#30—Terryl and Fiona Givens on The Crucible of Doubt [MIPodcast]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the 30th episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m your host, Blair Hodges. I’ve had a great time interviewing so many interesting and brilliant scholars since I started this show back in July of 2013. That was when I invited Terryl and Fiona Givens on the show to talk about their book, The God Who Weeps. Terryl and Fiona are back in this episode to talk about their latest book. It’s called The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith.
Whether you have experienced doubts about your faith or you know someone else who has, Fiona and Terryl Givens offer some ideas for learning to see doubts as tools to develop a more abiding, if less certain faith in God. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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HODGES: Terryl and Fiona Givens join me today here at the Maxwell Institute. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
FIONA GIVENS: It’s lovely to be here, thank you.
TERRYL GIVENS: Happy to be here.
HODGES: Today we’re talking about The Crucible of Doubt, a book you co-wrote. I wanted to start by talking a little bit about the book’s title, the metaphor for the book, The Crucible of Doubt, and where that came from.
TERRYL: Well, the image comes from Dostoevsky who once said that it was not as a child that he came to his faith, but that his faith had passed through the great crucible of doubt. And there are two things that we like about his reference there.
First of all, a crucible of course is a container in which you put something that you want to purify under extreme heat. And so it’s not exactly a pleasant place to be, suggesting that the prelude to discipleship can be a lonely place in the wilderness or a place of great torment and uncertainty.
But also, he talks about passing through the crucible of doubt, just as Hugh B. Brown liked to quote Will Durant who said that nobody had the right to call himself a disciple who had not served an apprenticeship in doubt. So we like to think of doubt as something that moves through or tries to move beyond.
HODGES: Not necessarily a static condition, but it seems something that the people interact with rather than experience?
TERRYL: Yeah. And in many cases, people will spend their entire lives working through the mists of uncertainty and never getting to that place where they can actually put all of their doubts finally to rest.
HODGES: Has that metaphor appealed to you on a personal level as well? Or more through other people that you both have spoken with?
FIONA: No, I think definitely on a personal level. I think it has come to Mormonism as a surprise, as though it is something unexpected, the doubt. But when one looks at other faith traditions, doubt is, and crucibles of doubt are actually a part of the spiritual journey. Most people experience challenges to their faith in their 30s to 50s. We’re starting earlier with going all the way through, but I think we should not be afraid. I think Peter called them “the fiery darts” and, you know, I would actually term them that. It’s something that is, I think, essential to our spiritual journey, and something I have experienced on a number of occasions myself.
HODGES: How about you Terryl? Is it personal for you?
TERRYL: Absolutely. I have only half-jokingly referred to my greatest spiritual gift as the gift of doubt. And I guess that I have come to think of it in more positive terms because I am so converted to the notion that faith is and ought to be a choice. And so I see uncertainty as a pre-condition that enables us to exercise agency in a very deliberate way. And I think there’s something very beautiful about finding your faith an option—something that requires an exertion of the will.
HODGES: And we’ll talk about that idea of choice more a little bit later on. I wanted to also think about the book in terms of the current “Mormon moment.” This book speaks to, it seems, a growing audience of people who want to talk about this issue. You both have spoken at various firesides and events with people who have questions. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the current cultural climate and what you think about the idea of doubt in Mormonism right now.
TERRYL: Well, we’re certainly living in a historic moment. I don’t know how good the analogy would be to compare it to Vatican II for the Catholics. But there’s certainly a dramatic moment of re-calibration that is occurring both institutionally and individually to members of the church as we confront a history that is more transparent and unsanitized and brutally honest than one we have ever known before. And the fact that the church has responded at so many levels institutionally—from the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but to the Joseph Smith Papers, to the Gospel Topics webpages, to incorporating most recent developments in history into the CES curriculum. All of these are indications that the church is cognizant of a moment of transition and is trying to address it in a very deliberate way.
And I think that in many ways this is kind of like a vast program of inoculation where we are reconstituting paradigms and expectations and assumptions and understandings of what it means to be a prophet, for instance, what it means to have revelation, what it means to work through human instruments to restore a pure gospel. And in all of these ways, there is going to be fallout, as there is when you vaccinate a million people, you have those individuals who have adverse reactions to the inoculation.
