A Reluctant Critique of Adam Miller’s General Theory of Grace

What initially drew me to Catholicism as my current spiritual home was a realization, after 30 years of practicing Mormonism, that grace was central to the Christian life. When I began participating in the Eucharist, the center of Catholic Christianity, this beautiful ritual not only made present for me the Body and Blood of Jesus, it also pointed me to the fundamental beauty, mystery and givenness of creation. The Eucharist is a way for me to practice the presence of God and to uncover grace in all things. The Eucharist made real for me the God that is love, and the creation that God loved into existence.

Keeping one foot in Mormon Studies conversations, though certainly no expert, I have been deeply impressed with the writings of LDS theologian and philosopher Adam Miller. Writing with a Zen-Christian accent, Miller is breathing much needed oxygen into a spiritually stale theological discourse. Primary among his contributions, Miller has broken with decades of consensus among Mormon leaders about how the central Christian notion of grace works. For much of Mormon history, grace has been framed as a response by God to our sinfulness accessed through Christ’s atonement. This works-focused soteriology is most often backed by the passage in the LDS scripture of the Book of Mormon which states: “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all that we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).

As a young Mormon I was made to understand time and again that keeping the commandments was not only my key to salvation, but the way to ensure God’s loving presence through the Holy Spirit. If I fell short of perfect obedience, I knew that forgiveness was possible, but deep down I could never shake the feeling that I was letting God down, that I was not good enough or worthy enough for God to love me in the first place. Unfortunately for me, I missed all together the foundational understanding that grace brings—our very existence emerges from a God who is love.

Miller, with the help of Saint Paul and King Benjamin (a Book of Mormon prophet), shows that our attempts to please God, or in other words, fulfill the law through merit or obedience, are ultimately futile. God’s love cannot be earned; God’s grace does not function like a vending machine through which we purchase blessings with the currency of obedience. In Chapter 1 of Future Mormon, Miller expounds the alternative which he calls a General Theory of Grace. Miller takes the familiar triad of Christian salvation history, creation, fall and atonement, as foundational, but suggests that while we often emphasize the ecology of our fall and Christ’s atonement, we forget the primacy, the givenness, the grace, of God’s ongoing creation. Miller states:

“Grace is original. Grace is what comes first, and it is sin that then comes in response. Or, creation is what comes first, and it is the fall that then comes in response. Sin, at root, is a rejection of what God, by way of creation has given by grace.”

In other words, we (Mormons and Catholics alike) have a tendency to get the core of Christian theology precisely backwards. Miller’s approach echoes the heterodox works of theologians Matthew Fox, the former Dominican Priest and Passionist Priest Thomas Berry, who both emphasized creation as God’s primary revelation. Miller’s insistence that Mormons begin to see grace not as a response to sin, but sin as the rejection of God’s original grace, that is creation, mirrors Fox’s insistence that we live in a state of original blessing rather than original sin (See Fox’s Original Blessing, 1983).

Miller astutely observes the consequences of focusing on grace as a response to sin. Mormons, like many other Christians, have logically assumed that avoiding sin through obedience not only increases God’s approval of us, but also binds him to bless us (See LDS Doctrine and Covenants Section 82). This transactional approach, not only cheapens the atonement itself, it negates the primacy of grace. As Miller argues in Ch. 1, this approach actually becomes as way of avoiding God’s grace:

“We should note, in particular, one surprising approach to sin: strict obedience. One strategy for suppressing the truth and avoiding God’s grace is to put God in your debt. Here, the more obedient I become, the less I figure I’ll be indebted to God, the less grace I’ll need, and the more in control I’ll become.”

Avoiding the tired polemic between grace and works, Miller is not suggesting Christians abandon a strong commitment to moral behavior, but only that “the end of the law is love and only love can fulfill the law.” If the law compels obedience it loses love; but because God is love our ability to fulfill the law comes only through the realization that we are loved from the beginning. We were loved into existence. Therefore, because Christ fulfills the law, our commitment to goodness flows out of the realization that we are loved from the beginning in all our imperfection. Love fulfills the law, because realizing we are loved gives us the strength to keep trying. In my own life this has made a revolutionary difference in my self-worth and commitment to the Christian life.

