#74—Feeding the Flock, with Terryl L. Givens [MIPodcast]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Mormon scholar Terryl L. Givens is back with us again. Dr. Givens spent the summer as a Neal A. Maxwell fellow here at the Institute, where he and Phil Barlow directed the Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture. It was a real treat to have Terryl here in the building and he sat down with me to talk about the second and final book in his Foundations of Mormon Thought series from Oxford University Press. The book is called Feeding the Flock: Church and Praxis. The first volume focused on LDS theology, while this volume zeroes in on LDS church structure and sacraments. We recorded this interview a few months back, but I thought it would be fitting to deliver it to you in the weeks leading up to Christmas, as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reignites its “Light the World” event.
Light the World is a worldwide effort to share the light of Jesus Christ through serving, lifting, and helping others. Every day in December leading up to Christmas you can focus on a specific teaching of Jesus and try out a variety of related service ideas. The LDS Church invites you to join in and make the Christmas season shine even brighter. To discover ways you can participate in Light the World and get service ideas, please visit mormon.org.
And now, it’s Terryl Givens on his new book, Feeding the Flock. Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at email@example.com. And don’t forget to take a moment to rate and review the show on iTunes.
BLAIR HODGES: Terryl L. Givens joins us today. He’s a 2017 Neal A. Maxwell fellow here at the Maxwell Institute, and he also teaches courses on nineteenth century studies, and the Bible’s influence on Western literature, at the University of Richmond. Today we’re talking about his latest book Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis. Thanks for being with me today, Terryl.
TERRYL GIVENS: Good to be here, Blair.
HODGES: It’s been great to have you here at the Maxwell Institute as well. You’ve been here conducting the Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture again, and I thought it was a really interesting year. The symposium went well as well.
GIVENS: Yes, I think it did. It was a good mix of students, we had a few internationals and mostly domestics, but a good range of genders and geographical origins and interests, so it was a good mix.
HODGES: And you also, at the end of the symposium, gave a sneak peek at the topic for next year?
GIVENS: Right. Next year Steve Peck and I will be co-teaching a seminar on Mormonism and science.
HODGES: It’s going to be really cool. We’ll have information about when people can apply for that in the future. That usually comes later on down the line. We’ll talk about the Summer Seminar a little bit later on too, but let’s talk about Feeding the Flock.
A lot of books begin on a really personal note. There’s this one page, the beginning of a book, and yours has this page, it’s a dedicatory page, and it says “To Philip and Deborah.” It includes this quote from Joseph Smith: ”How good and glorious it has seemed to me to find pure and holy friends who are faithful, just, and true.” Philip and Deborah. Talk about that dedication a little bit.
GIVENS: Well, I came to know Phil some years ago. We’ve since become very close friends.
HODGES: This is Phil Barlow, right?
GIVENS: Phil Barlow. Both he and his wife, Debbie, with myself and my wife, Fiona.
Friendship is actually in some ways at the heart of this volume on Feeding the Flock, because it’s really about ecclesiology, about the nature of community, and what the Mormon theology behind community building, and family building, is. So it seemed an appropriate overlap there by way of dedication.
HODGES: It sets the entire book up well, then, as we’ll talk about. The book itself is about how the church reflects the theology of Mormonism, it seems to me. It’s a two-part series. Feeding the Flock is the second of two volumes in your history of Mormon thought. The full title is Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis.
By the way, whose idea was the double colon? That’s unusual.
GIVENS: Well, I got away with that. We sure fiddled around a lot with different formulations of that title. It’s because we’re trying to say a lot by way of the title. Trying to frame the general subject, which is the history of Mormon thought.
HODGES: That’s both books together.
GIVENS: That’s both books together. We wanted different titles to differentiate the two, but we also had to have that semicolon that explains exactly what the subject really is. So it got a little clumsy.
HODGES: It is allowed—We had a conversation about it because we’re doing the Richard Bushman festschrift and it almost got a double colon in the title. We figured out a different configuration for it, but it was funny—
GIVENS: Yes. It’s a bit awkward because there’s really no shorthand that’s effective.
HODGES: All right. So, volume one was Wrestling the Angel, and volume two is Feeding the Flock. These titles are languages that aren’t necessarily common to Latter-day Saint lingo, like you didn’t choose the title “Come, Come, Ye Saints” or something like that. What about the language of these titles, what does that suggest about your project?
GIVENS: Well, I think one thing we’re seeing in terms of the best directions in what we call Mormon studies is the recognition that the study of Mormonism has to be situated in a broader context, usually interdenominational or in terms of the larger histories and fields. So, it seemed appropriate to choose titles that didn’t sound parochial in terms of relegating them to a Mormon audience who would understand the lingo, but to talk in more broadly accepted Christian language.
HODGES: Is there a sense in which you would like this language to sort of also reach Mormons as well, maybe get them thinking differently about their religion?
GIVENS: Yes. I think I always have a double audience in mind when I write books. I’m always writing for a press like Oxford, the assumption is you’re writing for an academic audience or a well-educated public audience. But you’re also writing with the recognition that most of the people interested in Mormonism are Mormons. You’re trying to kind of speak both languages at the same time.
HODGES: What did “wrestling the angel” mean for volume one?
GIVENS: Well, Wrestling the Angel was what I guess I would call deep theology. The more abstract undercurrents of Mormonism—cosmology, human anthropology, divine anthropology, soteriology—those general categories of Christian thought that are generally understood to pertain to theology proper.
HODGES: There’s a wrestling there that happens in terms of expressing those thoughts, or?
GIVENS: Yes. It seemed an appropriate metaphor to me because, of course, theology means right reason to discourse about God, or about God talk, and how can we relegate to human language things of eternal importance, ineffable and in many cases incomprehensible understanding of God and his purposes and his ways. It seems that all theology is really a wrestle with an angel in that sense.
HODGES: It reminded me of that Joseph Smith quote, where he’s complaining about the “crooked, broken language”—
HODGES: Yes. So, Wrestling the Angel, volume one, kind of lays these theological foundations, and then volume two, Feeding the Flock, how about that title and exactly what the book is trying to accomplish?
GIVENS: Yes, the technical name for that subject is ecclesiology, which means the theology of the church. It’s one thing to say that we have all of these propositional statements about the nature of God, or man, or salvation, but that really doesn’t in of itself address the question of why we need a church. Since most religious practice takes place within the context of organized religion, the first question that needs to be asked is, why do we need organization? Ecclesiology attempts to address the how and why of church organization proper.
HODGES: It’s sort of a study of how the ideas and doctrines that are formally implemented into the structure. And how the structure, then, also reflects on these theological ideas. It seems to be those can influence each other.