HODGES: Some people have challenged the inoculation metaphor with the idea that—they think that comparing being forthright about history to a disease suggests there’s something wrong with, or something dangerous about truth. How would you respond to that? I’ve heard people talk about that.
TERRYL: Well, all analogies fall apart if you push them too far. But I would say that there is a disease out there. It isn’t the truth. It’s scientism. It’s hyper-rationalism. It’s all of these “-isms” that confront our young people in ways that they aren’t prepared to deal with unless they have a sounder foundation in what the bases of our faith are and should be. And what kinds of claims faith can reasonably make. And I think it’s not about telling the truth for the first time, but I think it’s about erecting more reasonable and credible foundations behind our faith in terms of what we think religion is and should be, and how we understand the nature of God’s interactions with us through an institutionalized church.
FIONA: That being said, I think for Mormons this is a really topsy-turvy moment. We’re not a church that goes to—I mean not a faith tradition that goes to church for an hour on Sunday. It’s very labor intensive, life intensive, time consuming. It’s a way of life. And so quite honestly, when those paradigms with which we have grown up and with which we have become comfortable are suddenly turned on their heads, that is going to cause pretty seismic reactions to individuals and to the community as a whole.
So I think probably as a faith tradition, we are more vulnerable primarily because we are so vested in our faith tradition than perhaps many others are. So that makes it very, very difficult and we’re both very cognizant of that, both on an individual level. And faith crisis seems to be very marginalizing. We’ve found among many people that they feel that they’re the only ones who are experiencing this horror—I really don’t think that there’s any other way of describing it, is that everything was been whipped out from under your feet. And you really don’t know where you are. You’re totally discombobulated. So this idea, I think, of finding like-minded people—and I think that’s what we’re attempting to do in some of our faith seminars, is to bring people who are struggling together so that they feel that they’re not alone and that they can form communities to help each other sort of forge on.
HODGES: You mentioned paradigms a moment ago. And the book opens with the discussion of paradigms and the assumptions that we bring to our faith. We all have assumptions about the way that the world works and our place in it, and we could hardly operate without them. But you write that our assumptions and paradigms, they can help guide our inquiry, but they can also get in the way of inquiry as well. And you introduce readers to two different people who exemplified this problem. You talk about Julian of Norwich and B. H. Roberts. So take a second to talk a little bit about their experiences and how they helped you explore this idea of paradigms.
FIONA: Julian is extremely important to me for a number of reasons. She was a 14th century mystic. She was in very much I would call it very similar to a Mormon church. Catholicism was a lived tradition. You had prayers by hours and everything revolved around the religious traditions. So what I find extraordinary about Julian is that after having a series of visions which she found perplexing, that she then withdrew from life as it were, and spent the next twenty years immersed in trying to understand what it was she felt the Lord was trying to say to her. And there were three paradigms into which she was working. The idea that there was a hell, a purgatory, and that sin was a very bad thing. And for me, it was fascinating to watch her work through these. To recognize that hell is actually not a place. It’s pain. It’s lived experience. Purgatory doesn’t exist. And the idea of sin as being educative rather than punitive. So she has become my heroine because those were very, very strong paradigms and she negotiated her transition in such a way that she did not end up being vilified or excoriated. In fact, she was praised and her writings became essential, really, to the continuation of Catholicism, at least in England.
HODGES: And how did you find her by the way?
FIONA: Well, I do remember my lovely friend Zina Peterson dropping her name, and many other names in that wonderful brain of hers. But actually I don’t remember exactly when I had her book in my hands, but—
TERRYL: I think Zina had mentioned it to us.
TERRYL: I found her useful in my study of the pre-existence.
FIONA: Oh, right.
TERRYL: And I think from there, you got hold of the book and became immersed in it.
FIONA: Yeah. I guess right.
