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Thoughts on Terryl Givens’ Letter to a Doubter

November 1, 2012

I had been vaguely aware of Terryl Givens as a Guy Who Is Kinda A Big Deal in Mormonism for a while…but it seems that recently, he (and his wife) have made more of a splash in the Mormon internet interest groups. He and Fiona have recently released The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, which basically drove Times & Seasons’ Julie Smith speechless with how good it is, but which otherwise has received more substantive treatments from T&S’s Adam Miller, By Common Consent’s Jacob Baker and Ben, the Rational Faiths podcast, and several Mormon Facebook group discussions.

Since the Kindle version of the book is only $10, I’ll probably end up getting it eventually, but from the many reviews, I’ve gotten a glimpse at a few of the things he’s trying to say. And so, Givens’ release of his Letter to a Doubter, which was (conveniently) presented and released the same month as The God Who Weeps, seems to be in some ways connected. Obviously, Givens is probably not CliffNotes’ing his own book, but my main point of contention with LtaD appears to also be found in the reviews of TGWW, so this seems to be a big enough part of his theology that he has mentioned it twice. I’ll thank Givens for writing the letter, since everyone should know by now that I am functionally illiterate and appreciate short-form writing over long-form.

Terryl Givens

Just like The God Who Weeps, Givens’ Letter to a Doubter has proven popular to the online audiences. The first episode of LDS apologetic group FAIR’s “Keeping the Faith” podcast series is devoted to the fireside presentation from which the essay is drawn. Searching google for Given’s name and the name of the essay will give you several message board topics discussing the article. And of course, this is also being discussed on the private Mormon Facebook groups — in fact, I was stirred from my blogging slumber by such a discussion. Predictably, for something to have such a wide appeal on the internet, that means that some people are going to really love it, and other people are going to really hate it. In these cases, I definitely like to read things for myself, just to see if I fit in either side, or if I can find some sort of balance.

Fortunately for me, I still feel some sense of balance. So, in this article, I’ll summarize and respond to some of the things I liked and some of the things I disliked

Snapping Out of Culture

LtaD is organized broadly into two parts. Within the first part, Givens “shoots down” five things that he perceives are relatively common doubts that should not be faith-threatening. As he describes in his introduction, he notes that he “will say a few things about why many doubts felt by the previously faithful and faith-filled are ill-founded and misplaced. The result of poor teaching, naïve assumptions, cultural pressures and outright false doctrines.”

As an introduction of the sorts of doubts that fall into this category, he relates a story of BH Roberts, who was apparently stumped by a question that was asked of him: if the Native Americans are descendants of Lehi in the time frame the Book of Mormon describes, then how could there be as much diversity in native American languages as there is?

Of course, BH Roberts was stumped because, from his hemispheric understanding of the Book of Mormon where the Nephites and the Lamanites were (as Bruce R. McConkie would inscribe in the Book of Mormon’s introduction) the principal ancestors of the American Indians, one simply couldn’t mesh what was known about linguistics to the Book of Mormon setup.

Givens approach is to point out that Roberts — and indeed, many members, including high ranking leaders — believed something that the text itself absolutely did not justify — a wide-stretching hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon with few (if any) outside people already living on the continents. As Givens writes:

Nothing in the Book of Mormon suggests that Lehi’s colony expanded to fill the hemisphere. In fact, as John Sorenson has conclusively demonstrated, the entire history of the Book of Mormon takes place within an area of Nephite and Lamanite habitation some 500 miles long and perhaps 200 miles wide (or a little smaller than Idaho). And though as late as 1981 the Book of Mormon introduction written by Bruce R. McConkie referred to Lamanites as “the principal ancestors of the American Indians,” absolutely nothing in that book of scripture gave warrant for such an extravagant claim. That is why, as of 2007, the church  changed the wording to “the Lamanites are among the ancestors.” No, the most likely scenario that unfolded in ancient America is that Lehi’s colony was one of dozens of migrations, by sea and by land bridge. His descendants occupied a small geographical area, and intermingled and intermarried with other peoples and cultures. Roberts couldn’t figure out how Inuit and Patagonian languages derived from Hebrew because they didn’t. And there was absolutely no reason to try and make that square peg fit into that round hole. You see, even brilliant individuals and ordained Seventies can buy into careless assumptions that lead them astray. That Joseph Smith at some point entertained similar notions about Book of Mormon geography only makes it the more imperative for members to not take every utterance of any leader as inspired doctrine. As Joseph himself complained, “he did not enjoy the right vouchsafed to every American citizen–that of free speech. He said that when he ventured to give his private opinion,” about various subjects, they ended up “being given out as the word of the Lord because they came from him.”

