Letters to a Young Mormon, with Adam Miller
BLAIR HODGES: This is the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. In this episode I’m joined by Adam Miller, a Latter-day Saint philosopher who recently published an unusual book here at the Maxwell Institute. The book is called Letters to a Young Mormon and I think it’s unlike anything ever written for a Latter-day Saint audience. Miller spends his days teaching philosophy to college students in Texas, but the most important lessons he says he’s prepared have been directed to his own children. So he composed this book as a series of letters meant for them and for any young Mormon who’s familiar with Mormon life but green in their faith. Letters to a Young Mormon encourages Mormons young and old to live in a way that refuses to abandon either Mormonism or life. Most importantly, even while dispensing wisdom, Miller wonders alongside the reader.
Adam Miller’s new book Letters to a Young Mormon is the topic in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLAIR HODGES: I’m here with Adam Miller. He joins me from Dallas, Texas. We’re here to talk about his new book Letters to a Young Mormon that was just published with the Maxwell Institute. Thanks for joining me, Adam.
ADAM MILLER: My pleasure.
HODGES: I wanted to start the interview by talking a little about your personal background, sort of your life story, because it’s not your typical born in the church, raised in Utah, type of a story. So I’d like to hear about your family background.
MILLER: I’m the third of four children. All of my family, both on my father and my mother’s side are from Pennsylvania. I grew up in Pennsylvania. My father’s grandmother joined the church. She was interested in the church and tried to find missionaries to teach her the gospel, but the best she could do in Pennsylvania was the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and so she initially accidentally joined the Reorganized Church because she wasn’t aware of the difference. Then later on she corrected that and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
HODGES: Do you know how she found out? How did she find out the difference?
MILLER: I don’t know the story about exactly how that came to light. My father grew up then in a part-member family. His mother was active but his father was not a member. My mother joined the church after she married my father while he was away in the navy.
HODGES: Yeah, you said that didn’t missionaries stop by while he was away, and then missionaries came by and she was like, “Hey I think my husband belongs to that church.”
MILLER: Yeah, I talk about that a little bit in the book. So I was born into the church though, raised in the church. In the context of Pennsylvania that meant initially a very small ward, and then when I was a teenager we moved and then it was a very small branch. We met in a house for most of my teenage years. I was the Young Men’s program, personally. So there was never any doubt who was going to be the president of the deacon’s quorum or the teacher’s quorum.
HODGES: Did you have a first counselor? Or were you like the whole presidency?
MILLER: No, I was it. I was the program.
HODGES: Did you do early morning seminary?
MILLER: My mother did early morning seminary with me one year. She and I would meet around the breakfast table. She got tired of that. Then I did home study for the other three years.
HODGES: Okay. You served a mission?
MILLER: I served a mission in Albuquerque.
HODGES: Albuquerque, New Mexico.
MILLER: English speaking.
HODGES: Then you came home and decided to go to school.
MILLER: I did.
HODGES: So talk about your academic background a little bit.
MILLER: I went to Brigham Young University for my undergraduate degree, which was in comparative literature. I met my wife at BYU in a history of civ section of comparative literature. She got a better grade in that class than I did, despite the fact that she was a biology major and I was the putative comparative literature major.
MILLER: We have three children now together.
HODGES: How old? The oldest is twelve?
MILLER: The oldest just turned thirteen. A teenager in the house, which was, as we’ll talk about later I think, part of what precipitated my writing this book.
GENESIS OF LETTERS TO A YOUNG MORMON
HODGES: Yeah, let’s do that right now. So the genesis of this book then sort of grew out of your own relationship with your daughter?
MILLER: Yeah. Over the last year or two I started to think pretty seriously about the kinds of things that I would like to be able to tell her now and in as clear and compelling a way about what it means to be a Mormon, and what kind of problems she may face just as a human being and/or as someone trying to live the gospel. That more than anything propelled me to put pen to paper and do some writing here.
HODGES: I think a lot of parents tried to focus on testifying to their children, church leaders strongly recommend that parents bear their testimonies. So a lot of that I think probably happens verbally or like in family home evening settings. But you’ve written a book about it. Do you also have a lot of conversations as well? Did any of the letters grow out of those conversations? Or was it a pretty separate thing?
MILLER: We do have conversations and family home evening. The thing in particular that my daughter and I do, and I do this with our two younger boys as well, is that I read to them at night. My daughter and I still read together most nights, though we read a lot different things than we did when she was younger. That gives us a kind of occasion to say words out loud to each other and talk about things that we wouldn’t normally talk about and just be in the same room thinking about things.
HODGES: Did you address things in the book that you hadn’t maybe felt as comfortable talking about in person? Or was it easier to organize your thoughts that way?
MILLER: Well for sure. We haven’t ever had a discussion about sex in line with the kind of letter that I wrote in the book. That kind of thing is a lot harder to have a conversation about face to face.