TERRYL: So B. H. Roberts is another example, and probably more familiar to Latter-day Saints. He was known—and still is—as one of the greatest scholars of the Book of Mormon the church has known. But he himself entered into a period of extreme doubt and anxiety about the Book of Mormon because he found himself incapable of answering one question in particular among others he dealt with. And that concerned the development of Hebrew into hundreds and hundreds of Indian languages, which seemed to be implied by a Book of Mormon account in which Lehi became the ancestor of all the American Indians. So you’d have to explain how Hebrew had then evolved into all these myriad languages. And Roberts was a smart enough man to know that that was just impossible. That we couldn’t have everything from Navajo to Patagonian and to Eskimo emerging out of Hebrew.
But the paradigm to which he was committed was an understanding that the Book of Mormon described an entire hemisphere of civilizations. And that there was nothing outside the orbit of Lehi and his descendants that could enter into the picture. And he had considered other alternatives but was committed to this view, which isn’t really tenable if one notices the many indications in the Book of Mormon. Both of a very, very limited geography, only a few hundred miles by a few hundred miles. And if one recognizes that as early as Jacob 7, there are possible readings of the text according to which other cultures seem to be present. And if one embraces that paradigm, that set of assumptions about the Book of Mormon and its world, then the question becomes a non-question. It is in fact the case that those languages can’t develop out of Hebrew and there’s no need why we have to make that square peg fit into a round hole anymore.
HODGES: So these two figures, then, are representative of people who experience deep anxiety connected to questioning parts of their faith and then who find that by changing their assumptions, those anxieties are alleviated. They kind of go away.
TERRYL: Precisely. And so we turn then our attention to about a dozen other paradigms that we think are more typical of Mormon cultural expectations generally that turn out to be ill-founded and lead to sometimes disastrous consequences.
FIONA: And for us, you know, Julian was such an incredibly courageous woman. I mean, she labored as an anchorite for twenty years. I mean, she persisted knowing, I think, deep down that God would answer her questions. That she would receive an answer to those questions. So it’s that courage, that determination to continue wading through the darkness.
And I think, you know, Mother Teresa, and we quote her in the book as well, is another example of that. After her original epiphany to leave her order and tend to the dying in Calcutta, she received nothing. Nothing. And for me, that speaks incredible courage to hang on to what to she believes is beautiful and true even when you no longer have any evidence for it, but continue as though there were evidence of it. And you know, she has become this lodestar for so many people struggling. Thank heavens her letters weren’t burned.
HODGES: And from what I understand, they might have been.
HODGES: Especially some of her most personal.
FIONA: She asked them to be burned.
FIONA: So we’re very fortunate that they weren’t.
HODGES: Within the church, there’s an added element of institutional heft. Sometimes an assumption might be heavily promoted that, say—B. H. Roberts for example, lived at a time when most Latter-day Saints assume that the Book of Mormon covered North and South America, this hemispheric view, and the new assumption of a smaller geography resolved a lot of those issues. But if you, you know, looked at the church manuals from that time and how the Book of Mormon was discussed in church publications, it was still presenting that hemispheric view. So the question would be about what someone like Roberts could have done in that situation, where the things he would hear in a church lesson or something would still be promoting that other paradigm. Those older assumptions that he had to get over, that he had to change. What advice would you have there?
TERRYL: Well, Roberts was an unusual case in that he wasn’t just a product of Mormon culture, but he also was one of the shapers of Mormon culture. Because, of course, he himself wrote books which were adopted and used as official manuals in the church curriculum. So he was in a unique position that he could have shifted popular understanding of the Book of Mormon if he had been maybe more alert and attentive and responsive to those other ways of reading the text. Because while that was the general consensus among Latter-day Saints, there were exceptions going back, you know, to the time of B. H. Roberts. It’s just unfortunate that he continued to promulgate an assumption rather than interrogate it and overthrow it.
HODGES: What would your advice be for someone who has come to see something differently, but at church they still hear that older assumption and they just, you know, that generates anxiety for them. Because it’s not just an individual thing within the church, there’s a communal element to it as well.
TERRYL: Well, there is, and we think of our church as being extremely hierarchical and driven from the top down and that is true in many doctrinal ways. But historically, it’s clear that there had been many shifts and changes and innovation in church administration and functioning that have arisen from the ground and worked their way up.
