#1- Terryl and Fiona Givens, on faith, doubt, and The God Who Weeps [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: Hello. Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. This is the official podcast of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. The Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University is comprised of scholars who research and write about religious texts from inside and outside the Mormon faith. To keep current with developments at the Institute you can visit maxwellinstituteblog.org. I’m Blair Hodges and I’m new to the Institute and I’ll be hosting occasional episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’ll be interviewing a variety of scholars, writers, historians, and other Mormon studies practitioners. I hope you’ve had time to check out the other show under the Maxwell Institute Podcast umbrella, it’s Kirk Caudle’s “Mormon Book Review.” If you haven’t, you can download past episodes through iTunes.
In this episode I sit down with Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the new book The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. You can email questions or comments about this episode to firstname.lastname@example.org or join the conversation on the Maxwell Institute’s Facebook page.
BLAIR HODGES: We’re here with Fiona and Terryl Givens. Thanks for joining us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
FIONA GIVENS: Thank you so much for inviting us, Blair.
HODGES: Fiona, you earned your Master’s degree in European history just a few years ago at the University of Richmond and you’ve worked a little bit in the field of communications, working for a nonprofit, and also done some translation work in German as well.
Terryl did his graduate work in intellectual history and comparative literature and now he’s a professor of literature and religion and the James A. Bostwick professor of English at the University of Richmond. He’s exhaustively written on Mormon things as well. Richard Bushman talks about this. He says, “Terryl writes books so easily and so rapidly it seems beyond human capacity. He just keeps coming out with more and more.” Terryl incorporates a lot of non-Mormon thinkers into his work as well, so that’s a strength of his work. Currently you’re finishing up a source book on Mormonism in America with Reid Neilson, he’s at the Church History Library. That’s going to be published by Columbia. You’re also doing an Oxford handbook to Mormonism with Phil Barlow. You’re also doing a two-volume work on Mormon theology with Oxford University Press. So a pretty busy time for you, I imagine.
TERRYL GIVENS: Well it is. Actually the busy time is mostly in the past. These are all projects that have been submitted or are just about to be submitted to Oxford and Columbia.
HODGES: What excites you most about these books in particular?
T. GIVENS: Well writing them was a pleasure, especially the two collaborations. It was wonderful working with Reid on the Columbia book and with Phil Barlow on the Oxford handbook. But I think I’m mostly excited to see the history of Mormon theology, or of Mormon thought, to come out. It makes the first volume, which is the only one that I’ve submitted. That’s probably been the most ambitious and all consuming project that I’ve ever been engaged in. So I look forward to seeing that finally out.
HODGES: Also you’ve been currently heading up the Summer Seminar here at the Maxwell Institute. Can you talk for a minute about what the Summer Seminar is?
T. GIVENS: Sure. This is, I think, the fifteenth or sixteenth year that we’ve been doing this. We call it the Mormon Scholars Foundation Annual Summer Symposium. The topic rotates from year to year. This year we are doing it on “Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood: Gifts and Ordinances in LDS Thought and Practice.” We have twelve wonderful students who have come from around the country and one from the UK and one from Canada. They will be presenting the results of their research on these topics this coming Thursday, July 11th, at BYU. It’s always a wonderful experience to see a group of students from diverse places and backgrounds come together and coalesce into a real unified body of young scholars who get excited about the work and form bonds of friendship that generally persist long after the seminar is over.
HODGES: Some of them continue to go on even further in Mormon studies. I was able to participate in 2010, and some other of my friends and Spencer Fluhman, who is now the editor of the Mormon Studies Review, before me was a participant of the seminar.
T. GIVENS: Yeah, it seems to have become an almost indispensable rite of passage for anybody who’s seriously interested in doing Mormon studies, full or part-time. It’s significant to note, I think, that the three finalists for the Claremont Chair in Mormon Studies were all graduates of the seminar. The three finalists for the UVA Chair in Mormon Studies were all graduates of the seminar. So we’ve got a pretty good track record there.
HODGES: That’s cool. You also just published, was it last year? You also just published last year a book called The God Who Weeps. This was a book that you and Fiona wrote. Fiona, can you talk about how this collaboration came about? The God Who Weeps.
F. GIVENS: Well we’ve been working on these ideas. These ideas have been revolving around in our mind for quite some time now. It’s been a work in progress for many, many years. Sheri Dew approached us early last year and asked us if we would be interested in actually putting these ideas into book format—
HODGES: This is Sheri Dew from Deseret Book?
F. GIVENS: Yeah, this is Sheri Dew from Deseret Book. Her assistant had been at a conference at which Terryl spoke and articulated these five ideas and he was really taken by them and sort of persisted with Sheri in saying, “We really need to get this in a book format.” So she approached Terryl and that was the beginning of a really wonderful coalescing of these ideas together with numerous poets, philosophers, and theologians who had articulated in such a beautiful way of the ideas that we feel are most resonant and most fundamental to Mormon thought.
HODGES: As far as collaboration, have you and Terryl done something like that before or is the first project like that?
F. GIVENS: Well I’ve always worked with Terryl on his other books. I mean the man is a genius and so it’s been an absolute privilege for me, really. I’m generally the first reader, middle reader, and then the final reader of all of his books and he’s very, very accessible. He’s very open to my opinions to suggestions for change to areas of emphasis I think he should take. So it’s just been a joy.
This particular book I had so much personally invested in it that it was just amazing to do this together and there was no friction. Of course there were areas where we dialogued and had to make some compromises but I think that happens with all collaborative works, but at the end of the day I think this work really demonstrates clearly where both Terryl and I are coming from as far as the fundamentals of Mormon theology.
HODGES: Now you mentioned compromises in the process of writing it. The book tends to have a pretty univocal voice so this is a kind of more technical question, but I’m curious, how did you work out who would write the prose and was there kind of a back and forth on that?
F. GIVENS: No, no. There was no back and forth on that at all. Terryl is genius in writing and also synthesis. If I had written the book it would probably be three times as long as it is now. My tone is much more conversational and there’s enough disparity in the mechanics of our writing in the way we write that in order to make it univocal we decided Terryl was going to write the book. So it’s his style that you’re seeing, and anybody who’s read Terryl’s books will recognize that this is Terryl’s voice coming through.
That being said, those people who know Terryl and myself and know there are issues in which we feel very strongly will recognize the different voices, Terryl’s and my voice, in the book.
T. GIVENS: In our working together on it I think we both lost track of what ideas came from which of us originally.
F. GIVENS: He did. I didn’t.
HODGES: I want to talk more about the contents of the book. You mentioned that it sort of circulates around five main ideas. A little bit later in the show we’ll talk about those, but before we get to that I also want to talk a little bit about some of the firesides and symposia that you and Terryl have been doing over the past few months, or the past little while here, and these are gatherings that you’ve been speaking at in terms of faith struggles or questions that people have about their faith, questions that members of the church today are confronting, and it seems the object is to… it’s almost a pastoral approach to help people find healthy ways to approach doubt or difficulty.
