The Limitless Canon of Truth: “Mormonism” in The God Who Weeps

Fiona and Terryl Givens’s excellent The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of the World (Ensign Peak, 2012) has received quite a bit of attention this last week, with good reason. Specifically, make sure to follow Jacob B’s fantastic multi-part review, which he started yesterday. For the major details, critiques, and ideas, you’ll have to read every word Jacob writes. (Who doesn’t?) But I want to riff off of one of Jacob points in his first review, something that I found enormously important in the Givens’ work: the expansive notion of canon, the decentralized notion of authoritative truth, and the broad array of intellectual sources brought to bear on Mormonism’s theological claims.

As Terryl mentioned in an interview with Jana Riess, the “book is chock full of allusions to, and borrowings from, various thinkers from Robert Frost to Kierkegaard to C.S. Lewis.” And “chock full” is probably an understatement. Nearly every page contains several examples from thinkers ranging from antiquity to the present. When talking about the importance of choosing a benevolent God, they turn to Dostoyevsky and Twain; when looking at the divine origin of the human spirit, they turn to Augustine and Kant. Reading through the book, it is obvious how well-versed the authors are in the Western Canon, and it likely gives a broad background to many readers who have never been exposed to these ideas and thinkers. Personally, it was an encouragement to me to read more and more broadly in my own study–an indictment of my own literary background. Taken together, it is a broad army of various intellectuals throughout the ages tackling some of life’s greatest problems.

Fiona and Terryl, of course, are far from the first Mormon scholars to invoke a vast range of sources outside of Mormonism. Indeed, and I think Jacob is right on this point, the Givenses continue a lineage of Hugh Nibley and Truman Madsen in presenting a cogent, complex, and enticing view of Mormon theology that transcends the narrow borders of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. But I think The God Who Weeps presents a radically different framework than past parallelomania. Rather than using a boad range of sources as proof-texts to validate Mormon beliefs–either in the “look, other smart people believed this too, so it can’t be dismissed!” approach, or the “there is no way Joseph Smith could have believed this!” argument–the Givenses invoke these other texts as authoritative sources in and of themselves and on their own terms.

This is an important point, so I want to make sure I make it as clear as possible. For many Mormon authors who invoke ancient, literary, and philosophical ideas, those ideas are typically relevant only inasmuch as the confirm what Mormonism already believes; their duty is to validate at the least, or buttress at the most. But Fiona and Terryl make a powerful, if subtle, critique of that model. For them, the ideas of Origen, Aquinas, Kant, and Beecher are nearly as authoritative as those of Joseph Smith; they are an addition to our canon of truth, and are meant to teach us new things and expand our ideas.

Terryl has actually spoken on this before, and has used scriptural allegory he was taught by Fiona to demonstrate the broader lesson that I find quite powerful. One of Joseph Smith’s earliest revelations, received in March 1829, contained the first reference to the restoration of the Church as an organized body. In it, the voice of God proclaimed, “I will establish my church, like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old” (Book of Commandments 4:5). However, when the Prophet Joseph worked to revise this revelation in preparation for the Doctrine and Covenants, he edited the verse to echo the allegory of John: that the Restoration was “the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness” (D&C 5:14). Later revelations also spoke of the “Church” coming out of the wilderness, and they never once referred to the original truth being lost in its entirety (see D&C 17:1; 33:5; 109:73). This allusion, of course, is a reference to the Book of Revelation:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon…and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born…And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days” (Revelation 12:1, 2, 6).

Following the Protestant tradition, we as Latter-day Saints have interpreted this “woman” to be a reference to the gospel, her disappearance to represent the Great Apostasy, and her promised return to be the Restoration in our day. The prominent message we often draw is that the woman (the gospel) had been completely absent from the earth for quite some time. However, the Givens tell us, such a look oversteps the intended boundaries by speaking of the apostate nature of the world outside the restored gospel, and in doing so we lose a chance at some of the best avenues of inspiration available to us. For, the “woman” in John’s allegory was not fully banished from the earth, but was merely sheltered in the periphery and nourished outside of, but never too far distant to, the mainstream. It is the purpose of the restoration, then to collect those lost fragments.

