A Review of the “The God Who Weeps”: Introduction

On February 16, 2012 Terryl Givens, University of Richmond professor of literature and well-known expositor of Mormon thought, published a short piece in Sightings, the blog of the Martin Marty Center For the Advanced Study of Religion, entitled, “Romney, Mormonism, and the American Compromise.” Ostensibly a response to the the furor surrounding the practice of baptism for the dead at the beginning of the year, the piece was perhaps more importantly the first portent of Givens’ new project (with his wife Fiona Givens) of overt engagement in constructive (Mormon) theology. This passage from that article in particular is significant in this regard:

…….Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy. But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction. And it is the fundamentals of Mormonism that should ground any debate worth having about Mormon beliefs or Mormon membership in the Christian community. What are these fundamentals?

Givens then outlines what he calls five fundamental ideas derived from Mormonism [1] that compose his new book (one chapter for each fundamental), co-authored with Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of LifeAs listed in the article, the fundamentals of Mormonism are the following:

1. God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.

2. Men and women existed as spiritual beings in the presence of God before progressing to this mortal life.

3. Adam and Eve were noble progenitors of the human family, and their fall made possible human life in this realm. Men and women are born pure and innocent, with no taint of original sin. (We find plenty on our own).

4. God has the desire and the power to save, through his son Jesus Christ, the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most perversely unwilling, that will be our destiny.

5. Heaven will principally consist in the eternal duration of those relationships that matter most to us now: spouses, children, and friends. [2]

This book is important enough that I’ve decided to not limit myself to the traditional review that provides a general overview of its contents, highlights a few specific, important passages, and then sums up with some brief reflections and remarks. Instead, I’ll be writing a series of reviews that engage each chapter of the book, and therefore each of the Givens’s fundamentals (I’ll treat the introduction separately as well). I will not, of course, be without criticisms, but the book is notable enough to deserve a thorough (if incomplete) theological engagement from a fellow Mormon with an interest in theology.

First, though, a few thoughts about the actual appearance of this book, why it is significant, and some general impressions. Here I will necessarily and in a rather unequal manner refer to Terryl’s prior publications. This is because the current volume, though equally a product of Fiona Givens, needs to be put in its proper historical and theological context as additionally an outgrowth and in some ways a culmination of Terryl Givens’ previous work. That is, The God Who Weeps directly addresses and expounds  on themes that were more or less indirect but pervasive throughout out most of the books he has previously authored. If this is the case, (and I am confident that it is) then this context needs to be addressed.

Though not singular by an means, the appearance of a book that engages Mormon theology in a fairly rigorous way (and especially one that has the potential to have a relatively wide distribution) is somewhat rare in Mormondom. It is particularly noteworthy that Deseret Book has chosen to both stock and promote the volume. As essentially the flagship literary arm of the LDS Church, for good or for bad Deseret Book functions as the imprimatur of acceptable LDS literature, and it is basically a truism among many Latter-day Saints looking for sophisticated intellectual engagement with their faith that almost all of Deseret Book’s offerings are more or less intellectually vacuous and thoroughly fideistic. There have, of course, been serious books published on Mormon theology in the last several years, but none of these have come from Deseret Book, nor would we expect them to. But as this recent post/interview published by Jana Riess reveals, Givens himself has been vocal on this point in the past. To Deseret Book’s credit, in response to this criticism it asked Givens to write a book on Mormon theology and this book, co-authored with Fiona, is the result. We can only hope that this is a positive sign of things to come, that serious, sophisticated intellectual works by Mormons and about Mormonism will be seen on Deseret Bookstore shelves alongside the words of prophets and apostles, a dynamic, interconnected relationship of faith, spirituality, and scholarship, evocative of the heart and soul of Mormon literature in decades past, and one in which Deseret Book itself once participated.