One of the ideas that you bring up in these events is the idea of paradigms and how those can change and how understanding our own paradigms can kind of be a key to navigating the faith crisis. So Terryl, if you can take a minute and talk a little bit about paradigms, especially in the context of B. H. Roberts, for example, someone you’ve used as an example before.
T. GIVENS: Well it’s our feeling that many of the faith challenges that we face are the consequence, not of information per se, but of information that comes into conflict with bad assumptions, or what we call faulty paradigms. So I use the example of B. H. Roberts because B. H. Roberts was a great intellectual, a great Book of Mormon scholar, but when confronted with one question in particular that had to do with how the language Hebrew could morph into hundreds of Native American languages in the span of just several hundred years, he found himself stumped and initially I thought this was because he didn’t consider the possibility of a limited geography model.
Turns out that he did, but B. H. Roberts was still rather imprisoned in his belief that there were no other cultures, no other inhabitants, in the Americas. Of course if that were the case then there would be a genuine problem there indeed, but of course we recognize as early as Jacob chapter seven that there’s evidence of other peoples, other cultures, and if that in fact is the case, that the Book of Mormon people were one among many cultures or civilizations, then the problem itself disappears, the question turns out to be based on faulty assumptions. So in the presentations that we give we talk about that false paradigm, or misleading paradigm, as well as six or eight or ten others. Would you like me to mention some of those?
T. GIVENS: Well we find that one of the most pervasive bad assumptions that members of the church make is that certainty is the norm for believing Mormons. That if you can’t stand up and say “I know the church is true. I know there were gold plates” that you have no place really within the Mormon community, and we think it’s lamentable that we have forgotten so quickly that the Lord told us in section forty-six of the Doctrine and Covenants that to some is given the spiritual gift of knowledge, but to some is given the gift to merely believe, and that that is also counted as a spiritual gift. We try to remind people of that.
We also tend to be great hero worshippers I think. That’s a universal problem. We forget the prophets and leaders are fallible and that the scriptures themselves are replete with instances of the fallibility of prophets from Abraham lying about his sister, to Moses killing a man and hiding it, to Peter and Paul not being able to get along in the New Testament.
I think that there’s a myth that cognitive dissonance is a problem that only exists for believers, it’s our strong impression that cognitive dissonance is just as much a problem for those who reject faith and try to make sense of a multivariate world of experiencing sensations of spiritual intonations and all kinds of things that can’t fit comfortably within a secular model.
We think that there’s an undue suspicion of feelings. There’s this notion that has somehow managed to persist since the enlightenment that feelings are an impediment to some kind of ideal objectivity. Well that’s patently absurd; it is on the basis of our feelings that we have been able to thwart some of the excesses of hyper rationalism. Nobody would accuse Hitler or Stalin or Mao Zedong of being too feeling in their programs. They were too rationalist and so we think that feelings are something that we need to value and respect because it is from our feelings that we detect moral values, sense of right and wrong, all our strong moral intuitions come through us not through the intellect but through feelings.
HODGES: I want to follow up on that real quick. This idea that emotions play a part in what we believe and what we know. There is an almost gut-reaction of skepticism towards that, this sense that well if it’s just a good warm fuzzy feeling, you can feel that about many different things, so that’s not a reliable indicator of truth, we want a scientific method that everyone can experiment with and agree upon and be objective. But it seems to me that we tend to feed that impulse in certain modes of defending the faith when we buy into the assumptions of some of the more secular ways of proving things. Some of the early studies on the Book of Mormon, for example, where they went to do archeological digs and didn’t find what they were looking for and people lost their faith over that. That sort of thing. So this idea that emotions play a part in what we believe and what we can ultimately claim to know, do you sense that there’s resistance toward that idea when you give these discussions?
T. GIVENS: Well there sometimes is I think among the more naive, you know, ever since the post-structuralist revolutions we’ve realized that perfect objectivity is a myth, it’s an absurd myth. We strive for a standard of rigor, for example, in the academic world, but very few people any longer even talk about this notion of a kind of perfect objectivity that a scholar can achieve. So hyper-rationalism on the one hand and hyper-emotionalism on the other both can lead to catastrophes and I think that it’s highly instructive that the scriptures of the Latter-day Saints encourage them to seek learning by study and by faith, so there has to be a synthesis of the two and a way of finding harmony between the two. I think that’s what we’re enjoying to pursue.
HODGES: Okay. Then do you have a few more of the points?
T. GIVENS: Well, you know I have a son, Nathaniel, who says from time to time that the problem with too many Mormons is they think the church is a Swiss army knife; it has a tool for every need. I think that’s true. I think we tend to over-rely on the church, which is meant to be a kind of framework that provides us with an opportunity for service and for coming together in communal worship and for receiving the ordinances of salvation. But we fail to assume the personal responsibility that ultimately is imperative in our spiritual journeys.
Then finally we try to remind people that they are part of the Mormon culture that they so often complain about. As members of that Mormon culture we believe that we have both the responsibility and the opportunity to move and to reshape that culture in positive directions.
F. GIVENS: Now the other thing where Terryl, where you started off with the idea of paradigm, paradigm shifting, I think that our faith tradition has a really solid basis for paradigm shattering actually, when you think of Joseph Smith in the early nineteenth century. He is expanding the view of a vulnerable God when Jonathan Edward’s God still loomed large in most people’s minds, and to a certain extent I think unfortunately in the church, but that was a huge paradigm shift. The idea that Eve is the heroine of the human family, that sin is an educative process, mortality is educative not punitive. The idea of pre-existence which really Joseph didn’t elaborate on that much. It’s been much better elaborated, I think particularly by Edward Beecher, but by many people through the centuries.
These are huge paradigm shifting things in which Joseph is engaged. I think for Terryl and me this probably is the most magnanimous thing, you know, what do you do with a Christian tradition that says everybody has to be baptized in order to enter the kingdom of heaven and you know that there are billions of people who have never been baptized, will never be baptized. So this idea of temples being that sacred space in which these ordinances can be done vicariously for all of these people, I mean it’s extraordinary. Krister Stendahl stands in holy envy of this. It’s absolutely remarkable and it came out of nowhere pretty much.
Then the idea of heaven not being a blue sky heaven but being a continuation of those relationships, friendships, and loves that we have here on earth. I mean these are paradigm shifting things that Joseph inculcated and elaborated. It’s absolutely amazing, I think. That is where our strength lies as a faith tradition, I think, in those five things that Joseph did and those are all paradigm shattering moments.
