Salt and Seed
A Review of "The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life"
For a particular instance of the book's method and sensibility, take its engagement with the notion of individualism, a leitmotif that unites the five chapters under a single arc. The sovereign, separate self, freely thinking and willing, is the book's primary lens for "making sense of life," as the subtitle promises to do. For the Givenses, the self is Paul's dark glassy view on the cosmos: "In other words, we are the mystery yet to be revealed. It is our own identity that we must struggle to discern, before we can rightly perceive our place in the cosmos and our relation to the Divine" (38). The self, with its appetites and intuitions, becomes the best evidence for God's existence:
Every craving that we experience finds a suitable object that satisfies and fulfills that longing. Our body hungers; and there is food. We thirst; and there is water. We are born brimming with curiosity; and there is a world to explore and the sensory equipment with which to do so. (12)
We crave the transcendent and the absolute; thus there must be a God in heaven. Faith itself, the "choice" to believe, becomes the ultimate act of self-expression: "What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love" (4). The work of discipleship is to reveal "the true self, the authentic self," and when we achieve "our authentic stature, and only in such authenticity, will we be free to engage in relationships with authentic others" (115, 117). At every turn, we find that the answer to life, the universe and everything is the self at home in a mind.
Yet the connection between self, choice, and belief at the heart of The God Who Weeps is bedeviled by a problem of provenance: if my failure of belief is an expression of my deepest nature, the moral fault can only lie with the creator of my flawed self. This problem requires the Givenses to take a hard line on self-fashioning over creatureliness: if we are to be held morally responsible for our beliefs, which are only a reflection of our selves, then we must be morally responsible for fashioning our own selves. Thus the authors do not, cannot, dwell on human creatureliness, our divinely created spiritual and physical natures (or, if you prefer, our biologically generated body and brain), for this would shift the blame for faithlessness to God himself (or to a chaotic universe), the ultimate maker of our natures. Rather, they must assume a rather severe position on self-fashioning and accountability: our beliefs reflect our truest selves, and we are the chief makers of those selves. "It is our own choices that shape our identity," because "nothing short of total immersion in a world of choice and consequence will suffice" (81, 84).
(In the authors' defense, they do offer a number of caveats acknowledging that infirmity and circumstance can impinge on the free exercise of will, but it's not clear to me that these caveats can work at any level other than the rhetorical, given their prior assumptions. In the end, human will must be free enough to carry moral meaning: indeed, for the Givenses, human choice seems to be the only route into the realm of the moral. While they look to the atonement to absolve sins committed by a compromised will or incomplete understanding, this raises another question: what about sins I commit with full understanding and complete command of the will? Can the atonement absolve those?)
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.