I mentioned above that the volume might be best described as a work of constructive theology. Briefly put, constructive theology is a kind of systematic theology in which teachings and doctrines of a faith are arranged in a particular manner in order to delve more deeply into the theological possibilities and resonances that emerge out of such an arrangement, building a potential world rather than deconstructing one to examine individual parts (a full-blown systematic theology would be the attempt to comprehensively include all doctrines and teachings in such a way that everything about the faith is fully accounted for. This is not what is happening in this volume). This, I think, is where we see Terryl Givens at his best: as undisguised and conspicuous theologian. Givens’ heretofore published oeuvre can more or less be reasonably seen as a covert, sophisticated apologetics, despite historical, sociological, or philosophical packaging [3]. However, when we read his works as theology and not as history or sociology they take on a different and even more productive kind of life. This is, in fact, where Givens can legitimately be seen as an heir of Hugh Nibley and, to a lesser degree, Truman Madsen, whose Eternal Man is quite similar in form and focus. Like Nibley, Givens scours the histories, philosophies, theologies, and literatures of the world for ideas that resonate with Mormonism, and vice versa. In this way Mormonism is both a port for the infinite fount of truth and wisdom as well as a ship sent to gather all truth and intelligence where ‘ere it may be found. Nibley as historian and anthropologist is not nearly as strong and convincing as Nibley as Mormon theologian, one who directly channels the original visions and sensibilities of Joseph Smith, who inserted himself and his people into the histories of the world and claimed its truths and productions as their own. Indeed this is the recovery of the original Mormon universalism, not just in asserting that God will save nearly the whole of humanity (as Terryl and Fiona do in this book), but in insisting that true Mormonism must save and recover the whole of human truth.

Of course, in this book Givens is a co-author. That his wife, Fiona, can claim equal credit for the expositions of this volume may very well alone be indicative of its relative theological strength. This brings me to my next point, and that is that I can only hope that we will see more sophisticated meditations on Mormonism from wife-husband co-authors. In a tradition where the institution of marriage is so highly and ritualistically lauded, this seems especially appropriate for and conducive to Mormon literature and scholarship. Only those who know the Givens family well might be able to isolate where Terryl is speaking versus where Fiona is speaking, but this is in the end no more productively consequential than parsing the complex, entangled (Joseph here? Mormon there?) translation process of the Book of Mormon–the text is strong and productive whatever the process of its construction, but also because it came about as a collaborative process. Apostle Neal A. Mawell, was, I think, wise to say that for too long in the Church men have been the theologians and women the Christians [4]. Of course, too often we read this as solely a call for men to become more Christ-like, but collaborations such as these take seriously the call for women to assert themselves more boldly as theologians, scholars, etc, and hopefully in the future to then produce standalone works of sophisticated theology.

Overall, then, the book must be seen as a most welcome serious theological engagement with some of the more resonant ideas Mormonism has promulgated in its 180 year history. Of course, you needn’t wait until the last in this review series is published to read the book. As Julie Smith succinctly and persuasively insisted in her review of the volume at Times and Seasons, “Just, please, read it.”

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[1] Ascribing to anything calling itself “fundamental” within a religious community is problematic because faith communities and interpretations of texts and doctrines change and evolve over time. Nevertheless, in the book itself, this is not the language that is applied. Instead, the authors use the word “proposition” to describe five distinct ideas that Mormonism teaches, and this seems to be much more descriptive of how they employ these distinct Mormon ideas.

[2] In an interview with Jana Riess, Givens elaborates a little more on the description of each of these:

1) We have a Heavenly Father whose heart beats in sympathy with human hearts. [As the book puts it, “He feels real sorrow, rejoices with real gladness, and weeps real tears with us.”]

2) We lived in his presence as spirit beings before we came to earth. The human soul is eternal.

3) Mortality represents an ascent, not a fall. God is a great designer, not just a repairman. [From the book: “The momentous choice made by Eve and Adam was itself fortunate, insofar as it did not unleash the double specter of depravity and universal condemnation, but rather made possible the introduction of the human family into the schoolhouse of the world.”]

4) God has the desire and capacity to save the entire human family . . . and he will. We’re universalists. Mormons don’t understand this, because Bruce R. McConkie obscured that tradition for us, but we have to reclaim it.

5) Heaven represents the extenuation of those relationships we must cherish in the here and now.

[3] Not, of course, that this is inherently a negative criticism. I think nearly all of the recent excellent scholarship by Mormon authors is in an important sense apologetic. (See my series of posts on apologetics on this point here). But then again, most serious, influential scholarship is apologetic in some way, inasmuch as it subscribes to and defends ideals, concepts, and positions.

[4] Wherefore, Ye Must Press Forward (1977), 127.

Comments

  1. Well said, Jacob. You’ve touched on several important points, here.

  2. I just picked up the Kindle edition of this book and began reading. I love that this is getting published/pushed by DB.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. Thanks Jacob.