“LETTERS TO A” CONCEPT
HODGES: So that letter about sex is one of many letters that are in this book. They each kind of have a main theme, but address a lot of different topics. Where did this “letters to a” concept come from?
MILLER: Well I think there’s a whole genre of books “letters to a young blank.” The prototype for that genre was Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet. But for me the impetus especially came from a book written by James Smith called Letters to a Young Calvinist. That gave me the idea of writing one for Mormons and for my kids in particular.
LDS YOUTH BOOKS
HODGES: Okay. How would you situate your book alongside other books that are written for LDS youth specifically? There’s a pretty healthy market for books written to youth. How do you think yours kind of compares?
MILLER: Well I can’t say I’ve read very many of those.
HODGES: Did you ever read John Bytheway’s stuff? I’ve read a few of his when I was younger.
MILLER: No, not really. Maybe a little bit here or there. I did once share John Bytheway’s office while I was teaching part-time at BYU. But he wasn’t around when I was in his office, so it was a little disappointing.
HODGES: Yeah. He’s a funny guy. That’s kind of his approach then is to sort of reach youth through humor and stuff. I think Letters to a Young Mormon sort of takes a different approach.
MILLER: Yeah. I’m certainly in favor of the kind of thing that John Bytheway does. There’s a place for it, though that’s not really my style.
We never really got back around to the rest of my education, but my bachelor’s degree was in comparative literature and my master’s and PhD were in philosophy. I work now as a professor of philosophy. For about ten years now I’ve been teaching here at Collin College in Dallas. So you bring a philosopher/father to bear on these kinds of questions I think you get a different kind of product than you would from other mixes. I’m a professional philosopher/writer/essayist so it came naturally.
HODGES: I think one of the most interesting things about the book is in the very first letter you start off, the very first line in the first letter is, “I don’t know.”
MILLER: Yeah, that was a very self-conscious decision to start with exactly that sentence: “I don’t know.” Because for me as a professional philosopher and as a person who spends a lot of time thinking about religion and religious ideas and scripture, that not knowing is for me at the very heart of my religious experience. I think the temptation when we run up against our own ignorance is to think that we’ve run up against the limit of our own religious experience.
But for me being confronted with the vastness of what it is that I don’t know, that has itself in some ways been the beating heart of my religious experience. So I wanted to put it right there, front and center, to reassure my children and people in general that not knowing is part of what it means to be a human being and it’s part and parcel of being a religious person. It’s not something that we have to be afraid of.
HODGES: I think a lot of members of the church want to deal in certainties in a lot of ways. We often bear our testimonies in ways that talk about the things that we know, that we know things, we know this, and we know that. This book sort of starts off saying I don’t know. You say you sort of built your own religious life around a willingness to swim in uncertainty. How do you see that sort of thing fitting within Mormonism? Do you think that was informed by your membership in the church? Or do you think that’s more just your temperament that then you sort of work through that while you’re also a member of the church?
MILLER: Well I didn’t set out to build my religious life around not knowing.
HODGES: Did you start off feeling like you didn’t know though? Or did you start off feeling like you did know?
MILLER: Well in a very Mormon way I felt compelled from very early on to know, to find out as much as possible. I think it’s a common experience when you feel compelled to search and read and try to learn as much as you can that one of the very first things you discover is how much you don’t know.
So I think in that sense it ends up being an unavoidable part of Mormon experience itself to the degree that we’re compelled to search for understanding to try to know as much as possible. An integral, unavoidable part of that will be becoming better acquainted with all that we don’t know and learning how to trust the Lord in light of it.
HODGES: I think that’s interesting. So you’re saying whether we even remember where we started off religiously in our lives I think a lot of people will get to the point where even as they learn more, a space of ignorance will open up. We will become aware of that. That can be a moment when we feel less inclined to look for God there, maybe we feel abandoned by God, or it could be an encouragement to try to seek to understand God even better.
MILLER: Yeah. I think you can take that moment of not knowing as an indication that your religious experience has failed, or you can take that moment of not knowing as an indication that you are making genuine spiritual progress.
MAP VERSUS TERRAIN
HODGES: So what’s interesting, and the reason I ask that line of questions, is because you follow up the “I don’t know” with Paul in Philippians saying that we’re supposed to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. So you set up the beginning of this book saying there are things you don’t know, but there’s something you need to work out here, and it’s going to involve fear and trembling. You talk about a map, a map that we’ve been given. I’d like you to explore that a little bit here, your concept of the map versus the terrain.
MILLER: I think it’s easy when we think about the difference between a map and the terrain at our feet it’s easy to identify the gospel with the map, the gospel as kind of an idealized plan about how life is supposed to go and how you’re supposed to act, and that the gospel is that ideal map and then the world is this kind of messy thing that ought to be reformed in light of the ideal map.
