In the introduction to his recent book, Rube Goldberg Machines, Adam Miller makes the following claim about his work: “These essays offer a coherent vision of an alternative 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.”[1] Being myself a fellow-traveler on this “alternative path,” and especially being one who is driven by the specifically scriptural commitments of Faulconer’s approach, I find myself asking as I read Miller’s essays the following question: How does Miller’s work relate to scripture?

I might rephrase this question in terms of faith. Miller is quite forthcoming that the sort of theological reflection he pursues in his work is meant to model charity. Indeed, according to Miller, charity is the very “measure” of a theology’s “strength.” [2] But might one not justifiably worry that unreserved commitment to charity too easily lends itself to a kind of unfaithfulness, a kind of infidelity—breaking the rules to keep the commandments, as it can be paradoxically be put? [3] My question, then, might be phrased as follows: How does Miller’s theology model faith as much as charity?

My aim in this brief essay is to begin to construct an answer to these two interchangeable questions: How does Miller’s work relate to scripture? That is, how does Miller’s theology model faith as much as charity? The answer I attempt here to construct will, whether fortunately or unfortunately, be needlessly complex—a little Rube Goldberg machine of my own. I aim to show that Miller’s work is faithful to a uniquely Nephite theological gesture, one often mentioned but seldom investigated. My argument is that an apparent theological ambivalence in Miller’s work can be viewed as an echo of the essential ambivalence of Nephite messianism. Importantly, lying at the heart of that Nephite ambivalence is the key theological virtue of hope. It is hope, I intend to make clear, that binds faith and charity together in Miller’s book. [4]

Obviously, I have some building to do.

Rube Goldberg Machines gathers essays older and newer, something the careful reader can sense. The stylistic difference between the more and the less recent is perhaps most obvious. Newer essays blend the aphoristic and the conversational in arresting prose poems; older essays expound, in prose sharpened to cut to the quick, straightforwardly novel theses. But it is not style that draws my attention here. (Indeed, I was just as jealous of Miller’s ability with words some years ago as I have been more recently.) Rather, what draws my attention is an apparent incommensurability between the theological positions assumed, respectively, in the older and the newer essays. This apparent incommensurability concerns the question of the new, of novelty.

Compare two essays from the book: “Humanism, Mormonism” (chapter 11) and “Groundhog Day” (chapter 13). These two essays were originally produced within four years of each other, but the apparent difference between them is startling. The thesis of “Humanism, Mormonism” is, straightforwardly, that novelty is the focus of everything worthwhile—Mormonism included. “Joseph Smith’s claim,” Miller states there, “is that revelation . . . is absolutely essential to the vitality of Christianity. Christianity without revelation is vanity. [And] here, it is necessary to understand revelation as novelty itself.” [5] But then contrast this thesis with the repeating refrain from “Groundhog Day”: “Novelty is a red herring: the last refuge of that dream that is your ego.” [6] Novelty is good, novelty is bad. The contrast, it seems, could not be starker.

In his early embrace of the new, Miller marks his interest in the succession of worlds. Convinced with Saint Paul that “the present order of things is passing away,”[7] Miller in his earlier essays focuses on how the eternal ruptures the homogeneity of history and gives human beings to reconstruct the order of things—the world itself!—in a novel way. According to this vision, the faithful are either looking to receive the promise or the new or militantly reordering things so that the already-received promise of the new will be fulfilled. The faithful, in other words, anxiously keep the vigil of the time-between.

But Miller’s more recent work begins from a worry about the harried anxiety of, precisely, the vigilant faithful extolled in his earlier work. In their passion for the promise of the new, the vigilant let pass too much of the old. Consequently, Miller has come to focus not on the word that announces the possibility of a new world, but on the actual experience of the world we human beings already inhabit. Convinced with the Buddha that the body’s several physical senses are “called the all,” [8] Miller in his more recent essays focuses on how attention to the eternal givenness of experience conditions the homogeneity of history. According to this vision, the enlightened are those who reject the lure of the new so as to be where they already are. The enlightened, in other words, see that the world is always new, but never in a new way.