HODGES: Do you expect any more of those? I mean with Joseph they seemed to just keep coming one on top of the other and since that time it’s almost been a process of Mormons figuring some of those things out that Joseph didn’t even have an opportunity to flesh out.
T. GIVENS: I think that in this case the Mormon church is closer to the Catholic tradition than we often realize. There is a kind of a deposit of original faith, both in the Mormon sense, one could say going all the way back to Adam, but more immediately going back to Joseph Smith and the corpus of revelations and inspired pronouncements that he delivered. I think that yes, in fact we have spent a long time ferreting out and explicating the rich resources of his thinking.
I’ll refer you to just one simple example. Joseph Smith pronounced very early, well in the 1840s, he referred to the great work of sealing as something in which we need to seal our children to us and ourselves to our forefathers. Now that kind of linear transgenerational temple work wasn’t really introduced until 1894 by Wilford Woodruff. So in that case it took a full fifty years to finally appreciate and implement the kind of temple program that Joseph Smith hinted at in the 1840s.
F. GIVENS: To follow that you know Joseph Smith said that we had a Heavenly Mother. Wow, where did that come from? The idea of a Heavenly Mother is now becoming really, really sexy in the academic traditions, so I think it’s interesting there are some things which Joseph just sort of put out there that really haven’t been fully articulated or developed in modern thought. I think that this is sort of a zeitgeist, it’s like everybody is thinking of Heavenly Mother. There’s anthropological evidence for her, extra-canonical evidence, I mean it’s just very, very exciting that we may be on a threshold of sort of a new revelation or an expanded view of who Heavenly Mother is and her characteristics and attributes because at the moment we really have no theology of a Heavenly Mother.
That is not to say that there is not one coming and just the focus or locus of attention on her at the moment I think is very exciting, I really do think that things are going to come to light and I think that we’re just in a historic moment and this is one of those historically extraordinary things in which we are now all engaged.
HODGES: That’s actually one of the questions that was submitted by one of the people on the Maxwell Institute Facebook page. The question was if both parents here on earth are thought to be crucial for a child’s development in this life then why would some people feel that we are spiritually being raised by a single father? Because we don’t talk much about a Heavenly Mother.
F. GIVENS: No, you’re absolutely right. I think one of the problems is we don’t have a theology for her. There is no canon that actually expressly talks about Heavenly Mother. You can find her, most definitely, I mean I think if you look at Proverbs on wisdom. It’s extraordinary. You have wisdom personified as a “she” and then this radical moment in Proverbs 8 she turns around and says “I was in the beginning” it’s so redolent of John 1:1. So I think there are definitely indications but a sustained theology of her we do not as yet have.
That being said, our theology of Heavenly Father has been… Joseph said many plain and precious things have been taken out of the biblical text, and I think those plain and precious things actually had to do with the characteristics and attributes of God and he brought those back. That being said we don’t have God the Father sorted out and the other thing is it’s so much easier if one looks at the way God is portrayed, particularly in the Old Testament. It makes him fairly inaccessible.
Again, go to the Catholic faith tradition, I was raised Catholic. I understand what’s going on here. You have Christ and he appears to be vulnerable and compassionate and benevolent, but he also says some pretty scary things. So what do you do? How much of the Father is in the Son? How much of the Mother is in the Son? One isn’t seeing a huge influence there. For me it was really important that Christ was a man, quite honestly. I think he was a great combination of both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and if he had been a woman I don’t think anyone would have noticed, to be quite honest.
But I can understand in the Catholic tradition why people, the Catholics, go to Mary as the intercessor. She has become now the intercessor. She has completely taken over for most Catholics the role of Christ and I think it’s because it’s difficult, it’s a wonderful scripture, to whom shall we go? I mean, the things you’re saying, Lord, are really, really difficult and I don’t know what to do and we have this Heavenly Father figure who’s been horribly misconstrued and also in personal experience was in our own fathers. It was much easier to go to the mother figure. She tends to be more merciful, kind, suffering, and empathic, but the injunction in the New Testament is to pray to our Heavenly Father. That is difficult. It’s a hard thing to do. So once we understand who he really is I think that will make a huge difference.
HODGES: That actually brings up the next topic, which is this idea that some people when they think about Heavenly Mother or when they think about some of these other difficult issues they start to feel a little bit out of place or they feel a little bit out of joint. There’s an anxiety attached to doubt, I think, for a lot of members of the church who encounter doubt. There’s an anxiety attached to it, or maybe even a sense that there’s something wrong with having doubts, there’s something wrong with having these types of questions. So I hope both of you can speak to that idea. Is there a sinful nature of doubting? What’s your perspective on that?
F. GIVENS: No. For us doubt is absolutely crucial. All of these divine qualities which we are trying to develop in our mortal life, patience, long-suffering, tenderness, mercy, forgiveness, those can only be developed if they are challenged. Quite honestly you can only become patient if somebody’s challenging your patience. We feel that faith is the same way. In order for faith to really be faith it has to be challenged. Otherwise it’s really nothing. The challenge to the faith is absolutely imperative. It forces us to engage with our faith on a much more profound level and it should be transformative. We all believe that testimonies are living things that can be killed, and they can grow. They can be vibrant and they can die.
So the challenges to our faith give us space in which we can engage with our faith on a very deep level and it should be a transformative experience so that coming out of a faith crisis we should be seeing the world through a much more empathic and very different paradigm from how we were and how we view the world and ourselves and our God and the gospel and the people by whom we are surrounded when we entered into that faith crisis. Terryl, I know you’ve got something to add to that.
T. GIVENS: Well I think that the talk that Elder Holland gave this last conference was in this regard a landmark talk because he fully acknowledged the reality of doubt among many members of the church. He, it seems to me, was extremely clear in suggesting that that is not a position that we should condemn or scorn or hide from. That, as he quoted from the lovely story in Mark, the Lord himself blessed those who came to him with an open acknowledgment of their doubt.
I think Fiona is right as she has commented in other contexts that in many cases the resistance we encounter is from people who are themselves insecure. They don’t want to contemplate the possibility that their paradigm may be subject to questioning. I think ultimately the bottom line is this. It behooves us to speak and act with integrity and to stop using this so-called oppressive, frightening, scary Mormon culture as an excuse to not stand up on testimony Sundays and speak from the heart with authenticity and honesty.
HODGES: So what are some practical things to do then to push back a little bit on that? In the idea that some people get the sense, forget some people, I might get the sense in a church meeting that it would be inappropriate during certain lessons to voice a doubt or to raise a question that I just would sort of think would bring a strange spirit into the room rather than just kind of letting the lesson go the way that it’s supposed to go. So practically speaking, it seems most Mormons would probably hear this and agree. But when their feet are on the ground they might not feel there’s a real space to do that in a church setting.