I think it’s tempting to do that, but I think we ought to make exactly the opposite association between the gospel and the map, and identify the gospel not with the idealized map, but identify the gospel instead with what’s real, with the whole of what’s real. There are maps that are part of the gospel, but the gospel is not the map. The gospel is what’s real; it’s the world at our feet. The gospel is meant to show us how to stop running away from the real important things right in front of us and instead give ourselves to it.
HODGES: From what I got from reading the book I sort of thought of the map as being like directions, it would sort of be like the commandments, or you tie it to things like getting your Personal Progress award or going on a mission and then getting married in the temple, those sort of steps that we make. I actually thought of it in terms of Google maps where it’ll give you directions but I found sometimes when I print those directions out and then I get on the road that I very well may end up lost anyway, despite having those directions I find that actually being on the road or confronting life, I guess is the corollary, can be a bit trickier than the directions I was given. Is that kind of what you were getting at?
MILLER: Yeah, that’s true too. We need maps to help us get places, but the gospel is not the map. The gospel is the road itself. If we fall into the trap of thinking that the map is the real thing and the world is in some way a kind of allusion that we need to escape for the sake of the map, then I think we’ve got the gospel backwards and we’ll ignore all the hard work that’s actually involved in learning how to take what’s on the map and make it real in our lives.
HODGES: Yeah. I think that’s what’s valuable about this book overall, and you set it up in your very first letter. Basically you say, “I’m not necessarily going to give you a list of do’s and don’ts. I’m instead going to talk about confronting life as a Mormon as it’s lived on the ground, feet on the ground, meeting other people, having real experiences.”
Now the second letter’s really interesting because you bring up the topic of pursuing excellence. I think I remember as a kid being pretty goal-driven in wanting to get good grades, not that I did, but knowing that that was a worthy goal to have. You talk about pursuing excellence in a way I hadn’t really thought about before. Can you talk about that a little bit?
MILLER: Well I have myself always been very goal driven, success-oriented, ambitious kind of a fellow and that hasn’t always made me an especially happy fellow, even when I’ve been successful at the kinds of goals I’d been pursuing. I think that has to do with the way that we often hitch our pursuit of success together with another goal that it doesn’t really need to be coupled with.
We often, this is something that’s long been true for me, and I think it’s often true for people that the reason that we pursue success and excellence and ambitious goals is because we want to prove something to ourselves and other people about ourselves, and the thing that we want to prove is we want to prove that we deserve to be loved. We want to demonstrate that because I can do X, Y, or Z and I’m better than other people that I’m more worthy of being loved.
I think that especially in the context of the gospel when we think about service and work and obedience, when we think about being excellent in those ways, as a means to earning God’s love then we’ve got the gospel backwards from the start. It’s true that we have to work really really hard and we have to try to be as excellent as we can, but it’s not true that we have to work really really hard in order to get God to love us. God loves us already, and his love for us is perfect and it won’t be made more perfect by my making myself into what I think is something closer to what he wants me to be. He wants me to be something better, but his love for me isn’t conditioned on my being something better.
If we can uncouple those things, if I can let God’s love for me be real and present and palpable now, if I can let it be a gift, rather than something that I need to earn, then I think it frees me of the burden of trying to earn something that can’t be earned, because it can only come as a kind of gift, and it frees for me the work itself as something that can be enjoyed for its own sake rather than only as a means to some other kind of end.
UNCOUPLING WORKS AND GRACE
HODGES: Yeah, I’ll read a quote from the book here that expresses that. You say, “You must trust in God’s perfect love. You must wear out your life in the pursuit of what is excellent, but if you try to secure God’s love through your excellence, then no matter how excellent your work, you will fail. Work chained to its outcome is misery. Do what you can, do it better than you’re able, and let things happen as they may. The action, not its fruit, is your business.”
So this is a really interesting way to express this. I wonder how you got to this point of seeing it this way. I’ve had a lot of conversations about the relationship between works and grace, which we can say is sort of like God’s love. We work, not to receive God’s love, these things are sort of separate. Mormonism teaches though that we do need to work. How did you get to the point you could decouple those? You include them both, but they’re not connected anymore. How did you get to that realization? Is there something that influenced that?
MILLER: Well part of that line from the passage that you just read for us where I say something like the work itself is what concerns you, not its fruit or its outcome. In some ways that line is a kind of direct echo of some passages from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna counsels young Arjuna only ever pay attention to the action and relinquish attachment to the fruit of the action. I think that’s just another way of saying the same kind of thing that Jesus says all the time that we ought to be good for its own sake, not for the sake of some kind of reward that we could get out of it. To the degree that we are good for the sake of the reward we have not actually been good at all, we failed both to love and to make ourselves open to the reception of God’s love.
HODGES: You also kind of tell a little bit about your own self in this chapter where you’re talking about playing basketball as a young guy. You talk about how you really strove to be great at the game and that losses would be really disappointing and hard to take. Now that you’re older you look back on that and sort of see yourself as maybe taking the wrong approach. As a youth you would try to excel at basketball because you thought that would make you a loved person and stuff.