Two successive visions, then, have animated Miller’s work, and each of them guides certain essays that appear Rube Goldberg Machines. In the first, earlier vision, Miller sees world succeeding world, the second transcending the first in truth, beauty, and goodness. In the second, more recent vision, Miller sees only one always-changing world, but sees also that that world is transcendentally conditioned. In both visions, attention to the eternal problematizes the homogeneity of temporal history, but while it is truths that are eternal in the first vision, it is the conditions of experience that are eternal in the second. It is as if, reversing philosophical history, Miller has experienced a conversion of sorts from Hegel to Kant, from (1) thinking the instability of a history whose end in eternity can be thought, to (2) thinking the possibility of being oriented to the eternal conditions of the world of sensory experience.

But one might well ask whether these two visions are really incommensurable. Is the difference between them real or merely apparent? Does the Buddha, the unmistakable hero of the more recent essays, crowd out or commune with Saint Paul, the unmistakable hero of the earlier essays?

Is Mormonism Pauline?—that, it seems to me, is the question. If it is, then it would seem that the development from Paul to the Buddha marks a shift from faithfulness to something else—enlightenment, as I put it before. But if the relationship between Mormonism and Saint Paul is more complicated, then there are other ways of understanding the development of Miller’s thought. Indeed, I want to argue that Miller has, in the Buddhist turn of sorts that has marked his recent work, not so much abandoned as proposed a profoundly Mormon reading of Saint Paul. [9] He has, in other words, begun to reproduce one of the essential moves made by the Book of Mormon itself. [10]

At first glance, one might take the Book of Mormon to indicate the irreversibly Pauline character of Mormonism. The book is deeply messianic, unmistakably meant to restore Christianity after the Enlightenment to its erstwhile robust faith. Diatribes against corrupted churches, sermons about God’s gifts, passionate criticisms of the closed canon, accounts of anti-Christs struck down—all this can only be understood as a massive apologetics for the ancient Christian faith, which took its earliest definitive shape in Paul’s letters. How, then, could the Book of Mormon not commit Latter-day Saints to Paul’s basic conviction that Christ’s resurrection heralded the definitively new? And yet there is something odd about Nephite Christianity. What can it mean, for instance, to talk about another, a third testament that troubles—if not trumps—the binary of old and new that shapes the Christian Bible? All parties interested in the tired question of whether Mormons are Christian have to agree that if Mormons are Christian, they are Christians with a difference, since their faith complicates or even cancels the old/new polarity that undergirds the traditional Christian faith.

How do the old and new testaments of the Christian Bible work? The classic formulation is simple: In the Old Testament, the New Testament lies hidden; in the New Testament, the Old Testament stands revealed. This formulation is as much the announcement of an interpretive strategy as anything else: the old should be read as an obscure anticipation of the new, the new as the fulfillment of and key to the old. The saving event of Christ’s resurrection breaks history in two and allows for everything before the event to be seen as anticipating everything after the event. Now, what does the Book of Mormon do to this delicate balance between before and after? Most of the book’s narrative occurs before Christ’s coming, and yet its characters are already fully Christian. The event that should provide the key for understanding the old remains for the Nephites on the horizon, and yet they already understand the old. Consequently, when that event takes place, there is no real change in theology; nothing becomes old when the new arrives. [11]

All this might be put another way: The pre-Christian Nephite prophets emphatically did not anticipate Christianity; they were Christians. From very early in Nephite history, believers were told “to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was” or “even as though he had already come among them.” [12] Thus, paradoxically, the Nephites embraced in their faith both the affirmation and the negation of the new. They asserted both that something real would be accomplished in the Christ event, something that would change material reality itself, and that nothing real would be accomplished in the Christ event because its effects were somehow already operative.