And so, Fiona has this term she uses a lot. She talks about “street cred” and the fact that there are ways in which we can gently and appropriately try to shift culture with our own orbit of influence. But that there are certain pre-conditions for us to have that kind of influence.
FIONA: My feeling is whenever we moved to a ward, which we haven’t done particularly often, but I have found that in order to gain a voice it is really, really important to immerse oneself in that community. Not to stay at a distance from that community. So helping move, taking dinners. Whatever is required in a service-orientated capacity, we should be busily engaged in. Because that is a huge bridge builder. Because essentially, when you’re serving someone, you’re telling them that you love them. And that gains one an incredible amount of capital to be able to raise something in a gospel doctrine lesson, or a Relief Society lesson that might not otherwise be accepted. But because people recognize that you are a fully collaborating member of the community, you are more than likely to get a bye.
So for example, in our Gospel Doctrine class a few weeks ago, the topic being discussed was how do you prepare yourself if you’re going to the temple. And so, you know, I sat for a while and then I thought, well, I’ll offer my contribution. And I said I think it actually might be very helpful to go to Catholic mass three or four times before one goes to the temple. Because Catholics do ritual and symbolism extremely well. And it was very interesting to watch how it played out, you know. Some people woke up and said, “Oh, did Fiona just tell us to become Catholics?” And then others thought, “Well, that is odd. Did I hear her correctly?” So it’s sort of a wake-up moment for most of the class. But actually, there were a lot of people who were entertaining the idea. There was no outright rejection of my suggestion, which I thought was very helpful.
TERRYL: And it was because they trusted you. They’ve seen you—
FIONA: And they did trust me, yeah.
HODGES: You aren’t trying to be a rabble-rouser.
FIONA: I was not trying to be a rabble-rouser. Exactly.
TERRYL: And it had nothing to do with academic credentials or anything else. It’s about being a part of the community and having paid our dues through service to the community.
FIONA: Right. Exactly.
HODGES: And it was an offer, a suggestion, to help people transition to temple worship.
HODGES: So this was—You know, you’re offering something that could help people handle something that might otherwise be unsettling or difficult.
TERRYL: And especially after having had the experience of some of our own children who were—we thought had been well-prepared for the temple experience but were not.
TERRYL: And so we had been forced to reflect on, well, what other kinds of approaches might we take to transition them from the kind of Sunday experience of meeting in a cultural hall underneath a basketball hoop in a cinder block building, to the sudden immersion in high ritual?
HODGES: High church. Yeah.
HODGES: Exactly. I think that’s a great idea.
FIONA: Thank you. [laughs]
HODGES: Yeah! Go experience some high church liturgy and then you’ll get a sense for it. Alright, so when you talk about some of these assumptions, each chapter tackles one of them and we’ll talk about a few. One of them that I wanted to talk about was the idea, the assumption, that the purpose of religion is to answer all of our questions or to just give us peace. And the second chapter says that, you know, religious faith can offer peace but it can also generate anxiety. And this was interesting to me because it seems like when people dwell on doubts about particular issues, say, about things like the infallibility of prophets or things like whether there’s actually life after death. That can result in—That can generate a lot of anxiety.
So here’s a quote from the book. You write, “We feel unmoored if our religion fails to answer all our questions, if it does not resolve our anxious fears, if it does not tie up all loose ends. We expect a road map and we find we only have a compass.” So it seems you’re trying to shift the attitude of religion offering all these answers, kind of the Mormon culture of certainty, to one that’s more exploratory and uncertain.
TERRYL: Well, yeah, in some ways we’re just trying to get back to basics, right? I mean, we’re told that “the just shall live by faith.” But Mormons aren’t used to living by faith. They’re used to living by certainty. And the Doctrine and Covenants tells us that “to some is given that gift of knowledge.” But it’s certainly not reasonable to expect that it would be a universal gift. And you know, I was reading a journal of an ancestor this morning, Warren Foote, and he’s exchanging letters with somebody interested in the church. And his correspondent says to him at one point, “You know, Warren, it’s interesting we believe some of the same things. But you believe so much more than we do.”
