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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: The God Who Weeps

The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. By Terryl and Fiona Givens (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012. Pp. 160).

In recent years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) has experienced a sudden exodus from the faith on the part of many of its rank-and-file members.  Thanks in large part to the Internet, many Mormons have discovered a number of historical and theological issues that has caused a great deal of doubt and concern for many Latter-day Saints, who originally believed that their faith was impenetrable to such things.  As former Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen recently stated:
Maybe since Kirtland, we've never had a period of -- I'll call it apostasy, like we're having now...It's a different generation.  There's no sense kidding ourselves, we just need to be very upfront with [members] and tell them what we know and give answers to what we have and call on their faith like we all do for things we don't understand.
This crisis of faith, that has already claimed a number of former members in its wake, has gone relatively unopposed.  Little has been said (other than the traditional "don't you dare doubt" or "just pray about it" responses) to help remedy the situation.

That is until now.

In their book, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, the husband and wife team of Terryl and Fiona Givens offer us a concise but extraordinarily eloquent overview of the profoundly complex yet extremely basic theology that is found within Mormonism, and how said theology answers some of life's most difficult to answer questions. The Givens challenge many of the preconceived ideas held by both Christian and Mormon supporters and detractors by resting their thesis on the idea that God's strength and ultimate sovereignty rest in his infinite loving vulnerability rather than his divine dictatorial supremacy.  In consequence, The God Who Weeps reveals a god who mourns for his creations when they sin, as opposed to a god who arbitrarily consigns the sinner to an eternity in hell.

The book is essentially divided into five sections (chapters) that each emphasize a separate and unique concept that the Givens believe are both unique to the Mormon faith and worthy of our further inquiry.  In the first chapter (His Heart Is Set Upon Us), Terryl and Fiona Givens develop their concept of the "weeping God" and how such a deity is both worthy of our devotion and fully capable of coming to our aid:
There could be nothing in this universe, or in any possible universe, more perfectly good, absolutely beautiful, worthy of adoration, and deserving of emulation, than this God of love and kindness and vulnerability. That is why a gesture of belief in His direction, a decision to acknowledge His virtues as the paramount qualities of a divided universe, is a response to the best in us, the best and noblest of which the human soul is capable. But a God without passions would engender in our hearts neither love nor interest. In the vision of Enoch, we find ourselves drawn to a God who prevents all the pain He can, assumes all the suffering He can, and weeps over the misery He can neither prevent nor assume.
The Givens further develop the idea of the "suffering" or "weeping" god by pointing to the writings of early church patriarchs like St. Augustine and Origen, along with modern writers such as C.S. Lewis and Emily Dickinson, all of whom insinuated, in one way or another, that God's strength and ultimate sovereignty rested in his love and vulnerability for mankind as opposed to his supremacy as some sort of cold and distant dictator.

In the second chapter (Man Was in the Beginning With God), the Givens focus on a point of Mormon doctrine (pre-existence) that they believe is dramatically underplayed by both critics and supporters of Mormonism.  It is worth nothing that the majority of this chapter's material is drawn from Terryl Givens' other book, When Souls Had Wings, which is almost exclusively devoted to the concept of pre-mortal existence and it's development in Western thought.  In this chapter, the Givens turn to the writings of the ancient Greeks, Babylonians Jews, etc. who all maintained an interest in the idea of a pre-mortal world/existence.

In the third chapter (Men Are That They Might Have Joy), the books highlights the importance of human choice and how said choices can determine our happiness and illustrate what we as individuals value most in our mortal lives:
Whatever sense we make of this world, whatever value we place upon our lives and relationships, whatever meaning we ultimately give to our joys and agonies, must necessarily be a gesture of faith. Whether we consider the whole a product of impersonal cosmic forces, a malevolent deity, or a benevolent god, depends not on the evidence, but on what we choose, deliberately and consciously, to conclude from that evidence.  To our minds, this fork in our mental road is very much the point.  It is, in fact, inescapable. 
In other words, the Givens remind us that joy, faith and hope really are in the eye of the beholder. They do so by pointing to biblical figures like Adam and Eve, and the apparent quandary they experienced while in the Garden of Eden.  Partaking of the fruit meant introducing pain, hurt, grief and despair into the world, but it also brought about joy, happiness, love and charity.  In short, life becomes a quest to put off the "natural man" and experience for ourselves (and through our own choices) the joy that is available to all.

