Adam Miller and Moral Creativity

In a special event sponsored by the Maxwell Institute, author and Mormon philosopher Adam Miller spoke to students about his book, Letters to a Young Mormon, and the importance of Moral Creativity.

PROVO, Utah (Jan. 11, 2018)—A quick Google search of “Millennials and religion” will tell you at a glance that Millennials are abandoning organized religion in startling numbers—Mormon Millennials are no exception. As a Mormon Millennial who chooses to stay with my religion, I am fascinated and unsettled by the trend, and yet I understand it. I, like many Mormons in my generation, am desperately looking for reasons to stay as rapidly as I stumble upon reasons to leave. In my searches, I picked up a copy of Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon. The book is a series of letters addressed to a new generation of Mormons, and as Adam Miller mentions in the introduction, the book is meant “to address the real beauty and real costs of trying to live a Mormon life . . . to show something of what it means to live in a way that refuses to abandon either life or Mormonism.” Sponsored by the Maxwell Institute, Miller visited BYU in an event called “Letters to a Young Mormon: Unplugged” to discuss the second edition of his book, released at the beginning of 2018.

That Letters to a Young Mormon resonates with Millennial audiences is clear upon walking into the library auditorium fifteen minutes before the event starts. Having been to many lectures and events at BYU, I am astounded at the turnout (especially factoring in “Mormon Standard Time”). While twenty-somethings make up the majority of the audience, there are attendants of all ages in the auditorium. By the time the lecture started, not only was every seat filled, but students sat on the floor with their backpacks in their laps along both aisles, and others overflowed into the lobby—all to hear Miller speak.

Miller has an approachable demeanor. He’s tall and sturdy, but he grips the stand casually and his voice is kind. He has a dry humor, but he’s not overly stiff or formal, instead giving off a feeling of I’m like you. I understand you. Because I’ve been there.

He begins his talk by providing context to a commandment from Jesus in the New Testament found in Matthew 5:4: “Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” Miller explains that Jesus is not asking his disciples to do more or try harder, but to off-set the balance of power. He cites Walter Wink’s analysis of this scripture, which notes that under the Roman regime in Israel, a Roman soldier could compel a civilian to carry his pack for one mile, but any farther would carry severe penalties. To willingly go the extra mile, then, shifts the power dynamic of the circumstance and forces the soldier to respond to the civilian as an equal. “The question here,” Wink says, “is how the oppressed can recover the initiative. How they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot, for the time being, be changed. The rules are Ceasar’s, but how one responds to the rules, that is God’s. And Caesar has no power over that.”

Miller explained, “[This story is] a powerful example of simultaneously loving your enemies, refusing to perpetuate inequality, and creating an opening for both justice and mercy. In short, this is a powerful example of moral creativity.” He continued, “‘Moral creativity’ does not mean making up new morals . . . Rather, moral creativity has to do with the kind of creativity needed in order to be moral . . . [and] to do and be something new. And it especially has to do with the kind of moral creativity that regularly saves and surprises us when we start living new lives in Christ.”

Recalling both recent studies about trends in Millennial religious activity and his own experience as a Mormon missionary, Miller suggested that the questions we should be asking are not necessarily the same as the one Joseph Smith asked: “Which of all the sects is true?” Rather, we need to uncover the questions that plague the current generation, and then use moral creativity to “look for new ways to use old words to say things that never change.” 

Miller expounded, “Knowing the answers isn’t the hard part. Mormons have long been confident in the answers that God revealed in Christ. The difficult thing is to recover the question. The difficult thing is to feel our way back into the question’s full force, to remember what it is like to live without an answer, to remember in our bones why we need an answer…This must be done again and again, both for ourselves and for those we love.”

To demonstrate moral creativity, Miller introduced two examples. He first suggested that Mormonism is not actually about Mormonism, but rather about Jesus Christ. “In my experience,” Miller said, “Mormonism comes into focus as true and living only when I stop looking directly at it and instead aim my attention at Christ . . . This is exactly the kind of paradox that lies at the heart of Christianity.” It is similar to Matthew 16:25, which teaches that a life focused on itself is lost, but a life spent focusing on Christ and serving others is found. Rather than focusing on Mormonism, Miller recommends that young members focus on what Mormonism is pointing to: Jesus Christ.

The second example of moral creativity Miller gave addressed the LDS document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” He pointed out that the document, while acknowledging that differences between men and women are real and significant, also claims that men and women are equal partners according to God’s law. “In this respect,” Miller said, “it seems increasingly obvious to me that in our day, defending the family means rooting out the world’s misogyny . . . It means taking seriously, perhaps, for the first time in the history of the world, the solemn declaration that God intends men and women to be equal partners.”

He pointed out the false choice that the world gives to women: either they don’t get to be human, or they don’t get to be women. In the first case, women are reduced to objects of desire or angels on pedestals, and their worth is measured by their value in men’s eyes. In the second, women are encouraged to take on the “myth” of man—“the destructive fantasy of a celebrated, sovereign manhood, unbeholden to God, family, or the common good” —as the meaning of full humanity. Recognizing that neither position is in accordance with God’s commandments, Miller called for men and women to stand together and “push the wheel of the Restoration another turn forward,” using their moral creativity to defend the family by defending women and rooting out misogyny.

Miller closed by quoting Ashley Mae Hoiland’s One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, a memoir from another Mormon author: “For me, Mormonism does not provide the ease of certain answers. It provides a language to write about an afternoon on a beach, and truly believe, for that moment, that I have found God, or else something perhaps as holy.” It is by using this language that Miller believes his audience can employ moral creativity. The rising generation is important, he says, because “The world cannot go on as it is. We must not continue living as we are. And we need you young Mormons, who are newer than the rest of us, to show us how in Christ to do and be something new.”


—Morgan Lewis (B.A. English ’18)

Morgan covers events for Humanities Center in the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in English with minors in editing and digital humanities.


Photos from Jennifer Griffith, Deseret Book