And so we’re used to there being this superabundance of revealed knowledge and truth. So I think it conditions us unrealistically to think that Mormons have the answers to everything. And so we sometimes use this expression of “putting something on a shelf” when we can’t find an answer, as if that should be a rare experience known only to Mormons who are in faith crisis. When in fact, any person living the life of discipleship has to be operating for the most part in a realm of mists and uncertainty and unknowing. And we just need to get more used to that.
FIONA: And I do think we are in the process of spiritual evolution, at least we should be. So if we feel we’ve got all the answers, we’re just going to sit and we’re not going to develop, we’re not going to grow and I think, quite honestly, I think one of the advantages of a religious tradition is to create those dissonant chords so that we will be constantly engaging our heart and mind to probe and delve and find answers. I think that’s absolutely crucial. Otherwise, we just end up a spiritual couch potatoes.
TERRYL: I mean the first formative most important myth of our entire Western culture is the Garden of Eden, and that’s about dissonance. It’s about, well, wait a minute, there are two imperatives here that seem to be in conflict. Or the most wrenching spiritual journey ever narrated is certainly Job’s, where again he’s trying to make sense of irreconcilable opposites. “I know I’m a just man. I know I’m a good man but God seems to be punishing me. How do I make sense of this?”
So the Bible seems to be trying to accustom us to the fact the essence of the mortal probation is about how we respond to cognitive dissonance in our quest for understanding.
HODGES: I’m glad you brought up Job, too, because there’s this line in the book that’s been stuck in my head ever since I’ve read it, where you warn people against committing “the sacrilege of glib consolation.” This is the idea that you experience someone who’s having doubts—maybe you’re not having doubts, but you know someone who is—and you just, you say, “oh, just put it on the shelf,” simply like that. Or you say, “oh, you know, it’s all going to work out. You just don’t worry your head about that.” What did you have in mind in terms of the sacrilege of glib consolation?
TERRYL: Well, we don’t do tragedy very well as Latter-day Saints. Everything has to have a happy ending in our story.
FIONA: Even though we have a scripture with an absolutely dismal ending. [laughs]
HODGES: The Book of Mormon ends with the annihilation of an entire people.
TERRYL: And so I think, you know, the great lesson of Job is that his friends are good friends only when they keep their mouths shut and suffer with him. And compassion is about “suffering with,” but we’re trying to force people to a happy ending. And so I think it’s irreverent and sacrilegious to say to somebody in the midst of tragedy, whether it’s a loss of a child or the loss of their faith to say, “oh, just pray more” or “aren’t you glad we have a testimony of the truth” instead of just getting down into the trenches and just suffering with that person.
FIONA: Jacob Rennaker talks about “participatory atonement,” and I really do think he’s onto something here, especially when we look at our baptismal covenant. There are three components to it. And then there is, you can take upon yourselves the name of Christ. But I just find it extraordinarily beautiful. I’m a very visual person, so when Christ is saying, “pick up your cross and follow me,” one, I recognize that every single one of us is carrying a cross and we’re following behind Christ who’s carrying his own. So the very first covenant we make is to carry each other’s burdens. But we can only do that by touching the cross which they are carrying in order to help them to lift it as they stumble under the weight of it. And that, you can’t, once you felt a person’s pain, platitudes don’t work. You recognize how insignificant and how superficial they are. And so there’s that understanding of real pain.
Only then are we in a position to take upon ourselves the second covenant, which is to mourn, because we can only empathize if we actually feel that pain and only then are we in a position to comfort. And then we can take upon ourselves the name of Christ. I think it’s absolutely beautiful but we need to get—I think it would be very helpful to rid ourselves of the vocabulary of “pray harder, read your scriptures more, have more family home evenings,” those don’t help, but the idea of sitting and just participating in the pain. Even if there’s nothing one can do about it, the idea of just being there actually alleviates an incredible amount of pain for a person.
TERRYL: Not that we don’t think praying and reading the scriptures is not important.
HODGES: [laughs] Stop praying. Stop reading.
TERRYL: Those lay a foundation.
