MIPodcast #125— ‘All Things New,’ with Fiona and Terryl Givens and Spencer Fluhman
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In the book of Revelation, the Lord sits upon a throne overlooking creation and declares “Behold, I am making all things new.” Authors Fiona and Terryl Givens take up that theme in their latest book—a readable overview of Christian history, highlighting ways that Latter-day Saint scripture invites us to rethink the nature of sin, salvation, and everything in between. Spencer Fluhman is here to guest host this episode, talking all about it with Fiona and Terryl. The book is called All Things New from the Faith Matters Foundation.
Fiona Givens is a member of the Institute’s research staff. She earned degrees in French, German, and in European History while co-raising six children. In addition to co-writing The God Who Weeps and The God Who Heals, she is the joint author of The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith, and the new book All Things New: Rethinking Sin, Salvation, and Everything in Between.
Terryl L. Givens is a Neal A. Maxwell Senior Research Fellow. He formerly held the Jabez A. Bostwick Chair of English and was Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond. He is the author of many books about Latter-day Saint history and culture, including Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Practice, and By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
In the book of Revelation, the Lord sits upon a throne overlooking creation and declares “Behold, I am making all things new.” Authors Fiona and Terryl Givens take up that theme in their latest book, a readable overview of Christian history, highlighting ways that Latter-day Saint scripture invites us to rethink the nature of sin, salvation, and everything in between. Spencer Fluhman is here to guest host this episode, talking all about it with Fiona and Terryl. The book is called All Things New from the Faith Matters Foundation.
Send questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SPENCER FLUHMAN: Welcome everyone to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Spencer Fluhman, guest host, and I’m thrilled to invite you all to think along with Fiona and Terryl Givens today. Welcome Fiona, Terryl.
FIONA GIVENS: Thank you.
TERRYL GIVENS: It’s good to be here. Thanks.
FLUHMAN: Fiona and Terryl have both joined the Maxwell Institute in the past year and a half. They are research scholars here. So it’s our great pleasure to benefit from their deep learning and their big hearts, and they are both prolific scholars in their own right. We’ll talk today, though, about a new release, just published. All Things New: Rethinking Sin, Salvation, and Everything in Between. Published by the Faith Matters Foundation.
Congrats, you two, on this new book.
FIONA: Thank you.
FLUHMAN: It’s your fourth co-authored volume. Fiona, I turn to you first. What’s it like working with Terryl as a co-author?
FIONA: [laughter] Really difficult. You know, he has objections to all sorts of things, all sorts of truth that should be in there, and yeah, it’s really an effort to get him to come around and see the correct side of the story!
FLUHMAN: I had a feeling that that would be your response. On a slightly more serious note, I am interested in that process for you two. You worked together on The God Who Weeps, The Crucible of Doubt, The Christ Who Heals. So All Things New is your fourth time working together. You both have your own projects and your own process. What is it like, really, coming together and working together? How do you manage those questions of voice and content and so on? What does it look like? I’m curious and our listeners might be, too.
TERRYL: Well each one of the four collaborations has been very different from the ones that went before. For example, our last joint project, The Christ Who Heals, grew principally out of Fiona’s complete immersion in early Christian, especially Eastern Orthodox, theology. And so, she did the bulk of the work in terms of the research and the note taking.
In this latest one I would see it kind of as a summation, in some ways, of all of our work. I did a rough sketch, a rough draft that goes through Fiona’s mind like a steel trap and some of it makes it through the first edit and some of it doesn’t, and then we literally do sit down together and read out loud—
FLUHMAN: Oh, interesting—
TERRYL: —each successive draft and critique and comment and wrestle through as we go through. And we did that, how many times, Fiona? Several times—
FIONA: Several times. I have to say that this is probably not typical for most co-authors, but we really do pray. We invoke the spirit, especially when it comes to the read-throughs, so that if there’s something that just doesn’t sit quite well with one of us, we can discuss it and change it or explain why we feel it’s important to be there. So.
FLUHMAN: I quite like that.
TERRYL: But it’s a fraught process.
FIONA: It is.
