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Life, Necessity, and Consecration: An Interview with Adam Miller
Life is a gift—though a gift that comes in the form of a question.
Adam Miller is Professor of Philosophy at Collin College and the author of several beloved books of Latter-day Saint thought. Wayfare editor Zachary Davis sat down with Adam in his office in McKinney, Texas to discuss the nature of life, the possibilities of hope, and Adam’s favorite ways to unwind.
What was your gateway drug to philosophy?
When I was in sixth grade—what was that, 11 years old?—I read my two first grown-up books at the same time, both big, fat 500-page books. One of them was The Book of Mormon and the other was Frank Herbert’s Dune, a really trippy, very philosophical sci-fi novel. And I fell in love with the possibility of something like philosophy—though for a long time I was more interested in literature.
Do you have a working definition of life?
Lots of times as Latter-Day Saints, we talk about this life as if it were a kind of test we have to pass in order to get to something like a real life. But I think that's probably not the best way to think about it. Life is more like a gift—though a gift that comes in the form of a question. We have to try to answer this question, but not in order to overcome or surpass the question, because life is a question. It’s the very nature of a life to pose itself as a question. And to love life and appreciate life is to love and appreciate it as a question. To be done all together with the question would be the same as being done all together with life.
I like the notion that life is responsivity. For example, a little paramecium, a little cell, which we might say has no consciousness, or at least a very, very dim consciousness, somehow has sensory capacities that allow it to be responsive to its environment in order to survive and flourish. That cell is alive, but a rock isn’t because it doesn’t respond to anything. And I see a theme in your work that's really close to this concept of responsivity, which is that the work of love is to do what is needful. And that what makes Jesus such a unique and extraordinary teacher is that he is infinitely responsive to each situation. How can we, as His disciples, become better at being responsive to the needs around us?
Life is not just responsive to its environment, but it's composed of its environment. Those borders between things are porous. Life is never owned or possessed, but always borrowed, always on loan. We are at best stewards of the life that we’ve been given from God. And because life is always in circulation, responsivity is a crucial part.
This is something that’s remarkable about Jesus, right, his deep responsivity? Jesus never goes into a scenario trying to judge what anybody there deserves or doesn't deserve. Rather, he's just always simply, straightforwardly, and deeply attuned to whatever kind of response is needed. This kind of responsivity is a morally powerful way of being in the world.
What would it be like to live this way, attuned and responsive the way that Jesus is attuned and responsive? As Latter-day Saints, we generally talk about this in terms of being sensitive to the spirit. And, in this connection, you've got your classic list of the fruits of the spirit that let you know that you’re in tune with the Spirit and responsive to it, fruit like love and joy and peace.
But I've also become increasingly convinced that there’s another bellwether for this kind of spiritual responsivity. In fact, I tend to be most confident that I'm in tune with the spirit when what I feel is something like necessity. I think God feels like necessity, the necessity of things being whatever they are, regardless of how I wanted them to be. Feeling God's presence, then, involves letting go of my hopes and fantasies and expectations for what I wanted, and instead embracing the moral imperative—the necessity—of what must now be done. And that sense of necessity is, ironically, profoundly liberating when you feel it.
In your new book, Original Grace, you explore this idea that there is a natural order of things and a moral order of things. Could you clarify how you think through these two different orders and how that might help us think through how we respond to what's needed?
This has become an increasingly important distinction for me when I try to make sense of how the gospel works.
Traditionally in Christian thinking, God created everything out of nothing and therefore he is, in some sense, responsible for everything. So the natural world is itself, inevitably, an expression of divine will. And this, then, leads to the assumption that natural events have, in themselves, moral weight.
For example, the assumption that if we experience suffering, if we experience loss and grief and pain, that this must in some way be a sign of the fact that we've done something wrong, that God is unhappy with us. And from there you end up, with hardly any effort at all, at a traditional Christian reading of the Fall that sees this mortal world’s loss and suffering as a punishment, as an absolute disaster, as a moral catastrophe.
But I think we as Latter-day Saints have an option available to us that the rest of the Christian tradition does not. Theologically, we have the option of believing, as Joseph Smith taught, that God is not solely responsible for everything that exists. We have the option of thinking, instead, about God and his work and the moral order as a response to the raw facts already at play in the material universe.