GIVENS: Yes. So, you’re going to have overlap and reciprocity. But one can make general demarcation, it seems to me, between these abstracts that are propositions and as you said, how you actually implement these in devotional life and religious practice.
HODGES: It becomes difficult, I would imagine, to separate those topics the way that you have. There’s a logic to it, but at the same time it’s a challenge because the theology and the ecclesiology are so intertwined. Did you find that to be a challenge as you separated the topics of the book conceptually?
GIVENS: Well, certainly. Especially when you’re talking about sacraments, for example, right? Sacramentalism is a practice. We practice baptisms, we practice temple sealings, but obviously you can’t understand what is taking place there, separate and apart from an underlying theology of why, or what you think is happening. Time and time again you find you can’t fully separate out these two strands of theological discourse.
HODGES: In the preface to Feeding the Flock—here’s a quote—you write that you make “no claims to either comprehensive or authoritative presentation,” but that you selected for treatment those aspects of Mormon ecclesiology that struck you as most useful in answering the fundamental questions of ecclesiology. It’s not comprehensive, it’s not authoritative. Do you think people are looking for books that are more comprehensive than what you have to offer, or do you think that there are books that perform that more comprehensive view than what you’ve tried to do in this book?
GIVENS: I don’t think there is, in our case. I mean, every scholar always makes a certain number of caveats before engaging upon a work of this nature, and part of that is just kind of pro form, a part of it is really a genuine effort to differentiate what I am doing for a more comprehensive systematic theology. I’m not a Thomas Aquinas, this isn’t a Summa Theologiae, but Mormons in large measure, because of the legacy of Bruce R. McConkie, have been conditioned in many cases to expect a kind of comprehensive statement of belief that covers the entirety of Christian thought and practice.
HODGES: That you could put in alphabetical order.
GIVENS: Exactly. [laughs] I wanted to make clear from the start that “A,” I don’t have the authority, I don’t have any apostolic authority, and “B,” I’m not aspiring to that comprehensiveness. In fact, I asked Oxford if I could do a three-volume series, and they said, “No, do it in one.” We compromised with two. I was glad I at least got two to try to work through most of these issues.
HODGES: How would you say that your day-to-day experience as a lay member of the LDS church affected your research on this particular book? Because this deals with more day-to-day church operation, so did your personal experience as a member of the LDS Church and—how did that influence?
GIVENS: Yes, I think I can answer this in a kind of general way. When I as at Oxford last semester at a high dinner, I was engaged by another person, a woman who happened to be particularly hostile to Mormonism, and to the idea that a Mormon could write books on Mormonism.
HODGES: You’re biased, so—
GIVENS: Right, exactly. How could you do this without bias or prejudice? So I asked her, I said, “Have you ever been inside a cathedral?” And she said, “Yes, of course.” And I said, “Well, have you ever seen the beautiful stained glass as the light shines through it in this blaze of dazzling color?” And I said, “You may recall being on the periphery of that same church, and looking at the rose window from the outside, and all you see is this kind of pale, ugly, grayish color with some dull indication of glass.” And I said, “It seems to me that one can only appreciate the full splendor and beauty of the stained glass from inside of the structure.”
I think the same is true of religious experience. I think only those who are fully invested in a religious tradition are able to speak to the experiential nature of religion. And without that experiential nature of religion then, then what do we have?
HODGES: Do you see some job-share going on too? Because obviously you draw on a lot of non-Mormon scholarship as well, but things that have been written by people who aren’t members of the church. How do you see the relationship then? The window is a striking metaphor and personally I’m drawn to that idea. A lot of religious studies scholars believe that they try to get in the shoes of people that they’re talking about. But what’s the value then, of the outside view of that window?
GIVENS: Well, I think all good scholarship on religion has to have that kind of intellectual ambidextrousness. I think in my case it’s helpful, for example, that I teach at what has historically been a Baptist institution, surrounded by secular and non-Mormon scholars. Early on in my career especially I had virtually no contact with anybody in the Mormon studies community, and so all of my initial readers, all of my interlocutors were non-Mormon scholars and academics. I think, in part that has been helpful to me. I’ve always grown up outside of Utah, outside of the Mormon culture region. I’m seeing the church simultaneously through my own personal experience in it, and through the eyes and perceptions of those on the outside of the community.
HODGES: Yes, it’s almost like you had to learn—I’ve heard this from friends who grew up outside of Utah and then served missions for the LDS church, that there was a certain built-in familiarity with translating Mormon ideas to people who aren’t familiar with Mormons, because they’ve been doing that their whole life.
GIVENS: Exactly. Yes, I think that’s a help.
HODGES: Do you think that there’s such a thing, such a possibility as a definitive overview of Mormonism? You and Phil Barlow worked together editing the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism. Is it possible to do—what would a definitive overview even look like?
GIVENS: Well, I don’t think we want a definitive overview. I think the fact that we see Mormonism, as President Uchtdorf so wonderfully said recently, as a process of restoration rather than a product of restoration, I think if we take seriously the notion of continuing revelation, then we have to always be alert and open to the evolving nature of that body of Mormon belief and practice.
HODGES: Yes, you differentiated your work from something like the Summa Theologiae, which, I mean, that did seem to try to really capture—
GIVENS: Yes, sure, it does. And now, to be fair, Catholicism also believes in an original deposit of faith that develops under the influence and guidance of the Spirit. But I think that Mormonism doesn’t argue for quite such a comprehensive original deposit. That deposit is still ongoing through prophetic succession.
HODGES: I think that’s an important caveat to make, too. Especially some of the stereotypes about Catholicism and how its theology works; this idea that even within Catholicism there’s expectations of change, evolution, or adaptation.
GIVENS: That’s right. Yes, they have a principle very close to our own idea of continuing revelation, and that it’s alive and well.
HODGES: One of the things that struck me about this project is you’re talking about Mormonism but you’re also bringing it into conversation with Protestantism and Catholicism and I sense a little more interest on your part in Catholicism than in Protestantism. Talk about that a little bit.
GIVENS: Yes. Well, I think in an effort to be kind of ecumenically minded and generous toward other faith traditions that some of our leadership have spoken in the past about the Protestant Reformation as being an important prelude to Mormonism. Well, I think it was in the sense that it was effective in disseminating the scriptures in the vernacular and in kind of forcing the question of religious toleration and pluralism upon a European people.