From this very approach, I can see both why some people would like this reasoning and why people would dislike it. First, for the dislikes — I would argue that if you asserted to anyone who had grown up in the church in the relevant time frame (which would basically be any time before 2007…) that nothing in the Book of Mormon suggest[ed] that Lehi’s colony expanded to fill the hemisphere, they would be very incredulous. They would suspect you were questioning their entire involvement with the church, or their basic reading comprehension skills. How could someone persist so long with such a basic erroneous assumption — even if the erroneous assumption was simply assuming that the introductions (or chapter summaries, or…) are part of the Book of Mormon?

And even worse, how could apostles and such make similar mistakes? (Givens addresses the misconceptions around prophetic mantles later in the essay.)

That being said, essentially, what Givens is doing is breaking out of small-minded Mormonism (albeit, in a way that is far less likely to be seen as “pushing the envelope” than what I was writing about).

At the end of the day, someone can say, “Well, in my experiencing of Mormonism, saying something like this wouldn’t be well appreciated,” but ultimately, Givens can always critique the imperfections of church or ward culture, rather than any sort of doctrinal imperfection.

I won’t go into Givens’ five specific points, but they basically take the idea of snapping out of culture into various ways — challenging what is likely to be many Mormons’ understanding of exclusivity vs. universalism, or the value of institutional religion (Givens may be challenging culture, but he is not advocating for a spiritual-but-non-religiosity).

Surprise! Doubt is Good

After going through the first part, cutting down unworthy objects of doubt, Givens concludes that in the end, some kinds of uncertainty are worthwhile. Uncertainty, doubt, tension, murkiness…all of these things are worthwhile and necessary to give faith meaning.

As Givens says:

I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt, because it gives me the capacity to freely believe. I hope you can find your way to feel the same. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to
resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance

Emphasis preserved.

I’m not quite tracking with Givens here, and if you’ve read enough of this blog, you can probably guess why and where. Interestingly, though, this is something that Givens has seemed to discuss more in The God Who Weeps: both Adam Miller and Jacob Baker, in at least one part of their multi-series reviews, questions Givens’ assertion that belief is voluntary. From Jacob, for example:

 I wonder, though, whether one can will to believe, any more or less than one can will to doubt. I think it more accurate to say, following philosopher of religion Louis Pojman, that belief is more a “feeling of conviction about a non-volitional event,” where “volitional” means the power of using or enacting one’s will. Conversely, concerning doubt, one might say that doubt is the lack of conviction about a non-volitional event.  In other words, belief or non-belief is not something you enact, or will; it is something you find yourself in the midst of. I always already find myself in a state of belief or unbelief, no matter how I might desire it to be otherwise. If I do not believe in a particular proposition or event, in a particular political ideology or philosophy, I cannot simply will myself to do otherwise. Beliefs are “mappings in the mind by which we steer our lives…when a person acquires a belief, the world forces itself upon him.” Even if some beliefs can be willed, beliefs are just about the way the world is and are made true or false depending on the way the world actually is. Thus, a given belief is not true merely because we will it. On the other hand, as Pojman points out, acceptance is another matter entirely. I might accept what I don’t believe and I might believe what I don’t accept. “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Faith seems to be a deep kind of acceptance, a realization that those things that configure our beliefs–the objects and people and propositions that constitute our world–demand a certain kind of response. Here, then, is where we find ourselves needing and able to act, where we demonstrate and reveal what we desire to be faithful to–not by choosing what we believe but by responding in a particular way to what we believe. This kind of potential faithful commitment to what calls us (and what calls to us are the things and people in our world that surround us and have a claim upon us) is not possible without hope. Faith and hope, in fact, are inextricably entangled.

The issue of whether we can choose our beliefs (doxastic voluntarism for the sequipedalianly-minded) is the controversy. Without diving too deeply into this, I will just say that I think that for Givens and certain other people, maybe they do perceive a capacity to freely believe. And maybe they perceive this capacity because they perceive a sort of “balance of evidence,” such that, as Givens says, there is not “an overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side.”

…but I suspect that Givens doesn’t choose to feel this way. If he thinks there are sufficient materials to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial, I don’t think it’s because he chooses to think this. I think his paragraph betrays certain assumptions, presuppositions, or axioms that are either self-evident to Givens, or that he otherwise takes for granted.

For example, Givens says there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment.