TERRYL: I mean, it’s hard enough to travel together, to do business together, but I don’t think anything tries the soul and the relationship as much as writing together, because writing is a reflection of your deepest self. You’ve invested yourself. And so to have to negotiate differences in how you’re coming together to a project can be very, very difficult, but at the same time, I think I can say that we both feel a real kind of exhilaration in achieving the synthesis that we eventually do together. It’s a beautiful thing.
FLUHMAN: Well, it strikes me that you’ve just described “beloved community,” in a way. It’s kind of a beautiful description that we’d expect that kind of wrestle. We’d expect that kind of coming to each other across a chasm of either different understanding or whatever and a kind of exhilarating revelatory spirit-led communion, as it were. So that’s wonderful. I’m glad to hear it’s worked that way. We’re certainly the beneficiaries as readers.
So you mentioned, Terryl, that this volume, in some ways, is summative. Is that right? We hope this isn’t kind of a last comment, certainly, on your thinking. We don’t want that. But in what ways—maybe more narrowly, what specifically prompted this effort to pin all of this down? It’s not a long volume, but you cover a lot of ground historically, theologically, spiritually. What prompted this particular volume?
TERRYL: Well I think it was the feeling that we have been doing this kind of thing piecemeal in the course of our other works. We’ve tried to re-define how Latter-day Saints should or do understand God, to try to redefine core concepts. And it just got to the point where we thought, “We really need to do this more systematically.”
And I think we both have been very much impressed by B.H. Roberts’s words on “discipleship of the second sort,” where he talks very specifically about the need to re-articulate the gospel anew in subsequent generations.
You know, we kind of went through this phase in the last generation where a lot of people were alienated from the church because of church history problems, or because of LGBT issues. But it seems to me that one of the more common features that persists to this day is people are just frustrated with the culture of the church.
And it strikes us that this culture has been infected and infiltrated to an inordinate degree by assumptions that we bring from our religious past—a Protestant past in particular. And so we thought, “Let’s just do the whole thing systemically this time and try to cover all the principle concepts in our vocabulary.”
FIONA: We found speaking engagements—we’ve done a lot of them—to be very educative as we’ve listened to the problems, the issues under which people were laboring, from which they were suffering, and we could actually see there were specific areas that needed to be addressed, or that could be addressed, to alleviate the fear and the concern that we were feeling.
TERRYL: Talk about that moment about judgement, I thought that was a real pivotal moment in our work.
FIONA: Oh yes. A number of years ago Terryl and I were invited to give a fireside at BYU to a student ward. And the bishop had said specifically that most if not all of his congregation had just returned from missions and they were all struggling. And he said, “Can you just come and help?” So we spent a lot of time at the fireside talking about the writings of Julian of Norwich, and we both felt that the tenseness and the fear, the anxiety seep out of these students, and oxygen was back in the room. It was lovely, everybody was happy, everybody felt as though they were in a good place.
And then there was this young man on the back row and he raised his hand and we called upon him and he said, “Well what do you say about judgment?” And of course all of the oxygen left the room at that point and I asked him, “Well, how do you feel when you hear the word judgment?” He said, “I feel fear. I am afraid.” And we responded by saying, “If you feel fear, that is not God speaking, that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ because God never works through fear, it’s contrary to his nature.” And I think that was helpful.
Do you think that was helpful?
TERRYL: Yes, because I think the more we looked and listened, the more we realized it was kind of endemic in the church, there’s this anxiety with which most people live the gospel. And that’s why we actually started this volume by collecting a whole series of expressions of trauma. And one that was almost humorous, but it was tragic in its own way, was this person remembering as a young child in primary being so deeply traumatized by the words to the song “I Am a Child of God,” the second verse, “help me to learn to do his will before it grows too late.” And this fear, the mind of a little child—
FLUHMAN: A clock ticking somewhere in the universe.
TERRYL: Exactly! And we thought, this is just wrong. This is not the spirit of the gospel that we should be enjoying and experiencing. And time and time again it seemed to us that it was traceable to vocabulary, and to the baggage that this vocabulary carries. And so to just finish the story about judgment, it seems to me remarkable that just two or three conferences ago Elder Uchtdorf gave a talk in which he defined judgment in ways that were virtually unprecedented in our culture, where he said, “the day of judgment will be a day of healing.”