However, I think we’re gravely mistaken to think of ourselves in terms of a Protestant heritage and background. Steve Webb said it most eloquently when he said Joseph Smith’s project was really to reinvent Catholicism in a non-Catholic environment. It seems to me that there is virtually nothing, and I’m sure I’ll get push back here from Mormons partial to Reformation thought, but I can find virtually nothing in Reformation thought that doesn’t move Christianity further away from restoration principles and understanding of the original gospel as taught by Christ. If you think about the very first thing the Reformers did to the Book of Common Prayer, for example, was to strip it of all references to the dead, insisting that there can be no intercourse, no reciprocity, or influence of one realm on the other—
HODGES: This is a reaction to the cult of the saints and that sort of—
GIVENS: Exactly, and prayers for the dead and purgatory. The Protestants immediately do away with sacramentalism, which is at the heart of Mormonism, right?
HODGES: Some of them didn’t want to, right? Luther wanted to kind of pair it down, but he—
GIVENS: He wanted to pair it—
HODGES: —still wanted sacramentalism in ways that more radical reformers were just like, “Ah, Luther, you’re too Catholic.”
GIVENS: He did. But almost immediately, even Luther begins to acknowledge that sacramentalism is not a vehicle of God’s saving grace. We get the language very, very early on from Melanchthon and others that sacraments are signs of grace. They’re symbolic, but they don’t have any actual efficacy. And so, very quickly then, you’re pushed into a corner having to defend the very necessity for a church itself. Priesthood becomes a kind of nebulous priesthood of all believers, where else do we go? Faith, this notion of imputed righteousness and salvation by faith alone, emphasis on human depravity, all of the early reformers. Virtually all of them adamantly opposed any idea of freewill, right? Luther did, Calvin did, others, and—
HODGES: It was a challenge to God’s sovereignty—
GIVENS: Exactly. So you’re emphasizing, as you say, the sovereign nature of God, you’re emphasizing his wrathfulness, double predestination, single predestination, but in all cases—
HODGES: —That means whether God deliberately chose some people to be saved and also chose who would be damned. That’s double predestination.
GIVENS: Exactly. And the notion of sovereignty is that God doesn’t just countenance all things but that God actively wills all things. We get the establishment in the Creeds of a God without body parts or passions. As I view Mormon restorationism, virtually everything Joseph Smith is doing is a reaction against the corruptions that crept in under the Protestant Reformation, not so much under Catholicism itself, with which Mormonism still has striking affinities, and even more affinities with the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
HODGES: I think it’ll be valuable for Mormons to learn about how their faith and religion has more similarities with Catholicism than they thought and, as you said, I think Mormons who do scholarship on the Reformation, I hope they take up the challenge. I’ll be interested to see—
GIVENS: Yes. I will too. I know you’re hosting a Reformation conference here soon and I won’t be able to attend, but I haven’t heard anybody make a convincing case that Reformation thought really has much to contribute toward restoration ideals.
HODGES: Yes. I mean, you’ve heard the “are Mormons Christians?” as sort of this question that goes all around, and there’s a really interesting question, “are Mormons Protestants?” And I think that could stimulate a lot of interesting conversation.
GIVENS: In fact, if I can just digress here for a minute, I’m writing a biography of Eugene England at the present moment.
HODGES: He’s a Mormon intellectual.
GIVENS: Right. Mormon intellectual of the generation of Lowell Bennion and others. So, I’m doing this for UNC Press right now, but it strikes me that Eugene England is seen by many people as a kind of martyr to the idea of intellectual freedom in the face of a very authoritarian church culture, but the more I’ve studied his life and the history of the conflict in religious thought, the conflict between authority and conscience, it strikes me that Mormons are in this predicament. Mormons are thoroughly immersed in a Protestant sensibility, a Protestant mindset when it comes to individualism and radical freedom in the primacy of agency, but they’re operating within a Catholic concept of hierarchy and authority.
That’s why I think Mormons haven’t yet developed a kind of theology or even an informal way of thinking about what happens when there’s this conflict between individual conscience and church authority and I think it’s because we’ve kind of mixed our paradigms in ways we’re not aware of.
HODGES: And it’s interesting to find parallels of this same paradox or confrontation playing out through the Reformation and even inside Catholicism and amongst Protestant denominations and see Mormons aren’t so alone out there.
GIVENS: Exactly right. So I’m trying to situate Mormon struggles with this issue in that religious context, but Catholics and Protestants come up with very, very different answers to the question of “what do you do when your conscience comes into conflict with authority?”
HODGES: And even some Catholics come up with different answers than Catholics and then when you start drilling down, it’s a lot of fun. I’ll be also excited to see that Eugene England biography. How far out do you think that is? Do you have an idea?
GIVENS: About a year and a half away from finishing that.
HODGES: [laughs] Well, no rush, Terryl. It’s not like you put out a book every year or anything.
That’s Terryl Givens. He holds the Jabez A. Bostwick Chair of English, at the University of Richmond, and he’s also a 2017 Neal A. Maxwell fellow here at the Institute. He’s one of the most prolific authors on books on Mormonism, including books like People of Paradox, By the Hand of Mormon, Wrestling the Angel and also, together with his wife, Fiona, he’s written a number of books directly for LDS audiences, including The God Who Weeps and The Crucible of Doubt, and he’s got another book along those lines coming out, I believe, called The Christ Who Heals, is that correct?
GIVENS: That’s right.
HODGES: So today we’re talking about his latest book which is Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis.
So, your first chapter, and we touched on this a little bit already, but your first chapter talks about what is a church and why is it necessary, and this seems like a pressing question especially today when we see more and more people apparently disaffiliating from religious institutions, people talk about the rise of the “nones.” Even people who still consider themselves religious, or spiritual, are less inclined to associate with actual institutions. You almost have to begin this book with an apologia for the existence of actual institutions.
GIVENS: That’s exactly right. In order to do this all I had to do is recapitulate the history of early Protestantism, because that was in many ways the very first ecclesiological problem they had to resolve, “Well, if you don’t need authority and you don’t need sacraments, then why do you need a church?” and so immediately they were put on the defensive and in many ways our young people, especially Millennials, are asking the same question today.
I think this problem became aggravated in the nineteenth century. I teach romanticism and romanticism was an era in which spirituality trumped religiosity. There was a kind of renewed hostility to institutional religion and every semester when I teach my courses in the Bible or religious topics, I asked the very first day of class, “how many of you in here consider yourselves religious?” And generally I’ll get one hand up, maybe two. “How many consider yourself spiritual?” Every hand in the class of course goes up, so it’s clear to me that this is an issue that hasn’t gone away and won’t anytime soon.
HODGES: Instead of homo religious or whatever, homo spiritus or whatever, like—
GIVENS: Homo spiritualtus.