Miller keeps a strong focus on grace throughout Future Mormon, and the book is absolutely wonderful on all counts. I could not agree more with Miller’s assessment of the primacy of grace, its manifestation through the created order, and of love as the center of the Christian life. My reluctant critique comes after reading this passage from Chapter 7:

“Sin is our rejection of this original and ongoing grace….or even better it is a refusal of our own createdness. 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 occurred to me after reading this that perhaps Mormons have not developed a robust emphasis on grace precisely because of their theology of creation, this world we did not ask for and can’t control. Joseph Smith, Jr. the founding prophet of the faith, was fascinated with the first chapters of Genesis. Much of his post-Book of Mormon revelatory energy was focused on clarifying and expanding the Mormon theology of creation as distinct from the 19th century Creedal denominations. I would summarize these major shifts in doctrine pertaining to creation as follows:

  • The earth was organized from preexistent, eternal matter, rather than created Ex Nihilo through a pattern of spiritual and then physical creation (See Joseph Smith’s ‘Book of Abraham’ Ch. 4; and Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses Ch. 3).
  • Both the universe and moral law are eternal and predate the current Godhead (The Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three distinct personages; See D&C 130:22).
  • The “Intelligences” that constitute our souls are also eternal, and thus co-eternal with God (See Book of Abraham Ch. 3; and D&C Section 93).
  • God’s plan of salvation is a wise and loving response to conditions that already existed in the universe. Gods work (See Moses 1:39) is to efficiently move his spirit children toward exaltation, a status he himself enjoys.

If I am interpreting these points correctly, I see them as not only obstacles that may have contributed to Mormonism weak theology of grace, but as analytical hurdles Miller does not adequately address in his otherwise stellar writing.

Firstly, because God did not bring the universe into being out of nothing as is traditionally understood, God exists as a being within the universe. Nor did God create the earth. Rather, God organized the world as a platform for the mortal bodies of his spirit children. In Creedal Christianity, creation is radically contingent on a God that is Being itself, not simply a Being among beings. God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). There is no radical contingency in Joseph Smith’s revelations, only skillful means. God is a skillful demiurge who fashions the world he is not responsible for bringing into being. What’s more, LDS folk theology asserts that we, in our pre-mortal state, participated in this fashioning, writing our merits deeper into the creation story and lessening our existential contingency.

Secondly, moral law is also said to be eternal, law that God perfectly obeys. Redemption then is a cosmic loophole that allows God to be both just and merciful, but only because we are incapable of perfect obedience in our mortal state. The non-traditional Trinity of Mormonism, which is institutional rather than ontological (a unity of purpose rather than essence), functions as the arbiter and mediator between us and this eternally existent moral law.

Thirdly, God did not create the most fundamental aspect of our soul which Mormons call Intelligence. These Intelligences have always been, eternal like the rest of the cosmos. Thus we are at some fundamental level co-eternal with God (See the King Follet Discourse). Mormons affirm an actual rather than spiritual parent-child relationship between God and our souls, but the soul is composed of this undefined eternal component called Intelligence for which God apparently had no part in bringing into being.

Finally, for Mormons, God’s grace as manifest through the Plan of Salvation is not the ontological overflowing of love that has always already existed, Incarnated into the person of Jesus; it could be better described as a divinizing technology for moving God’s children through the phases of cosmic exaltation (through which God himself once moved). Framed in this way, grace is a response to conditions that already existed within the universe. Grace is the lubricant that gets us through the process, not the ontological ground of our being. The universe is eternal, and God works within a structure of repeating cosmic cycles of creation, mortal probation and exaltation for those who follow the Plan of Salvation (See Book of Mormon, Alma 37). Certainly we owe an unpayable debt to God for putting this structure into place (See Book of Mormon, Mosiah 2), and Christ for making it work, but I am not sure I would describe these gifts as free, since within Mormon soteriology, we must do the work within these saving structures to make them effective for us. And yet, despite these theological obstacles Miller is able to write beautiful passages like this:

“Foremost among the things God is trying to give me is, well, me—this body, this mind, this weakness, this hunger, this passing away. Redemption involves my willingness, first, to just be the hungry, weak, failing thing that I already am. Redemption involves my willingness to accept that gift and treat it as a gift. This grace is free but it’s certainly not cheap” (Ch. 7).

This gets to the heart of a grace-filled theology, a theology I did not experience as a practicing Mormon. This apparent heterodoxy makes Adam Miller’s contribution all the more valuable and powerful for those within the Mormon fold who seek to allow grace to loosen their iron grip on the iron rod of perfect obedience as the only means to God’s love and acceptance. Again Miller knocks it out of the park:

“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. “Glory” is one name for God’s grace as it continually brews out of these massive, creative networks of divinely enabled agents” (Ch. 7).

Taking grace seriously is not about abandoning ethical and moral behavior (grace without works is most certainly dead), but about realizing in our bones that every particle, every breath, every instance of beauty, was brought about and is sustained by God. Putting grace before the fall and the atonement has awakened me to the sacrament of each moment and the sacrament of every person, tree, creature, mountain and river I meet. Miller expresses beautifully a radical approach to grace. Yet I was left uncertain about how this approach fits within the established Mormon cosmology, a cosmology that simply does not employ God to explain the very givenness of the universe which gives graces its theological teeth. Miller wants us to accept that creation speaks of God’s grace without adequately explaining how God is the source of that grace.