I think that’s a really valuable thing for young people, and even older people, to be reminded about, to think about separating the work that we do from the love that we receive. Not just from God, though. I think that also applies to our families as far as how we deal with our spouses or with our children. I think it’s easier to feel that way about children because we raise them and they’re so vulnerable to begin with, but especially with spouses, to learn to decouple the work that we do from the acceptance and the love that we get. That’s very hard to do.
MILLER: Yeah, I think that’s true. Number one, it’s really hard to do, I think. Number two, it’s absolutely crucial to discovering what it means to love another human being. If I spend my time trying to get my wife to love me then I’ll ruin the relationship. It’s not my business to get her to love me. It’s my business to love her. Those are two very different kinds of things. I have to trust that if I love her that that’s enough and that her loving me is up to her, it’s not something that I need to command or control or put myself in charge of by making it impossible for her not to love me. It’s my business to love her and it’s my business to work hard, but it’s not my business to decide for her how she feels. That’s part of loving somebody else.
The basketball example is nice in trying to excel at something so other people then will admire you and love you, but I think when I was thinking about this question this morning, this book itself is a nice example. You write a nice little book, Letters to a Young Mormon, you think to yourself, “Oh, this is going to be a beautiful thing, it’s really amazing. People are finally really going to love me for having written this book.” But if you go about the book that way you’re going to be disappointed and you’re going to ruin the possibility of the book working as a vehicle for love.
FIGHTING THE NATURAL MAN
HODGES: I don’t feel like we can always shut that kind of feeling down, though. It’s very common to want to feel loved and to feel like the things that we do help generate that love. I think one of the hardest things about Letters to a Young Mormon is bringing myself to believe that’s possible, to fully do that. I don’t think we could ever fully escape that, do you? Maybe that’s part of what it means to be the “natural man.” Is it something that we can’t fully escape? Are those impulses to want to succeed in order to be loved? Do you really get to that point?
MILLER: I don’t think at all that it’s possible to get beyond in some sense that wanting to be loved, but I think it’s entirely possible in the promise of the gospel itself hinges on it being possible for our relationship to that wanting to be loved to change in a fundamental way. It has to do with the way that what we as human beings want is love. That’s the most natural and powerful and important thing about us as human beings, that we want love. But part of what the gospel is trying to show us is that love is the kind of thing that you can only have in the end by giving it away rather than by getting it.
It’s kind of classic Christmas cliché. There’s really only joy here in the giving, not in the getting. If you think love is something that you’re supposed to get than you have missed it from the start. Love is only something that you can only have to the degree that it’s passing through you to someone else on the way to someplace else.
HODGES: So why is that so counterintuitive then? I think for young people reading the book, and for me as I read it, it rang true but very counterintuitive.
MILLER: Well it’s a lot like happiness or meaning. Happiness is the end of our existence, as we read in the Book of Mormon, but if you set your goal in life to be being happy, if you make your goal in life to make yourself happy, then you will never ever be happy. Happiness only ever comes to you as a byproduct of your being concerned about other people, or if what you want is knowledge and meaning and certainty, I think similarly that’s not something you can get by pursuing it directly. It comes only like happiness and meaning. It comes only like happiness as a kind of byproduct of your pursuit of love and service for other people.
If you want love the only way to have it is to give it. You can’t use your works or excellence or achievements to try to earn it and extort it from other people around you, or even from God.
HODGES: Yeah. You quote 2 Nephi 31 where you basically say you don’t have to generate merit in order to be saved and this segues with our… we’re talking about being loved, we can kind of equate those things I think. You don’t need to generate merit in order to be saved or to be loved. You need instead to come unto Christ and rely wholly upon the merits of him who’s mighty to save. I think that’s got to be one of the most difficult demands the gospel makes.
MILLER: Yes. Right. The gospel, as we said earlier in relationship to the first letter, the gospel demands that we work really really hard, but it doesn’t demand that I work really really hard to earn enough merit for God to love me. The gospel demands that I work really really hard to rely entirely on Christ’s merits and on the fact that God already loves me. The hard work here is to rely on God’s already given love, rather than spending my life trying to secure it as something that he’s not yet willing to give.
HODGES: That’s what you say. Look, relying wholly upon the merits of Christ is still hard work. It’s work. But it’s work of a different kind.
MILLER: Yeah, a very different kind.
HODGES: Yeah. Okay.
COMPOSITION OF LETTERS
MILLER: Well and I think, let’s say too with respect to the composition of the book, the letters address different topics as they move through but they are tightly interwoven with one another.
HODGES: Oh yeah.
MILLER: I wouldn’t encourage anyone to just pick out a letter here or there to read them individually. The book’s short enough, only seventy pages or so, that it’s designed to be read from beginning to end as each letter kind of builds on the one that came before to show a kind of different perspective on the same familiar things that have been important to us as Mormons all along.
