Creativity, Generosity and Humility: Grand Fundamentals of Mormonism

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.


  1. I see what you are saying here, Aaron, and I can definitely appreciate your main points. I think what you see as the limited nature in Givens’s paradigm is his commonly-used mantra that ‘Mormonism has many of the answers, but is usually ignorant of the questions.’ I think it is an important tension when examining the epistemological differences between philosophical and revelatory sources of truth.

  2. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that the tension you mention is very important especially because of how Givens suggests they were embodied by JS. Further, I really like Givens ‘mantra’, esp. because it contains within it both the great good of Mormonism and offers an apt critique of the bad that is IMO reminiscient of Nibley.

    In addition, something I did not acknowledge in the post is that it might be unwise for Givens to outline a model for adopting doctrinal innovation as this could be labelled as apostasy. Yet, I think this opening statement of his invites him to be read in this way.

  3. I may not understand the full complexity of this post and I have not read Givens’ article, however I agree with the interpretation that there are things “yet to be revealed” that could exist within other Faith’s and organisations, I would even go as far as to say that further revelation could be given on doctrines we take for granted, such as Pre-mortal life and reincarnation.

    I do agree that the tone of Givens’ approach could be construed and labelled as apostasy, because he seems to paint a picture of JS scrambling around for applicable doctrines from any source possible, however true this is it does not paint the faith promoting picture that the church desires.

  4. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks for your comment. I did not mean to imply that Givens is in a state of apostasy. Rather I want to indicate that suggesting ways that Mormons could draw upon other traditions to supplement the doctrine taught by the LDS Church could be seen as opening up a space for apostasy among the membership. This might not be well received by those who are concerned with maintaining doctrinal purity and harmony.

    Moreover, I am not sure that I see JS as ‘scrambling’ about but rather that he was willing to be changed and inspired by the world around him. My point with this post is this: Givens wants us to follow what Joseph did but seems unclear about how we can do that.

  5. O.k. I understand it a little better now, I’m really interested in this topic

    Regarding danger of apostasy among the membership and how we apply JS approach, I think this is a really interesting question. I loved Pre Uchtdorf talk on Patience in GC, David O. Mckay reportedly knew that the Priesthood ban would be lifted but said very little about it. I saw an interesting documentary on Mary Magdalene in which they suggested that she used the sudaname John to write The Gospel According the St John because the Testimony of women in that era was void, if I chose to believe this theory it is not my place to tell the church what to do with it, it would be my opinion and as long as I didn’t teach it as doctrine the church and I would continue having a happy relationship.

    I guess I would support gleaning information from other faiths but I would encourage people to be cautious in how they apply it.

  6. Kristine says:

    It seems to me this has always been a central dilemma for Mormonism–we have this sort of endlessly expansionist theology (semi-)articulated by the founder, who died before figuring out how to manage that theology into a group that can cohere. You have the anarchic possibilities of personal revelation and an open canon, and yet have to create boundaries and some sort of institutional logic. Correlation is the end form of the institutional logic, but the theology hasn’t been refuted, so there’s always this low tectonic rumbling about All Truth, no matter the source pushing against the “revelation through proper channels” rhetoric.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Aaron, I love the spirit of this post and yet I can’t help but greet it with some skepticism – you speak of having humility and creativity as the Restoration continues to roll forth, but you speak in collective terms, as if the new revelations and future canon of the Church were determined by common consent or via some meeting of our collective minds. Given our hierarchical model of adding to canon and receiving churchwide revelation, how do your principles still apply?

  8. Aaron R. says:

    Kristine, I whole-heartedly agree that this is not a new dilemma, but I am interested in how Givens approaches it. His response seems to be, as Ben says, Mormons have the answers but don’t know the questions. The purpose ofhis study, at least in part, then is to raise the right questions.

    In fact, as I am thinking now, I am reminded of a discussion between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault on Dutch TV where the interviewer asks a question and neither is able to really engage each other because they are both wanting to ask different questions.

    I wonder whether Givens critique could be used as a counter-action against what Brad and Daymon have highlighted about correlation. Correlation clearly provides the answers but Givens makes it possible to use them in response to different questions. This requires that they be used in new ways which will need our creativity and humility.

    I guess this is what I am trying to convey, what and how can Givens method be applied to our own Church experience, eventhough I find in an incomplete answer.

  9. Aaron R. says:

    Steve, I would not want to give the impression that there is always a meeting of minds. I would rather want to try and emphasis two things, both on a personal, rather than an institutional, level. First, I think Givens principles apply to us in response to this hierarchy. It takes as much humility and generosity to be taught by our leaders as it does by those outside the hierarchy. Second, I think that the canon suggests a form of praxis rather than a series of doctrinal propositions. JS revelations in the D&C are often irrelevant to us without extreme de-contextualisation and yet the process of revelation they embody is essential to each individual.

  10. Good answer, Aaron. I suspect you’re right – and possibly the greatest test of that humility and generosity may come in being taught by our leaders while simultaneously being taught by those outside the hierarchy.

  11. As a hierarchal model, I don’t know how these could be added to the cannon of faith. On an individual basis, however, I have found much in Buddhism and other Christian faiths that have strengthened my LDS feelings more than anything I have found in 40+ years here. They are whole new dimensions of my spirituality that make me much more complete.

    I can’t ever see a conference talk on “loving-kindness meditation” however, or seeking the Middle Way.

  12. Aaron R. says:

    Mike I think that your experiences are part of what JS would have valued. I think it is appropriate to borrow from other religions. I try to meditate regularly and have enjoyed the embodied focus of yoga. I don’t see Mormonism as less-spiritually productive because we do not actively teach us things because I would not expect the current set of leaders to have gone down the same route. But I am comforted by the fact that those activities are not excluded.

  13. Thanks for this post. You might be interested to read Bushman’s address on the intellectual prospects of Mormonism. It seems to me he is trying to articulate a way to learn about our religion and share it with others in new ways, a way to incorporate truths from wherever, etc.

    Bushman says:

    “The fourth and my final and concluding point is that I think our intellectuals and scholars and all the people who write and try to propound Mormonism-and that includes, I think, Sunday School teachers, and many other educated Mormons who are deeply engaged in trying to understand where we are in the world-I think we need to change direction a little bit. We have devoted so much of our intellectual resources to two activities: history and apologetics. ”

    He continues with this line of thought. For brevity’s sake, those who are interested can check it out here:

  14. “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. ”

    Doesn’t everyone integrate Aristotle and Kant into their interpretation of Mormonism? I highly encourage it.

  15. You just kant help it!

  16. At a lecture Givens gave at UVU a while back, I chatted briefly with him afterwards about this ever-Restoring topic and he cited D&C 33:5 and D&C 5:14 as texts to see the Church as existing before and after in the world outside of the institution itself. Interesting pathways can be taken intellectually about all of this. I’m interested to see how we as a people deal with truths found elsewhere in the coming decades.

  17. Aaron R. says:

    Bhodges, thanks for the link. I have read alot of the transcripts at your blog but missed this one. How do you think Bushman’s approach is similar to or different from Givens’?

    Tod, I imagine that institutionally the work will be done from within. Thanks for that insight into Givens’ thought, I will have to give that some consideration.

  18. Aaron: I think Bushman, like Givens, sees the utility of FAIR and FARMS generally. But they are approaching somewhat of a different audience and asking different questions. It seems to me that Givens’s notion of the “cultural work” performed by ideas (to use a gross anthropomorphism) is what appeals to Bushman. He likes the idea of looking at the meaning and results ideas have on living. At least, that seems to be part of the reason Bushman brought Givens’s new book up in that address.

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