Book Notes: Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought—Cosmos, God, and Humanity

08.27.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

Terryl L. Givens explores the foundations of Mormon thought in one of the most ambitious studies on the topic ever published. ((Most histories of the LDS Church spend time discussing religious belief, but sustained attention to Mormon thought, or theology, as the main subject of a book is rare. Early books by Parley Pratt qualify, as does B.H. Roberts’s The Way, the Truth, and the Life, published posthumously. More recent books include Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion and Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought series. A comparison of approaches in these various titles including Givens’s would be fascinating.)) Volume one of Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought situates early Mormon theological views on “Cosmos, God, and Humanity” within its nineteenth-century environment as well as on a trajectory spanning back from ancient religion, through Greek thought and the later Reformation, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, on to the present time. The book is partly an outgrowth of a number of Mormon Scholars Foundation graduate seminars Givens hosted over the past several years here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. (I was lucky to participate in the 2010 seminar.)

The book is structured into five overall parts. First, “FRAMEWORKS” provides a brilliant overview of the place of theology in the LDS tradition and sets the stage for Givens’s own work. Part two, “COSMIC NARRATIVES,” is a three-page primer on Mormonism’s basic “plan of salvation,” from pre-existent spirits through mortal experience to eternal life and godhood. “COSMOLOGY” is the third part, zooming out to describe the nature of matter, existence, eternal law, etc. Part four covers “THE DIVINE.” Its sections span Givens’s articulation of God as a “Revealer God,” “Vulnerable God,” and “Embodied God,” a section on “Mother God,” then “Adam-God,” on to “Christology,” then finally through the rest of the divine hierarchy of “Holy Ghost” and “Other Beings” like eternal human spirits, angels, and so forth. The book’s final part “THE HUMAN” discusses the nature of eternal intelligences (whether they are literally born or adopted, Givens favors the former but allows for the possibility of the latter), the Fall (a fortunate one), the importance of Embodiment, the means of Salvation (the atonement) and finally the nature of salvation, Theosis. The book is structured sort of like a topical encyclopedia, but Givens’s articulate prose gives the volume a nice flow. Givens tells me the tentative title for the companion volume is Feeding the Sheep: The Foundations of Mormon Practice—Sacraments, Authority, Spiritual Gifts, Worship. It seems poised to deal more with lived religion than the more abstract volume one does.

In his Preface, Givens explains this “book is not a work of either systematic or historical theology per se,” but rather a “study of the foundations of Mormon thought and practice” (ix). That “per se” is important to consider. Wrestling itself must wrestle; it may be better understood as being a partial work of LDS theology and not a straightforward presentation of the exact foundations of Mormon thought. The historical record suggests that early Mormon thought as found in Joseph Smith’s scripture, sermons, or in the writings of his fellow Saints is more partial, dynamic, and difficult to pin down than clean, systematic theology allows for. This requires Givens to sometimes fill in blanks or arbitrate between competing LDS perspectives. At times he points out the lack of a clear position on a point but nevertheless articulates where he thinks mainstream contemporary LDS thought rests (as with the discussion of the eternal/created nature of intelligences or spirits). At other times he advances something more likely to be resisted by mainstream LDS thought (such as his description of the question of agency in the war in heaven or his depiction of apostasy/restoration). His section on “Salvation” spends much time on atonement, and it is less a treatment of various Latter-day Saint understandings of this most puzzling and central of doctrines and more of a systematically articulated theology grounded in the Book of Mormon.

Wrestling‘s overview is heavily influenced by later developments in Mormon thought. The foundations described by Givens aren’t like a pristine fountain from which Mormons might draw for refreshment, but rather an imperfect image refracted through a lens crafted by subsequent LDS leaders and believers. Occasionally he takes a side-road to a few theological dead-ends such as Brigham Young’s Adam-God teaching, but more often theological longevity is master. As Givens says, his project is to trace “what I regard as the essential contours of Mormon thought as it developed from Joseph Smith to the present, not pretending to address the many tributaries in and out of Mormonism’s main currents. Following the major lines of development to the contemporary LDS Church” results in a picture of early Mormon thought heavily influenced by subsequent decades of Mormon theological articulation—developments which Givens spends much less time tracing, risking the impression that past Mormons weighted concerns very similarly to the way contemporary Mormons do (x, emphasis added). Givens emphasizes points which have “come to constitute the essentials of Mormon teaching at the present moment” (xi, emphasis added). ((Smaller groups with Mormon heritage, including the Community of Christ, are seldom referenced. This book pertains mainly to the Salt Lake City-headquartered Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.))

Although his book is circumscribed by contemporary Mormon theological categories, Mormons may be surprised by some of Givens’s conclusions. One of the most interesting take-away’s might be the idea that Mormon thought has not been static, immutable, or comprehensive, and that a number of options are available and acceptable on a number of topics within the orthodox realm. Wrestling leaves room for a Joseph Smith who both imitates and reacts to his contemporary circumstances without thereby forfeiting the reality of his inspired prophethood (ix). This resists a view of the Restoration as being a completely top-down, from-God’s-mouth-to-Joseph’s-ears, operation. Givens helpfully places the development of Mormon thought directly alongside the wider Christian and western tradition in order to highlight instances of continuity on one hand, as well as radical distinction on the other.

There is so very much to wrestle with in Wrestling the Angel, another exciting contribution to contemporary Mormon studies from Terryl Givens.

Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), xiii+416 pp. The book is available for pre-order now. To be released November 2014.