FIONA: They do lay a foundation, but throwing band-aids at serious injury is not going to help.
HODGES: Yeah, or just going through your regular health regimen isn’t going to help if you have this going on as well.
HODGES: You need to keep living healthfully but, there’s something more needed here.
HODGES: So I wanted to talk about the idea of faith as a choice. One of the fundamental messages of the book is the idea that faith is a choice. And Terryl, you talked about this earlier. The idea is that God could provide overwhelming or undeniable evidence for the gospel, but that would rob people of their agency of making the true choice—a choice that has any moral heft to it.
A quote from the book, you write, “We have learned to relish a commitment that is born of faith freely chosen rather than of certainty compelled by evidence.”
So what about people who don’t really feel like they have that choice to make? Perhaps, they’ve come to believe that the evidence against any particular claim is too overwhelming and that choosing faith would be like looking at the summer sky and saying that it wasn’t blue. What about those people who don’t feel like they could make that choice?
TERRYL: Well, you’re in a tough spot when you’re asked to make general propositions that require the assent of other individuals to that proposition based on their own experience. So I can’t insist that my experience is a universal one. But when Fiona and I talk with individuals that are in a faith crisis in almost every case, they acknowledge a balance of evidence on both sides. They will say, “I feel this but.” “I’ve experienced this but.”
And so what we are saying is, if one can in such moments be attentive to the other side of the scale, to those moments when they have experienced something, when they have felt God’s love, when they have felt the transcendent value of goodness, or faith, or fidelity, or these other things—that we are attuned, we’re wired in a such a way that we are attuned to and cognizant of a realm of truth and beauty and eternal verities. And in those moments I think one has to simply take charge of one’s volition, of one’s will.
I think it’s very much like relationships. I’m not the first to compare faith in the church to a marriage. Others have said so very eloquently before me, but it’s useful I think to remember the analogy in cases like this, that there are many, many times in even the best of marriages where one has reason to doubt the rightness of the relationship or the good intentions of the other. And in moments like that, the highest manifestation of love is to say, at whatever risk to myself, I am going to choose to repose trust in you and in our covenants. And I think the same hold true for a relationship with God. I think there’s something very beautiful about choosing, in the midst of uncertainty, to repose faith in God and his promises based on what one hopes to be true rather than knows to be true.
FIONA: I think your question addresses so many people who are actually at this point where they don’t feel that they can choose, that whatever that is is now too painful. And I think it’s helpful to realize that our faith journeys are personal and they are unique. And so there are different ways of encountering the divine other than the standard ones that are adopted by Mormons.
So for instance, I love George McDonald’s creed, you know, the idea of things being true because they are so beautiful. Ideas being beautiful, therefore, perhaps they are true. And I think we’re encouraged to look for those things, you know, the good, the true and the beautiful. Those can be evidences of God even though other ways of thinking of God no longer work, that there are evidences of God that are so variegated, that we have an incredible amount of scope. That if we cannot believe this, if we cannot choose this, there are things that resonate with us that we can choose. Because I do believe that God speaks to us individually in our own language.
I also think he is trying to help us enlarge our hearts and minds to recognize other forms of communication. And so my feeling is that we should be always looking for that which is good and true and beautiful because, in and of themselves, they are, as Brigham Young would say, “happifying.” And those happifying moments in our lives are important. They may be infrequent, but they give us something to hold on to.
TERRYL: I think it’s important too, to recognize the distinction between a crisis of faith in the core doctrines of the gospel—which we very, very seldom encounter—and the crisis of faith and the institutional forms that have mediated those doctrines. And so much of what we’re trying to do in our own lives and in our own interactions with others is to emphasize the importance of keeping our focus on Christ and his gospel and the principles that were restored and seeing those as primary to our faith, not the institutional and human forms through which God necessarily has to transmit those truths.
FIONA: And I think we quote that letter from a friend of ours in the book, you know, whereby she does not know, she doesn’t know the church is true or that God exists, she never has, but by living a Christ like life she feels something changed in her home, in her relationships with her children and her family. So I do think that Terryl is quite right. It’s in the living a life that is most Christ like. It’s so beautiful that it can in and of itself edify and uplift and help us get through those dark areas.