FIONA: “A day of love.”
TERRYL: “A day of love.” So we realized how immersed we still are in that kind of Calvinist mindset, of a God who was waiting to impose judgment on our lives rather than a tutor who was walking through our lives with us to ensure that we get to the destination.
FLUHMAN: Well this brings us naturally to the book itself. As a reader I experienced the book in kind of two ways. One, as a kind of historical overview of what we inherited as followers of Christ from various strains of Christianity over time—a kind of “great story,” as you call it in the book. And then a kind of Restoration revision of that inherited great story, and that takes a part of the book. And then in the second part of the book you take terms, as you’ve just done for us here with judgment, and you unpack them and run them through a kind of restoration lens to see how they might look differently—challenge the kind of habits of mind, and habits of use that we employ as Latter-day Saints to try to see how the Restoration calls us to see those things in new ways.
So let me start with that great story. And it’s not a big book, so it’s not like you give us all the possible variations of the great story in all of Christian history, but you talk about a kind of dominant received story about God, humans, and the world that came to dominate Christian history. Can you walk us through that great story? And then when one of you is satisfied with that description, jump in and—how does the Restoration qualify, revise, enliven that story for us if we’re looking in the—
TERRYL: Point of clarification, do you mean the “great story” that is how Christianity unfolds, or the great story of the human saga that Christians had been telling?
FLUHMAN: Both. Because they’re woven together in the book—I think it’s a great point Terryl. They’re woven together in the book, right? These are often arguments within Christian communities.
TERRYL: Right. Well, you know it seems striking to me that increasingly we see mental health professionals across the spectrum talking more and more about narratives. About the stories that we tell. And each one of us is a character in a narrative, we have to place ourselves as a character in a plot that has meaning, or we can’t get our bearings in life. And many of the greatest thinkers in human history have done this for the human race as a whole.
So Nietzsche tells a particular story about human development. Darwin gives us another story. Freud gives us another story. Well, Christianity gave us a story that really begins, as we trace it, with Augustine. And this is a story of catastrophe and of failure and of a plan that has gone awry.
And so the entire Christian saga—and we find numerous historians and theologians of the Christian tradition who are in complete agreement in this regard, that they say “Christianity is the story of salvaging a catastrophe.” And we just think that’s a terrible place to begin. We are inserted into a tragedy not of our own making or fault.
Joseph Smith tells this marvelous saga that begins in a distant past, in a positive, optimistic environment where we are called into community with heavenly parents and invited to participate with them, a covenant is established, earth is created, the story in the garden unfolds precisely according to plan. And as Latter-day Saints, I think we have failed to recognize that if you change the beginning of the story then you change the whole plot. That’s why it doesn’t work to just kind of tinker around the edges of our vocabulary and our theology. We have to start with that kind of master vision of this grand narrative that is continually a narrative of ascent, of progress toward the Divine. And sin becomes collateral damage rather than the central motif in this story.
So I would say that’s the basic thrust of what we’re trying to point to.
FIONA: I think that came to me when I was doing research for The Christ Who Heals and I spent much of my time studying the Patristic Fathers. And what struck me was that this was the gospel Joseph Smith was talking about. And really that word “Restoration” resonated with me because I had just taken it as another word, but restoration is very different from reformation.
And what were they restoring? So essentially if we started with Augustine we could see human life being portrayed as depravity, a fall away from God, original sin, and then it just morphs into the Reformationists, and they pick up the same issues but they just engendered them with even more fear so that we’re unlikely, any of us, to return to heaven. So it couldn’t be a restoration of anything from Augustine on, because essentially it is Augustine and it is only when we go back to the Patristic Fathers we see this different gospel—
FIONA: Yes, Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa’s sister. And it’s so optimistic, this idea that mortality was necessary in order to become like God, or in order for us to obtain immortality. That universal salvation was preached because we are all children of God.
And then this phrase, “God shall be all in all,” really captured the minds and hearts of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, particularly because they saw that as a universal salvation. And then “salvation” wasn’t really ever used, it was “healing.” That’s what really struck me ,was that Christ came to heal the human race, and that God’s entire love was focused on our progress and return after having been educated and healed from the woundedness that we either inherit or experience in our lives.
