Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review of The God Who Weeps (Givens)

Terryl and Fiona Givens' book, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, is an excellent philosophical and theological exploration on 'how Mormonism makes sense of life.' A few gems from this highly recommendable book follow:

Premortality in the decision to embark on a mortal sojourn does not eliminate the problem of evil, but it dramatically alters it. If we were involved in the deliberations that culminated in creating and peopling this world, then we are not passive victims of providence. We would have entered into the conditions of this mortal state aware of the harrowing hazards mortality entails.
Such co-participation does not mitigate the horror of what many experience in this life. The enormity of evil may still appall and confound us. God's failure to intervene may distress and alienate us. Our personal experience of loss and loneliness may overwhelm us. But the suspicion that we were party to the terms of our own predicament may give heart when no other solace is to be found. (pg 53)
The Plan of Salvation
A look at any of today's headlines seems to bear out a general tendency toward evil in human nature. As the joke has it, Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith. It is not just a case that a significant segment of the population seems to have gone over to the dark side, but that in each and every one of us, even those striving to do good, we recognize the allure of evil. So the narrative that develops is of a universal condemnation. The entire human race is lost, fallen, damned, waiting and hoping for rescue, for salvation.
Surely this is a perverse vision and a slander upon God. It suggests His plan was derailed before it got off the ground, that He is a brilliant repairman but a poor designer. God's creation of the human race begins in catastrophe and is in need of salvaging. That we should be condemned, punished, accounted guilty, for crimes of our ancestors, is a concept repugnant to every conception of human justice. (pg 64)
Human Nature
Sin is real, and the barriers it erects between us and other beings--both human and divine--is its most pernicious consequence. That is the collateral damage incident to the necessary trial and testing and growth of mortality. Sin has its part to play, but it is neither our original condition, nor our inherent nature. Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century, believed "there is one thing in our soul which we cannot cease from regarding with the highest wonder . . . and that is the original moral predisposition itself in us." Why, he continues, do we find ourselves consumed by the demands of our physical nature, and yet feel so "unworthy of existence, if we cater to their satisfaction"? It is not an inherited depravity, but "a divine origin" that this deepest nature reveals, and that insight "acts . . . upon the spirit even to the point of exaltation." If we only live to satisfy our physical desires, we are suffocating our spiritual selves. (pg 66-67)
Nature vs. Nurture
Our task is to school our appetites, not suppress them, to make them work in concert with a will that disciplines the spirit as much as the flesh. For desire has both spiritual and bodily expression, and our life is a journey to purify both. (pg 72)
Atonement and "Becoming"
We cannot ourselves transcend the consequences of our own past choices, or suddenly acquire a new human nature unshaped by our own history. The inevitability of sin means the inevitability of sinful habits and consequent alienation from God and His heaven. In His infinite love and compassion, however, God wills the reintegration of every individual into the Heavenly Family. The human freedom to sin thus collides with God's desire to exalt and bless. The problem of how to reconcile this tragic collision is the problem of atonement, by which we mean, full and harmonious reconciliation. Any solution, any version of at-one-ment or reconciliation to God, must bring all who sojourn on earth back to God's presence, but must do so without violating human agency. 
Genuine moral agency entails necessary consequences. Choice is always choice of something. In John Stuart Mill's classic treatment of the subject, human liberty requires the freedom "of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow." Those consequences may look like punishment or reward from our perspective, but they were chosen. That is how freedom operates, ideally at least. Consequences are chosen at the time actions are freely committed. To choose to indulge a desire is to choose its fruit--bitter or sweet--assuming, and this is a crucial caveat--that "men are instructed sufficiently" to understand what they are choosing. 
Clearly, instruction is never perfect, the playing field is never entirely even, and a host of mitigating circumstances complicate and constrain the agency that humans exercise. We never operate on the basis of perfect understanding; we are never entirely free of social, cultural, and biological influences. Secondhand smoke of a thousand types complicates and compromises the degree of freedom and accountability behind human choice.
The underlying principle, however, does not vary: we are becoming what we love and desire. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. . . . What we are worshiping we are becoming." Every moment of every day our choices enact our loves, our desires, and our aspirations. And we are molding ourselves into the God or gods we thereby worship.
That is why all talk about punishment and rewards, about justice and merit and deserts, can be wrongheaded and misleading. 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 evaluation. All tests evaluate, and life is no exception. But the most meaningful and productive test are those that assess with an eye to improvement, that measure in order to remedy, and that improve and prepare us for the next stage in an upward process of advancement. For these reasons, all talk of heaven that operates in terms of earning rather than becoming is misguided. Such ideas misconstrue the nature of God, His grace, and the salvation he offers. (pg 86-87)
In some manner and by some mechanism  that the scriptures decline to explicate, Christ suffered for, on behalf of, on account of, and in the stead of, us. The question, however, remains: on what basis can the consequences of our choices be deferred or abated?
The law of moral agency, of choice and consequence, does not require that we entirely bear the burden of our own choices made in this life because those choices are always made under circumstances that are less than perfect. Our accountability is thus always partial, incomplete. Into that gap between choice and accountability, the Lord steps. Christ's atonement provides a way to break the cycle of sin, and begin a new life-course (in ways large or small) with a newly forged disposition. (pg 91-92)  