We have the option of thinking about the moral order of things as separate from the natural order of things. We don't have to read suffering and difficulty and loss as moral judgments. We don't have to read them as accusations. We can just see them as problems—as natural material facts that are part and parcel of reality and, especially, the things that we care most about, like relationships.
If this is the case, then we’re free to understand God’s moral imperatives as a call to respond always with love and goodness to all of that difficulty. Rather than reading suffering as a deserved punishment, but we can assess it clearly, like a doctor assessing a wound, as just a natural consequence of the way things are in themselves.
And that approach is, I think, morally empowering. When I no longer view pain and suffering as a judgment, but instead as a divine call to respond with love.
What's your favorite movie?
I can count on one hand the number of times we went to the movies when I was a kid in the eighties. But we had a handful of VHS tapes—that were copies of somebody else's VHS tapes, that were copies of something broadcast on TV. And one of the first joys I discovered as an adult with a cash flow was that I could go see movies in the theater anytime I wanted. I love going to the movies. And I especially love sneaking out to see a movie when I should be doing something else.
One possible answer to your question is the movie that my wife and I saw on our first date back in 1997, Contact with Jody Foster and Matthew McConaughey, based on the Carl Sagan novel. My wife is a biology professor, and it's a movie about a scientist and a philosopher falling in love. I’d like to think that movie really helped us connect right away.
How can we defy the gravity of a pessimistic time?
Well, in one sense, you don't. Pessimism is baked into reality itself.
We’re all going to get sick and grow old and die and lose everyone and everything. This world itself will pass away. There's no fighting that. We might tweak the time and the place and the manner of this passing. And we can certainly take responsibility for how we handle this passing. But at a really fundamental level, there's no winning. There's no skipping out on loss and death, there's no avoiding it. Loss and death are just part of what it means to be alive.
In my view, learning to handle that loss in a way that's productive rather than paralyzing is the point of practicing a religion, it’s the point of showing up at church on Sunday, of reading your scriptures. Religious practices open up a little bit of space between you and the world, space that gives you some freedom to move in relation to it. A little room to appreciate it.
We have a good name for this space—for the work of opening up that kind of space—in our tradition. It’s what we call consecration. To practice our religion is to practice consecrating everything. And I’m consecrating everything when, instead of trying to own or identify with my life or the trinkets I collect, I continually cultivate instead a sense of responsibility, a sense of stewardship, that doesn't look anything like identification or ownership.
And that, I think, is exactly what opens up some space between me and my own life. In that distance or space, I can take responsibility for my life. I can be a steward of my life—the life that I'm only borrowing from the world—without identifying with it. I can take responsibility for caring for my life precisely because I'm no longer trying to keep it, control it, own it, and identify with it. There's a lot of sadness and loss and suffering out there in the world that we must greet and care for and respond to, but we don’t have to identify with it.
What do you do to unwind?
I go watch a movie. Or watch basketball. I love basketball. I listen to podcasts about basketball. I read books, all kinds. Or of course I pray, or read the scriptures, or manage to think about somebody else for a couple of minutes.
How would you characterize our age?
A few years ago I wrote a book called The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace, and the subtitle was Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction. That's a pretty fitting description, I think, of the America we live in now. There’s a lot of boredom in an age of profound distraction.
If you asked me to give a name for our age, I think I would be inclined to say we live in an age of disintegration. I see institutions and communities breaking up, and it can be very discouraging, especially for someone who loves thick communities. For you right now, in the Year of our Lord 2022, where do you find sources of strength or hope to carry forward in the projects that you feel called to work on?
I find strength partly just in practicing solitude—that is, in tuning myself to God by tuning myself to necessity. If there's some sort of bedrock of faith and hope for me, it's there, in God. But, also, I certainly find strength at home, with my wife, with my children, with my mom, my family. And I find strength and hope at church on Sunday, as part of my ward. That ward’s full of many different kinds of people, people who’ve led very different lives and had very different experiences than my own, but when we’re there together, I always feel like we’re in it together.
Adam Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas and serves as the director of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar.
Artwork by Eduardo Alvarez.