HODGES: Yes, thank you [laughs]. What are some of the reasons that Christians, over the centuries, have given for the existence of an institution? You mentioned the Protestants, for example.
GIVENS: Right. Well, one notion is that we simply have to come together because religion, of course, in the original sense, comes from the Latin root to be linked or connected, like ligament, so we have to come together because worship is fundamentally a communal activity, because God himself set up a religion, or excuse me, a church structure, as the New Testament indicates, and therefore there have to be indispensable reasons that have to do with the necessity for a moral reinforcement. Also, history has proven that religion can affect much more in solidarity with like-minded groups of people than we can individually, acting as autonomous agents. All you have to do is look at the great history of charitable services, relief agencies, that they were always administered by religious organizations. But it’s hard to argue for the absolute indispensability, separate and apart from a sacramental theology like Catholicism.
HODGES: Especially when you have other entities filling in for some of those needs. You have charitable organizations that aren’t necessarily affiliated with religion.
GIVENS: That’s right. You can join the Moose Lodge or the Red Cross.
HODGES: So what answers then does Mormonism give in terms of the necessity of an actual institution?
GIVENS: Well, Mormon ecclesiology is really firmly and deeply rooted in the notion of its sacramental theology. In other words, there is this belief that for reasons that are not always fully made clear, it was essential to God’s purposes that in order to fulfill what Mormon theology refers to as the new and everlasting covenant, which I take to mean the covenant that issued forth, really, from those primordial councils in which God took upon himself to order and unite the human family into soluble eternal bonds. And in order to affect those purposes, a church was necessary, both to serve as the kind of reservoir and vehicle of correct precepts and understanding of who we are, where we come from, what our purpose is, and in order to affect those sacramental rituals that have a very real and tangible role in creating, constituting, and eternalizing those eternal relationships.
HODGES: I want to circle back around to that as well. A little bit later on we’ll talk more about the chapters on sacramentalism and sacramental theology. A question that I had before we do that. You talk about that even the word “church” comes from ecclesia; this is a borrowing, this is a word that today, whenever anyone hears about “church” they think about religion, but the word wasn’t originally confined to that. Kind of like how Mormons use the word “ward.” That was a term for a sort of public municipality, now when I hear “a ward” I think of people that I worship with. Do you think there’s significance in the borrowing of that language? In other words, if the church is a restoration, it’s already being couched into a term that didn’t necessarily originate with religion.
GIVENS: Yes, that’s true. Although, I think it is interesting that the Book of Mormon, which in so many ways served as a template for Mormon ecclesiology, we get priesthood and offices and sacraments, prayers and temples, but the other thing that we get in the Book of Mormon is the transformation of a religious community into an organized church. There’s a clearly delineated process there that I think Mormonism itself recapitulates, where in the Old Testament you have prophets and they are leaders over religious communities, and in the New Testament you have ecclesiastical offices presiding over a church.
You see that exact same transition in the Book of Mormon, going from Lehi, a prophet leading his people into the wilderness, and then under Alma you get the institutionalization of a church. I think one of the significant things—I don’t think it is a coincidence that Joseph Smith personally embodies himself, both of those roles. He begins as a prophet with a particular calling, gathering a particular community of people, but then he also assimilates unto himself the role of high priest and church administrator.
HODGES: Max Weber, the famous sociologist, has talked about the disenchantment of charisma that happens and this seems to trace that same trajectory, but Weber sort of takes that as a signal of a maturation that departs from ideas of religion. You had this apparent heavenly spark and then over time it gets calcified and becomes this routine institution and then things sort of break down from there, there’s entropy there. How do you confront the ideas of Weber when you see that sort of playing out in the Book of Mormon?
GIVENS: Well, I think what you see in Joseph Smith that is kind of interesting is that he presides over his own loss of a kind of prophetic singularity. In other words, at first he’s very insistent on his sole possession of the keys, of presidency and of revelation, but before he dies, as Richard Bushman has argued elsewhere, he very deliberately and carefully diffuses his authority into a counsel form of government. So I think that’s one way in which you kind of see recapitulated in a very brief span of time what Weber describes as often happening over a much longer process.
On the other hand, there are some ways in which Mormonism has itself undergone a kind of routinization of charismatic experience in particular. We don’t have singing in tongues in our sacrament meetings anymore or the kind of charismatic manifestations that were so common in the first generation of Christianity. There again, Mormonism recapitulates the history of the larger Christian church.
HODGES: Yes. Your book has a chapter on that, on spiritual gifts, and it talks about some of those gifts that seem to be lost and a lot of practicing members of the church have questions about that. I’ve heard a lot of questions about that, “why don’t we speak in tongues? Why don’t we have this sort of thing?” How does your book confront those types of questions?
GIVENS: Well, it doesn’t really try to answer those questions; it simply charts those changes. One response that has been offered, I think, by some scholars who have studied this phenomenon in the Mormon church, is to recognize that it’s not so much that those gifts have disappeared in Mormonism, it’s that increasingly they are relegated to non-industrialized nations. I mean, anybody who’s served a mission in Fiji or in Brazil, or other non-first world nations, will recognize these spiritual manifestations tend to still be very prevalent in those religious communities and among Mormons as well.
HODGES: Dreams, visions—
GIVENS: Absolutely, healings, sure.
HODGES: In that first chapter about why a church is necessary, you also point out that the first function that Joseph Smith apparently sought in religion seemed to be more spiritual and emotional and that we can trace the origins of the system he would shape back to those very desires. I wanted to hear more about that.
GIVENS: Yes, there is a great commonality that one can discern in Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, especially of the First Vision, if one looks at it against Luther’s conversion experience or John Wesley’s conversion experience. In the aftermath of Reformation thought in particular there was a kind of dread or anxiety over salvation that was precipitated by the Reformation and here’s how that happened. In Catholic thought, the sacraments are effectively the guarantor of salvation. If you’ve had all of the sacraments properly administered, then one way or another you’re going to achieve your salvation, might have to go through purgatory to get there, but your salvation is virtually assured. If you deny that the sacraments have any inherent efficacy whatsoever, then we are left without any grounds for hope and confidence in our salvation, this is going to lead to something that later develops as covenant theology, but in the end, what you get then, is this kind of anxiety that is everywhere evident in journals and diaries and sermons of the Reformation era, going all the way into Joseph Smith’s era, and that’s why if you look at his—even his 1838 account still manifests this worry, this anxiety. What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to be saved? Am I damned? So that’s why in his 1832 account he emphasizes that God appears to him, the Lord appears to him and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
HODGES: Yes, that’s the first thing he reports.
GIVENS: That’s the first thing he reports. Then, going back, even if you go back to the 1838 account, when he returns three years later, just before Moroni appears, why does he return to pray?