HODGES: Right. You definitely build the groundwork early and then continue to build on that foundation sort of throughout the book. It does crescendo.
There’s another element that you bring up in these early letters then which is this idea of your life’s story. Humans are very narrative oriented. So we all have a life story about who we are, where we’re going, and it sort of ties into the goals that we make and the belief that we have about whether we can reach those and that sort of thing. You’re encouraging people to focus on a different narrative. So talk about that part of this book, the element of these narratives.
MILLER: Well one of the basic frames that I use for talking about the gospel in the book is in relationship to the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. I have a certain kind of story about who I am and what I’m like that I want my life to match up with, and that I want other people to believe about me, that I’m successful in certain kind of ways, or that people ought to admire certain kinds of things about me. I have this story in my head about how my life should go and in some ways this is another version of the map from the first letter, that we have these maps, we have these stories that present a kind of idealized version of how the world ought to be.
But then there’s an addition to the story about my life. There’s my actual life. I think it’s probably a universal feature of adulthood is the discovery that your life, the life that God gave you, and is giving you, and will continue to give you, that that life is way too big and messy and complicated and beautiful to ever fit inside the teeny tiny confines of the very self-centered and idealized story we’re trying to tell about ourselves. At the heart of the gospel is our willingness to let go of our stories about ourselves and trust instead the life that God’s trying to give us.
It’s a lot like a marriage, right? Whether a marriage is going to succeed depends on whether or not as a couple you can let go of the story that you had about the person that you married. You fall in love with another person often initially because they compliment your story in just the way that you would like. They make you feel really good about yourself, they seem to fill just the role that you wanted someone to play in the story about how your life was going to go.
STORIES AS A SPOUSE AND PARENT
HODGES: And part of your story was how you would match up with somebody else, so that side of it as well.
MILLER: Yeah. That’s the first blush of romance, right? Those heady days in which you think to yourself, “Oh, my story might actually work out the way I wanted it to.” Then you get married and you discover that neither you or who you wanted to be, nor is the other person exactly what you wanted. The other person is themselves too beautiful and complex and unwieldy to ever fit within the confines of your little story about them.
If you discover what love is really about you’re going to have to decide that you love the other person more than you love the story that you were trying to tell about them, and that you are willing to let go of that story in order to love them instead for who they actually are.
HODGES: See, and although the book’s written for young Mormons, I think that point is also really important for parents to have. Because as a brand new parent myself I have so many hopes and dreams for my daughter and just thinking about what her life will be like that I also have to put the brakes on sometimes and think about there are a lot of things that could happen in her life that would change her story. I can’t write her story. In order to learn to love her that way I also have to decouple that love from the story I’m writing about her. That can be really tough for parents to do.
MILLER: Yeah. This is the story not only of every marriage, it’s the story of every relationship between every parent and every child in which you reach the point where you discover that that child no matter how great they are is never going to be what you wanted them to be. They’re going to be themselves. They’re never going to match up with the story that you wanted to tell about them.
You’re going to reach the point where you’re going to have to decide whether you love your story about them or whether you love them. You’re going to have to decide which you love more. Them or your story. Lots of times we end up choosing our stories. Lots of times I end up choosing my story about my wife over my actual wife, or I end up choosing my story about my children over my children. That’s when things fall apart. That’s when we lose a deep connection with the light and life that is the spirit itself when we end up choosing our narrow little fictions over the beautiful, complex, messiness of actual stuff.
HODGES: I think that again this could really help out for young Mormons who have maybe had conflicted relationships with their own parents, where the more we grow up the more we realize our parents are human and that can be hard to realize as well when we have a certain view of our parents and then discover that they don’t always match up to that. So we have a story about our parents that they don’t always fit, so again in order to find love we have to stop loving that story, we have to turn our love to the person.
MILLER: Yeah, your parents are never going to be who you want them to be either.
GOD’S LIFE FOR US
HODGES: Now the question I have here is you talk about how God has a story for us too. So how is that different then if God loves us, we learn that in the scriptures, but you say we also have to put ourselves into the story that God wants for us. Is that different? Is God’s story making different than what a parent’s story making might be for their child?
MILLER: Well I’d rather put it like this. I’d rather say not that God has a story for me, but that God has a life for me. I have stories and maybe God has his own stories, and those stories like maps can be useful for certain kinds of things, but those maps and those stories, they aren’t the same thing as the life they attempt to describe. God in the end doesn’t want to give me a story. He wants to give me a life. If some of his stories can help me connect with life, then I think he’s all in favor with that. But if I end up choosing even what I think are his stories over the actual life that he’s trying to give me, then I’ll have missed the point of the stories in the first place.
