Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review of "Letters to a Young Mormon"

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, "Philosophy is not a theory but an activity", meaning that while philosophy does help us try to solve puzzles and answer questions, it fundamentally is our position to the world and to others, and what we do with what we have. The same can be true of life; life is not a question to be answered but an experience that is supposed to make us better as we go along.

In religion, perhaps even more so in Mormonism, we tend to think of what we are doing is learning about certain principles rather than doing things, and by doing so we are profoundly missing the point. In his book Letters to A Young Mormon, philosopher Adam S. Miller tries to help us refocus our views, and show that what we must be faithful to is not so much a set of ideas (although he does point out that these are important), but life itself and what it gives us.

While the book, as its title implies, is directed  to a younger audience, what Miller has to say is beneficial to both young and old, because whether we are in our youth, middle age, or even old age we are still alive, and must be faithful to the life that we are given and grateful for it.

The book is less than 100 pages so it can be read in one sitting, and it is written as a series of letters, which while not directly addressed to the reader (Miller mentions in a podcast with John Dehlin that he started thinking of the book as his daughter became a teenager), Miller does seem very approachable and caring with his writing, and is also gifted with his use of language.

The book covers various topics, such as prayer, sex, and other issues related to being an Latter-day Saint youth. Perhaps Miller's best chapter is on faith, which youth of my generation often struggle with. In a novel rethinking of this issue, Miller writes:
Faith is a willingness, story or no, to care for what's right in front of you. Faith doesn't wish these difficulties away. It invites them in, breaks bread with them, and washes their feet. Faith is what you need to persist in truth as your sweet story, regardless of its content, gets overwritten by the real. (Letters to A Young Mormon, pg. 27)
As a philosopher myself, I usually think of faith and religion in terms of ideas rather than just what I do in my day-to-day life, although I always have thought the ideas I believed in would show up in my life if I really believed them. Thanks to Miller, I see that knowing without doing is not really knowing, rather it is just assent. I have learned that I must care for life now, rather than waiting for a future time, and also that the story I have about my life is irrelevant; what is relevant is my care for the life that exists in the here and now.

Whether one is a philosopher, theologian, or just likes LDS books, Letters to A Young Mormon is a worthwhile addition to any library. When I have children, I will make sure that they all have a copy and read it carefully.

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