F. GIVENS: No, you’re absolutely right. I think that is a general feeling and a general fear. There are two things I want to address, the lessons in which we engage, and then there are testimonies which we bear. Now in the lessons I think it’s entirely appropriate, and unfortunately I don’t think we’re conducting Sunday school in the way the Lord wanted it. From my reading of the Doctrine of Covenants it seems to me quite clear the Lord is looking at a discussion format with a discussion leader rather than a layperson who has not gone through seminary or Mormon history programs. So it isn’t a question-answer format. So I think in those Sunday school classes for instance, expressing your doubt there’s one tone. Tone is hugely important. If you can remember that love and friendship is to be the basis of all of our discussions I think that would really help. Then if we just turn it to ourselves rather than saying, “Well I think you’re completely wrong” or “You are completely wrong,” I would just say, “I just think, my feeling is, my experience is, my reading is, this and this and this.” So you’re just simply putting it on the table to be discussed. I think that would be very helpful.
I think it would also be extraordinarily helpful if all of us were going to our Sunday School classes, quite frankly, having read the scriptures for that particular day. I think it would elevate the discourse considerably and animate the discussion. I think too much we’re relying on our Sunday school teachers to, you know, we ask questions and we expect them to give the answers. It’s totally not fair. We’re just simply not trained that way.
The other thing I’d like to address is our fast and testimony meetings, the testimonies we’re bearing. Terryl has alluded to this and I think he’s absolutely right. I think the Holy Spirit could really only function in an atmosphere of complete and utter honesty and authenticity. The idea of going up and saying that we know, most of don’t know certain things. For myself I know that Jesus is the Christ. That is the only thing that I can say categorically that I know of by heart.
There are other things, but I think there should be space, and I think there is space. It’s going to take some courage because we are changing culture here and changing culture always requires courage. I think we underestimate the love and the resilience of our congregations, quite honestly. Those friends of ours who have actually gone up to the podium and said “I don’t know. I believe, I do know that when I have scripture study that the atmosphere in my home is much more lovely. I feel more empowered, I feel better about myself studying the scriptures,” those sort of testimonies are authentic, they are valuable, and I think they provide space for the Spirit to actually enter our congregation and manifest himself. But it does require courage, undoubtedly, but I think we need it. In all of our experiences the congregations have responded in such a positive, loving way.
HODGES: Thank you. I think that’s great. So a couple of practical things then. So when you do choose the right time, use the right tone, be confident, be authentic, be honest—
F. GIVENS: Absolutely. And be loving.
FINDING A NORTH STAR
HODGES: And be loving. Do it in a context of love. Okay.
The other thing that Terryl actually mentioned last week at the gathering you had was this idea of a “North Star.” He said you need to find your North Star. For Terryl it was a scripture. You mentioned Galatians 5. Can you talk about what you mean by finding a North Star and I’d also like to hear more about why that in particular became yours, sort of the circumstance behind that.
T. GIVENS:Well I think that we all need scriptural anchors, well I call it a North Star, meaning some ultimate criterion by which we evaluate the validity and value of the truths that we espouse. Richard Bushman has referred to the pragmatic dimension of gospel standards, meaning that they have to work, they have to function, if they are truths. There’s a relationship here between their inherent goodness and truthfulness.
So Galatians 5:22 simply tells us that the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, and gentleness. If those things are increasingly manifest to the extent that we embrace and live by gospel teachings and that seems to me the most powerful indicator that they are good, that their origin is divine, that they are true. Contrary wise, it seems to me that to the extent that we remove ourselves from the community of saints and from these teachings if we apply that same standard, it’s imperative that we note whether or not we are moving closer to those virtues of peace, love, joy, and gentleness, or further away. That’s become my North Star in that regard.
F. GIVENS: I just love Terryl’s conception of that. I think he’s absolutely right. We all have to have a North Star. My North Star is Moses 6 and 7, section 121, and then Romans 8. Blair, do you mind if I read this one?
F. GIVENS: Because this is probably for me my North Star. “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I think that is absolutely fundamental. What I have learned, my experience is, that God loves us in our sins. It’s very difficult for Mormons to get, understand that sin is not some evil thing that they’re going to be able to avoid, because we can’t avoid it.
I think it’s quite frankly my very close reading of Julian of Norwich’s Showings and the authenticity with which she articulated her beliefs as the fact that God’s love is unconditional, there is nothing that we can do that can separate us from his love, He loves us in our sins. He cannot save us in our sins, that’s a very different thing all together, that would be a violation of agency, but if we could just understand that those feelings of guilt and shame with which we are so often beset, if they are driving a wedge between ourselves and our God, and ourselves and our loved ones, then it is not coming from God. God’s whole purpose is to draw us closer to him so sin should be that, I think Terryl articulates it so beautifully in the book, that twist of the ankle. Don’t push this further or you’re really going to be in pain. I thought that was an absolutely brilliant concept of his and I think he’s absolutely right. That’s how we should be looking at it. If we’re not drawing closer or feel that something is impeding us from drawing closer to God, then we really need to be seriously looking at this because this is not the relationship that God wants with us.
HODGES: It seems that another way that you both have tried to talk about faith crisis and what people might do when they have doubts and questions is to explore the idea of agency. So Terryl, for example, you’ve said that you believe that people can be confronted with things that would indicate belief is right, things that would indicate that you ought to doubt, and that it becomes a moral question, or the purest reflection of who you are, according to what choice you make in that moment.
People that have sort of talked about that, it can easily be caricatured to where it seems that you’re positing this perfect scenario where everybody’s faced with this amount of reasons to doubt and this amount of reason to believe and so it’s a draw so you’ve got to use faith and choose one or the other. That’s kind of the caricature of that perspective and I hope you can speak to that and maybe give more perspective as to what you mean by that construct.
T. GIVENS: Well I don’t believe that we all exist in the exact same condition of perfect equilibrium between two alternatives. But I do believe that for the vast majority of human beings there are reasons to believe that there is a God, a benevolent deity, who presides over the universe, if that evidence stretches no further than the beauty of the universe and the smile of newborn children and the affection of loved ones. Similarly I believe that for virtually all people in or outside of faith tradition, there are good reasons to deny the existence of a benevolent deity if those reasons stretch no further than the extent of human pain and suffering in the world that is not of their own making.
So my point is simply that we live in a world of complex stimuli and conditions that create the necessity for us to exercise judgment and make a decision as to whether we will believe or not believe that there is seldom so much paucity of evidence that we don’t have the opportunity to believe, and there is seldom so much overwhelming manifestations of God’s reality that we are compelled to believe. So it seems to me consistent with the divine purposes behind our mortal existence that we should have to reach out of ourselves, that we should have to reveal something about our yearnings, our desires, what it is that we recognize and cleave to in the universe by making a choice. I think that choice will necessarily entail risk and I think that it is also a greater manifestation of love if we believe without being compelled to believe. But if we do it as a gesture of reaching out toward something we devoutly hope to be true and real.