But does he seriously consider the possibility that such choice is not “truly” a choice, or if it is a choice it is not “deliberate” or “laden with personal vulnerability and investment”? While Givens entertains the idea that if there were an overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side (or, I would amend, the perception of such), then our choice would be meaningless (or rather, as meaningless as a choosing with a loaded gun pointed to our heads — which could still have meaning, but whatevs)…I don’t get the idea that he means us to actually take this into consideration as how our lives could actually be when it comes to claims like Mormonism’s religious ones.

To an extent, I can agree with his lines that what we choose to embrace (in terms of commitment as far as actions and whatnot), reflects who we are and what we love. I’m just not sure that where choice begins or ends in that statement. I find that I have a set of things that would fit as “who I am” or “what I love,” and I can choose to seek those things, or seek other things, but I can’t choose what those things are.

And what about the values?

Moving past the beliefs aspect, I think that Givens is assuming too much about the values. As he says:

 The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true.

But here, we have to address principles, values, and ideals. These principles, values, and ideals are ones that Givens says we devoutly hope are true — but if he is addressing a letter to a doubter, then he should certainly address the fact that plenty of people can doubt the principles and values and ideals of Mormonism.

I can understand that many people would appreciate Mormonism’s values, ideals, and principles. I can abstract them far enough that even I can appreciate them. But in terms of the actions that I see, what is popularly preached and presented at church (in my experiences), etc., I see Mormonism in somewhat of a limiting way. If you are a heterosexual, heteronormative, cismale, then I can see why you would appreciate Mormonism’s values, principle, and ideals. But the further away you get from these aspects of privilege, either the less Mormonism is able to reach out and address your concerns. (I’m just going to put it like this: even if you agree with Mormonism’s “position” on homosexuality, you should at least admit that it’s lacking as far as institutional support in comparison with its institutional treatment of heterosexuals in the church.)

…and I say that being aware that for any issue I could raise, someone could argue that the critic/doubter needs to break out of folklore and culture. I mean, I am struck by the latest Mormon Matters podcast between Dan Wotherspoon and Brian Dalton on racism within the Book of Mormon. I have not listened to this podcast, but for similar reasons to why I feel I should read Givens, I should listen to this one — it has become popular both because some people totally love and agree with what Dan is saying, and because other people love and agree with what Dalton is saying…but both people are coming from very different sides. But to Mormonism’s credit, I did not put “white” in my list above.

But once again, I don’t think that people are going to choose out of whole cloth how far they can stretch.

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11 Comments
  1. I appreciate your thoughts and the link to the letter. I have been working on posts looking at intellectual discussions in Mormon/Non-Mormon/Post-Mormon groups. It started out with a very surface look at canoonized scripture, but as I started getting into The God Who Weeps, and the many reviews and discussions, I have realized that the next parts will take way more study and thinking than I originally was planning to put into it. I have no doubt it will be worth to take the extra time (months?) to listen to a variety of perspectives.

    I really like your idea that as we *are* before anything else starts shaping us, we have different “stretch” in our make up. I get VERY frustrated sometimes with people that I see as unable and unwilling to see any shades of grey. So if reading, and thinking about it, these are my questions/understandings.

    Am I understanding your thought, there are some people who simply are created in a way that doesn’t let them stretch beyond a black or white answer to a question?

    For someone with a very tight weave and stiff material that is woven, they either will believe or not, but they can’t see a way to see grey, and so they can’t really understand the tension for people who see shades of grey everywhere, and have that tension of ideas that they are stretching to understand and understand?

    And by the same line of thinking, those who have a lot of stretch to the fabric of their soul (for the lack fo a better word) that they won’t be able to hold themselves into an exact or rigid position, because they will always stretch themselves more to try and understand the greys in other people?

    Someone who is stretchy may choose to have a tendency towards belief or disbelief, but no one grey thing will change their general believing or disbelieving nature?

    I need to think about this more, and it may be a good basis for the next post about intellectual discussions, which all come down to faith in the end. And if faith, or the lack of it, is the distilled essence of all religious discussions, how do two people who are made out of different fabrics have a meaningful conversation? I think that a lot of discussions I have been involved in over the last couple of months on Wheat and Tares would come down to talking past each other from viewpoints so far apart that we aren’t really talking to each other.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  2. Julia,

    Thanks for commenting.

    My thoughts in response to your questions are as follows:

    Am I understanding your thought, there are some people who simply are created in a way that doesn’t let them stretch beyond a black or white answer to a question?

    I want to make a distinction between chosen change and change. So, what I’m saying is that I don’t think that some/many/(most?) people naturally perceive an ability or capability to choose to stretch beyond a black or white answer to a question.