[William] Law . . . revealed the key to the whole question of a restrictive heaven. Why, in other words, can a merciful God not simply open the gates to all and sundry? Humans can remit a penalty out of compassion or mercy--even when wrong is not acknowledged and forgiveness not asked; why cannot God do the same? Because only a simpleminded conception of heaven, as an exclusive celestial club with literal gates and wary porters, admits such a question.
Heaven is not a club we enter. Heaven is a state we attain, in accordance with our "capacity to receive" a blessed and sanctified nature. A nineteenth-century scripture dictated by Joseph Smith echoed Law's point in similar language. Describing the disposition of people after death, the visionary account reveals that some spirits "shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received." In other words, we acquire Heaven in accordance with a growing capacity to receive it. (pg 88)
Spirit World
...commonplace from the Middle Ages forward . . . two enormous classes of humanity were outside the saving grace of Christ: unbaptized infants, and non-Christians. For many centuries, Christian theologians defended the inscrutable justice of God and cared little for making His harsher decrees palatable to humans. . . . Whitefield correctly saw that compromise could not be reached on this point without a radical reformulation of foundational precepts--such as Original Sin. Meanwhile, Wesley agonized over "How uncomfortable a thought is this, that thousands and millions of men, without any preceding offence or fault of theirs were unchangeably doomed to everlasting burnings!" He and others considered that unbaptized children could not be guilty before they had attained moral awareness--but what about the legions of those who had never heard of Christ or His gospel in the first place?
. . . Godliness, sanctification, the imitation of Christ, all presuppose more than the absence of sin; perfection itself, as its Middle English roots remind us, means "completeness," not just freedom from blemish. How does mere absolution from an Adamic inheritance itself integrate an individual into a process of profound transformation and progress?
 This takes us back to our earlier point about how limiting, confining, and ultimately unhelpful is a model that sees damnation as our default condition, and simple rescue as the solution. Rescuing children from a condition they didn't deserve and never really inherited in the first place doesn't reveal a great deal about the meaning of their eternal nature, their brief lives, or their future possibilities.
Second, if it is not fair to consign children to hell because of their incapacity to either embrace or reject Christ and His teachings, neither does it make any moral sense to believe those never exposed to Christ and His teachings, or to any moral framework at all, would be consigned to hell--or lack the opportunity to grow toward heaven. Surely an infant is the most deserving object of our compassion, and therefore of God's compassion. If any justice reigns on high, it seems, unbaptized infants would not be punished for dying before having the opportunity to accept Christ and His gospel.
The larger problem, however, is that vastly more people have lived and will always live, outside the orbit of Christianity, never hearing a sermon, seeing a missionary, or reading a Bible, than have died in infancy. The multitudes that covered the earth before Christianity made its appearance, all the inhabitants of nations past, present, and future where Christianity is virtually unknown, the countless children reared in secular homes--the numbers of these uncatechized throngs dwarf the number of children who have died unbaptized. The largest portion of humanity would still fall outside the gospel's reach.
And, as with the children, the problem facing the non-Christian runs deeper than anything a simple blanket amnesty can resolve. The question isn't whether they can be excused or forgiven, in light of their ignorance. The point is not that hall humans are condemned unless they find a compelling excuse. The issue, rather, is that all come to earth in order to participate in an educative and transformative process. If the whole mission of Christ and His atonement is to enable change, to render repentance and personal transformation possible, to empower and sanctify, then what are we to say about the billions who have lived in obliviousness to such power and grace? The question is not how can they be rescued from damnation, but how can they be elevated or ennobled, given their inability to participate in all that His grace makes possible?
. . . Christians are supposed to believe that Christ and His gospel are essential to mankind's eternal growth and happiness, but admit at the outset that the overwhelming majority of the human family will be forever handicapped by the accidents of history, cut off from eternal happiness because of when and where they were born?
Offering the hope of an amnesty for infants while ignoring the rest of humanity represents a rather limited defense of God's mysterious justice. It also suggests that His plan was not very effective to begin with, limited as it was to such a relatively small pool of humanity. God seems scarcely deserving of His title if this is the case. Such a God would be severely lacking in either the desire to promote a universal happiness, or the capacity to do so.
So we have a dilemma. Granting opportunity only to those who accept Christ in the flesh seems patently unfair and inefficient. Giving amnesty to all the rest of humankind makes of Christ's life and sacrifice a magnificent gesture but a superfluous or redundant one. A reasonable conception of God and His plan for us demands a third possibility. 
Charles Beecher thought such a third way was the only reasonable alternative to mass damnation on the one hand, and a superfluous atonement on the other. A more comprehensive program than the one executed by missionaries among the living must be envisioned. In 1863, he was convicted of heresy for such a belief. The ecclesiastical court ruled that Beecher "weakens and undermines the doctrine of future punishment by teaching that the offers of salvation are made to men after death."
Beecher's position is the only reasonable one. If hearing and believing the message of Christ is essential to all mankind's eternal happiness, then that opportunity must be available beyond the confines of mortal life.
[Referring to 1 Peter 4:6, this] cryptic allusion represents the Christian Bibles single most stupendous moment of liberality and generosity. The eighteenth-century revolt against organized religion was in large measure a protest against the narrowness of its vision. (pg 92-97)
God's Nature
Taught of highest things by the weeping God, Enoch becomes the weeping prophet. His experience of the love that is indiscriminate in its reach and vulnerable in its consequences takes him to the heart of the divine nature. This is the mystery of godliness that Enoch does not just see, but now lives for himself. (pg 105)
Divine Society
The most terrifying specter that haunts the modern psyche is not death or disease or nuclear annihilation. It is loneliness. 
We pass through birth and death as individuals. But the years in between are filled with the unceasing search for community, for companionship, for intimacy. There is no self-evident reason why this should be so, and why an existence alone should be fodder not just for melancholy musings, but for nightmares and madness.
. . . Relationships are the core of our existence because they are the core of God's, and we are in His image. God's nature  and life are the simple extension of that which is most elemental, and most worthwhile, about our life here on earth. However rapturous or imperfect, fulsome or shattered, our knowledge of love has been, we sense it is the very basis and purpose of our existence. It is a belonging that we crave because it is one we have always known. (pg 108-109) 
Living Godly
What we call the virtues are precisely those attributes of character that best suit us to live harmoniously, even joyfully, in society. Kindness only exists when there is someone to whom we show kindness. Patience is only manifest when another calls it forth. So it is with mercy, generosity, and self-control. What we may have thought was our private pathway to salvation, was intended all along as a collaborative enterprise, though we often miss the point. The confusion is understandable, since our current generation's preference for "spirituality" over "religion" is often a sleight of hand that confuses true discipleship with self-absorption. 
The new sensibility began innocently enough with the lyrical expression of William Blake, who suggested that God might be better found in the solitary contemplation of nature than in the crowded pews of churches. He urged readers "to see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour." It took a Marxist critic, Terry Eagleton, to point out that the gospel of Matthew teaches us that "Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick. When you act in this way, you are sharing in the love which built the stars."
Holiness is found in how we treat others, not in how we contemplate the cosmos. As our experiences in marriages, families, and friendship teach us, it takes relationships to provide the friction that wears down our rough edges and sanctifies us. And then, and only then, those relationships become the environment in which those perfected virtues are best enjoyed. We need those virtues not just here, but eternally because "the same sociality that exists here, will exist there, only it will be coupled with celestial glory, which glory we do not now enjoy." (pg 112-113)