F. GIVENS:The other thing I think this is really, really important, Terryl and I have discussed this, is the fact that we are on an uneven playing field. At the end of the day we never make decisions with full information. We are constantly hampered by genetics, environment, upbringing, hormones, chemical imbalances, I mean there is so much white noise and so much secondary smoke with which we are dealing that it really does impinge on our ability to make a choice that is not impeded by all of these other things.
That being said, I think that is why we have this idea that mortality is a time to prepare because it’s a most difficult stage, quite frankly, I really don’t believe that in pre-existence and post-existence that we are going to be confronted by all of this white smoke, all of these impediments to making decisions with full information. We never do, we never do.
That being said I think what Terryl said about feelings earlier and emotions and those instances where we recognize that our minds can be as easily manipulated as anything else that we are not making a fully informed choice, we never are, that those times we have to rely on the feelings of our heart and our consciences, that’s the only thing that’s the guiding light with which we have to work, we have to be at the end of the day. This is what prompted me to join the church in the first place, was actually listening to Shakespeare’s words, “Above all to thine own self be true.” You have to go deep down inside, how does this feel? What is this going to do? So it’s a much more personal, much more responsibility, self-responsibility laden decision that we make at the end of the day. I think we could be much easier on ourselves if we recognize that we don’t have all the information and that we are being manipulated by all sorts of things.
HODGES: Now within Mormonism something that would seem to counter that or to maybe make that a little more difficult to employ, is the idea of having authority outside of oneself that we have to rely on. So God sends prophets for example that we listen to and there’s this sense that when the prophet speaks the thinking has been done so you might have doubts or whatnot but if the prophet said so then you just need to go along with it. Or President Woodruff, the quote that’s in the Doctrine and Covenants that says the prophet will never lead the church astray and that sort of thing. So how do you fit those types of claims with your Shakespeare quote of “to thine own self be true”? Because there does seem to be within Mormonism also a need for allegiance to authority outside of oneself as well.
T. GIVENS:Well I think that there are two quotes that are sufficient to dispel the myth that when the leaders speak the thinking has been done. By the way, the church presidency officially disavowed that position in a published statement. Brigham Young in the nineteenth century spoke out forcefully against this tendency to slavishly, blindly follow the dictates of the brethren. It’s pretty striking that a prophet himself with his stature and authoritarian bend would say that “I’m fearful that the saints would settle down in a state of blind self security trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with reckless confidence.” That’s pretty strong language. So he’s emphatically insisting there that everything that the prophets say is something that needs to be vetted in our own private conscience.
More recently in the twentieth century, J. Reuben Clark spoke to the same thing when he said, “Ultimately there’s only one way to know if the leaders are speaking for the Lord and that is when we ourselves are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” So I love the fact that in both cases they have said the responsibility lies with us, not with our leaders.
I could just add as a kind of commentary here that the great writer Dostoyevsky in the scene “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov talks about this human propensity toward hero worship. He said it seems on the face of it that we are following our leaders out of devotion, he said, but more often the real motive is we want them to be keepers of our conscience. I think that’s a powerful and beautiful articulation of that human weakness. We want somebody else to have moral responsibility for our choices, but God won’t let us off so easy.
HODGES: It seems that these quotes are from general authorities but they don’t seem to be a common theme today, right? I mean in lessons and teachings of the president of the church or things like that. You don’t hear them across the pulpit very often, right?
T. GIVENS: Well I think you heard a similar statement recently by Elder Christofferson. I can’t remember the exact quotation but he was indicating the notion that the leaders can be fallible, they can make mistakes, that not everything they say is binding upon us as church doctrine, so I think the fact that these kinds of statements are part of historical record, they’re available to us, it behooves us to be more familiar with this aspect of our own faith tradition.
F. GIVENS: Now I actually second that. You know, the responsibility is today with us. We need to become church historians. We need to engage with the scriptures ourselves, we need to engage with our history, we need to become much more informed. The responsibility at the end of the day is ours. We really can’t look to the leaders all the time and assume, because we’re abdicating responsibility that is ours, we’re cheating. We can’t cheat. So I think it behooves us as members of the church quite frankly is to, as huge as it is, read the Joseph Smith Papers. It’s out there. We can’t complain anymore that we don’t have sources to which to go. So we need to go to them. The responsibility is ours. We need to educate ourselves.
HODGES: While we’re talking about the subject of authority, before we move on to the next topic I also just want to ask you quickly another question that came in from a listener on the idea of women and authority. Recently there have been movements, there’s a website Ordain Women, there are different people that have different perspectives on that. Now from your point of view you mentioned in the gathering this last week that there are many changes, cosmetic changes you call them, that could happen within the church today without even going to ordination yet, right? What sort of things did you mean by that?
F. GIVENS: Well actually I was relying on Neylan McBaine. She gave an absolutely fabulous lecture at the FAIR conference in which she said, I mean quite honestly we’re all about the ward and even though the women are visible on the front seats at General Conference the cameras don’t focus there. The cameras focus on the podium so what we’re seeing is every Sunday in church, we see a sea of suits and there are men in them. So it was actually Neylan’s suggestion, I thought it was brilliant, you know, put the Relief Society presidency up there, along with the men. Just change the color, you know, have gender equality visible because I do feel that the women of the church have incredible responsibilities, particularly with the formation of young children’s mind and young women’s mind. It’s absolutely enormous.
She again shared some wonderful things. During sacrament why have boys be ushers? Why not have the twelve-year-old girls be ushers? Then she also made the suggestion of the priests are starting at each row, they actually don’t pass the sacrament, they pass it to each other. But she thought what a great idea if the Laurels actually were in charge of the sacrament meeting program. These are minor changes and when I say cosmetic I don’t mean superficial. I think they would actually really change the whole tone of our ward meetings. We’re inviting our friends into these. So I think it would be really lovely, “Oh gosh there are woman up there as well as men. There are women in authority up there as well.” I think that would be really, really helpful.
HODGES: We’re here with Terryl and Fiona Givens. They’re talking to us today about their book The God Who Weeps and also some of the gatherings that they’ve participated in talking about faith and doubt.
The next thing I wanted to talk about is the idea that you both have emphasized in Joseph Smith’s teachings about gathering truth from many different places, gathering truth from out in the world, bringing it in to Mormonism. So there’s a quote from Terryl here that says, “What we’ve learned most importantly is that all these voices from other times, cultures, and traditions don’t corroborate our faith, they enrich our faith.” So I want you to speak to that a little bit, because there’s a sense that when we search for truth out in the world we’re really looking for pieces of Mormonism that we already believe. I want you to talk about that a little bit.