HODGES: It’s interesting the section you bring up on the creation narrative. You talk about how in Genesis God works with the people’s stories, so the people had a certain view of how the world and the universe worked, right? You kind of compare it to a snow globe where there’s a dome overhead and the earth is flat there, and the sky above is the firmament and all these things. Now scientifically we know now that that view of the world’s just not scientifically accurate.
So some people say well what good’s the Genesis narrative then if it’s depicting this scientifically false view of how the world was created? And you talk about how God sort of reached down and used the stories that people had made about the earth in order to teach them lessons.
MILLER: I think one of the really ironic things about what we often call literal readings of scripture is that they’re not very literal at all. So if you take a kind of, what would go by the name of a contemporary creationist reading of the first chapter of Genesis, the contemporary creationist would read the first chapter of Genesis “literally” as if that description fit a kind of sci-fi informed version of what a contemporary understanding of the world is. That’s not a literal reading of Genesis chapter one.
A literal reading of Genesis chapter one is to see that the sky is literally dome hammered out of some kind of tin. The stars are embedded in that sky and spin through it and that the world is flat, that’s a literal reading of Genesis chapter one.
HODGES: And that there’s water above the firmament that can come crashing down through.
MILLER: Exactly. That’s where the rain comes from. There’s water above the ceiling of the world. That’s a literal reading of Genesis chapter one. Such that what we normally refer to as literal readings of Genesis chapter one, they’re not literal at all. They’re highly speculative, highly creative, fantastic versions of what actually is going on in the letter of the text.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that that kind of reading in which we connect the texts of Genesis chapter one to our contemporary scientific understanding of the world, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that that’s a literal reading. That’s a highly symbolic interpretive reading.
APOLOGETICS IN THE BOOK
HODGES: So this kind of approach, I think this is where your book bumps up against what’s in Mormonism traditional Mormon apologetics or defenses of the faith where they sort of take an issue or criticism that’s troubling to people and then provide a response to it. I think this is probably where your book brushes up most closely against that kind of apologetics. Did you have an apologetic idea in mind when you’re writing the book or were you trying to do something else?
MILLER: Well I had a very specific strategy in mind with respect to the book in terms of helping my kids grapple with different kinds of challenges they might experience with respect to their faith. That strategy had a lot less to do with answering particular questions they have about particular challenging topics, than it does with introducing them to a different perspective on the meaning of the challenges to their faith, which is part of why I start the book with the sentence “I don’t know.” Because I want to reframe from the beginning of the book to the end a perspective on the nature of the challenges and what they mean, and then I’ll let them work out the details of the particular challenges to their faith along the way. I wanted to shift the terrain on which those questions are being asked and answered.
So in some sense with respect to answering particular questions in terms of challenges to our faith historically or doctrinally the book doesn’t do anything at all, and that’s on purpose. But in another sense the book does a lot of work in trying to reframe what those questions mean and why they’re important. It does that from beginning to end.
HODGES: The impression I got was the book was intended to tell young Mormons more about how to be and how to approach things rather than what exactly to think about certain things or certain facts.
MILLER: Yeah I think that’s right.
HODGES: So let’s talk for a minute about faith, about your discussion of faith in the book. This ties back into some things we were talking about previously with relationships when you brought up a marriage. You talk about faith and you say that some people think that faith is a poor man’s substitute for knowledge, that it’s a kind of admirably earnest wishful thinking about things that we can’t really ever prove or be sure about. Paul talks about faith being hope in things that are not seen which are true.
MILLER: The substance—
HODGES: The substance of—
MILLER: That for me may be the most important word in that verse.
HODGES: Yeah, so talk about that.
MILLER: It has to do with the substance of things, even if they aren’t seen.
HODGES: Did that inform your reading of faith in this letter then?
MILLER: That verse connects that way for me, but I didn’t actually have that verse especially in mind.
HODGES: So go ahead and talk about what you do then in your discussion of faith in the book.
MILLER: Well I think a caricature of faith would be to say that faith is believing in my story about the world even when the world refuses to match up with my story. A kind of caricature of faith would be my ignoring the world in order to stick despite everything to the story I’m trying to tell about it.
But I think what faith actually boils down to is not my dogged adherence to my version of how things are supposed to be regardless of the facts on the ground, but faith involves my willingness to let go of my story and trust God that the life and the world he’s trying to give me is better than the story I was trying to tell about it. Even if the story I was trying to tell about it was a religious sounding story.
HODGES: You point out there in the letter that most talks about faith that fidelity is key. You talk about the idea of fidelity and it sometimes takes work in order for that charity to sort of come out, right? Sometimes we serve other people even when our heart’s not fully in it, with the hopes that eventually that becomes love. Sometimes we attend a church meeting that we’re not particularly excited about for the same reason, to sort of strengthen that faith and because we’ve agreed to do that. Is that kind of what you’re saying?