HODGES: It’s the same question.
GIVENS: Same question.
HODGES: “Am I okay? Are we okay?”
GIVENS: He’s anxious; he’s worried again. Exactly. So, Mormonism is launched by this very personal anxiety about salvation that Joseph Smith feels. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that before Joseph Smith has completed his work in 1844 he has reconstituted a Catholic-like model of sacramentalism that once again introduces certainty of your salvation based on these indissoluble promises that are made in temples by priesthood administrators, contingent upon righteousness, but nevertheless that carry this kind of stamp of assurance of salvation, and so he eventually solves that problem through his theology.
HODGES: It seems like the story that Latter-day Saints tell about Joseph Smith’s experience has also taken on different hues over the years. For example that account where Joseph talks about, well all of the accounts even to the present we hear about Joseph feeling anxious about the state of his soul and whatnot, but the narrative also shifted to be more about which church is true. So, it seems like the First Vision story has been used in Mormon proselyting efforts more in that line which church is true which, perhaps was a question that was more pressing in the past than it is now, right?
GIVENS: Yeah. Well, I think the differences between the 1832 and ’38 accounts have been greatly exaggerated. The same elements are present in both. What you see is just a difference in emphasis and I think that that makes perfect sense. I emphasize different things when I’m speaking to different audiences or in different phases of my life. In 1832 Mormonism was still a very local phenomenon, his experience he still thought of as largely a personal conversion narrative. He hadn’t shared with any. It’s not in print anywhere. Virtually nobody is familiar with the details of his First Vision experience.
By 1838, they’ve been exiled and forcibly evicted from one community after another. There have been deaths and assaults and persecutions. Joseph and many of his contemporaries chronicled in example after example after example the fact that contemporary Protestant ministers were leading the mobs. So, he gained an increasing sense that he was a participant in a cosmic battle between God’s desire to affect a full restoration of Christianity and the forces of darkness that had been arrayed against him in order to prevent that from unfolding.
HODGES: That’s kind of the story and that’s the story that he—
GIVENS: That’s the story we get in 1838.
HODGES: It’s interesting, because the way missionaries then use that story might or might not resonate. I was out with some missionaries in Maryland just a couple years ago and we were meeting with a woman from Africa and she was asking about the Book of Mormon, and the elders kept going back to the First Vision and she was like, “Well, what’s this Book of Mormon?” They had their script and they were trying to say like, “Haven’t you ever wondered which church is true?” She looked over at me and she said, “No.”
HODGES: So, it was not connecting with her.
GIVENS: I don’t think the 1838 account is the one that we should be using to evangelize to. I think the 1832 account would be much, much more effective because it asks those questions that are resonant with today’s people which is how do I find peace? How do I find assurance? How do I find personal direction in my life? That’s the 1832 question.
HODGES: Yeah, it seemed like they were sort of taking out the wrong tool for the wrong job at the moment.
GIVENS: Yeah, yeah, I guess so.
HODGES: It seems the First Vision can be kind of employed the way that that story gets told is responsive to the environment in which it’s being told, so you can almost trace the questions that are pressing to Mormons according to kind of how they framed that account it seems.
GIVENS: Yeah, yeah, and especially outside of an American Protestant localized venue. The 1838 account is not going to resonate with Mongolians and Tibetans.
HODGES: That’s Terryl Givens. We’re talking about his book Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought Church and Praxis.
A minute ago, you mentioned covenant theology. Mormons are familiar with the word covenant that maybe they’ll give a simple definition of something like a promise that you make with God and God promises something in return, or something like that. In chapter two of the book you situate LDS covenant theology a little more specifically alongside other Christian versions. How does Mormon covenant theology differ from other Christian covenant theologies?
GIVENS: Well, the Reformation moves covenant theology front and center. There had been antecedents but it’s really with Luther going forward that we get this notion that the covenant that is, the only covenant that is really meaningful and relevant to us, is the new covenant. The covenant inaugurated by Christ which replaces it, totally replaces the old covenant, which Puritans and Protestants understood to be the covenant of obedience. So, here’s the basic Protestant idea that God gives Adam a covenant. “Keep my commandments and you’ll have these blessings.” Adam fails. He incurs damnation and the entire human race is subject to this original guilt. The covenant has failed. So Christ inaugurates a new covenant, which is the covenant of grace. We’re not saved through our own works or efforts or obedience but by his grace, and that’s the whole sola gracia idea in Protestantism.
Mormonism repudiates that division entirely, which is another reason for Mormonism’s utter failure or incapacity to be situated within the Protestant frame of thought, because in the Book of Mormon does this very, very effectively by saying, “Well, we’re going to take an Old Testament time frame in a New Testament time—we’re going to conflate them in one. We’re going to take the Law of Moses. We’re going to take the law of Christ and show that they can both be practice at the same time. We’re going to take the law of obedience of commandments and Christ’s atonement. We’re going to show that they can be synthesized.”
So, in every way the Book of Mormon effectively and powerfully conflates, merges, synthesizes those conceptions of an old and new covenant and the language that Joseph will use for this is the new and everlasting covenant. Now that also is language there that’s not new to Joseph Smith but what we do get in Joseph Smith repeatedly in the Doctrine and Covenants is the assertion that this new and everlasting covenant is an old covenant that eventually Joseph will trace, as I said, to that pre-existent counsel in heaven where the first terms and conditions of God’s plans and purposes for the human race are outlined. So it’s this marvelous kind of synthetic work of weaving together all of dispensational history into one comprehensive overview, “the new and everlasting covenant,” and that is Mormon covenant theology.
HODGES: If I were to offer a suggested alternate title for this series, I would have chosen “New and Everlasting Covenant” because it seemed to me that that was the recurring theme, almost the organizing principle of both of these books is in my ante. Did I get that right or is that crazy?
GIVENS: Well, if I hadn’t had to give the works a title until I finish both books, maybe that’s what they would have been called because I certainly didn’t anticipate especially in writing on the second one that that would become the entire framework, but I’m convinced now that the only or at least the best way to understand Joseph Smith’s project in its totality is in terms of that covenant idea.
HODGES: Interesting. So that emerged as an organizing principle as the project for you unfolded then.
GIVENS: That’s correct.
HODGES: Interesting. So, we’ve talked a lot about sacramental theology, but I want to dig in just a little bit more here. My favorite part of the book was the section on sacramental theology. Mormons talk about the sacrament. They’re usually referring to what Christians call the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, it’s the ritual eating and drinking. Mormons partake of bread and water but the term “sacramental” and “sacrament” means a lot more in Christianity. The purpose of sacraments in the way that they’re actually conducted has been fiercely contested over Christian history of why we do them, what they mean, what they do for us.