T. GIVENS: Well if we look to other traditions to corroborate our own faith then that presupposes that our own faith has a monopoly on the truth and that all other traditions can hope to do is to reflect that. Joseph Smith’s vision was quite different and Fiona can talk about the allegory of the woman in the wilderness to which Joseph Smith resorted in describing his mission in the fifth section of the Doctrine and Covenants. He likened his prophetic restoration calling to that of bringing the church out of the wilderness, which suggests gathering in synthesis rather than pure innovation.
I think Joseph Smith was very explicit about the need to go outside of the faith to find truth wherever it was and to bring it home to Zion, to add to, to enhance, and to enrich the depository of faith that we already have, not merely to corroborate it. We feel that in Section 49 of the Doctrine and Covenants when he referred to “holy men that ye know not of” he was again paying homage to the many men and women, devout, pious, and in many cases inspired men and women, who have much to teach us outside of our own faith tradition.
HODGES: Fiona, speak to that. What’s this idea about the woman in the wilderness?
F. GIVENS: Yes, no. It’s Revelation 12. It’s an absolutely extraordinary group of verses. We have this woman, she’s portrayed as really regal, she is expecting a child, then you have another vision open. The great red dragon who with his tail takes away the third of the hosts of heaven. So you have Lucifer and then our understanding is that the child is the Lord. He’s taken up and the women is a church and she has left to confront the dragon. She knows that the dragon will completely overpower her. She does not have the strength to stand against the dragon. So she turns and she flees. Where does she flee? She flees to the wild wilderness, which we call the apostasy, and then there’s this extraordinary sentence where God hath prepared a place for her to nourish her. That is extraordinary.
How does God nourish a church in an apostasy? Well he sends to his church the greatest luminaries of all time, the greatest poets, artists, composers, writers. A God never creates ex nihilo, he’s not going to be able to restore a church if there isn’t something already there. Restoration implies that there is something there to restore. So you know we have Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Milton, I mean these great luminaries. There will be no more of them and I think this is unfortunately a misconception that maybe we can produce more Shakespeares, Beethovens, no, no, God doesn’t do that. He’s given us each one of these for a very, very important reason and they articulate truth in a way that we cannot.
Terryl’s and my favorite, one of our favorite, luminaries is Edward Beecher. His discussion of the fall in heaven is absolutely remarkable because Terryl and I have both said coercion was not what was going on. Satan, Lucifer, was much too subtle, much too intelligent to be stupid enough to use either mental or physical coercion, and we are much too intelligent to have fallen for that.
I just want to mention what Edward Beecher in Concord of Ages does say, which I think is absolutely brilliant and novel. “From pleasure of cause there was no temptation to revolt, but from a discipline of suffering such as they needed to fit them to be the founders of the universe with God, they could be tempted to revolt.” Now that is extraordinary given the fact that mortality is a time to prepare to meet God because it consists of this suffering of which we are all engaged in, we suffer. Yes, that would be something that Lucifer could revolt against, and perhaps it was out of love. He didn’t want us to suffer. But it’s brilliant and this is coming from somebody outside of our faith tradition, articulating something that really resonates very powerfully with me given my experiences in my mortal probation, and those of my children.
HODGES: Terryl, you’ve written that historically speaking Mormons became disinclined to emphasize their unique theology. You wrote a book about Parley P. Pratt with Matt Grow. In that book you talked about Parley as an apostle who was willing to go out in the fray and daringly, brazenly, talk about Mormon doctrines. He would say, “Oh you think we believe this? Well we actually believe even more! Let me tell you more.”
Then there was this shift from that sort of approach around from that time and one of the landmarks would be the Chicago World’s Fair about 1893 when Mormons show up and B. H. Roberts is excluded from the theological discussions but Mormons are embraced. The Tabernacle Choir is there and they make a big showing, they take second place and there’s this sense that Mormons were finding a way to fit in nationally at this time. So there’s less emphasis on the theology, more emphasis on who Mormons are as people, the “I’m a Mormon” campaign of 1893 if you want to call it that. Talk a little bit about those shifts and then we’ll kind of situate your work within that arc of history.
T. GIVENS: Well I think one of the most deeply rooted senses of ambivalence in Mormon culture is the oscillation between emphasizing our differences with the Christian world and emphasizing our commonality. You go all the way back to the Articles of Faith and you begin with an assertion that puts us right firmly in the Christian camp. We believe in the Godhead. Then you go to the second Article of Faith and you situate us dramatically outside that tradition by negating the doctrine of the Fall. Okay, and that sets up the paradigm, which is going to be consistently maintained through one hundred and eighty more years of history.
What happened is by the late nineteenth century is that Mormonism is embarked on the campaign of Americanization and I think that partly for reasons of political expediency there was a growing tendency to downplay the theological uniqueness of Mormonism. So what happens at the Chicago World’s Fair, as you mentioned, is that in one and the same venue within a period of days the Mormon church is celebrated for their Mormon Tabernacle Choir and they are absolutely shut down when it comes to B. H. Roberts’s attempt to present a paper on Mormon theology. So the compromise that comes out of that world’s fair is, “Mormons, you are welcome to sing and dance for us but don’t ask us to take your theology seriously.” It’s my contention that we are complicit in that compromise and that we have been relatively happy with it for the next hundred and more years. The evidence of that is the fact that we are so quick to taut our football teams and our singing stars and our dancers and our cultural greatness while doing very little in a public way to promote the most conspicuous elements of Mormon theology.
As you pointed out, Parley Pratt was a powerful contrary example. In 1838 it was first alleged by an editor named Sutherland that Mormons were teaching they could become like God. Parley Pratt responds to that essay and rather than say, “Well, not exactly,” he says, “You bet we do! Not only that, we think we can be fully equal with the Gods.” That’s not the direction that we take today. I was asked by a group of consultants to church public affairs and communications whether in fact it isn’t impossible to teach theology in thirty-second spots. I said, well absolutely not. Thirty seconds is plenty of time to say, “We believe in a God whose heart beats in sympathy with human hearts” or “We believe we lived with God as preexisting children in the pre-existence.” You could go all through the distinctive Mormon doctrine. I think that in many cases we’re not taking the pulse of America or the western world accurately.
The problem with religion today is that it is too easy; it’s too much like just another social club. What most of the people, it seems to me, in search of the truth are looking for, is something that is radically distinct. Mormonism offers that radical distinctness and I think that’s what should be emphasized.
HODGES: The question that that leads to is, you know, you had Parley P. Pratt going out and doing these things publicly with non-Mormons, you had this sort of thing. Today we have people like you, Fiona, Richard Bushman doing firesides and doing symposia. So the question that a lot of people sent in is why is it that it’s you presenting these ideas and talking about cultural shifts and talking about these types of issues and not General Authorities or not across the pulpit in General Conference? It’s a common question. I assume you’ve heard it before.
