Future Mormon 7: Reflections on the Gift of Grace

Welcome to the oft delayed seventh chapter of the increasingly not weekly reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism if they disagree or even just see flaws in the logic. That’s when we tend to all learn the most.

Summation

Grace isn’t just a name for how God saves us. It’s a name for God’s global modus operandi, and this M.O. is manifest originally and fundamentally in God’s work of creation.

This chapter is primarily engaging with Elder Uchtdorf’s talk “The Gift of Grace.” Many of the themes are familiar both from prior chapters as well as Adam’s other writings. The emphasis is that grace shouldn’t be seen as a backup plan for our works. “Works only become righteous when they are the product of God’s grace” and “motivated by the pure love of Christ.” Grace can’t be a response to our actions as that’d make grace secondary rather than primary.

Adam coins the phrase “the special theory of grace” which understands grace only in terms of redemption and thus as a reaction. The more general conception of grace must be seen not as a response for redemption of the world but as his creation of the world. To Adam this means “a ‘general theory’ of grace would account for grace as a fundamental and constitutive feature of reality itself” and “as an essential and ongoing feature of everything real.”

Sin is to resist the grace God is giving. The problem with people’s perception of grace is that they are asking how to get what they want. Instead we should accept what God is giving and making us. He then gives an example of someone feeling empty, struggling in prayer and then receiving the answer “just be yourself.”

Critique

This was one of my favorite chapters. It gets at what is so right about what Adam says. However it also gets at what I have trouble with in Adam’s thought. Grace as a gift has to be more than redemption. To limit grace just to the atonement is to miss the plan of salvation. Further, it is to miss the creation that happened prior to the council in heaven where the plan of salvation was offered. All that God does for us is that gift. Just as we, as parents, want to give our kids as much as we can to help the be the best they can be, so too do our heavenly parents. Adam’s completely right to broaden the conception of grace beyond redemption and sanctification where so many people limit it.

However it’s also right here that one can over broaden it. There’s a danger that if grace is all creation that the bad parts of creation are caught up in it. This raises the traditional problem of evil in a system where everything comes from a single source of God.[1] The problem is that within Mormonism, God isn’t the source of being. The problem with traditional Christianity, particularly after Augustine, was trying to equate the God of the Bible with the God of the platonists. However for most Mormons God is a being like us who has before gone what we have gone through.[2] It’s hard to see how grace could be all things and all creation if God is himself embedded in creation.

More pressing though is how to deal with evil. Adam pushes a view that verges upon a kind of  quietism that accepts what is given without seeking to change it. To be clear, Adam is very emphatic that he does not embrace quietism. I’m definitely not accusing him of becoming a quietist. However if we elevate and privilege accepting ourselves as we are, it’s hard to understand the drive to change. It seems like one intrinsically privileges a stance where change happens and we accept what we are. It’s hard to conceive of a cry of “lengthen your stride” in such a scheme.

I suspect what Adam wants is to accept the good us and reject the bad us. But what is the good us? What is the good? The danger in seeing grace as all creation is in seeing all creation as good. But it clearly isn’t. If we start appreciating the holocaust, for instance, then something is wrong. Not all creation is good. Some creation must be resisted. Further, some of creation seems to be our creation and not God’s creation except to the degree God gave us the pieces and the freedom to construct them how we would.

It’s that aspect of creation (both as verb and as noun) that I think Adam’s grace doesn’t deal well with, even if over all I am very sympathetic to the stance he takes.

  1. Platonism is the obvious example of this. Their solution, especially by the time of neoplatonism with Plotinus and others was the idea that evil was privation. Adam hints at that in this chapter as too does D&C 93:23-26. To reject the outflowing of the One in platonism creates emptiness which is evil. It’s the absence of the good as this outflowing creative power.
  2. I should note that not all Mormon thinkers agree with the traditional. Blake Ostler rejects the endless regress of gods that most people read into the King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove and that Brigham Young taught in Utah. I’m here more speaking of common Mormon belief. There have also been attempts to reconcile the view from late Nauvoo with a somewhat platonic sense of God and grace. Arguably Orson Pratt’s view of a divine aether as the attributes of godliness is one such attempt.

4 comments for “Future Mormon 7: Reflections on the Gift of Grace

  1. sc
    August 10, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    Clark, I think your closing suspicion may be incorrect. Miller specifically describes his “weakness,” “hunger,” and “failing” as vehicles of God’s grace–as “gifts.” Probably recognizing how counterintuitive that sounds, he adds, “The grace is free but it’s certainly not cheap.” He’s a bit more opaque about his broader conception of creation: “Grace is this massive, ongoing act of divinely organized creation that involves an uncountable host of agents, human and nonhuman, embedded in irreducible webs of stewardship, consecration, sacrifice, and interdependence.” The use of positive-sounding words (stewardship, consecration, sacrifice) muddies the waters in a description of what would otherwise sound like everything that is—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Elsewhere, he seems to pull it back in the direction of meaning, yes, *everything.* (“Sin is our proud and fearful refusal of our dependence on a world that we didn’t ask for, can’t control, and can’t escape.”)

