This brand new and quite interesting blog entry – an interview by Blair Hodges of Adam Miller — is an illustration, I believe, of the direction that the Maxwell Institute has now chosen to take. Adam Miller is a very bright fellow, and has much to offer. Whatever else one may say of it, though, it seems quite distinct from the old Nibleyesque days of FARMS. This isn’t the kind of thing that Jack Welch and John Sorenson used to publish.
I’m especially struck by one passage in the interview: ”On the whole, . . . I think there’s room in Mormonism for atheistic determinists. They’re as welcome in our pews as anyone else. They’re certainly welcome to sit with me.”
Now, on one level, this is perfectly unremarkable. We don’t typically seek to drive anybody from our meetings, and I can only imagine — because I’ve never personally seen — an instance in which, say, somebody was being so violent and disruptive that he had to be ejected or the police summoned. And, despite frequent claims to the contrary in certain circles — by people who, in virtually every case if not in all cases, don’t actually know me — I myself have never sought to exclude anybody from our worship services, and I’m willing to tolerate a wide range of views. I have friends of all manner of ideological persuasions. They would certainly be welcome to sit in the pews with me, too.
That said, though, I remain curious. What, exactly, is intended by the phrase that “there’s room in Mormonism for atheistic determinists”? If it simply means — as it very likely does — that they can participate in our services and sing in our choirs, that’s fine. (I doubt that very many atheistic determinists care about doing so, but that’s another matter altogether.) Does it, however, mean that “atheistic determinism” is an equally valuable and adequate way of being Mormon? Would it mean that to a substantial number of other Mormons of Adam Miller’s approximate generation and intellectual level (whether or not it means that to him, specifically)? If so, that seems to me somewhat problematic, and potentially very dangerous.
I realize that sharp lines of demarcation are very difficult to draw, and I’m not zealously panting for the opportunity to exclude anybody in particular, but aren’t there beliefs and actions that would put somebody definitively beyond the pale? Patterns of thought and action so distinct from historic Mormonism that the person so believing and/or so acting could be said to have pretty clearly left the fold? Or are we to be, on this view, completely accepting and welcoming of all stances? There are both theistic and atheistic versions of Buddhism, for example, and many Jews are agnostic or atheist. Are we headed toward a situation where theistic and atheistic Mormonisms will be widely seen — at least in intellectual Mormon circles — as equally legitimate expressions of our tradition? I note with sadness that secularized Jews are intermarrying with non-Jews at such rates that some fear for the sheer survival of Jews as a people, and I suspect that a fashionably secularized Mormonism would — does — have pretty much the same effect.
I’ve already encountered critics, most of them long since disaffected from the Church, who demand to know by what right the Brethren claim to be able to determine what is legitimate Mormonism and what isn’t — a demand that seems, in my view, to demonstrate in and of itself that the critic has already left at least one fundamental Latter-day Saint belief behind. My question, though, is whether such views are going to make their way into our mainstream active membership. That’s why I pose the question publicly. To the limited extent that I know him, I like Adam Miller. And I’m totally in agreement with the idea that the three “atheist determinist” sons of Professor Miller’s questioner ought to be entirely welcome in church. But I’m not seeking just to know his view, or precisely what he meant by his comment. I’m more interested in the broader feeling among younger intellectually-oriented Mormons and among Mormon studies people. I’ll admit, I’m more than a little concerned. And I note that the FARMS or Maxwell Institute of yesteryear would have tried, however inadequately, to help the questioner with suggestions, arguments, and reading materials that might assist his sons in returning to faith if they so desired. The concerned father sought a good argument for free will. Time will tell whether the Maxwell Institute remains a good place to make such requests.