So, for me it was just really exciting, and I could say, “Okay, I understand what restoration is now.” Restoration is pretty much everything prior to Augustine, and a lot of it actually has been retained in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Heavenly Mother, for example, has a very important place there.
But it’s really interesting, and quite honestly I do think that the fall of the wall was huge because it has opened up Eastern Orthodoxy to the West, and there are more Eastern Orthodox theologians now teaching and writing in journals that are quintessentially Western. So, for example in First Things, their arguments, their ideas are being taken up, generally argued against, but I think there’s a real discussion now beginning to unfold.
So, for me, I believe that the Restoration really is a coming forth of this beautiful church out of the wilderness, which is positive, and the central point is that God loves us, that we are consubstantial with God. And that is our goal and our destiny, is to become more like God.
FLUHMAN: You don’t make an attempt in the book—again, it’s not intended to be a comprehensive history. You don’t intend in the book to walk us through every rise and fall of what I’ll—in a shorthand way—call the “Augustinian strain of piety” in Christian history. But you point to this set of ideas that becomes powerful at a particular point in early Christian history. It has a real revival among the Reformers. And then it’s right up next to Joseph Smith’s life, because it’s that Augustinian strain that animates the Puritans.
FLUHMAN: And most of the British colonies in the Northeast New England are dominated by this Augustinian strain. So this is the world in which Joseph Smith grows up.
TERRYL: That’s right. And you know, Fiona has done this really beautiful reading of Joseph’s encounter with James chapter 1, where she draws attention to how those words “venture” and “upbraid” were read in the 1828 dictionary. And it’s clear that what Joseph is trying to convey is this sense that he has to overcome his fear and trauma of this sovereign deity who is a threatening figure. And so, it’s a momentous decision for him to approach God in faith.
FIONA: And we’re thinking that’s why it took him so long. He was terrified. The only God he knew is a wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament. And you know, there’s this idea that he’d show up and he’d be reprimanded severely for even attempting to approach God. And then of course when the vision opens and Joseph is called by his name, he just is saturated with absolute love from the Divine. And so, everything for him changes then.
TERRYL: So we wish we would tell the story of the First Vision a little bit differently. I see in a lot of church literature and manuals, he learned that God had a body of flesh and bones and there are three distinct individuals. But that’s so far from the point, right? He goes home and he’s consumed with the love that he experienced. And so we think the most important thing he comes away with in the First Vision is that God is a God of body parts and passions. And he relates and identifies with him in that way, and that’s the real revolution.
FIONA: Yes, and that God is a God of love. And if we look at the Biblical text particularly, we have this God who is wrathful and vengeful and feels it’s entirely appropriate to massacre innocent Egyptian children, to commit genocide. And then we have the God in the New Testament who is the complete antithesis. So they’re really not working together. And in our faith tradition, we believe that that is the same God. So then we find ourselves in the very uncomfortable situation of having to worship a God who is schizophrenic.
And so, it really became very clear to me that God can be one or the other, but he cannot be both wrathful and vengeful and merciful and vulnerable and loving. I think that was really helpful. I think it was Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa’s sister, who really helped me understand that. And Julian of Norwich of course. You know, wrath and friendship are two contraries and you can’t have a contrary nature in God, otherwise where would we be? There would be nothing certain in our life. Certainly, there would be no certainty of the depth of God’s love for us.
TERRYL: It is the case that Fiona and I do focus on Augustine a good bit. And some people are uncomfortable with that. It seems like we’re kind of using him as the whipping boy. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t doubt for a moment that he was a wonderful, beautiful human being. An earnest seeker. All we’re trying to point out is that his ideas were what derailed Christianity. And what’s remarkable to me is that you can read David Bentley Hart in the Eastern tradition or you can read N.T. Wright, probably the most popular Christian writer today, and they’re saying pretty much the same thing that we’re saying. They don’t use the word “apostasy,” but N.T. Wright is very emphatic that Christianity takes a wrong turn in the 4th century. And in his book, for example, The Day the Revolution Began, he is trying to recuperate a pre-council, pre-Augustinian version of Christianity.