In terms of format, it is bothersome that there are no numbered citations as footnotes or endnotes in the text. Quotations and summaries are used liberally throughout the book and the corresponding sources are provided as endnotes, but no corresponding numbered references are provided. While I suppose that the goal was probably to remove distraction from the text, for one who reads every footnote/endnote, the lack of numbered referencing was irritating. But this can be overlooked. In terms of content, a reference to Brigham Young as "crusty" (pg 74) is certainly unwarranted, especially from faithful and scholarly members such as the Givens. It seems that the pervasive caricature of Brigham Young drawn by his critics continues to seep into and permeate Mormon perspective. It is high time a decent biography of Brigham Young was written that actually captures his character in a non-polarized way. The continual barrage of character criticism against Brigham Young is colored by a fraction of his actions and sermons, while the large majority of character evidence is given only the slightest attention. It seems that the Givens have been influenced by this muddied perspective of Brigham Young. This was a cheap shot on their part, and I expect more from the Givens.

In terms of lack of content, the book is subtitled, "How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life," but its inclusion of quotations from Latter-day Saints and LDS scriptures are merely sprinkled rather meagerly throughout the book. It is hard to justify such a subtitle when the authoritative voices of Mormonism are merely supplemental to the philosophers, poets, Protestants, and others quoted so liberally throughout the text. While the first two gripes are annoyances, the latter is fairly significant. This book provides an ontological discussion of the Mormon "plan of salvation" but not through the lens of Mormon authorities. By and large, the text heavily privileges non-Mormon points of view that coincide nicely with Mormon doctrine. While the excellent insights and profound assertions will resonate with Latter-day Saints, still, it is difficult to refer to this book as Mormonism making sense of life when authoritative Mormon voices are mostly absent. This wouldn't necessarily be a big deal if the book's title were slightly modified, but as it stands, somebody hoping to understand How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life should be prepared to encounter Robert Frost, William Wordsworth, Bertrand Russell, Charles Beecher, and many other non-Mormons, instead of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, or Thomas S. Monson, who all spoke/speak authoritatively for Mormonism. Some quotations from Parley and Orson Pratt, Brigham Young and Joseph Smith are sporadic at best.

Despite the misleading subtitle of the book, it is still highly recommendable. Terryl and Fiona Givens are incredibly articulate and insightful, and provide a wonderful synopsis of the plan of salvation with plenty of unique insight (even if heavily comprised of non-Mormon voices). This isn't normally the type of book that I'd read, but I'm glad that I did. 

No comments:

Post a Comment