-modern tension):
Tocqueville’s brief evocation of a collapse of “moral analogy,” indicates a fundamental defect of modern rationalism and invites us to consider how reason’s responsibility might best be understood in our times. This defect is best understood as a disorder affecting the relation between “theory” and “practice,” one that may present itself either as a radical separation or as a radical fusion. To resist these twin pathologies of “reason,” and thus to take responsibility for connecting our theoretical freedom with our practical belonging, reason must first learn to affirm its own goodness as in some way continuous with the intimations of transcendence that structure our practical existence.
Once the dynamics of this separation/fusion of theory and practice are understood, it is possible to discern the Scylla and Charybdis between which we must navigate in seeking conditions for the survival of a moral analogy binding together man’s spiritual freedom and his practical existence, and thus securing their mutual health. Foremost among these conditions is a critical self-knowledge that includes an appreciation at once of the dignity of reason (its inescapable freedom and ruling responsibility) and of reason’s limits (its implication in norms or goods or meanings that cannot be founded in pure autonomy).
Tocqueville’s acute moderation provides a touchstone for a self-reflective and responsible understanding of reason that is both theoretically and practically superior to Heidegger’s deconstruction of Western reason and to Leo Strauss’s attempt to restore classical rationalism. Reason’s responsibility today, both to itself and to the common good, must be attuned to the truth of the fundamental aporia that is the deep spring of Western dynamism, the insuperable tension between a horizon of knowable goodness above common human concerns and the religious hope for or revolutionary promise of the redemption or regeneration of our common humanity.
Adam S. Miller: Well, I like what I see here. Especially if we read the "fundamental aporia that is the deep spring of Western dynamism" as a general ontological condition and not just a local epistemological problem. Forward, then!