HODGES: That’s Fiona Givens. We’re speaking with her and Terryl, the authors of The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith. They’re also authors of The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. We’ll be right back.
HODGES: We’re back with Fiona and Terryl Givens. They’re authors of The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith. In the course of speaking at firesides and receiving e-mails and reading book reviews, are there any questions or issues that people have raised that you wish you could have addressed in the book that you didn’t, or any issue that you would have addressed a little differently?
TERRYL: I think, you know, one issue that seems more pivotal to peoples’ sense of wellbeing in the church and in the gospel has to do with the future of those children or friends or loved ones who have abandoned the faith or lost their way. And you know, we don’t like to use words like “universalism” because those become hotly contested. And our own history in the church shows that there has been a shift in the status of that idea of universalism. But I think we would want to give more emphasis to the sentiment that was expressed most recently by, I think it was Elder Scott in a conference this past year, when he implored of parents: “Parents, please, never ever shut the doors of your heart to your children.” And it’s our conviction that if that counsel is valid in the case of mortal parents, how much more true it has to be that that is reflective of God’s own position as a parent. And so we are convinced in our own minds that our Heavenly Father will never shut the doors of his heart against any of his children. And eternity is a long time. And the sealing powers of the temple are beyond our comprehension.
HODGES: There’s one particular issue which a number of reviewers have commented on. It’s from your chapter on the problem of believing in prophets who are imperfect. In the book you asked the question, “What does it mean for us if God’s anointed leader propounds what is an error?” And your response to this seems to be kind of unique. I hadn’t really seen it elsewhere. It’s the idea that when God delegates authority to human representatives that they enjoy God’s sanction even for a decision made in error. And some people have wondered about that in terms of what you meant by that. For example, Bret Kelley at ldsblogs.org asks this, “The Givens’s say the leaders are not always inspired and we have personal responsibility to determine truth for our own actions, but how do we negotiate that in reality?” How does a church member actually negotiate that?
TERRYL: I think we negotiate it by always holding our conscience to be most sacred. Our first obligation is always to our conscience. But at the same time, we have to recognize that our conscience can be fallible, and so we can’t claim an absolute authority for our own conscience. That’s why I think there’s a limit to what many people are calling “faithful dissent,” where many of us would want to impose our conscience on the church as a whole.
But I also think it’s important to clarify the fact that we believe that the principle of delegation means that God generally will sanction a decision even made an error, that certainly doesn’t mean that God stands behind somebody ordering a Mountain Meadows Massacre, for example. But it does mean that if the Bishop calls Sister Jones to be the pianist and that wasn’t really God’s intention, it doesn’t really matter and we should sustain that calling, that person, and the Bishop nonetheless. And so somewhere between those two extremes is where we’re going to find gray areas where again, the only counsel that I think is possible is to resort to one’s individual conscience after having prayed to know the responsibility that we have to follow the counsel we’ve heard.
FIONA: I like the idea of, you know, the question, how does it realistically play out. And for me, I think we’re in a difficult position as a church right now and perhaps have been for quite some time. But this idea of idolatry is a universal problem, it’s not a Hebrew problem, and we suffer from it as much as anyone else. And there has been a tendency to elevate our leaders to positions with which they are either not comfortable or simply can’t hold. They are men, and we have been instructed not to put our trust in the arm of flesh. So again, you have that element of discordance. It’s like, what do you do when one of the leaders at the church says something that you feel is wrong?
And my hero in all of this is Darius Gray. And watching him through his life as he repeatedly approached the brethren on behalf of his people, on the problem of race and priesthood. And he never gave up but he never resorted to vitriol or calling out, but it was just this consistent, kind, helping the brethren come to an understanding. And I think he gained an incredible amount of respect by the way he approached, how gently he approached the brethren and the importance of the subject matter with which he was dealing. I think it earned him an incredible amount of street cred.