MILLER: Well I point out in the letter on faith that faith can’t travel alone, and that it needs traveling companions and that two of those traveling companions that travel with faith of course are hope and charity, or hope and love. The point of faith here involves my willingness to set aside my own version of my story of how things are supposed to be in order to actually care for the people in the world that’s right in front of me. That takes a lot of faith, to put down my own version of how things are supposed to be in order to care for the things that are given regardless of they match up with what I wanted.
Jesus says anybody can love things that matches up with their story, anyone can love their friends, anyone can show affection for things that compliment you, but love actually gets some traction and has some substance to it when you love your enemy, when you love the thing that was given that you didn’t want and that didn’t fit with your story and that may have even carried a high price for you to swallow. Faith shows up there in connection with my ability to love, to care for what’s given regardless of whether it fits what I wanted and thought whether or not it fits what I thought things should be like.
HODGES: I wanted to switch tracks again and talk about the section on scripture study. When you talk about reading scriptures you talk about it as translation. This is really interesting. You say that members of the church have to translate the books again. The quote you say is, “To be a Mormon is to do once more on your own small scale the kind of work that Joseph Smith did in translation.” What do you mean by that? What do you mean by scripture study as translation?
MILLER: I think Joseph Smith is a great model here of what it means to be a Mormon. To be a Mormon in relationship to scripture is to do the work of translation. The scope of Joseph’s translation work is obviously of a very different kind than the kind of translation work that you and I are asked to do. Joseph was asked to do the work of translating scripture for the world. He’s asked to take ancient records and he’s asked to translate them into the language of his time and his place for his whole world in order to kick start the restoration of the gospel. But Joseph, even though he started that work, gets the ball rolling, the work’s not done.
You and I are meant I think to do the same kind of work that Joseph did but on a much smaller scale in relationship to our own lives. He gave us a kind of initial translation of the Book of Mormon meant for the general public. You and I now are meant to on a daily basis produce additional translations of that scripture that tie that ancient text into our world and our language. We’re meant to do that again and again and again for the length of our whole lives.
HODGES: In terms of this approach to the scriptures, did your educational background inform the way you approach the scriptures then? I mean you said you were comparative literature major as an undergraduate.
MILLER: Yeah, I spent a lot of time learning foreign languages and translating things as an undergraduate so that way of thinking about it may have come more naturally to me, but I think it’s a pretty accurate description of what we’re all meant to do when we sit down with the text in the morning. I’m not just meant to read what God told Joseph to translate. I’m meant by way of the spirit to engage in the process myself of taking what was given in the text and writing it, translating it into the stuff of my own life.
HODGES: How can young people benefit from your approach? What are some specific things they can be doing to sort of perform the kind of work you suggest? This translation.
MILLER: Well we don’t often talk about it in terms of translation, but I think whenever we read scripture well and we do that often, that is what we’re doing. We’re doing something like that. I’m currently serving in our ward as the varsity coach, and when I sit in the teacher’s quorum with the teachers and we read a passage of scripture together and the boys pick out some aspect of the verse that means something to them and translate it into their own way of talking about the world and thinking about the world, I think that’s it. When the spirit guides us in taking that ancient text and translating it into our own contemporary idiom. Once again that’s it.
HODGES: So I think of the word “likening.” I think of Nephi saying, “I’m going to take these scriptures, I’m going to liken them unto my people. They don’t even really need to know much about Israelites’ background. I’m going to quote from Isaiah here and sort of apply it to what we’re doing here.”
MILLER: Yeah, well obviously the more they know the better, and the better their translations can be, the more material the spirit has to work with the better product the spirit can use us to produce. We all have lots of material that the spirit can work with already.
HODGES: The other topic I wanted to talk about, and there’s a ton of other things in the book that we could talk about, but the other one that we’ll get to here as we’re running out of time is your words about hunger and embodiment. So this is really interesting because as we grow up we learn how to be a body. The plan of salvation talks about one of the main purposes of earth life is to receive this body. So we’re here embodied. That’s a really big part of life. So you focus on that through the idea of hunger. Talk about that a little bit.
MILLER: Well I think it’s the most obvious part of being a body is that bodies are hungry. They’re hungry number one obviously for food, but they’re also hungry for sensation through all five of our senses. In the end bodies are almost universally hungry for other bodies. We hunger at a primal level for human intimacy with other people, both spiritually but especially physically. This is a kind of hunger. Those hungers shape what it mean to be a human being. They shape what we do throughout the course of a day. Our whole day is structured around the meals that we eat and when we eat them and who we eat them with, and sleeping at night and stimulating our senses and connecting physically with the people around us.
That’s what it means to be a body, is to be hungry, and learning how to be a human being in the way that God wants us to be a human being I think boils down to learning how to live with and care for those hungers without either trying to satisfy them unduly or purge them from us.
HODGES: You kind of talk about how the hunger, the body, being embodied, sort of returns us to the present moment. It makes us attend to the now. As people we often look back to something that happened before or we look ahead to the future and I think our embodiment sort of calls us to the present moment. At least that’s what I think you’re trying to communicate. Is that right?