And this is why what’s really remarkable is—remember there is a give and take between Truman Madsen and I can’t remember who some years ago, “Are Mormons Christian?” and then he inverted, “Well, are Christians Mormon?” And in fact, it is in fact the case that there is more and more and more convergence of the contemporary Christian world and points of doctrine that Joseph Smith was revealing in the 1830s and 40s. A passable God, a weeping Father, a lack of original sin, personal accountability, a more generous, Universalist Heavenly Father, even the doctrine of theosis is coming to be discussed in journals like Christianity Today. So, it’s really remarkable how this convergence is happening without most people recognizing.
FIONA: And Joseph understood that. He said, “In order to exercise faith unto salvation, we needed to know, one, God exists,” but the second point was the most important: “to know his correct character and attributes.” And for me, that was just a floodgate opening. It was like, okay, I can say, “No, God would not behave in this way.” Because Joseph is saying that much of our scriptural literature is full of how we wouldn’t behave that way to our own children.
And yet, God feels that He can run roughshod over our humanity. And really we’re very far from godhood. We have no power if one was to compare our power with God’s. And so surely, the God we are worshipping is merciful, gentle, long-suffering. And I think that’s very important for me. God’s going to wait for the duration. He’s not in a hurry to go anywhere, until every single one of his children have returned home. And that animates my soul with hope and calm, actually.
FLUHMAN: Well and this prompts maybe a third narrative to insert at this point, because what you sketch out here, Fiona and Terryl, is at least a gentle revision of some Latter-day Saint senses of history. Sometimes we make the Reformation a necessary step toward restoration. And you’re calling that into question not so subtly that perhaps the recovery of some of these ideas actually necessitates a restoration rather than enables it.
TERRYL: Yes, what happens at the time of the reformation is productive and fruitful. The dissemination of writing, the dissemination of the Bible in the vernacular. The gradual growth of religious toleration and liberty. But you know, we’ve gotten a lot of push back for this. People are so used to seeing the Reformation as the prelude to the Restoration, but when I’ve asked my interlocutors, “Well, can you give me one single example of doctrinal clarity or improvement that was achieved by the Reformation?” I’m met with silence.
I mean, the Reformation stands for the complete dismissal of sacramentalism, the necessity of sacraments. The complete abolition of the idea of an ordained priesthood. They erect an absolute impermeable barrier between the living and the dead. They invent the doctrine of penal substitution as a way of explaining Atonement. The justice of God becomes purely retributive justice at the hands of people like Luther and Calvin. We could go on and on.
It’s just not the case that it helped prepare the ground for the Restoration. In fact, when Joseph is told in the grove that the creeds were an abomination, I think we’ve erred for a hundred and fifty years in thinking it was the medieval creeds that are being referenced. I think it’s absolutely clear that it was the Westminster Confession and the Articles of the Church of England that were being referenced, because Joseph and Oliver Cowdery, every time they criticized creedal Christianity, they criticized the language of those Protestant creeds that emphasized a God without body parts and passions in particular.
FIONA: And what I think is so remarkable is that it’s very rare for anybody to be able to get outside of the narrative of his time. The paradigmatic narrative. And Joseph was born and raised in a very Puritan, Protestant world of the nineteenth century. And for me, that he was able to get over that and see—and then of course there was an awful amount of anti-Catholic sentiment, which actually permeated our church unfortunately, but Joseph was more Catholic. He was much more Catholic than he was Protestant. He was bringing in more ordinances. He said that the connection between the dead and the living is absolutely vital. And he saw this project of Zion, of sealing the entire human family together and to God, was a really important part of that.
TERRYL: Well Stephen Webb said that about Joseph Smith. He was a Catholic “born out of time.”
FIONA: Right, oh yes, exactly.
FLUHMAN: And this juncture is probably important for me to call attention to the nuance that you bring in the volume itself, too. It’s not as if you describe a great apostasy as a kind of, as you put it, “An eclipse” or the Restoration as the creation of something out of nothing, Restoration ex nihilo. You call attention to the fact that there are strains within the Christian tradition that resonate with all of these Restoration positions that you lay out. And you’re quick to call attention to those. So it’s not as if you are dismissing anything that comes before 1820 as irrelevant to the story of the Restoration.