We often look to Joseph Smith’s mighty revelations and visions as the only source for his knowledge, yet he himself did not feel limited to those sources alone. As Terryl’s forthcoming books on the history of Mormon theology will show, Smith looked everywhere to gather fragments of truth, and understood this “horizontal” form of revelation to be a crucial aspect of the restoration. “We should waste and wear out our lives,” the Prophet once wrote his wife Emma, “in bringing to light all the hidden things, wherein we know them, and they are truly manifest from heaven.” When he explained to a newspaper editor what “effect” Mormonism had on its believers, he focused on its accompanying thirst for knowledge, whatever source it came from. “Mormonism is truth,” he proclaimed, “and every man that embrace it felt himself at liberty to embrace every truth. Consequently, the shackles of superstition, bigotry, and ignorance fall from his neck, and he is able to see the truth.” We are all familiar with Joseph Smith’s renunciation of creeds, and that God told him that all creeds were an “abomination” in his sight, but we may be overlooking some of the important implications of the idea itself. Of course, the content of the Christian creeds (especially concerning the Trinity) was one of the primary motivations behind the condemnation, but it was not the only motivation behind it. Rather, to Joseph Smith, the biggest problem was the principle of what a creed represented: that it limited what you can believe and where you can gather truth and inspiration.

This, to me, is one of the most attractive elements of LDS theology: the notion that all elements of truth, wherever they currently exist, are part of an ever-expanding canon of knowledge that is not only open to us, but expected to be an intrinsic element of our worship. We are obliged to seek knowledge from whatever source is available, and that very act of searching is a Godly practice. The Givenses demonstrate the potential of such an intellectual journey, and their depiction of Mormonism is all the richer because of it.

Mormonism, then, is not meant to impose boundaries; rather, it lifts them.

Comments

  1. Christopher says:

    Thanks, Ben. It’s worth noting that this line of thought about the apostasy and restoration was prevalent among some early Mormons, who understood Mormonism as the culmination of their prior religious experience as Methodists, Baptists, Campbellites, etc. Steve Fleming and I considered this as part of our exploration of early Mormon notions of the apostasy at ApostaCon in February. We surmise in that paper that we may see an increased emphasis on this theme in the future (and indeed, I think we’re seeing it already) in large part because Mormonism is made up–for the first time since the 19th century–mostly of first-generation converts who understand their personal religious journeys as preparatory to their acceptance of Mormonism.

  2. Incisive and important points, Christopher.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve always loved the “Mormonism *is* Truth” approach, and am glad to see it making a comeback. Thanks for these thoughts.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    I guess I just need to read the book, as I imagine a lot of my concerns about this type of approach would probably by obviated if I did so. I like the idea of it, but I can see how difficult it might be to manage.And I can’t wait to read Christopher and Steve’s article.

  5. “Mormonism, then, is not meant to impose boundaries; rather, it lifts them.”

    And by doing so allows reality to transcend us. Truth becomes something that we grow into, expansively, rather than something we possess and defend. We approach life with a orientation of ‘what can I learn?’ rather than ‘what should I eliminate?’ If I was a bishop, one of the questions I’d ask when someone was dealing with repentance would be something like, ‘when was the last time you learned something new?’ At least one reason why we have difficulty getting personal revelation is that we are seeking it in order lay are claim rather than as part the sometimes frustratingly slow but always delicious unfolding of reality. It requires a constant open engagement with the world.

  6. Very nice Ben. I think you get at the heart of what is most commendable about the Givens’ new book.

  7. FWIW, I imagine that you meant to write “broad array of intellectual sources” not “broad away of intellectual sources”.

  8. I believe in a broad array of spelling possibilities, Tom. (Also: thanks. I blame it on writing this on my iPad.)

  9. Thanks, Ben, for this review, and for drawing attention to perhaps the most important underlying message of the whole book– that unparochial, unterritorial, unlimited search for truth is what should define Mormonism.
    Christopher, that’s a fascinating point I haven’t considered– I look forward to going back to your paper on it.

  10. Ben, This is the other post of yours, that got me thinking about what it means to be an LDS Intellectuals (which I don’t think you could argue I was) and still wanting to read and have access to LDS historians and intellectual writings. I may have it all wrong, and I will do more looking at “The God Who Weeps” in Section 2, which I am finishing and will be up sometime mid-next week. I had been talking with a friend who used to teach at a Christian Seminary about how different versions of the Bible are used in Christianity, and it seemed to fit in with the ideas here, and the limited official LDS canon, but de facto -very open- canon.

    http://www.poetrysansonions.com/2012/10/mormon-moment-series-part-eleven-lds.html

    I would love to know what other BBC readers think.

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