So, what do you think Mormons might stand to gain from learning about a broader view of the sacraments? Catholics had seven, I believe—
GIVENS: Seven sacraments.
HODGES: Then Luther wanted to trim those down. What were those seven? What did Luther want to do?
GIVENS: Oh, gee. You are asking me to name all seven of those now? [laughing] I’m not going to remember them all but you’ve got baptism, penance, and of course you have marriage, and the religious orders which constitute one, and when you’ve got extreme unction. You’ve got confirmation.
HODGES: Each Christian didn’t necessarily go through all—
GIVENS: They didn’t have to go through all of them because if you were a monk you didn’t have to have marriage, for example.
HODGES: Right, okay, yeah.
GIVENS: But you had to have baptism and confirmation.
HODGES: These were thought of as sacramental. In other words, these were a rite of passage but also some sort of—
GIVENS: They were actual channels of grace.
HODGES: Right, like this was a literal—like Luther was unsettled at the idea that people interpreted the Eucharist as being like literal medicine, like you’re taking medicine sort of for your soul—
GIVENS: Yeah, although Luther’s idea of the sacrament and the divine—what’s called the “real presence” is pretty close. It’s almost distinguishable from Catholicism but the—
HODGES: Other Reformers didn’t like Luther saying that Christ was really there.
GIVENS: That’s right.
GIVENS: So, you’re going to move further and further and further away. But the discriminations, the distinctions in sacramental theology are so fine, so minute, and so esoteric that it is impossible for laymen to follow them in many, many cases. But the general distinction is this: that for a Catholic, God can only save you by administering his grace through those conduits, and for a Protestant, in general, those are just signs. They’re just symbols that have kind of a powerful inspirational value but no real saving grace is affected through them. So, I think it’s important for Mormons to know that this question, “why do I have to be baptized? Is God really going to keep me out of heaven if I haven’t gone through these temple ordinances?” It’s a question that is two thousand years old in some ways.
GIVENS: There’s been a lot of really interesting and profound thought that has gone into the question and it’s, again, it’s one of those questions that has more urgency in the present moment because it’s so closely related to the larger question of, well, why do we need a church? I mean, you know, if you ask your typical millennial Mormon “do you think that Mother Teresa has to be baptized to be saved?” I think in many cases you’re going to get a kind of discomfort with the institutional answer that seems to be “yes.”
HODGES: It seems bureaucratic or red tape.
GIVENS: Yeah, exactly. Now, in the nineteenth century there wasn’t much debate about the necessity for authority. Protestants were just as rooted to the notion of authority, but they thought it was rooted in the Bible. But when Joseph said, “Well, you’ve got to have a legal administrator. There’s never been entrance into heaven separate and apart from the powers of legal administrator,” nobody really disputed that. The question was “how do we get that authority” but today the question itself is more meaningless. “Really? There has to be authority? Why?”
So, from my perspective it’s a powerful and valid question and my personal entry into this question comes when I have a daughter who phoned me some years ago and she would drop these questions on me from time to time in a very searching, earnest way. In this particular phone call she called with one question. She said, “Dad, why would God separate two people in love at death just because they didn’t go through the motions of having an ordinance?” I thought, you know, that’s a terrific question and I’m not prepared to defend or worship a God who would arbitrarily separate two people in love because they didn’t go through an arbitrary ritual. It struck me that there has to be a better way of formulating the question and so that led to what I hope were more expansive ways of thinking about ordinances and what’s really transpiring.
So, think about framing the question this way. Why don’t we ask instead, “what was Joseph Smith saying is true about the nature of the universe, about human nature, about the nature of love, death, cosmic forces of dissolution, that will tend to disintegrate human relationships unless we take measures to prevent that?” If you ask the question that way, then ordinances and rituals become means to prevent, to forestall these otherwise natural processes that will disrupt human relationships.
So, I call it a theory of a kind of cosmic entropy that something happens either at a metaphysical level or at an emotional volitional level that arms us, strengthens us, in the face of those natural forces of dissolution. I mean, my goodness, we can’t maintain marriages intact for more than twenty years, in fifty percent of the cases, and we think that unaided we can do it eternally? So, it seems to be entirely reasonable to believe that extraordinary measures are necessary to create the eternal relationships we dream of.
HODGES: How does the Lord’s Supper operate in that same way then? Would you say because it’s a sacrament as well?
GIVENS: Well, the specific way in which I would frame all LDS rituals—If we’re going to use that master trope of the new and everlasting covenant and the purpose of that covenant is to integrate us into an enduring celestial sociality, then every priesthood ordinance furthers that end in some way. In that light, if you begin with the first ordinance, which is baptism, well, baptism was understood in the nineteenth-century Mormon church as primarily an ordinance of adoption, not as an ordinance of repentance.
HODGES: Or like washing away sins or something, yeah.
GIVENS: Exactly. So, that’s kind of secondary and that’s why, for example, Mormons were often baptized multiple times in the early church—because the multiple times affect the remission of sins like the first one? No, now you’re adopted. So, you are inaugurated into this family in an adoptive relationship. You pledge now to do those things that will culminate in that new and everlasting covenant, accepting you into its ranks as a member of the eternal family.
HODGES: Born into the community.
GIVENS: You’re born into the community.
HODGES: So, it’s the born-again thing but it’s into a community—
GIVENS: Into a community and that’s why the language is “taking His name upon you.” That’s the language of adoption, right?
GIVENS: We use that same language in a court today.
HODGES: So in the past I would say it’s jurisdictional, like you take the name upon you because then when you go to trial it’s not Blair Hodges on trial. It’s Jesus Christ on trial—
GIVENS: That’s right, and he can impute his grace to you under that—
HODGES: Right, and this takes a completely different approach to what it means to take his name upon, as you say, it’s an adoptive model.
GIVENS: That’s right, that’s right. Then every ordinance can be seen as further reinforcing. If you see the sacrament then, the sacrament renews that language of taking his name upon us. Temple rituals wed us more closely to each other and to God through a series of covenants that we enter into. So it’s not just the ritual itself, it’s a covenant that is always associated with a sacrament. The culminating ritual of course is that of temple sealing, which is the kind of confirmatory, okay, now, you are assigned into this eternal place in this chain of belonging. It seems to me to make a lovely kind of logic to it that we all become further and further imbricated in this relationship through sacramental progression.
HODGES: Was it difficult to talk about the temple as a practicing member? The Latter-day Saints pledge not to discuss certain matters about the temple outside the temple. How did you negotiate that?