MILLER: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. The only place where it’s possible to be alive and to love someone is in the present moment. That’s almost too obvious to probably spend a lot of time talking about, but that might be one reason actually to say it is because it’s so obvious, the only way you can connect with the past or the future is through stories. We can tell stories about what happened in the past and we can tell stories about what we want to happen in the future, but in the end if we want to connect with life, life only exists in one place and that’s the present moment. If we attend to the messy difficulty uncomfortable resistant character of the hungers that we experience in our bodies that will tend to bring us back from the fantasyland of our stories and ground those stories in a meaningful way in the real world at our feet.
HODGES: Before we go I want to ask maybe just a little bit about the composition of this book. So you’ve written several books now. You have a collection of essays, Rube Goldberg Machines, that’s really interesting but it’s a very different book. You have a book Speculative Grace that’s more of a philosophical theological book. How did the actual process of writing this book, Letters, differ from the other books that you’ve written?
MILLER: Well Letters to a Young Mormon is my fifth book but the other four are all professional in character. They’re the work of a professional philosopher speaking to other professional philosophers and academics. But this book is much more personal, much more anecdotal, there are no footnotes; there’s a different kind of style meant for a very different kind of audience. This book wears its heart on its sleeve.
HODGES: Was it difficult to find that voice? Because most of the writing you’ve done that’s been published hasn’t been in that voice.
MILLER: In some ways it was more like it was a relief to have an occasion to write in this voice that’s more my own than a professional voice. So in some ways it came easier maybe than the hard work of dressing things up in academic prose. There’s a kind of value to the academic voice, but there’s a certain kind of work that it’s not good for.
HODGES: Has your daughter seen any of the letters? Has she read it yet?
MILLER: She read them. She read them in the manuscript form. I think she’s probably reread parts since.
HODGES: Did she give you any constructive feedback in terms of maybe saying I don’t get this part or anything like that?
MILLER: She hasn’t really. I just kind of let the book just be what it is and she could find in there what she’d like and whatever’s useful in there she can use and what’s not she can leave it lay where it is.
HODGES: What sort of age group did you have in mind? Because she was twelve-ish around the time you were writing it, right? That’s pretty young in terms of how the book is written. Did you have any age range in mind, or did you just kind of—
MILLER: Well the book is very frank I think which may be one way in which it’s different from other kinds of books written for Mormon youth. The book though it’s written for youth, it speaks to them as adults. It treats them as adults in the way that it talks about things. It doesn’t treat them as kids. It treats them as adults.
When I wrote the book I wanted to include all the things that I wanted my children to know that I thought that they would need to know at some point. Some of those things they may need to know right now and maybe some of those things they won’t need to know until later. I wanted to put in there all the things that I thought that they might need to know from me, and then I was going to let them sort out which ones they needed to know right now and which ones maybe are just for later.
HODGES: I’ve had several people ask me is this book appropriate for my twelve year old? Or is this book appropriate for my fifteen year old? I think my response has basically been well you know your twelve year old, you know your fifteen year old, why not read the book and you can even read it with them, or you can read it before they read it. I think parents probably have the best grasp on how the book might work for their kids. I think it would be valuable anyway for parents to sit down and read it with their kids.
MILLER: I gave copies of the book to all of my children at Christmas time, my seven year old, my nine year old, and my thirteen year old. I think they appreciated the gesture just as a gesture in that they see me spending a lot of time writing and I think they were excited about the fact that this was something that I had written for them.
My nine year old boy told me the other day that he was reading the first couple of chapters, the first couple of letters, and that he liked them. I don’t know what that means exactly. But I think the letters at the level of the sentence, at the level of the paragraph even, they’re not hard to follow. A nine year old could read it and follow it and find things that are useful in it without even if some parts of it go over or under his head. I think that’s true. I think that’s fine. There are probably parts of the book that go under or over my own head. That’s probably fine too.
HODGES: I think you sort of intended it that way, right? One of the most interesting things about the book is it feels open-ended, it feels intimate like you’re talking to somebody in a personal conversation but it doesn’t come across as dogmatic or sort of speaking from this higher place of authority or anything. It’s just these almost meditations, it’s almost like advice, you’re putting advice out there for people to try out in their lives, or advice on how to view particular gospel principles and then sort of leaving it in the readers’ hands at that point.
MILLER: Yeah. I think the book more than anything is an invitation to care more, to pay attention more, to think more, to love more, and that invitation is open-ended. I don’t mean the book to be the final word, but maybe just the first one.
HODGES: Thanks, Adam. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about the book.
MILLER: I appreciate your taking the time.
HODGES: That’s Adam Miller. He’s the author of Letters to a Young Mormon, a new book published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Questions or comments about this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can leave a comment on the Institute’s Facebook page. You can also help us spread the word about the Maxwell Institute Podcast by rating it or leaving a review in iTunes.