  4. Just a quick note here, for those who have already read over the post and might be returning for comments. I’ve updated it in order to try to more clearly and precisely highlight that because of important contextual-historical issues, I’ve had to address Terryl’s position as a noted author and expositor of Mormon thought in a way that I could not address Fiona. I think it’s necessary to highlight it though in order to more fully understand the book, though it meant that I end up speaking about Terryl more, separately from his co-author. I hope the un-egalitarian nature of that can be understood.

  5. I’m confused. How do you go from commentary on God’s concern for all of mankind, Deseret Book’s progress in a potentially new direction, emphasis on scriptural acumen in women, etc. – to a religion that sets aside doctrine, scriptures, and prophets to universally open the door of salvation to everyone, regardless of choices and obedience to revelation?

    My confusion is sincere. The attack on Elder McConkie and a reversed interpretation of a key portion of Mormonism’s message to the world seems incongruent to the Givens’ message that God cares for us all and weeps for our pains.

    I would appreciate a response and more clarification on how your universalism jibes with the scriptures – and the themes of the book you are reviewing.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    James, the foundation for all of our temple work as currently performed is based on a revelation announced in General Conference by Church President Wilford Woodruff in 1894, in which he declared universal salvation. There are dramatic tensions in the history of Mormon beliefs, and this is no exception.

  7. Jonathan, I’m familiar with the doctrine and understand what you are saying. My confusion, perhaps a result of misreading the author’s comments, is that temple work or repentance or baptism is not necessary to salvation, that eternal life is not merely free, but comes with no conditions attached.

    My perception from reading the book is that the Givens’ agree with your comment, and also support the scriptures which invite all to come forward and partake of salvation – but that ultimately salvation, whether recognize or attained here or in the hereafter, requires a conscious acceptance of ordinances and obedience to the commandments. If this is universalism, then it jibes with the Givens’ comments and the teachings of the prophets. If universalism is no-strings-attached eternal life, I don’t think that it does line up with Givens’ comments.

    If I have misunderstood the author’s comments, clarification would be helpful. If I have not and his definition of universalism put forth in conjunction with a slam to an Apostle, then I raise my same question. I don’t understand how they link together. Your comments align with the basis of my question, as well as my understanding of the book being reviewed.

  8. Christopher says:

    Good stuff, Jacob. I look forward to your reviews.

  9. James, I don’t see from where you are deriving “no strings-attached eternal life.” First, it doesn’t appear you’ve read the book. Second, I haven’t described universalism with any amount of real detail (that will follow in future posts). What you appear to understand by the concept of “universalism” doesn’t follow at all from what I’ve actually written. And as far as the comment about Elder McConkie, I don’t see this as “slamming” anyone at all. If we can point to large swaths of the Mormon tradition (including the teachings of many prophets and apostles, primarily Joseph Smith) teaching a certain kind of universalism then it is true that Elder McConkie spoke out against that. But Elder McConkie spoke out on his own, and not always in agreement with other authorities, all the time. Many general authorities have said that just because an authority says it does not mean that that fact alone makes it true. If, as Terryl claims, universalism was a salient part of Mormon tradition and it no longer is, then yes indeed it needs to be reclaimed.

  10. Great post, thanks Jacob! I appreciate you pointing out the subtle but important meta-message behind the book, which is the joint authorship of a husband-wife team. I’ve long had that line of Maxwell in mind, and appreciated the teamwork of the Hafens, and sometimes the Oaks, and now in print, the Givens’. I certainly hope this becomes a trend :) I am looking forward to the rest of your reviews!

  11. Jacob,
    I have read the book, but I admit I also likely misinterpreted “universalism” as used in this post (which Matt W. indicates is taken from an interview with Terryl Givens). It is that interpretation of universalism which raised my concerns in the first place. My bad.

    I respect your opinion about the McConkie matter. From my own perspective it still appears like a needless statement. It seems Givens would be more effective to state his point rather than add that it is different from that made by an Apostle decades earlier. I can see where you are coming from, and where Givens is coming from if he subscribes to your explanation. I hope you can also understand my point of view which is that it is uncomfortable to see a Mormon writer openly critical of the Brethren. It seems like people could make their points without having to emphasize they are contradicting Apostles, no matter what side of an issue they come down on.

