Consider the Theologian: A Periphrastic Response to Adam Miller’s “Rube Goldberg Machines”

[Cross-posted at By Common Consent]


adjective /ˌperəˈfrastik/ 

  1. (of speech or writing) Indirect and circumlocutory
    • – the periphrastic nature of legal syntax
  2. (of a case or tense) Formed by a combination of words rather than by inflection (such as did go and of the people rather than went and the people’s)

The following is a paper I wrote for the 9th Annual Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology conference, held over the weekend in Logan, Utah. I was ultimately unable to attend and our own Blair Hodges graciously agreed to lend his sonorous voice to present it for me.

The paper was part of a panel dedicated to Adam Miller’s recent Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon TheologyRosalynde Welch, George Handley and Joseph Spencer also presented papers addressing various aspects of Adam’s groundbreaking book (unfortunately, since I wasn’t in attendance I can’t comment on these, though I understand they were superb; hopefully they make their papers available as well).

Reviews of the book here at BCC–by Brad Kramer and Samuel Brown, respectively–have already been posted (see other reviews hereherehere, and here) and in any case what I have written can only be called a review in the broadest sense. It is more, I think, of a response to Adam’s work. A trembling, halting response, but a response nonetheless, more like an answer to a call than an analysis of a composition. Consequently, I haven’t included a synopsis of its contents, comparisons of other philosophical or theological texts, or highlighting of particular significant passages. Neither is there much in the way of situating and contextualizing the book in the wider field of Mormon studies or academic philosophy and theology. You can read these other reviews for much of that, though I do think, as one working in the field, that the book is still owed a very rigorous and informed review by a philosopher/theologian, such that might appear in an academic journal. Perhaps at some point I might take that up myself if no one else does. In any case, the book is a watershed in Mormon philosophy and theology and is already firmly ensconced among the small number of “Must-Read” books in the field of Mormon thought. Indeed, what I have written below can probably only best be understood if you read the book itself first. Which you should do if you haven’t already. As soon as possible.

In any case, the following is something of a tribute to Adam’s work. Written to be reminiscent of his writing style (though certainly no more than suggestive of it) it is essentially an extended meditation on the entailments of Adam’s methodology in his intellectual engagement with Mormon thought. Not that there are no conceivable philosophical, theological, linguistic, historical criticisms of the work. But a response is simply more concerned with the event of having encountered a world by answering the event through building one’s own world. A brief series of contemplations and ruminations on the common themes running throughout his work, here I am trying to evoke and reconstruct the foundations of the Mormon world Adam has built from my own point of view, particular as they bear on one who would burden herself with the task of proclaiming Mormon theology. A Rube Goldberg Machine of my own, if you will.

Consider the Theologian: A Poor, Wayfaring Rube Goldbergian Tribute

Consider the theologian, a seemingly doomed and tragic figure. Is he a Systematizer, architect of rational, coherent cities of thought?

If so–

An architect of cities that always crumble when even just one urban element doesn’t cohere with the rest. Castles in the air or on the sand–anywhere but on familiar solid ground.

Is the theologian an eager aspirant to the prophetic divine call, self-illuminating itinerant preacher on a bushel-free hill, clever in her words and mighty in her mesmerizing massaging of holy texts?


Prophetic pretender, who must always wait, like a child, for the real prophets, living and dead, before she can speak. Reduced, instead, to feebly pricking against the kicks.

A pious gadfly, showing the rest of us that our religion isn’t really religious, our politics isn’t really political, our knowledge isn’t really knowledgeable, our piety isn’t pious, our repentance not repentant?

If so–

Then sick, diseased, warped, eyes cloudy and full of motes, pummeled and hammered gradually to death by relentless waves of never ending questions, the more roaring the wave, the more apparently trivial the question. Yay yay or nay nay, said Jesus. Yada yada, says the theologian.

In fact, you can find him just around that bend over there, in a ghastly leper colony of fellow theologians. Born with an incurable theopathology, these pathetic creatures recognized long ago that they couldn’t dwell with healthy, clear-eyed, practical, normal folk, though it is unclear if they were separated from society for their own well-being or for the well-being of others. But it’s not their fault; they were born that way and could not be otherwise even if they wanted to. Pity them. Throw them the occasional bone. Give them something practical to do while they decay and waste away in their signified sound and fury.