Chapter 4 (None of Them Is Lost) is, in my opinion, the most important chapter of this work.  In this chapter, the Givens challenge many of the erroneous cultural beliefs that Mormons have with regards to salvation. Too often members of the Mormon faith (and Christians in general) make the incorrect assumption that salvation will only be attained by a select few and that heaven will be a relatively underpopulated place while hell will be full to the brim.  This is nonsense.  As the Givens point out:
God is personally invested in shepherding His children through the process of mortality and beyond; His desires are set upon the whole human family, not upon a select few. He is not predisposed to just the fast learners, the naturally inclined, or the morally gifted. The project of human advancement that God designed offers a hope to the entire human race.  It is universal in its appeal and reach alike. This, however, has not been the traditional view.
We are not in some contest to rack up points. We will not someday wait with bated breath to see what prize or pain is meted out by a great dispenser of trophies. We cannot so trivialize life that we make of it a coliseum where we wage moral combat like spiritual gladiators, for a presiding Authority on high to save or damn according to our performance. Where would be the purpose in all that? He might take the measure of our souls at any moment and deal with us accordingly, saving Himself, not to mention us, a great deal of trouble. How much more meaningful is a life designed for spiritual formation, rather than spiritual elevation.
In other words, heaven isn't a prize to be won but a state of being to be attained.  The value of this concept is infinitely important for Mormons and the world as a whole.  God wants to save everyone, not just a few.  As a result, Mormonism is NOT a small tent faith of exclusivity but is a big tent UNIVERSALIST religion.  As Joseph Smith himself stated, "God will fetter out every individual soul."

In their 5th and final section (Participants in the Divine Nature), the Givens essentially sum it all up and illustrate the Mormon belief that God wants the best for all of his children.  As a result, we can, through our own merits and God's grace, achieve a state of full happiness and joy, surrounded by those we love most.  In short, the Givens suggest that heaven will be, for those who choose it, a continuation of all the special relationships we experience here on Earth, except that the joy can be infinite.  Though our own vulnerability, we too can become "joint heirs" with Christ.

In summation, The God Who Weeps is a welcomed and invaluable response to those who believe that Mormonism has nothing to offer the modern world.  It presents a theology that is fully developed, complex and worthy of scholarly inquiry and soul-searching meditation.  The authors of this work demonstrate an exceptional ability to sift through centuries of material to find the perfectly pitched quotations and evidence needed to prove their argument.  The depth and breadth of their knowledge of world literature, theology, philosophy, art and history is astounding, and serves to support their thesis that Mormonism is a deeply rich and fulfilling religion with a great deal to offer the world.  All current and former Mormons would do well to realize that trivializing the faith, or reducing the argument to the smallest possible denominator, does little to help increase our understanding.  There is nothing to be gained from picking fun at the low-lying fruit of Mormonism As Terryl Givens states:
Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion.  In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule.  So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy.  But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction.  And it is the fundamentals of Mormonism that should ground any debate worth having about Mormon beliefs or Mormon membership in the Christian community.
And for the Givens these fundamentals are:

1.) God's strength is found in his vulnerability.  His Heart is set upon us.
2.) We are eternal in nature and were in the beginning with God.
3.) We can, through our own choices and God's eternal grace, have eternal joy.
4.) Salvation is universal and open to all who want it.  Mormonism is Universalist in nature.
5.) We can be participants and joint heirs in the divine nature.

In a mere 160 pages, The God Who Weeps does what no other book has been able to: present to the world a concise yet complex narrative of why Mormonism matters.  My advise to all who read this is simple: if you love being a Mormon and have never questioned your faith, read this book.  It will give you a better understanding of those who do.  If you are a Mormon and have doubts or have already left the faith, read this book.  It may give you a better understanding/perspective of why Mormonism matters and the value that can be had by living the faith.  If you are not a Mormon and want to know what the faith is all about, read this book.  It will give you a better understanding of why Mormonism is a unique and valuable faith that is worthy of more than both its members and critics have given it.


S.Faux said...

This is a tremendous review. I have discovered over the last few years that you and I think a lot alike. It has been fun to read your reactions to what I have written.

Since the 1970s I have studied Mormon history as deeply as I could. I even took graduate courses on the topic. It began to bother me that I was learning new information that no one else knew about or acknowledged. Joseph Smith was NOT some idyllic hero.

But, I came to realize (slowly) that God is forced to work though the weaknesses of man to bring about his purposes.

It is the message not the medium that matters in our religion. The Givens book seems to be an example.

In my church classes I teach that one should not throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater. There is bathwater. It needs to be thrown out. But, the baby is precious, holy, and necessary.

The only way Mormonism works for me is to be a thinking Mormon who values science, history, philosophy, comparative religion, etc.

Mormonism should be about service to others, not door to door sales pitches.

Brad Hart said...

All I can say is AMEN to everything you said, Steve!!! Well put.

Grant Hart said...

Very well written. I am thoroughly motivated to dig into this book. I have only read the introduction so far.

As the dimensions of our understanding and testimonies change as we experience the process of time, I'm grateful that there are thinkers out there like the Givens who help us realize just how valuable what we have in Mornon doctrine is and to anchor ourselves on the true essence of the fundamentals of our faith.

Perhaps it can be said of it only being 160 pages that less is more.