    I think that some of them may eventually come to move beyond black or white, but it’s not because of their choice.

    For someone with a very tight weave and stiff material that is woven, they either will believe or not, but they can’t see a way to see grey, and so they can’t really understand the tension for people who see shades of grey everywhere, and have that tension of ideas that they are stretching to understand and understand?

    I don’t know if the weaving analogy is how I would describe it (e.g., people who see in black or white aren’t necessarily “tightly weaved” of “stiff material”…or whatever that analogy would suggest.) But otherwise, yeah, I think that a lot of the time, not only can someone who is in one position not see the validity of other positions for themselves, but they can’t see how those positions might be valid for others.

    And by the same line of thinking, those who have a lot of stretch to the fabric of their soul (for the lack fo a better word) that they won’t be able to hold themselves into an exact or rigid position, because they will always stretch themselves more to try and understand the greys in other people?

    I think that those who see more gray find rigid positions to be boring, incomplete, inadequate, stifling etc.,

    I mean, think about how people use the term “nuance.” So, you have some people who look at the word, “nuance,” and think, “Of course! Things have nuance! If we aren’t addressing the nuance, then we have an incomplete view.”

    But on the other hand, there are folks who see the word nuance as a bad word. That’s a sign of “cognitive dissonance” or “mental gymnastics” or even “apologetics.”

    Someone who is stretchy may choose to have a tendency towards belief or disbelief, but no one grey thing will change their general believing or disbelieving nature?

    I think this is Terryl Givens’ position. I think that even for stretchy people, the tendency is not chosen.

    I need to think about this more, and it may be a good basis for the next post about intellectual discussions, which all come down to faith in the end. And if faith, or the lack of it, is the distilled essence of all religious discussions, how do two people who are made out of different fabrics have a meaningful conversation? I think that a lot of discussions I have been involved in over the last couple of months on Wheat and Tares would come down to talking past each other from viewpoints so far apart that we aren’t really talking to each other.

    I don’t know if I would use the word “faith” for it, because I think it is making a different definition for faith than is used in the religious sense, but I do think that people come into discussions with sets of assumptions, presuppositions, etc., So, in this sense, they often are talking PAST each other — even at W&T.

    I think the benefit to W&T is that if you talk past other people and are in an environment where you do that often, then maybe your opinion won’t change. Maybe their argument won’t seem at all convincing to you. But at the very least, you’ll be aware that other people do think differently — even if you may think they are crazy for thinking that way.

    • I like the image of someone at least knowing that people think differently than they do, even if they don’t understand. It explains a lot of what happens online, but doesn’t happen at church. I think some people are so sure that everyone thinks the same way, that the short amount of time in a lesson wouldn’t really allow differences to become apparent. As people self select into “like minded communities,” I think that same thing happens. Some people really don’t know that some people have a fundamental difference in how they think about the world.

      And, I had my own Aha moment as I read your response, I had never thought of nuance as a bad thing. I will need to think more about that, but while I know a lot of black and white thinkers, I have always assumed there had to be some nuanced thoughts on their side, that they were did tilling down to not take up too much space.

      That probably explains my difficulty in short comments, and why I am increasingly making responses into blog posts on my own blog, as I have had complaints about comments being too long. On the other hand, I get frustrated by comments of 20 words or less because it often seems like there is no attempt to explain a position. Lots of food for nuanced thought. ;-)

      • I think that even at church, it can be possible to point out that there are different opinions…the issue is that people often don’t feel comfortable expressing what they think are minority opinions, so the “majority” opinion gets reinforced and the minority opinion is hidden.

        I think when the minority opinion does get expressed, then my last line becomes especially relevant:

        But at the very least, you’ll be aware that other people do think differently — even if you may think they are crazy for thinking that way.

        Emphasis on “thinking they are crazy for thinking that way.” I think that’s why a lot of people don’t speak up — because they fear that others will think of them as being sinful/apostate/crazy/etc., That’s really one of the biggest problems to communication…because being aware that other people think differently doesn’t really help if you think that “different” = “evil”, or that different = stupid.

        And, I had my own Aha moment as I read your response, I had never thought of nuance as a bad thing. I will need to think more about that, but while I know a lot of black and white thinkers, I have always assumed there had to be some nuanced thoughts on their side, that they were did tilling down to not take up too much space.

        Yep, I definitely think that nuance is going to be one of those basic areas where people are going to disagree — and not even realize that they disagree.

        I too have problems with keeping my comments short…but sometimes, I’ll write a really long comment, and then something will happen and then I’ll lose it all…that’ll usually force me to write a shorter comment the next time.

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