T. GIVENS: Well we’ve heard it in connection especially with the firesides and talks that we give in connection with doubt and faith challenges. I guess I would have two answers. One is to say to some extent the brethren are addressing these issues, such as Elder Holland at the last General Conference. Actually I guess I have three responses. The second is that the church is responding with actions rather than mere words. The Joseph Smith Papers Project, the Maple Meadows Massacre book, a whole plethora of projects and initiatives under the direction of the First Presidency or the Historical Department show that the church is serious for the first time in its history about really achieving the goal of transparency—
HODGES: Fifty years ago the Joseph Smith Papers—
T. GIVENS: Would have been absolutely inconceivable. In fact we know that only twenty years ago or so historians submitted to the Ensign an article an evolution of some of Joseph Smith’s revelations as they went through subsequent editing versions. The response was apparently, “Well, we can’t do that. What will the members think if they know that Joseph subjected his own revelations to editing?” Now not only does the Historical Department acknowledge that, but they are publishing to the world those very versions that manifest each subsequent change made to every word that Joseph Smith ever wrote.
HODGES: There was an article in the Ensign about it.
T. GIVENS: Exactly. So I think it’s clear that we have shifted into a new paradigm. Then the third point that I would make is well I can’t second guess what the brethren are talking about or doing but I have faith that they’re giving talks and presentations in different forms suited to the inspiration that they’re receiving. We’re simply trying to bear testimony to the things that we feel called upon to testify in the small orbit of influence given to us.
F. GIVENS: I would like to add a fourth thing. I think we need to be so much more generous with the brethren. They are dealing with the problems of a global church. My concern is that we tend to be so America-centric and that whatever issues that are ours at the moment those must take precedent in the minds of the Quorum when in actual fact they have so many other pressing needs with which they are engaged which they should be engaged.
So I think we need to get away from this sort of self-centeredness that I think we are at times entertaining and recognize that the brethren are dealing with global issues of enormous magnitude and really that the primary thrust of their calling is to ensure that the gospel message finds access into all corners of the globe and that men and women everywhere have accesses to the ordinances of the temple. These surely are enormous, weighty issues in which they are engaged. I think if we could actually sort of move our paradigm out to sort of respect the fact of the matter that this is the work that is most important to them is proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and then enabling that message to actually move around the globe. Surely that is their most important office and calling and job at the end of the day. I think we need to be much more generous with how broad the field and importance of their callings are.
HODGES: So it kind of sounds like you’re saying they function in their sphere and the scripture that comes to mind is from the Doctrine and Covenants that talks about everybody being anxiously engaged in a good cause and not waiting around for other people to do that. So you and Terryl have had opportunities to engage with other members of the church, to be anxiously engaged. When you do that though you bring the gravitas of education. Terryl’s a professor; you have an advanced degree, so when you do these things you bring that along with you. I’d hope that you can both kind of talk about the spiritual and academic commitments that you face. This idea that you’re not just functioning, you know, people would say, “Are you functioning just as apologists? Or are you engaged in a strict academic scholarship?” So talk about the relationship between your religious faith and your academic work. Terryl and then Fiona.
T. GIVENS: Well I think that there is a great distinction that needs to be made based on the kinds of audiences and the kinds of forums in which we find ourselves speaking. Now I know that there are some people who would argue for a radical divide, radical separation between academic language interests and personality and my spiritual identity. I’ve always been influenced by Elder Maxwell who warned us as believing scholars to never consider ourselves have membership in the academic world with a passport into the spiritual.
I have found that the best way to synthesize those two competing paradigms in my own life is to feel very strongly that my spiritual identity is what shapes the questions that I ask. But I answer those questions within the academy according to the standards of my discipline. That way I am able to communicate in a language and in a manner and in a methodology that is academically credible and rigorous but I’m ultimately in the pursuit of questions that are of special meaning to me and in some cases I hope to other people who share my faith commitments. So I don’t see any necessary conflict that one can work in perfect harmony between those two worlds in such a way.
F. GIVENS: And when we’re talking about academy I think we’re really talking about Mormon scholarship here. The fact of the matter is we really cannot divest our theology from our history or the other way around so you know if you’re in Mormon studies, for example, I think this is a negotiation of spirit and faith and then academic rigor, definitely, I think there’s a fine line.
In my academic work for instance I’m embarking on a project which I’ve been looking forward to embark on for many, many years. That is to explore the experiences of the German POWs in the Soviet camps from 1945-1955. It really hasn’t been addressed by historians. So this is a completely different academic world then which I engage in which I really don’t feel I’ll have to engage my faith from my spirit. It’s something completely removed. Except for the fact that this is an area of history that has not been explored and these young men’s stories need to be told.
It must be very careful not to conflate “academy” to just Mormon studies because there are many of us engaged in these projects that actually have interests in academic disciplines that are very far removed from Mormon studies.
HODGES: I want to circle back to the conversation about the faith decision, choosing. I was reading Richard Bushman’s On The Road with Joseph Smith and in that book he reflects on his faith and being a Mormon scholar and how he negotiated that identity and he talked about people who say, “Well how can you know these things and still be a Mormon?” As though he had made some sort of choice about it. But with Richard he says, “You know I didn’t really choose this. I just am a Mormon, it’s part of me and I couldn’t get rid of it if I wanted to.”
I wonder how you would situate his kind of experience within your view of the life of faith and doubt, the experience of a Richard Bushman or someone else who just that’s just who they are so they don’t feel that there was ever a choice made. I know some unbelievers who sort of feel that way as well, that they don’t feel that it was a choice they arrived at but they almost feel just drawn, that’s who they are, that’s where they are.
T. GIVENS: Well it turns out that one of my ancestors was a man named George Lane, the Reverend George Lane, who we’re pretty sure was the Methodist minister to whom Joseph confided his first vision. You may remember the result of that conversation. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Joseph Smith’s experience. So in some ways that’s kind of emblematic of the great difference between myself and Richard Bushman. He’s dyed in the words “True-Blue Through-and-Through Western Mormon” and I on the other hand come from a tradition of Methodist and Presbyterian ministers. So first of all there’s that difference. Mormonism isn’t in my blood in the same way. For me it is and has always been a faith choice, a faith option.
Having said that I also would say that I find Mormonism the most intellectually compelling system of belief of those that I’ve studied or am familiar with. I think that the radical materialism of Joseph Smith, the naturalistic theology that he promulgated, is one that is especially appealing to a mind like mine whose background and exposure has been much more tied up with the secular world than with a Mormon world. In fact I am surprised that we haven’t exploited the commonalities that we share with a secular public rather than try to build bridges with a new evangelical community with whom we have so little it seems to me, affinities. So I guess I’ve had to negotiate some of the same conflicts but I’ve come at them from a different orientation and with different things in Mormonism that appeal to me that maybe Richard found particularly compelling.