GIVENS: Yeah. I didn’t find it as difficult as I anticipated for a few reasons. One, because I don’t think the particulars are necessary to the purposes of describing or explaining the temple theology. And two, because I simply relied upon those sources that are publicly available largely though General Authorities and other LDS leaders who have spoken, in some cases more specifically than we’re aware, of what goes on in the temple.
HODGES: I think we talked about this with Fiona last time as well and she had some ideas about temple prep and people can go back and check out that episode. There’s some interesting stuff in there as well.
Let’s talk about a question that we received from a listener through email. I invited people on Twitter to send us questions and one of them pertained to your thoughts about sacraments as expressions of loving trust.
So, give me just a second to set this up. In the book you observed that some things that Christians are asked to do don’t seem to make immediate sense but you say that there’s value in doing them anyway. You quote C.S. Lewis’ observation that “we can best taste the joy of obeying by being bidden to do something which the bidding is the only reason.” You also have Martin Luther talking about ceremonies as being tests of the righteousness of faith, and then an LDS scripture in Moses, an angel asks Adam why he’s sacrificing these animals and Adam says, “I don’t know but the Lord commanded me to do it.” You say that “obedience in such cases isn’t necessarily blind trust,” but you say that” the less logical, rational, or moral motivation to that personal request, the more the subject’s loving trust is foregrounded and developed.”
So, the emailer is asking about this principle and says are there any drawbacks to this? Is there any danger to this? Why not command us to wear shoes on our heads or something goofy, but you know, why not just ask anything if the idea is “just do it because I said so”?
GIVENS: Yeah, some of these ideas that I’ve promulgated, especially the example of an ordinance that is entirely arbitrary in the way we perform it, that it can be a sign of love, has elicited a lot of, at times, angry responses, hostile or bewildered responses, and it’s a perfect example of what I mean about Mormons being so imbricated in this Protestant individualistic mentality that they haven’t fully absorbed, it seems to me, the implications of LDS conceptions of authority.
Let me just frame this historically, okay? One of the best treatments of this subject is Soren Kierkegaard, who, in an essay in which he talks about the difference between the apostle and the genius, he addresses this head-on. He says if you are confronted by an apostle and recognize his apostolic authority, then the basis of his authority is his divine appointment, not his brain, not his reason, his logic, his persuasive appeal. In the aftermath of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, reason tends to displace authority as the criterion by which we evaluate claims that are made upon us.
What Kierkegaard is pointing out is that in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, we see foregrounded an illustration of this point. There was nothing that was persuasive or reasonable or rational about God’s command to Abraham, but if you recognize in that summons a divine source, that divine source has to be the reason for your compliance with that command. The example Kierkegaard gives is if you do what your father says because you think he’s a wise man, you have dishonored your father because filial piety is not about recognizing wisdom. It’s about recognizing filial obligation.
Now, you don’t have to buy into that, but I think listeners and readers should understand that that is an understanding of obedience to authority that goes back a very long ways and has a very distinguished theological history behind it. So what I’m saying is that in the Garden, when we have the account of God commanding Adam to offer sacrifice, Adam can respond on the basis of one of two criteria. He can either say, “Well, this doesn’t make any sense to my reason and my feelings so I’m not going to do it.” Or he can say, “I recognize your divine authority as an angel to tell me to do this and so I will do it.” That’s what I mean about obedience. It’s not a blind obedience. It’s an act of filial trust and love.
So in the case of LDS temple rituals, what I’m saying is that one way in which—just one way; it’s not the central way, but one way in which they can function effectively is the non-rational nature of these arbitrary signs and tokens and gestures. The non-arbitrary nature makes it impossible for us to find a rational foundation and therefore the only recourse we have is to say, “Well, I recognize that this is God’s invitation to me and I will accept it on that basis alone.” That becomes then, I think, a beautiful manifestation of love and that very gesture of loving trust builds that relationship. So, it doesn’t symbolize the relationship. It’s constitutive of the relationship.
Now, I can give a very trivial parallel?—and it is trivial, but to try to make it a little bit clearer. If my wife asks for a kitchen mixer for Valentine’s Day, well, I can give her an electric mixer but that was a rational, practical kind of thing to do. But if she asks me for a dozen roses and I say “yeah but there’s no practical utility there. There’s no good reason. They’re going to die. It’s wasteful, but I will do it because you asked me and my love is much more manifest in responding to an arbitrary request that calls upon my love.” Better than it being contingent upon her offering a rational explanation for why I should engage in this act of mutual love or kindness. So that was the point that I was making.
HODGES: For post-Enlightenment people who do value reason more than that sort of filial— think people have good reasons for that, in that some people have been asked to do terrible things. I’m thinking, even in Mormonism, of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, for example. So how do people know to draw the line or how to negotiate that?
GIVENS: Yeah, I think this danger has been recognized from the very, very beginning and the first who expressed it so powerfully was Brigham Young in a quotation that I think it would be impossible to repeat too many times in the Mormon community, right? That is, he said his greatest fear was that we’d get to a point where Mormons exhibit what he called a “reckless confidence in their leaders.” That was his language, because the mere fact that a man is speaking to us claiming to speak for God isn’t the same as Abraham knowing it was God that had summoned him to the altar. So it is our obligation to know that that voice is emanating from a divine source. What I am saying is, once we have that assurance, then the rationality is irrelevant.
HODGES: Or less relevant?
GIVENS: Or less relevant.
HODGES: We are storytelling people and sometimes we just come up with reasons anyway—
GIVENS: Well, sure. I mean, that’s what we do with the Word of Wisdom, right?
GIVENS: I think the Word of Wisdom is a great example, right?
GIVENS: Do you keep the Word of Wisdom because you think it’s going to improve your health? What if you were to discover tomorrow that medical science proves beyond any doubt whatsoever that drinking a cup of wine a day will add five years to your life? Okay?
I think that’s where we see how this mis-dilemma plays out. For myself, I’m keeping the Word of Wisdom in a disinterested way because I believe the covenant has a divine dimension to it and even if it lost me five years of my life I would still live the Word of Wisdom, but not everybody would act on that basis.
HODGES: That’s Terryl Givens. We’re talking about Feeding the Flock today. It’s his latest book.
We mentioned the Summer Seminars. You just wrapped this one up. This year was co-directed by Phil Barlow and each of you are visiting Neal A. Maxwell Fellows here at the Institute. Take just a second to talk about what the seminar is, how it has benefited you, how it benefits participants.
GIVENS: Yeah, I’ve been doing this Summer Seminar for about twelve years now. I first started co-teaching it with Richard Bushman at his request and his—
HODGES: I should mention this is co-sponsored by the Mormon Scholars Foundation.
