Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Confronting Doubt: Notes from Terryl Givens' talk at Harvard Divinity School

This past Saturday, I had the marvelous opportunity to listen to Richard Bushman, and Terry and Fiona Givens speak on confronting doubt. This blog post will be a 3-part series, devoted to the main takeaways from this conference from each speaker. I'm going to start with Dr. Terryl Givens.

Terryl Givens:

No question comes in a vacuum. It comes with presuppositions, worldviews. Sometimes we may not be getting answers to because we are not asking the right questions. Several paradigm shifts may be helpful for us to ask the right questions.

1. Analysis of utterance of prophets.

According to someone not of our faith, prophets are those who experience sympathy with a divine pathos. They feel God's voice and hear his heart (I'll get the direct quote).

Perhaps many of our questions would be answered if we saw God in this kind of fashion, not as a transcriber or secretary writing down God's words verbatim.

2. Use/Abuse of Reason.

We don't rely on reason to the extent that we think we do. Art, love, and conscience are all vital for us for us to interpret reality.

Art does not merely entertain, but gives human emotion its due. It gives us the sense that we need another kind of reality.

Love is another form of knowledge. Certain aspects of reality become visible through love. Love does not blur reality, it enhances it.

What gives a better understanding of who I am: a DNA mapping, or my relationship with my spouse and children?

3. Provocation/Peace

As a church, we have a horror of loose ends. We want pressing questions answered.

Think of William Blake's "Little Lamb" from Song of Innocence. The author asks "Little Lamb who made thee," and then answers the question directly by explaining who God is.  Conversely, think of his other poem "Tyger Tyger," from Song of Innocence. This poem asks who could possibly have created such a beast with "fearful symmetry." Unlike the aforementioned poem, the question is not answered.

One of the great strengths of Mormon theology (and often overlooked) is that we don't expect every question to have answers.

Think of John chapter 6, when many of Christ's followers were defecting. Christ turns to his disciples and asks "Will ye also go away?" Peter replies, saying, "To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."

Peter did not stay with Christ because Christ could answer all of his questions.

Religion does not offer cheap solutions.
We want a script--we are given a blank canvas instead.
We want a road map--we get a compass (or a Liahona).

Don't close the shutter of your camera because you can't see the entire mountain.

4. True Worship/Function of Church.

Worship first appears in the Old Testament when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son. It first appears in the New Testament when the three kings are about to give their gifts to the Savior.

Perhaps worship is not about what we are receiving. It's about what we are voluntarily giving up.

The organization of a ward may be viewed as a replication of a family--you can't run away from your brothers and sisters at church. It's one of the best places where we can learn to love our neighbor.

Dietrich Bonhoffer: "Cheap grace is the moral enemy of the church."

5. Perils of Hero Worship (or putting our church leaders on a pedestal).

Dostoyevsky articulated this problem well: "The devout are convinced that they are seeking what is good, true, and holy--while they are actually seeking a keeper of their conscience."

When George Albert Smith was prophet, an article stated that "when leaders speak, the thinking has been done." President Smith repudiated this statement, saying that this was a gross misinterpretation of our doctrine.

Look to Gideon in the Old Testament as a great example of the perils of hero worship. Or look at Doctrine and Covenants 124:1. The Lord clearly states that Joseph is a prophet so he can perform miracles through the weak things of the world. Joseph's flaws are evident throughout the scriptures.

Principle of Delegation: when God gives fallible humans to act in his place, we should expect and assume that flaws will arise. We need to look to our leaders "in all patience and faith." (Doctrine and Covenants 21:5).

6. Use/Abuse of Scriptures

Interesting how the word "canon" if you add another "n" has the same sound, but completely different meaning (cannon). Our scriptural canon can become a "cannon"when we wrest them for ourselves.

Joseph Smith had a horror of literalism when it came to scripture. 

Lots of people wonder why the Old Testament God is such a fearful, vengeful God.  Our church would do well to look at the Documentary Hypothesis: the theory that four authors wrote the first four books of Moses.

The Bible is full of uninspired moments.

7.  Mormons and Monopolies.

Lots of people have a problem with Mormon exclusivity--that we are the only people to be saved That's not what Joseph Smith taught.

Look at Revelation 12, where they speak of "the woman fleeing into the wilderness" and being nourished for 1000 years. The woman is supposed to represent the church. What does this mean?

"When God have prophets, he speaks to poets." (don't know who said that). God certainly inspired musicians, poets, artists during the Great Apostasy. (Totally agree--who can doubt Milton, Donne, Shakespeare, Michelangelo were not inspired).

We have a lot of spiritual generosity when it comes to salvation. Prior to Mormonism, other sects were thinking of God being more generous in terms of how many people could be saved (Universalists, Campbellites, etc). So what is the role of ordinances when it comes to a more generous view of salvation?

It comes down to baptisms for the dead!

Shared an anecdote of being on a radio station with a Jewish host who asked "Why is the Mormon church still baptizing all of my dead Jewish ancestors?" (This was when the news reported that our church was still baptizing Holocaust victims). Givens referred to Christ's parable that invited all to the wedding feast, explaining that baptizing for these dead Jewish ancestors was like putting them on a guest list. They are not obligated to attend the great feast, but they are on the list, if they want to attend.
The Jewish radio host said, "That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard."

8. Evil/Suffering (I think this was another paradigm shift).

Referred to Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous theologian).
Beecher believed in a pre-existence, war in heaven. He taught that other spirits who did not want mortality were afraid of the specter of suffering they would experience. That should be a sobering doctrine for us--the knowledge that our earth life would be an immersion of suffering made 1/3 of God's spirit children to rebel.

9. Principle of Invisible Church
The world is sprinkled with truth everywhere. God told Joseph Smith about "holy people which we know not of" (D&C 49). We can find a spiritual brotherhood with all mankind.

D&C section 10--seems to be instigated by the sense that there is a larger community that our church should be a part of.

Response to Questions:

Our Doctrine of the Fall:

We are the only church that teaches that the Fall was not a catastrophe. Eve had to make a difficult decision between security of the garden and obtaining wisdom. Life is not often a decision between good and evil. We best form our characters when we are choosing between good, better, best. Life is the most formative when we are making impossibly difficult decisions.


  1. Thanks for sharing your notes, Sarah! If you remember, could you expand on what "the Bible is full of uninspired moments" means?

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    2. This is Jason Rice (FYI)

      From Richard G. Scott's The Power of Scripture Oct. 2011 General Conf -

      Do you use all of the standard works, including the Old Testament? I have found precious truths in the pages of the Old Testament that are key ingredients to the platform of truth that guides my life and acts as a resource when I try to share a gospel message with others. For that reason, I love the Old Testament. I find precious jewels of truth spread throughout its pages. For example:

      “And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).

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  3. Hey Rachel, I was there too, and that quote is in reference to the fact that God is portrayed in several different lights throughout the Bible. While He may appear vengeful and merciless in the Old Testament, He appears very loving in the New Testament. This is because the Bible was written by several different authors and/or Prophets. Therefore, you are reading about God from their perspectives. And just as Joseph Smith and the other Latter-Day Prophets had their flaws, so did they...with which come uninspired moments from time to time.

  4. i love it so much you are make me happy of it an dit make me to go my mission

  5. Thanks for sharing your notes, Sarah. Very thought-provoking and view enlarging.