So this idea that I feel confident that things will eventually be rectified, I think it helps me—when I look at the brethren and recognize their fallibilities and the things that they must be struggling with—to be more generous. And I think a greater amount of generosity on the part of members might be helpful to give them a “bye,” maybe this wasn’t a good day. We are looking at very elderly gentlemen after all and just the understanding, just looking at our history and seeing things like race and priesthood change and looking at women’s issues and seeing the remarkable changes that are rapidly being made in that regard, so, yeah.
TERRYL: I think the problem looms much larger in our imagination than in reality. In other words, in practical terms, when was the last time that somebody, that a prophet or apostle in General Conference admonished you to do something that you found morally questionable? I think most of us will be hard pressed to find an example and in the case of controversial issues such as Proposition 8 for example, as was reaffirmed in the most recent communication from the First Presidency, it’s clear that they are trying to send a signal that look, nobody is going to be excommunicated for failing to agree with the brethren on this core issue as long as you don’t work against the church and its interest, the sanctity of conscience is going to be honored.
HODGES: Perhaps that’s the hard juggle for some people, is finding the balance between—Some members think that disagreeing with the church itself constitutes opposition or an attack and that’s where it kind of becomes difficult.
FIONA: Yeah, Blair, you’re absolutely right. We’re in a position where this is the first time where we can disagree, I think that it has been vocalized, that disagreement with the church authorities is accepted. But this is actually a new paradigm, I think for many members of the church. So negotiating that is going to be difficult. What does disagreement look like? You know, so yeah, I think that is something that we need to work through as individuals and as a community.
But efforts to destroy the church I think would probably push the disagreement, you know, to a point that it is no longer disagreement. So that’s generally my barometer. Is this being done to destroy the church? To destroy people’s testimonies in the church? Is it destructive? If the behavior is destructive then perhaps we should be looking at another form of behavior that will achieve the same ends but is not going to destroy.
HODGES: It’s such a sensitive thing because—just one other point on this—is the idea that some people want to help foster change in the church and they have different channels of doing that. And if you think of the church as a political entity, you’re going to use political methods and tools to do that. If you think of the church more like a family then you might take a different approach because some people say, “hey, don’t police tone,” you know. “I should be able to speak my truth” and, you know, of course everyone is free to, but on the other hand, if you don’t take into account the context in which you’re speaking then tone is an issue. It’s a legitimate thing to talk about.
TERRYL: Not only that, but if you’re sincere in wanting to effect change and you know anything at all about the history of the church then you know that even from a purely pragmatic point of view, Doctrine and Covenants section 121 turns out to the best strategy available to us. And again, if you want to go back to the issue of blacks and the priesthood, it was in large part a consequence of the painstaking fastidious research conducted behind the scenes by scholars that laid a ground work for the reevaluation and reinterpretation of that doctrine. It wasn’t pounding on the doors of the temple that affected those changes. So I think there’s much good and much influence that we can have if we keep section 121 in mind.
FIONA: I agree with Terryl. I think historical precedent is huge. And there’s so much, you know, from the founding fathers of Mormonism and their worldview and their pronouncements that has been lost, quite frankly, or changed quite dramatically over the years, or simply unknown. And I have seen the church—exactly as Terryl has said with race and priesthood—change primarily because of the historical precedent with which they were unfamiliar. And I think there’s a lot of change that actually can happen as a result of historical precedent. There are a lot of things with which we are completely unfamiliar because we’ve simply been unaware that it was part of our foundational history.
HODGES: All right. Well, there are a lot of great things in the book that we obviously didn’t get to talk about. I think people are really excited that a book like this is being published by Deseret Book and is available to so many church members. Do you have any other projects coming up that you’ve been working on? You did these two books together.
TERRYL: Well, there’s something less than cheery and optimistic about a title like “The Crucible of Doubt,” so we’d like to round that off maybe with another set of reflections that we’ve been working on intermittently, called The Christ Who Heals.
HODGES: Very good. That’s Fiona and Terryl Givens, they are authors of The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith, and also a book called The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. Both of those are available from Deseret Book. Thanks to you both for being on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
FIONA: Thank you very much, Blair, lovely to be here.
TERRYL: Thank you, Blair, good to be here.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)