    It’s reasonable to press back against that, as you have. If the Holocaust is a manifestation of God’s grace (as part of ongoing creation), do we sin–at least, as Miller construes sin–when we look upon it and say, “Never again”? At an individual level, should a Holocaust victim or survivor regard her experience as a gift (e.g., Viktor Frankl = saint; Primo Levi = sinner)? Is the hunger of the pedophile or serial killer a manifestation of God’s grace–a gift that he must “do the hard work of receiving,” before God can be expected to give him other gifts?

    You have more sympathy for this piece of Miller’s project than I do. To me, it’s far too Paul-struck. The authentic and pseudepigraphic Pauline epistles have more references to “grace” than the Old Testament, Book of Mormon, and D&C combined. Riffing on “grace,” in this disproportionate manner, leaves me cold. It makes Paul–a guy who wasn’t one of the Twelve, never met Jesus in the flesh, and lived most of his life far-removed from the core community of early saints–the ultimate arbiter of what the Christian message was and is. No, not for me. The Restoration and its scripture offer many avenues that avoid that intellectual cul-de-sac.

  2. Clark
    August 10, 2018 at 5:36 pm

    I think “cheap” doesn’t really get at my critique. It’s more how passive we are to be. I should add that the same thing pops up in Nibley who has a fairly similar take in the second half of The Ancient State.

    But you raise the second issue that Adam also doesn’t address – freedom. To what degree are we free to be creators ourselves? And if we create, is that denying grace, participating in grace or what? Because almost by definition to create newly is to deny the creation as given. I don’t think Adam can escape easily from these tensions.

    I’m not sure this is a Pauline matter, although that depends upon how one reads Paul. If you read Paul through a lens of Luther and Calvin then you may be correct. Read him through N. T. Wright and then things are much more muddled. Of course though in the 20th century Continental tradition which informs Adam’s work, Paul is a rather significant figure. Adam in particular is influenced not only by Heidegger but also Badiou who has written on Paul. (I’ve not read his Pauline works so I can’t comment on their take) There’s also a certain Buddhist element in how Adam reads all this. What he’s really after is a kind of expansive secular grace that’s akin to Buddhist notions of transience and nothingness.

  3. sc
    August 10, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    I took you to be criticizing both the over-inclusiveness of his conception of grace (e.g., individual or collective evil being as “given” as the good) *and* the possibility that his prescribed acceptance is a recipe for complacency. As to freedom and individual creation, I expect he might say that, in accepting grace, we would become conduits for further gifts–instruments in God’s ongoing creation, rather than independent creators or even co-creators. But, if so, are any judgments built in there (e.g., creating a well to provide safe drinking water to a remote village, building a ship in a bottle, inventing a chemical weapon, developing a gene therapy, etc.)? Or is every action and every product of that expansive conception of grace-as-creation going to be divine grace, through and through?

    I’m not saying that Miller is giving us Paul qua Paul. He’s riffing. To the extent there’s any scriptural tether to this chapter in the Gospel According to St. Miller (said in jest, recognizing he might be mortified to have his work characterized in that way), it’s the Pauline/deutero-Pauline epistles. No, sin-as-rejection-of-the-way-things-is-and-resistance-to-acceptance-of-our-fallen-nature doesn’t sound like Paul (e.g., Romans 7:14-25).

  4. Clark Goble
    August 10, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    Close. The question is primarily when do we accept creation and when do we fight it.

    As for Paul, I think he’s largely following a particular reading of Paul. I’m more favorable to Wright’s reading. As I said though I’ve just not read Badiou on Paul which is the main influence for Adam. So I can’t comment too much there. So I wouldn’t say it’s riffing although it may be a way of reading Paul I’m not necessarily going to agree with. However I’ll also confess I’m not exactly knowledgeable enough to say much about Pauline exegesis either. It’s particularly Badiou’s take on Paul to understand universalism that I think drives Adam the most.

    Consider for instance this review of St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism or this interview with Badiou. They should put into relief a bit more of Adam’s thought. Badiou sees universalism as almost a kind of Hegelian synthesis that goes beyond differences prior to the even of the universal. You see that in Adam’s thought as well. (He’d probably not like me using Hegel as the example, although I think it fits)

    Adam discusses this a lot in his book Speculative Grace. I confess it’s been a while since I last read it so I don’t want to go by memory. However what is key is repeated in Future Mormon and several other of his books. “Here again, described as a “salvation event,” grace is what interrupts human history and enables salvation. This interruption frees its recipients from the slavery of sin and endows them with gifts.” By taking grace not just as a salvic moment of recreation but as a general point of recreation (or in Mormon terms – a reorganization of reality) you end up with this broad conception of grace.

    The problem is that it explains too much. If every event, every significant reorganization is grace, then how do we distinguish grace from non-grace. And that’s the problem that lurks in the margins of most of his works. I just don’t think he deals well with it. If evil is, in almost neoplatonic terms, merely the refusal of divine light or grace, why isn’t that refusal also grace?

    The idea I think is akin to the mantic and sophic in Nibley. You have grace, light or revelation given which people can accept or deny. But to deny it is to then be trapped in repetition.

Charitable Comments Welcome

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.