This is a terrific and beautifully written book, one I intend to recommend for many years to come, especially to anyone looking for a thoughtful and well reasoned articulation of the Mormon view of life. Its advantage is that it is not defensive, insular, or triumphal in its tone. It is a view that is offered with a kind of deference to a skeptical reader that somehow manages to not sound patronizing. It is an honest and genuine reflection on the reasonableness and satisfactions of Mormon belief. Unlike so many other books, it does not ask for a conclusion that must concede the truth but creates a challenging and ongoing dialogue in honest and mutual respect.
I would go so far as to say that it is one of the most important books ever written about Mormon belief. I say this, first of all, because its focus on the nature of a feeling, passionate God makes us wonder how God could be a reasonable idea otherwise. In their description, God is not only capable of sorrow but seems suited for Godhood precisely because of this capacity. Indeed, instead of pressing the perception of Mormonism as peculiar or even exceptional and instead of focusing on Mormon claims of authority, they merely explore Mormon ideas for their common sense. Terryl and Fiona Givens push us to understand the most profound implications of a weeping God as well as some of the doctrinal consistencies required for such an idea. A God who has created the world out of nothing would seemingly have little cause for weeping, at least not without some unintended irony (Surely he can’t be weeping at his mistakes? If he weeps, is it just a feigned display for our sake?). However, a God, as Mormonism has it, who organizes the world out of chaotic matter is someone more closely attuned to and kin with our mortal and physical conditions. Mormons, of course, recognize this, but the book made me wonder how much we Mormons may have drifted in our understanding of the implications of these doctrines. We are a happy people, and we gladly announce that our understanding of the fall is a more positive one, citing the lines from 2 Nephi: “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.” And yet we also forget, as we learn in the Book of Moses, that Enoch taught that in a free and forbearing universe where joy is a possibility, great sorrow is also a reality: “Because that Adam fell, we are; and by his fall came death; and we are made partakers of misery and woe.” There is, in short, an element of tragedy and even terror that a fortunate fall still introduces, the only balm for which is the comfort in knowing that God suffers this world with us and that he promises power to those who are willing to absorb the insults of life.
The book covers a lot of fulfilling terrain on this question and provides a clear picture of how the doctrines of a creation out of unorganized matter, our pre-mortal existence, the fall, salvation, and eternal progress are interconnected, clearer than anything else I have read in the LDS tradition. I felt that the book understates the ways in which these doctrines transform our relationship to the earth, to other bodies, and to the miracles of physical existence. Given the innumerable tales of death and suffering that are recorded in the geological and biological annals of this earth that surround our brief human moment and that have made all of life as we know it possible and given Christ’s central role in the creation and his suffering on its behalf as well as ours, this seems to deserve greater focus. In my view, the appeal of Mormon thought isn’t merely the idea of the centrality and continuity of human sociality but also the centrality and continuity of all physical life.
Since I am a literary critic interested in religion like Terryl Givens, I am particularly pleased by a book that draws so generously on the insights of poets, philosophers, and theologians outside of the LDS tradition. This is not merely a stylistic preference, however. There is a profound doctrinal principle at work in the book, one that is given only brief mention. Mormonism, of course, places special emphasis on divine revelation coming through proper channels of authority, but it also embraces a generous view of God’s inspiration at work throughout the world and throughout the world’s cultures. So it is only appropriate, then, to tell the story of how Mormonism makes sense of life by drawing upon relevant insights from inspired thinkers. I don’t mean to suggest that the authors make claims to revelations on behalf of the many people they cite. This isn’t a kind of apologetics that requires evidence from closeted proto-Mormon thinkers. The many citations merely provide a conversation, an inspired one at that, and a sense of mutual exploration of relevant questions in the Western tradition that allows us to see where Mormonism fits and what it answers in a particularly potent way. There is no better resource available for such a valuable conversation, especially in such a consolidated and readable form.
There are limits to their approach, but these are minor complaints. The authors draw almost exclusively from Western sources, leaving unaddressed the much larger question of how these features of Mormon thought might fit into a world context and perhaps inadvertently implying that its relevance is chiefly Western. In an age where Mormonism is spreading rapidly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, it behooves future Mormon writers to loosen the Western grip and begin those much needed conversations. Also, there are times when my sensitivities to context felt that their fast-paced jaunt through Western thought was turning into a sprint. It is hard for me to argue with too many quotes from great writers, many of whom are among my favorites, but anything that fast-paced will start to engage in anecdotal and unsatisfactory readings. I think I would have preferred somewhat fewer demonstrations of common links with Western thinkers and a more personal and slightly less intellectualized formulation of the Mormon view. I say “slightly” because its intellectualism, its reasonableness, and its connection to Western letters are some of its unique strengths, but it wouldn’t have hurt to learn something more about the kind of people who are capable of such beautiful thoughts and words.