  12. James, I think that in a church where Apostles and even Prophets teach things that do not always agree with one another, it is especially important to note when a single person, or a single talk, substantially changes the course of discourse, especially when it is about such a fundamental part of our religion.

    I will take a topic that I believe is totally different from that covered in the book. (I have ordered, but not received my copy, so I am relying on reviews in making that statement.)

    In the Miracle of Forgiveness, the idea that dying while protecting your virtue, rather than “allowing” rape or unwanted sexual intercourse to happen, was cemented into LDS thinking. While many church leaders have backed away from that teaching, the Miracle of Forgiveness is still regularly used by bishops who are “counseling” people who are sexually active outside of marriage.

    Certainly there had been previous talks and articles that suggested the same thing, that being dead was preferable to living if virginity was not intact. (While this concept always says it applies to both men and women, the “proof” of a loss of virginity, or chastity can only really be “proven” for women whose hymen is no longer intact.) However, there had also been previous talks given on the need to not judge those who have been abused, or to see them as unworthy of love, respect and marriage.

    The reason why there was such a drastic shift towards blaming victims, after The Miracle of Forgiveness was published, was because it was in print, easy to simply hand over to a “sinner,” and then put all of the responsibility for healing, onto the back of someone who already has a broken heart, bruised Spirit, and now a book that teaches even more shame. The creation of an additional layer of shame, to those whose loss of virginity was not by choice, also gave another powerful tool those who manipulate gospel teachings to make victims believe there is no hope for them, and so there is no reason to try to turn to Christ.

    The damage that the idea, almost canonized in The Miracle of Forgiveness, has driven men and women to suicide, because they believe they should have killed themselves before the rape happened. One friend’s suicide note read, “I didn’t have a way to kill myself when I was raped, I know this is too little too late, but maybe Heavenly Father will not send me to Outer Darkness if I do it now.”

    The idea that suicide is preferable to being a victim of rape is simply not true. It is a lie to say that Heavenly Father would rather that a woman commits suicide, to stop herself from potentially being raped. It is a lie that Heavenly Father blames the childhood victim of molestation or incest, for the acts that were outside of her control. It is just as much a lie that Heavenly Father sees the sexual acting out of teenage victims of childhood abuse, be those victims male or female, as a sin similar in magnitude as murder or adultery.

    Heavenly Father does not even want a woman taken in adultery to kill herself, as illustrated by Christ’s gentle admonition to go and sin no more. If a woman who had broken her marriage vows, and been caught in the act, has a life valuable enough to continue living, then surely those who have been the victims of violent or systematic sexual abuse are at least as worthy of love, understanding and gentle guidance as they learn to understand both the abuse and how it relates to their current sexual behavior. Surely we can teach the benefits of sexual purity as a loving gift, saved for a spouse and shared in love, in such a way that scare tactics are not needed.

    I won’t go into all the research right now, but there is a general consensus in the medical and mental health community, that doctrines that blame and marginalize victims, similar to those The Miracle of Forgiveness, are damaging to those who are already struggling with feelings of worthlessness. Why then is it still so widely read, and why is it so often the first thing a bishop goes to? Because it was written by an Apostle, who became the Prophet. Since it has not been officially repudiated, and we do not have an alternate book, written by a General Authority, members are reluctant to take the words of scholars or mental health specialists over a former Prophet.

    So yes, pointing out where we, as a church, starting damaging our members, with an interpretation of doctrine that is not in line with what Christ himself taught, is important, even if it makes us a little uncomfortable to admit that a former Prophet wrote things that drives down self esteem, blames victims, protected perpetrators, and drove some people to suicide. He was an imperfect man, who wrote an imperfect book, and because of its use, we damaged the spirits of many people. Brigham Young and Joseph Smith were also imperfect men, who did things that hurt some people at the time, and whose legacy is not 100% positive. It doesn’t change that they were Prophets, but it doesn’t mean we need to repeat the racist words of Brigham Young, or continue to have rape victims read The Miracle of Forgiveness.

  13. Dumb technicality, but I got two of my Ostler EMT volumes at Deseret Book (though they don’t carry it now).

    Just bought the Givens’ book for the stay at the hospital with my wife (C-section). Loving it. Look forward to meeting him Friday at the Deseret Book flagship store in SLC.

    Thanks for this, Jacob.

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