TERRYL: Exactly. That is a pernicious mischaracterization that we’re really trying to combat is this notion that there were Dark Ages in which God’s light was completely cut off from the human family. On the contrary, so much of our work and writing has been in effort to weave together the diverse threads of inspired men and women in other religious traditions and cultures and show how they are part of what Joseph had in mind when he talks about bringing a church out of the wilderness, rather than reconstituting one ex nihilo.
FIONA: And again, this idea of Joseph being out of his time is—you know, he’s saying in order to come out a “pure Mormon,” we need to be looking for, discovering, and engaging with texts that bring us closer to God. So actually he burst open the cannon and said essentially, “anything that is beautiful, lovely, and of good report, bring that.”
We need that in this community that we are building, that we hope will end up incorporating the entire globe. And this is what I love about Joseph is that he was so concentrated on the building of Zion, and it was an extensive Zion. I think we appropriated that and sort of said, “Okay, Zion will be the church and no one else.” But we haven’t read Joseph closely enough because he’s saying, “No it’s not. It is the entire global community.” Which is why, I think, he was so generous and you know, “Everywhere you look, find beautiful treasures and bring them back.”
TERRYL: It’s really clear in D&C section 10, when you get to versus fifty-two and following this, I think one of the most remarkable revelations of Joseph Smith he receives it in 1829, and there in 1829 the Lord is referring to a church that’s already in existence that he identifies as his church, and clearly he’s referring to the “invisible church,” the church of the pure in heart throughout the world. So we need more to recapture the generosity of Joseph Smith’s vision in that regard.
FLUHMAN: What you’ve laid out here is no small feat for this book to accomplish, you two. There’s a needle to thread here, on the one hand this is a kind of daring act of differentiation to say “No, the Restoration is a revision of these particular strains in the Christian tradition, fundamental.” But those strains are so strong that we may even use language and have patterns of thought that are actually informed by that broader Christian tradition without even realizing it. So, in some ways your book is a kind of act of differentiation.
On the other hand, it’s this act of reclamation, generosity, of resonating with other parts of the Christian tradition that are in fact fellow-traveling with us as we pursue these strains of Restoration thought. That’s not an easy needle to thread. I’m excited for readers to watch you do it and to think along with you as you do it.
This prompts a question that I wasn’t planning on asking. And that is, what then is the book? I want you two to think about what you’ve written here. Is this an act of history? A description? Is it an act of theology? Is it making a claim about the kind of realities that have been revealed through the Restoration? What is it? How should readers approach this? Because it is breathtaking in its scope, you two. I mean it really is.
TERRYL: I would like to think that it’s a kind of multi-stranded work of historical theology. Because there are so many instances, if you look at the constituent elements of our theological tradition one by one by one. It’s like each concept has its own history.
So to just take one more example, why does repentance carry the kinds of connotations that it does in Christian culture generally, and in Latter-day Saint tradition in particular?
And it turns out that there’s a very simple explanation for how this car ran off the road, and that’s because when the Greek text was translated into the Vulgate, around 400, the word metanoia for “change your heart,” is translated as “do penance.” And so the Catholic church appropriates this concept as a sacrament, and repentance for over a thousand years means to pay a penalty, to suffer, to inflict or suffer punishment for something you’ve done.
FIONA: That’s the unfortunate thing about Greek and Latin. Greek has lots of words for one thing, so four different words for “love” for example. Latin is rather like a steam roller, there isn’t an awful lot of variation and when—our feeling is that when the Greek was being translated into Latin repentance and poenalis seems to be,okay this is what repentance is. But of course the basis of poenalis is punishment.
TERRYL: And so to this day when a Mormon thinks about, “Well I need to repent.” What does that mean? It means that I somehow have to feel pain, guilt, suffer, to prove the earnestness of my—
FLUHMAN: Yet here’s D&C 19 saying, “I suffered these things for all that they might not suffer if they would repent.”
FLUHMAN: Repentance is supposed to get you away from the suffering.
TERRYL: Exactly. So we try to bring these two threads together to show how the Restoration fills in the missing kind of conceptual background, but to also explain in a very strictly historical sense how we got to where we are. And we try to do the same thing with notions of Atonement, with notions of salvation, heaven.
