At a recent FAIR conference, Terryl Givens, while introducing his work on the history of the Pre-Mortal life in Western thought, made this statement: ‘What I have come to appreciate is this cardinal insight: If the restoration is not yet complete, then other traditions have much to teach us. Not by way of confirming, corroborating, or verifying the truths we already have. But by way of actually adding to the body of revealed doctrine we call precious and true. The Restoration is neither full nor complete… What if, instead of scrambling frantically to find explanations when Joseph appears to have borrowed from the masons, or Ethan Smith, or Tom Dick, we instead see another marvellous possibility of his actually practicing what he preached.’
The implications of this statement to apologetics is surely the topic of another post, but one that might prove interesting. My question pertains to how this insight plays out in Givens’ work and what we might learn from it. Joseph Smith famously taught that ‘One of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.’ Yet, in practice this is a problematic assertion in a world where Truth (capital T) seems allusive at best, and perhaps impossible to achieve in many instances. Further it is problematic because we live in a Church that has invested itself in certain ideas or doctrines. Givens then, in part, seems to be intentionally embodying what he interprets as a fruitful way to approach the non-Mormon philosophical positions while keeping his feet firmly situated in the restored gospel (and particularly to Joseph’s grand fundamentals).
Thus in his presentation he approaches his topic through the lens of a number of thinkers or traditions. Givens uses the Akkadians, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo and Kant to raise important aesthetic, theological and ethical questions, which emerge from an acceptance of a pre-mortal life. Givens concludes that this idea has a ‘powerful capacity to satisfy logical, moral, even aesthetic imperatives of the human heart’.
I am not qualified to judge his conclusions, though they are certainly thought-provoking, but I want to examine more closely the way he approaches this issue in light of his early statement. Part of Givens’ application of Joseph’s fundamental then seems to be the way he allows these other traditions to raise questions, or ways of thinking about a topic, that would lead him toward new directions or paradigms. As Whitehead argues, all philosophies have a starting point and will eventually move out from those premises. Givens suggests then, that we allow the question of aesthetics, for example, to play a central role in our thinking regarding the pre-mortal life and then follow this through to other areas of the gospel.
However, I am not convinced that this provides us with a strong model for how doctrinal innovation, like the form embodied by Joseph Smith, could be enacted. Givens stays within the idea itself, and although he finds the contrary arguments unpersuasive he does not show us what we might do if this is not the case. Nor does he demonstrate how, if in following our thinking through, we feel compelled to accept a different position from the one usually taught or accepted within the Church. What if he found the arguments against a pre-mortal life persuasive?
Though there is the possibility that Givens is trying to do something else. I have heard some use this statement of Joseph Smith (concerning the grand, fundamental principles) in a way that merely provides a justification for dis-counting, contradicting or criticizing doctrines or policies which they do not like or believe are correct. I have done this myself. Givens, by contrast, seems to have a completely different agenda. In his work, there is a creativity in his approach which enacts a willingness to let the gospel be changed by outside influences (truths) while also providing the gospel space to reciprocate. Similarly Bushman has argued that we readily use the ideas of the world to criticise Mormon thought without using the insights of our religion so readily when engaging in cultural critcism of the world. Sometimes, I fear, I have been too willing to jettison the principles of the gospel in favour of other influences without seeking to approach both with the intent of creatively building a system of faith.
Further, it is not just this positive creativity that Givens encourages; for he rightly points out that: ‘It takes real humility and generosity of spirit to be taught. Our contemporary condescension in this regard was clearly foreign to a prophet who showed the world he could translate gold plates written in Reformed Egyptian, then hired a Jewish schoolmaster to teach him Hebrew’. Therefore this ethical imperative toward humility and generosity must also, I believe, be connected with the form of creativity Givens models, if we are to live this grand fundamental principle of Mormonism. Consequently, though I am not convinced that Givens provides an adequate model for enacting the openness of JS I do believe that he provides insight into how Mormons can and should engage with other religious and philosophical traditions from within the LDS framework.