But above all, beware the theologian who is the shameless packrat, the imaginative tinkerer, the knowing inventor of pretty, useless things. Aware of her uselessness, she is more dangerous than all the rest together. Utterly Socratic, knowing to her core that she knows nothing, insisting that she is always less than the least of whomever you can name, the Rube Goldberg theologian is all too aware of her own brilliance, her seemingly effortless sophistication, her unparalleled imaginative capacity to tell stories and bring disparate elements of human experience together in ways that make us tremble and weep. She is dangerous because she leave us speechless, as if all has been said that can be said and said more brilliantly than any of us could say. But also deceptive, because in her forcible attempts to escape her own dazzling incandescence the Rube Goldberg theologian insists on the centrality and sacredness of the ordinary as the central site of grace (and, therefore, of all theology) and relentlessly gathers and conjoins nodes and knobs and connectors of ordinary and mundane objects to build bootless yet aesthetically delightful Grace Reflectors (as much the kind you could find on your bike when you were a kid as the ornate mirrors of infinity in a temple). In the end the Rube Goldberg theologian might be seen as purposefully reducing herself to simply a rube.

If this is indeed the case, then she consistently fails, every time, for she infects and transforms the ordinary just by drawing attention to it. Tirelessly insisting on the mundane, she in the same motion lays her hands in blessing on banal and prosaic objects and people and thereby exalts and divinizes them. Here, finally, she reveals her true identity: the Rube Goldberg theologian is really the Mormon theologian. She often suffers, of course, from each of the symptoms above, but she is Mormon because her only joy as a theologian is the gluing, welding, sealing of humdrum objects to other humdrum objects, gathering and accumulating and stockpiling and connecting, objects becoming people, people becoming families, the whole world discursively welded together, not only in a flat, one-dimensional Supersealing of family to family, but in a billion fathoms deep infinite abundance of bodies, objects, and networks. Joseph Smith insists [1]—”If you have power to seal on earth & in heaven then we should be Crafty, the first thing you do go & seal on earth your sons & daughters unto yourself, & yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory, & go ahead and not go back, but use a little Craftiness & seal all you can—“ and the theologian gladly complies. There’s no linear logic to this welding. Cats living with dogs, Democrats with Republicans, Nietzsche breaks bread with “old Kant” (don’t worry, they still argue over the existence of the categorical imperative). None of it entirely makes sense but sense was never the goal. That they are together, that they have been sealed together, in some way, by some power, is all there is and all there ever will be.

Thus, the Rube Goldberg theologian is threatened and threatening on at least two fronts. On the first front he battles against the philosophers who charge him with extreme relativism or a naïve universalism. How can two objects be welded, they ask, from thoroughly disparate social, cultural, historical, religious genealogies, to say nothing of complex networks of the same? There is nothing more breezily capricious in the world, yet thoroughly irresponsible, they say, than in flinging anything at all into the cauldron, mixing it up, and calling the confusing mutation that emerges some excrescence of divine grace. What of history? What of doctrine? What, even, of intra-religious pastoral devotion?

On the second front she must defend herself against her religious fellows, who accuse her of emptying all that is distinctively Mormon out of Mormonism by filling it with anything and everything else. “How can we be a people, peculiar or otherwise, when you insist on inviting the entire world to our table? How can we maintain doctrinal integrity? How can the ship continue its course? What of the distinction between Zion and Babylon, the City of God and the world? How can you make them one?

The Rube Goldberg theologian characteristically takes these charges seriously and will usually admit to some degree of guilt. This is to be expected—she is marked in part by her overzealous self-awareness. Indeed, her flaws and her many faces she engraves, in reverent emulation, on the palms of her hands, the same hands that have blessed and exalted the ordinary. But how does she respond?

It is true that she invites the world to the Mormon table. Like Francisco de Quevedo, the 17th century Spanish Baroque writer, “Nothing for [her] is disenchanting. The world has cast a spell on [her].”  She believes the table is large enough to accommodate it, indeed, that it was built for this very purpose. But not so that Mormonism can overlay itself on the world—in fact, Nephi saw that institutionally it would cover the earth only in pockets and branches. But this would be enough, insists the Rube Goldberg Mormon theologian, to inject the impulse of elemental Mormonism into the rivers and streams and oceans of the earth, becoming part of every landscape, being ingested and digested by the various peoples that cover its length and breadth, until—latent, submerged, absorbed, Mormonism as distinct, exclusionary culture would disappear (or, at least, recede into insignificance by comparison), having drenched the world in immanent fullness and abundance. The remnant that would remain would inspire ordinary people to do precisely what the Rube Goldberg theologian had been trying to accomplish all along—gathering, welding, joining—the theological essence (if there are essences) of Mormon life.