The Jew, according to a useful caricature, understands the Messiah to mark the limit of history, to be an always-deferred figure still to come who orients human desire to God’s justice. The Christian, according to a similarly useful caricature, understands the Messiah to mark the past interruption that has broken history in two and introduced into the otherwise closed world God’s mercy. Perhaps it is worth creating a third useful caricature: the Nephite understands the Messiah to have always already come in an immemorial-because-pre-historical past, laying the foundation of a world woven of both mercy and justice.

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. It is true that Nephite prophets from the beginning look to an eschatological era ushered in by divine intervention in the last days, but that intervention is only the divinely guided promulgation of an ancient book, the universal announcement of what has passed unnoticed. It could therefore just as easily have been a Nephite as Adam Miller who proposed the idea that “novelty is a red herring.” Christ’s atoning work, according to the Nephites, was less the dawn of the new than the worldly manifestation of the most ancient and immanent thing of all: the Lamb’s being slain from the foundation of the world. [13] 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.

Nothing is on its way? Does the Book of Mormon, then, launch a polemic against hope? If it, like Miller, really does claim that novelty is a red herring, does it not reject every orientation to possibility? Indeed, if, as Alma argues most fascinatingly in his discussion with Corianton, [14] the eschaton is an era of restoration, of repetition, for what can one genuinely hope? But, no. The Book of Mormon emphasizes hope as much as Paul does, apparently thanks to Mormon’s particular concerns. Because he was himself “without hope,” as he says, hope was one of his principal concerns—not only in letters and sermons his son would include in the volume’s appendix of sorts, [15] but already in the theological shape he gave to the editorial project he assembled. [16] Details can be dealt with elsewhere. [17] For now suffice it to say that the Book of Mormon can be read as much as a treatise on the centrality of hope to Christian experience as it can be read as a complex rejection of novelty.

But this should give us pause. Although hope is, according to the Book of Mormon, hope “for a better world,” it is not hope for another world. [18] What the Nephite anticipates in hope is not the dawn of the new, but the transformative restoration of the ancient, reemergence of the passed-over, thematization of the foreclosed. [19] There is no hope for a tomorrow with everything set right; there is hope only that the repetition of today will allow it to be done better—more justly, more mercifully, more faithfully, more charitably. Indeed, it is this sort of hope, precisely because it is Nephite hope, that binds the charity Miller intends to promote to faith.

At any rate, it is this vision of things that, I believe, animates both earlier and later Miller. Careful reading of the earlier essays shows that Miller’s approbation of novelty was a first attempt to outline what has become his theme since. This could not be clearer in what I think remains his most provocative essay, “Messianic History” (chapter 3 of Rube Goldberg Machines), an essay that was produced three years before “Humanism, Mormonism” and a full seven years before “Groundhog Day.” [20] Miller there argues that the Book of Mormon is “messianic” precisely in that it is “rediscover[ed]” as “what was lost,” [21] in that it interrupts time “by way of a pure repetition,” [22] in that it “exposes homogeneous ‘progress’ as vain,” [23] in that it “carefully collects the heterogeneous debris of history,” [24] in that it, in a word, “is anachronistic.” [25] This essay alone shows that Miller’s project has not so much changed as sharpened. Novelty—if it is understood as progress—has always been vain in Miller’s eyes. And novelty—if it is understood as the promised reemergence of what is consistently overlooked—has always been worthy of celebration, on Miller’s account.

Miller thus shares his vision with—and perhaps adopts it from—the Book of Mormon. Willing to take Nephite scripture seriously enough to contest every narrative of linear progress, every destructive trust in the present world order, every arrogant reverie in visions of a future conforming only to one’s own selfish fantasies, Adam Miller is a Book of Mormon theologian, an exemplary hermeneut, and a worthy traveler of the road Faulconer has paved. Though I wish his work more consistently plunged its spade in the soil of the scriptural text—how I wish he would write commentaries!—Adam Miller never fails to teach me to read more attentively, with more faith, more hope, and more charity.