GIVENS: —by the Mormon Scholars Foundation. That’s right. Richard is pretty much phased out of it and so I’m doing it now most every summer and we solicit applications from around the world. We never succeed in getting word out quite as extensively as we would like, but it’s open to anybody in the world who wants to come for an intensive six-week seminar on a topic related to Mormon studies. We’ve had non-Mormons apply and accepted them. We have had people from at least a dozen foreign countries come. We have had people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, but as a general rule it targets those who are in graduate programs who don’t have access to the resources of a Mormon community or Mormon studies program but who want to engage in Mormon studies in a serious way.
HODGES: Not necessarily forever but at least for—
GIVENS: Not necessarily forever, but we’d like to have the hope that that they would at least maintain a tangential interest in participation and…
HODGES: Perhaps thinking about even how their future scholarship could at least pertain to Mormonism.
GIVENS: Exactly, exactly, because very few people are going to go and become full-time Mormon scholars. We don’t expect that. So, this past year the summer that just culminated was oriented around the topic “Mormonism Engages the World.” As we mentioned, next year it will be “Mormonism and Science” and we will select twelve applicants out of the pool that we receive and do this for six intensive weeks.
For me, it’s the high point of my teaching year because we get the cream of the crop of Mormonism’s rising generation. They come together in an environment where we are trying to model and encourage a merging of faithfulness and scholarship, and show that one can be a faithful scholar, a disciple-scholar, and succeed at both in both realms. There’s just such a buzz that derives from this group coming together and working in this collaborative, harmonious way, with lots of give-and-take intellectual ferment, a great degree of genuine questioning that goes on without, you know, any ceilings on what we can investigate, interrogate, and work out together.
HODGES: How would you define a disciple-scholar?
GIVENS: Well, Neal Maxwell defined it as somebody who recognizes that his membership is in the kingdom of God and his passport is in the intellectual world. I’ll tell you a very specific way in which I tried to shape it in a conversation with the seminar this past month. We had a guest lecturer who came and spoke about her using her particular theoretical model to interrogate Mormonism, and sometimes Mormonism came up short and sometimes it came up well. The question that I asked her and asked the class to consider afterwards was “why are we so happy, so prone to use our disciplinary models or academic paradigms to evaluate different aspects of Mormon culture, theology or practice, but we very seldom make it make it work reciprocally?”
So I’m saying, if we’re believing Latter-day Saints then we should also be looking at the world in our discipline through our faith paradigm and interrogating those academic models and presuppositions and practices. So, I think that it has to work in both ways and that’s, I think, what I mean by the disciple-scholar, is that if you’re going to privilege anything you’re going to privilege your own faith presuppositions in a way that at least informs the questions you ask, if not the answers.
HODGES: That’s where sometimes it can get contested, because some people will say it shouldn’t work both ways. There should either be one way—from the academy to the faith or from the faith to the academy. But you’re talked about this model where, with a passport there’s travel going on.
GIVENS: There has to be travel going on both ways I think. I, you know, I feel like I’ve been able to negotiate that in a way that I’ve often been mistaken as a non-Mormon author, and yet I think that the work I do has generally tended to make popular that which is good, as Joseph Smith encouraged us to do. So, I haven’t found in my own personal practice that there have been irresolvable conflicts between my academic demands and my faith commitments.
HODGES: It’s funny you say that. I very first encountered you while watching the old PBS The Mormons documentary and I thought you were probably Mormon but I—
HODGES: I couldn’t tell. Let’s get to another question from another anonymous emailer out there on the Internet.
Terryl, as you completed this project, it seems that you spent a lot of times working with views of other Christian groups. You’re familiar with the Swedish theologian and former bishop of Stockholm Krister Stendahl’s remarks about “making room for holy envy” in your faith. That is, admiring something in the worship or practice of other people. I’ve heard you refer fondly to that observation before. What’s something that you’ve experienced holy envy about?
GIVENS: I think my holy envy is directed in very multitudinous and particular ways. I have a profound love and appreciation for what I call the “invisible church,” which is an idea that goes all the way back to the Shepherd of Hermes, so there are few ideas in Christian thought as old as that one. It’s the notion that there is this community of the true devoted disciples of Christ that transcends culture and time and place. I think I am always searching to find voices from that invisible church and I have found a plethora of them, right? George McDonald and Thomas Traherne and Emanuel Swedenborg and Julian of Norwich and Edward Beecher.
So my envy, I think, is of that idea which I haven’t seen fulfilled in any one particular community perfectly, but which is open and receptive to inspired words and teachings regardless of their particular point of origin, and I guess if I had to pick one tradition in particular I’m envious of it would be Eastern Orthodoxy because they have maintained, to my mind, the most continuity with the spirit of the original gospel as Christ taught it.
HODGES: This is a related question from another listener to the MIPodcast. They say, “Terryl, you’ve written a lot about Mormonism. As you completed volume two was there anything that surprised you? Are you still encountering new things at this point?”
GIVENS: I think I’d stop writing on Mormonism if I stopped encountering new things. It’s hard for me to think of any particular examples. I just find that Joseph Smith’s thinking is infinitely rich as a resource for addressing what are the most vexing important questions we can ask about our predicament here as mortals.
I think the one thing that I have come to appreciate most fully is that when one stacks Mormon theology up against other Christian traditions, one finds that we’re not the Junior Varsity at the table, that Joseph’s ideas are representing a point of convergence. So, for so much of the Christian world—and I think that’s been a surprise to me to realize that the idea of the passable God that was utterly unknown in any official creedal position of Christianity in the nineteenth century is now coming to be embraced by virtually everyone.
HODGES: That’s the “God who weeps.”
GIVENS: The God who weeps. So the idea of theosis, that we can become, in some sense, divine, has re-entered Christian conversation in the last twenty years. Trying to find some grounds for a more eternal, a sense of a more eternal community, or relationality, is something that many Christians are talking about now. So time and again I find that not only has Joseph’s theology weathered well, but it continues to just shine in the context of other traditions.
HODGES: That’s Terryl Givens. He’s a 2017 Neal A. Maxwell Fellow here at the Maxwell Institute and he teaches courses on nineteenth-century studies and the Bible’s influence on Western literature at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Today, we talked about his latest book, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis. Terryl, we’ve already covered my last question. You’ve got a biography of Eugene England coming up and you’ve got a book coming out from Deseret Book on The Christ Who Heals. Listeners can look forward to that. With that, thank you so much for being on the show today.
GIVENS: Always good to be with you, Blair. Thank you.
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