Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl and Fiona Givens

So imagine that you get to know one of your co-workers and eventually find out that she was raised LDS, but left the church because she moved to a new ward with an epically terrible organist, which resulted in a major faith crisis for her, because how could a church possibly be true if it had an organist that bad?

It is no exaggeration to say that expectations and assumptions can matter more than facts. None of us would leave the church over a bad organist because we were not raised with the expectation that a decent organist was a requirement of the true church. But a lot of Mormons were raised under other assumptions which are now causing a world of hurt. One could ask for no better guides through the thicket of re-examination than Terryl and Fiona Givens. Their new book, The Crucible of Doubt, gently and eruditely explores these bedrock assumptions and suggests alternatives. To give you a feel for the book:
The question may remain, how does one lock onto the propositional assertions of a restored gospel that is also laden with claims about gold plates and the Book of Abraham and a male priesthood and a polygamous past and a thousand other details we may find difficult? Perhaps . . . one might focus on the message rather than the messenger. One might consider that the contingencies of history and culture and the human element will always constitute the garment in which God's word and will are clothed. And one might refuse to allow our desire for the perfect to be the enemy of the present good. (page 140)
Notice two things: first, unlike most LDS devotional, apologetic, academic, or otherwise “serious” writing, the Givens' prose is poetic and sometimes lovely. They model what they advocate: seeking not just for logical truth but goodness and beauty. Second, they are not shy about taboo Mormon topics. I will now yank a bunch of quotes completely out of context to give you a feel for some of the book's edgy content—content that I am equally surprised and thrilled came through Deseret Book:

“ . . . [B. H.] Roberts never found an answer to that question, and it troubled him the rest of his life.” (p7)

“But perhaps providing conclusive answers to all our questions is not the point of true religion.” (p27)

“Biblical inconsistencies, common sense, the Book of Mormon's own words, and Joseph Smith's remarks on the subject make it difficult for Mormons to be strict scriptural literalists.” (p56)

“When [Joseph Smith was] not speaking with prophetic authority . . . he claimed no authority at all—which is why his pronouncements on subjects from Lehi's New World landfall to the prospects of the Kirtland Bank were as liable to error as other men's.” (p69)

“Airbrushing our leaders . . . is . . . a form of idolatry.” (p70)

“ . . . faith-wrenching practices (polygamy), missteps and errors (Adam-God), and teachings that the Church has abandoned but not fully explained (the priesthood ban). Practices, in other words, that challenge and try one's faith.” (p74)

“Our history, as portrayed in manuals and curricular materials, has historically been edited to portray Mormons at their best and the world at its worst.” (p80)

I don't wish to create the impression, however, that the bulk of the book consists of engagement with the specifics of troublesome issues like polygamy; it does not. Instead, the Givens' project is to create a deep structure (perhaps we could call it “deep apologetics”) that supports a world where the above issues are problems for some people.

Let me explain: it is not infrequent to hear in Mormon circles something like this: “Either Joseph Smith was a prophet or he wasn't. Either the Book of Mormon was from God or it wasn't. Either this is the true church or it isn't. You either accept it or you don't.” Well, if your ultimate goal is less competition for parking when you are running late for sacrament meeting, this is a profitable tack to take. But if your goal is to find a way for people who struggle with these issues to remain in in the church, please don't ever say anything like this ever again. Because if you present these binary oppositions as the operating assumptions of Mormonism, people who see any flaw in Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon or the church will be free on Sunday mornings. 

What the Givens do instead is to present underlying assumptions that can accommodate the tricky bits of our past and present; they “reexamine a number of paradigms that may make the quest for faith and the path of discipleship more painful and tortuous than it need be” (p10). 

So, for example, one chapter covers our approach to scripture and gently debunks expectations of perfection, replacing them with a link between a human author and a human product. Which may not sound all that revolutionary, except that it is so beautifully and faithfully and intelligently done that, even if you didn't need any convincing on this point, you will enjoy the explication (“God may have written with His finger on Mt. Sinai, but it is Paul who writes a formal epistle to the saints in Corinth . . . all [writers] partake in varying degrees of heavenly inspiration; all bear the human traces of those who felt the Spirit . . . all are filtered through an individual's mind and cultural environment” [p57].).

The one note that fell flat for me was their chapter on responding to situations where “God's anointed leader propounds what is an error” (p74). If I am reading them correctly—and perhaps I am not, for one disadvantage of their poetic and evocative style is that it doesn't exactly read like one of Elder Oaks' legal-brief style talks—they argue that when God delegates authority to certain individuals, they then enjoy “God's sanction for a decision made in error" (p76). In other words, a leader may err, but God still “honors the words and actions of His servants” (p76).

I don't know about this. If (again the “if”) I am reading this right, they would need to conclude that, say, God did not intend for women of African descent to be denied access to temple blessings, but once church leaders had enacted that policy, God then supported it. (While this gets pretty inside baseball I think a case could be made that an individual church member might do better to act as if all decisions are approved by God, but that is a rather different claim than that all decisions are in actual fact, even if sort of retro-actively, approved by God.) And I'm not sure how this idea would mesh with the previous chapter, “The Perils of Hero Worship,” which is a deeply marvelous criticism of the saints for worshiping their leaders: it seems to me that if there is someone in our midst who can cause God to change his mind about stuff (by retroactively approving of it), we might actually want to consider worshiping him.

But that's my only major objection. Outside of that chapter, the book is truly a marvel. (If you read my review of their last book, The God Who Weeps, you'll probably sense that it left me a little awestruck at their novel approach.) If anyone can talk down someone who is having a faith crisis—or provide the kind of theological foundation that might prevent one in the first place—it is Terryl and Fiona Givens. But this book is not just for doubters. Others who appreciate a thoughtful approach to Mormonism, molded in shared measure by prophets and poets, will benefit from this lovely book. There are no theological Twinkies here.

Review copy provided by publisher.

 Cross-posted to Times and Seasons.

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