FLUHMAN: So let’s take a couple of those notions. Because we’ve talked through kind of the beginning of the first major part of the book. The second part of the book are these kinds of historical, theological case studies. You take these keywords that are overflowing with meaning and significance to Latter-day Saints, these are words closest to the hearts, right? And you give them nuance, you give them new light, you reposition them in light of these narratives that you’ve described. Each of you in your own mind, pick one that we haven’t talked about yet that you deal with in the book, and talk through why that was significant to you.
FIONA: Yes, I’ll grab sin. I think this is, for me it was a really important journey. And I think paradigms shift universally. You can’t have one group of people run out ahead of the other because there isn’t going to be any understanding between the two groups.
I find it incredibly interesting the number of studies that are coming out on trauma. I think we’re all familiar with PTSD that is suffered by returning veterans, but then you have somebody like Bessel van der Kolk who is saying that trauma is everywhere. It’s in our families; it’s in our homes; it’s on the streets. And so once you do enough research into trauma we realize that we’re all traumatized.
Which then takes me to a particular verse in the Old Testament that really has bothered me, which is “their sins will be on the third or fourth generation.” It’s like, well that’s not fair. But if we see sin as trauma, then we do understand, because trauma does carry on through generations, and I think that’s been very, very helpful for me. It’s painful that people think of sin as painful, but when we take away that very negative consequence of sin, then we understand trauma is something that brings people together, sin essentially divides people.
If somebody were to walk into the room and she looked at me and she turned to her friend and she said, “Fiona has just been excommunicated for something really awful.” What does that do? That immediately separates that person from me and she won’t come any closer to me in case she catches whatever it is I’ve got. But, if that person were to say, “There’s Fiona, she’s very very traumatized, she’s had a lot of grief in her life, a lot of trauma.” Immediately I’m going to go over because the immediate reaction, I think, of humanity is to try and comfort, is to try and come over and alleviate that pain.
So, vocabulary becomes incredibly important especially when we’re trying to enact our baptismal covenants, which I think are there for trauma. Terryl and I think that the baptismal covenants were articulated out loud in the early church, they are phenomenal for dealing with woundedness, and each member of the Godhead is represented if not to ratify, then to sanctify the covenants we are making.
So we have the God, who takes upon us his burdens, all the way through his life into Gethsemane, onto Golgotha, as God the Christ. The God who mourns with us, who mourns is the God of Moses 7. God the Father, and then the God who comforts us when we stand in need of comfort is God the Holy Spirit. And this is extraordinary. I mean this is mind blowing because this is the essence of our religious tradition. And these covenants are made easier for us to follow and to live when we are able to see people as wounded and traumatized, rather than people as sinful. And I really do think that’s what God means with this generational carrying of not sin, but trauma.
FLUHMAN: Terryl, is there one that stands out to you of your case studies?
TERRYL: Yeah, I think probably justice. And it’s one that I still haven’t finished working through at the present moment. I’m deeply immersed in a study of the theological origins of the contemporary notions regarding justice. But here is what I have learned, is that again you go to the fourth century and this is when everything changes on a dime effectively. Because the early Christians understood the justice of God to be essentially his validation of human choice.
A just God is a God that gives to every person according to what he chooses and desires. I think it’s really quite beautiful that the Book of Mormon teaches the exact same principle, it calls it “the law of restoration.” And it’s only when we get again to the fourth century of the church and again with the vengeance in the Reformation that justice becomes entirely a matter of retribution.
And I remember reading many years ago Nietzsche’s critique of Christian ideas of atonement and justice, and I remember at the time being just dumbfounded by the brilliance of his analysis. Because what he pointed out was we think of justice as a kind of zero-sum game, you killed my sister and that inflicted all of this pain so now you have to suffer a commensurate amount of pain. But two negatives don’t equal a positive. So Nietzsche’s analysis takes it a step further and says, “the only way that can cancel out is if God feels a delight in that punishment commensurate with the pain of the original injury.”
FLUHMAN: You end up with a pretty sadistic Deity.