This, then, marks the Rube Goldberg theologian as thoroughly Mormon in a way that cannot be predicated of more doctrinal and systematic theologians. Like Napoleon Dynamite in film or Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab in literature, the Rube Goldberg theologian is immanently Mormon because her Mormonism is thoroughly immanent, immanent to the point of being hidden and concealed because, quite simply, it is everywhere, unspoken, nearly undetectable, like the oxygen that makes a living world possible—necessary and universal precondition for life, most abundant element in the foundations of the earth, but nearly always unnoticed. Not that she never refers, lovingly, to her Mormon world with its precious people and objects—but in these cases the immanence wavers and falters and arches outward toward transcendence. That’s ok. She loves the transcendent too, this hippie theologian who only wants to make love, not war, and give peace a chance.

Yet. Consider the theologian as David Foster Wallace considered the lobster. Qua theologian, he is placed into the boiling pot of water, sealed under the lid, scraping at the metal, trying to get out, slowly dying a simmering death while the non-theologians look on, scratching their heads, reminding themselves that he was born this way,  and/or he got into the pot of his own free will. His thoughts are meant for consumption, but is it ethical to boil him alive? Yet because he expends much energy in insisting that what he does as a theologian is not overly significant, no more than interesting, and, hopefully, beautiful, his frenzied scratches are often interpreted as one who doth protest too much and the opposite of his intentions become the case. He is listened to. Admired. Commented upon and analyzed. Emulated. He finds himself wanting a medal for not wanting medals, and he recognizes that the end is near. Open the lid, he’s done.

No, there is one thing yet that will redeem her. She has tried to chart her course with charity and lucky for her charity is mutually redemptive—welding and sealing not only will save and preserve the valuated world—aesthetically if in no other way—but that very act is redemptive for the welder and sealer. In the end her encyclopedic hybridisms have revealed love, tenderness, affection, where none had existed before. The objects remain the same—even conjoined they do not synthetically merge into one another—yet she sees them now with new eyes. Perhaps, in the end, new eyes are the final product of the speculative, imaginative, hypothetical theological excursions she can’t seem to do without. Theology, then, might be seen as a curious horticulture of ocular implants that allows one to see myriad ways of being in the world and being with the world. We are, of course, all of us—trillions of objects, bodies, and things, already all together, in some fashion. The Rube Goldberg theologian simply imagines all the ways in which this is or could be the case, a little more intimately, a little more uncomfortably, a little more charitably, together. She sees the world and thereby, seeing it, in her own small way, catalyzes its togetherness. Seeing: the final, and in the end, perhaps the only port of grace.

Consider the theologian–how, so unlike the lilies, he toils and spins–for the sake of toiling and spinning. And despite his flaws and faults–that he has resolutely chosen to reveal to the world in the trembling practices of his preachments (or, better, because of these) he gathers the world because he loves the world. He is, in this way, kin to Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White, a fellow gatherer of common objects, of whom it was once said that “he loved barns and pastures, dumps and fair grounds, ponds and kitchens. He loved pigs and sheep and geese and spiders. He loved rain and harnesses, pitchforks, springtime, fall. He loved spiderwebs, monkey wrenches, Ferris wheels. Every word of Charlotte’s Web bears the full weight of White’s love for the people, seasons, animals, and arachnids of this world. And every word of the book shows us how we can bear the triumphs and despairs, the wonders and the heartbreaks, the small and large glories and tragedies of being here.”

Indeed, in the end, after so many beautiful Rube Goldberg Machines have been built and wound up and set loose upon the world, the Rube Goldberg theologian perhaps can only be seen as one who, like the rest of us, was simply trying to bear the full weight of love for a world that ravages us, devastates us, astonishes us, delights us. Theologian Bernard Loomer wrote that the “size” of a person is the degree to which that person can endure dissonance without collapsing. For Loomer, God’s size is infinite and thus exhibits a fullness capable of bearing everything without losing itself, of integrating everything without collapsing. Rube Goldberg theology is a wager that all of this welding and sealing and gathering makes us larger, that it swells our hearts, widens our eyes, enlarges our embrace, magnifies our minds, deepens our mourning, to the end that we begin–only begin–to bear, perhaps for the first time, all things in this wonderful, terrible world, without collapsing.

And so, here’s to the Rube Goldberg Theologian. May his tribe increase. May his grace reflectors never cease to recast the blazing light of the ordinary. May he never forget that, in the end, his only task is to show us that we are together, that this is all there is and all there ever will be.

[1] Wilford Woodruff Journal, 10 March 1844, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Grandin Book Company, 1991), 331.


Filed under theology

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