F. GIVENS: And my experience is very similar to Terryl’s. I was raised Catholic. I loved my faith tradition. I still love Catholicism. I think Catholicism is aesthetically beautiful. I love the liturgy, the ritual, the fact that when you go into a Catholic mass you really are worshipping, it’s a communal worship where the congregation gets to participate. There’s extraordinarily beautiful music. I went from a high church to a low church. It was a decision that was fought with great anxiety because I realized that making this move would rupture so many things in my life. The ability to communicate with my family would now no longer exist because we were on two completely different wavelengths, there would no longer be any juncture where we could actually meet. It’s six months of struggling with this decision to choose to become a Mormon and to embrace the Mormon tradition. My Catholicism has dogged me. Most people call me a “lapsed Catholic.” I’m a Catholic and attend the Mormon church. I’m a Catholic and a lover of the Mormon temple. So that’s part of me. It will always be part of me and I think there will always be this slight unease with which I live.
That being said I think it gives me a really wonderful vantage point because I have not assimilated Mormon culture and I actually am not a fan of Mormon culture or American culture quite frankly for that matter. So I think it’s given me a really great vantage point. I can look into both worlds because I’m not a member really of either of those cultural communities. I think that’s been very helpful. That being said I really want to reiterate what Terryl said that I do believe that the core beliefs of Mormonism are universal and as a result of which they are radically resonant and those things you know sort of stay my flight when I wish to go back into a church that is aesthetically pleasing.
HODGES: You mentioned the word “universal.” That’s one of the questions that came in, that you have mentioned that you believe that God and Joseph Smith both were Universalists. What did you mean by that?
F. GIVENS: Oh, absolutely they were Universalists. Joseph and Hyrum and B. H. Roberts and Talmage. Who am I missing?
T. GIVENS: J. Reuben Clark.
F. GIVENS: J. Reuben Clark. All advocated a belief that we will travel through the kingdoms and all, the entire human family, end up in the Celestial Kingdom at some point or another. This idea of eternal progression, I mean it worked really well with that. It changed radically in the 1960s to move of, you know, you’re going to be judged and then you’re going to be incarcerated in one of these kingdoms and quite frankly I don’t see how that works with Joseph’s initial view that this plan of salvation was so encompassing and so universal and that we are all God’s children and therefore he would ensure that his plan to redeem his children would include every single human being who lived on this planet. I find that really radically resonant and it works with my conception of God.
I feel like we’re excavating Joseph’s original ideas and again he was so ahead of his time, naturally he was influenced by his father and his grandfather, but the fact of the matter is that he really took that and ran with that in a very literal way. My belief too is this belief in Christ that it is his father but it’s God’s vulnerability that has the power to save quite honestly this idea of a God who has sacrificed for himself for his creation and not the other way around. It is incredibly powerful as an attractive force. I think that feeling that love, that benevolence eventually even the most hardhearted of us will return because it reaches down into the very core of every human being.
So no it’s not going to be all simultaneous, there are fast learners like Terryl and really slow learners like myself and God makes allowances to that. I think that the story of the prodigal son, that is my vision. That is heaven. We have our Heavenly Father and he is waiting for each one of us. The scripture that narrow is the way, well it’s narrow because we’re the only one on it. Us, each of us individually, and Christ. There are billions of ways and times and places. So God is there waiting, anxiously anticipating the return of each one of his children when they are ready to come home. Then we have this huge feast and I’m a party girl. The idea that heaven is going to be one extended party where we’re all going to be celebrating, I mean that really rocks with me.
HODGES: That’s actually a really good segway into the last topic that I want to cover which is the topic of agency. So there’s this idea that we’re all coeternal with God, we’re somehow eternally existent and that’s one of the spokes that you use in your idea of agency, that we’re not necessarily caused so that means that in terms of causal determination we’re free because we’re autonomous because of that. So the question is like if that’s the case, co-eternality seems to guarantee that we already exist in un-chosen conditions then. So there still seems to be a sense of I never chose necessarily to be this way if I was always an eternal intelligence. There wasn’t a point where I chose that identity, so it still seems that we’ve only moved that quandary back a step.
F. GIVENS: Not really because if you can’t consider yourself as self-existing, we are all self-existing, and if we go back into the pre-mortal realms I love this idea of God finding himself in the midst of intelligences. He says this is my life, this is who I am, are you interested? At that point we chose and said yes we are interested and we would like to become like you.
HODGES: But what if you were already fundamentally disinclined to make that choice?
F. GIVENS: Then we wouldn’t have made it.
HODGES: But it wouldn’t have been your fault either thought right? Because you were already—
F. GIVENS: Well then you wouldn’t be here.
T. GIVENS: At least it would be a fall that we couldn’t impute to any external agency. I would further go, I would say that though I can’t pretend to be able to fathom the endless bottomless mystery of human agency, my heart and my mind alike tell me the existentialists had it right when they said man is born neither good nor evil, man is born free. He constructs his identity through his choices.
HODGES: How do you add constraint to that equation, the idea that Fiona mentioned earlier that we are all born into certain circumstances—
T. GIVENS: Well we’re glad that there are constraints on that and the playing field is uneven, because that means that it is just and legitimate for Christ to intervene, to break the cycle of a kind of endless degradation that would result from the inevitable bad choices that we make.
HODGES: Could you take that one step back even into pre-mortality then? Because it seems that could be the case that in pre-mortality where we also exist under constraints already, if agency is inter-personal—
T. GIVENS: That’s certainly plausible to me.
HODGES: Because you can’t have agency without other people around anyway, right?
T. GIVENS: And there’s no reason to presume that a different metaphysics or a different theology would have to obtain for the earth sphere that it does for the preexistence.
F. GIVENS: And obviously we were using our agency at that time, even if we take it as allegorical, this counsel and this war in heaven, the fact that evil can coexist with God, that we had the opportunity to make a choice and I think that’s really important. So agency really worked there. There were two competing principles at work and we believe as Mormons that we chose to come to earth because we wanted to choose a path of indivertible suffering, most of us are probably ruing that we did at the moment, but that really is the only way.
I think this is a lovely verse. We think of it as just pertaining to Christ, but it pertains to all of us, the idea of, yeah, this is lovely. “The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, o man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of eternal expanse. Thou must commune with God, how much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God.” Anyway, this idea that we all have to do exactly what Christ did. He’s not just a model. We actually need to follow in his footsteps and go to the depths before we can go to the heights.
HODGES: Yeah and I wish we had more time to stretch our minds. This is something we could talk about for a really long time, but I really appreciate the time that you gave us today. It was a great conversation. Thanks to Terryl and Fiona Givens, authors of The God Who Weeps.
F. GIVENS: No, thank you to you. We’ve just absolutely enjoyed this conversation. It’s been wonderful. Thank you.
T. GIVENS: Thank you, Blair.
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)