TERRYL: You end up with a sadistic Deity, but then what is even more remarkable is you find Thomas Aquinas and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century preachers alike actually describing heaven as consisting in part of our ability to behold the sufferings of the damned and feel good about being exempted from that.
FLUHAMN: “At least I’m not with them.” Is that the idea?
TERRYL: Exactly. So there’s this horribly perverse strain. So I think if we can recover instead the fact that God’s justice simply means that he will honor and uphold the sanctity of our choices that we make—and that’s why the most important thing that we can focus on is purifying our desires, because if we desire the right thing, as we’re told in section 88 versus 32 and following, then we will receive exactly that which we are willing to receive. The gift is there. So it kind of defangs justice of all of the kind of malevolent, nasty, retributive aspects and makes for a much more benign paternal father.
FIONA: And this idea of agency I think also turns everything on it’s head and we as members of our faith tradition put a lot of stocks by agency. But when we unravel that word agency it means that God can no longer be sovereign, he can no longer command. So we see how the biblical text was worked. For everybody there was a sovereign or a leader and everybody did homage to him. So it was essentially the fiefdom and liege lord and the vassals. And that really permeates particularly the Old Testament.
But with agency God cannot command, because it’s a violation of our—he cannot coerce. He cannot brow beat us into things and he especially can’t hold out this “If you do not, you will be punished. And actually I’m the one that is going to punish you.” So for me particularly this idea of agency sort of liberates God from all of these, I feel fallacious, but definitely harmful attributes that he has been carrying for generations.
FLUHMAN: Well one final comment from both of you as we kind of wrap up here. You ask readers here to think anew about language and about the words we use and how we use them and what meanings come with them. When we pull out sin, what comes with it? What has it done with our patterns of thinking? What do you hope readers take away from the volume? At the end, what do you hope changes for them?
FIONA: Well, for me, I would love readers to come away having a much deeper sensibility in both their mind and heart as to God’s absolute love, unyielding love. And that God is with us throughout our journey, will never forsake us until our journey is done. But for me it’s that idea that God loves each and every one of us absolutely no matter who we are, where we are, or what we have done.
FLUHMAN: Terryl, how about you? What do you hope readers come out of this with?
TERRYL: Well I know that everybody wants to feel better about themselves in their lives, everybody wants to believe that they don’t have to feel guilty or shamed or traumatized, but they need to have a reason. And so, I think what we have tried to present is a reasoned explanation of why there are more grounds, there are more grounds to be joyful than we recognized, and that we can have a rational basis for a more hopeful and more celebratory faith.
FLUHMAN: Wonderful. Terryl, Fiona, if you have for others like you have for me, widened the scope of both love and hope, then it was definitely worth your effort to write the book. Thank you for writing, don’t quit writing. We so love the opportunity to think along with you. Thanks for being with us today.
FIONA: Thank you so much Spencer.
TERRYL: Thank you Spencer.
BLAIR HODGES: One hundred and twenty-five episodes! I’m excited to see what comes next. Over the past month we saw 5-star reviews roll in from the likes of mica1960, NYUte, and Matt Kern.
A fellow who goes by Willywhit! with an exclamation mark said, “This podcast has absolutely increased and deepened my understanding of the scriptures, history, and theology! As a 25-year-old, wanting to dive deep, I found this so insightful…I can’t thank you all enough!”
I saw Sarah Carioca’s review. She said, “I especially loved the ‘briefly’ interviews, as they really helped open my understanding to hidden pearls in the Book of Mormon.”
Glad to hear it, thank you. And someone called Douggy Spice says, “My review of this podcast is long overdue. I have listened to all episodes and many of them 3-4 times. I’m not trying to be clingy, it just takes me longer to process some material. Blair is a refreshingly dispassionate interviewer with equal measures of care for the ideas presented and the people he interviews. My favorite thing about the podcast is the respect for a variety of religious experiences.”
And thanks to all of you listeners. I’m finally ready to send out the COMPLETIST gifts, so watch your email. We’ll be checking in to make sure nobody changed addresses or something. Thank you for listening to every episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast if you’re a completist, and if you’re not, go for the gold! I’m Blair Hodges and this was the Maxwell Institute Podcast, episode 125.
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)