[1] Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), xv. For a good sampling of Faulconer’s work, see James E. Faulconer, Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2010). [Back to manuscript].

[2] Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines, xv; see also 59-62. [Back to manuscript].

[3] I draw this formulation from Richard Dutcher’s 2005 film States of Grace. [Back to manuscript].

[4] Revealing the role played by hope in Miller’s thought is, I think, an important exercise. In the course of a panel on Rube Goldberg Machines at the 2012 meetings of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology (in which the original version of this paper was delivered), Rosalynde Welch described Miller’s theology by referring to the image (drawn from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books) of someone trying to ride a tricycle turned into a bicycle through the removal of one of the wheels. Miller’s theology, she said, rides tipsily on the wheels of faith and charity. Although she did not say so directly, Welch’s image implies that Miller’s theological project begins with his removal of the wheel of hope. I want to suggest otherwise. [Back to manuscript].

[5] Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines, 110. [Back to manuscript].

[6] Ibid., 124. [Back to manuscript].

[7] See 1 Corinthians 7:31. [Back to manuscript].

[8] See Glenn Wallis, ed., Basic Teachings of the Buddha (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 27. [Back to manuscript].

[9] This marks, I think, an important improvement on Miller’s most sustained—but still early—treatment of Saint Paul, that to be found in his book, Immanent Grace. There he makes Saint Paul’s thought a first, abandonable step on the way to thinkers more strictly amenable to his (Mormon) commitments. See Adam Miller, Badiou, Marion and St Paul: Immanent Grace (New York: Continuum, 2008). (It should be noted that Miller never mentions his specifically Mormon commitments in Immanent Grace. It is a book on philosophy for a non-Mormon audience.) [Back to manuscript].

[10] I spell out the relationship between the Book of Mormon and Saint Paul in some more detail in my forthcoming book, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope, to be published by Greg Kofford Books. [Back to manuscript].

[11] It is, I believe, for this reason that the Nephites “understood not [Christ’s] saying [to them] that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new” (3 Nephi 15:2). It is not that they did not understand the dawn of the new, but rather that they had had the new all along and so could not make sense of the claim that anything was changing. [Back to manuscript].

[12] See Jarom 1:11 and Mosiah 3:13 (the emphases are mine). [Back to manuscript].

[13] This language is used in the Book of Mormon over and over again, and not only with reference to the gospel as known by the Nephites. It is found also on the lips of the Christ who visits the brother of Jared long before Lehi is born (see Ether 3:14), as well as on the lips of the angels God sends still earlier to Adam and Eve outside the garden of Eden (see Alma 12:30)! [Back to manuscript].

[14] See Alma 40-42. [Back to manuscript].

[15] See Moroni 7-9. [Back to manuscript].

[16] See especially the several references to hope in the Book of Alma. [Back to manuscript].

[17] See, again, my forthcoming book, For Zion. [Back to manuscript].

[18] See Ether 12:4. [Back to manuscript].

[19] On this theme, see Richard Lyman Bushman, “The Book of Mormon in Early Mormon History,” in Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, edited by Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 65-78; and Terry L. Givens, “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plenitude,” BYU Studies 44.4 (2005): 55-68. [Back to manuscript].

[20] “Messianic History” was originally delivered at the 2004 meetings of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. It originally appeared in James M. McLaughlan and Loyd Ericson, Discourses in Mormon Theology: Philosophical and Theological Possibilities (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 227-245. [Back to manuscript].

[21] Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines, 21. [Back to manuscript].

[22] Ibid., 24. [Back to manuscript].

[23] Ibid., 25. [Back to manuscript].

[24] Ibid., 26. [Back to manuscript].

[25] Ibid., 32. [Back to manuscript].


Full Citation for this Article: Spencer, Joseph M. (2013) "Notes on Novelty," SquareTwo, Vol. 6 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMillerSymposiumSpencer, html, <give access date>

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