Ideas matter. This is the fundamental conviction that motivates Terryl and Fiona Givens’ ambitious, earnest and rewarding All Things New. Good theology can help us to live a good, fulfilling life, and bad theology can make life worse.
The Givens wish to show that the Restoration that the Lord brought about through the Prophet Joseph Smith beginning some 200 years represented a decisive theological breakthrough. The true, eternal story of humanity had been lost, even mutilated, and now it was being revealed once again. However, the authors warn, we are at constant risk of backsliding into a corrupted, pre-Restoration vocabulary and thus into a theological framework that threatens to stifle the true spirit of our eternal humanity. The story of redemption risks being “reduced to incoherence.” (74)[i] The Givens believe that the Church, or many in the Church, are urgently in need of a course correction. We need to be reminded just how new the Restoration was, and is, and taught to recognize and avoid certain pitfalls of an older theology.
The theological course-correction or renewal the Givens counsel is motivated by a concern for a very concrete and widespread human problem that afflicts today’s society. They are convinced that we are experiencing an “epidemic of guilt that afflicts the body of Christ” (2565) and blocks access to the living waters of the Gospel. They trace widespread loneliness and anxiety to a dominant “religion of fear” (844) which they are convinced taints Latter-day Saint teachings and practices, and propose that a “reordering [of] our religious language to be more consistent with this love known to the first Christians [might] at least help to address our unprecedented rates of depression, anxiety,” etc.
Terryl and Fiona Givens draw upon impressive resources of historical scholarship and a wealth of personal experience in faithful ministering in this ambitious undertaking of making the newness of the restoration available to our minds and effective in our lives. Terryl recently retired from decades of teaching and scholarship as professor of literature and religion at Richmond University in Virginia to accept a full-time position at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University. Author of many books and articles on the teachings and culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints He might well be considered the pre-eminent contemporary scholar of “Mormon” things; he has demonstrated a unique gift for successfully engaging a general scholarly audience while maintaining a faithful voice and loyal readership among Latter-day Saints. In recent years, he has been joined as an author by his wife, Fiona Givens, also affiliated with BYU’s Maxwell institute, and herself a scholar of European languages and history; together the brilliant couple had already published three very influential titles, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith, and The Christ Who Heals. No authors could be better prepared than the Givens to renew our understanding of what is new in the Restoration.
The original Christian story is centered on Christ as the exemplar of the personal destiny of each of God’s children: That “we will be like him” (2990. 1 John 3:2) is the central promise of the Gospel. To become like Him is to prepare to live in communities of love, as part of the extended family (205) of humanity. This Christian promise of community grounded in equality in Christ and welcoming “social diversity” (238) represented a radical rupture with the natural human understanding, and thus with the ancient, non-Christian world, which could only conceive relationships as “transactional” (234, 2509), that is, as based on power, self-interest, hierarchy, and status (237). But apostasy from this fundamental truth of loving equality in Christ “cut loose … Christian love … from its theological moorings.” Under the influence of Greek philosophy God was redefined as a remote and uncaring absolute sovereign, thus bringing about a “moral mayhem” (185) from which we still suffer,
The true, original Christian story of human destiny, the Givens argue, was grounded in two fundamental teachings that were soon lost: the eternal nature of souls (including a pre-mortal existence), and the parenthood of God, including the love of a Mother in Heaven. This understanding of eternal “collaboration” with loving Heavenly Parents, as opposed to absolute subjection to One who created us from nothing, is essential to a joyful embrace of the true Christian promise, which is not one of “saving” us from some mysterious and wretched condition of “sin” but of healing our “awful woundedness.”[ii] To turn from the traditional Christian obsession with sin/salvation to the true vision of a healing (that includes discipline and the education of suffering) is to embrace the Restored Gospel as a process of the cultivation of “our natural affections” (Parley P. Pratt, 340) that prepares us for the full, eternal joy of loving community.
How is it that traditional Christianity got the Gospel of love so “tragically, horrendously, catastrophically wrong”? (339) A short, but essentially correct, answer to this question, from the Givens’ point of view, would be: Augustine. Determined to stamp out all expressions of human pride, as he saw it, Saint Augustine of Hippo, as he is known in the tradition, deployed the correlate doctrines of God’s incomprehensible sovereignty and man’s “original sin” (655) – the utter and complete captivity of human nature to prideful rebellion against God – to suppress the idea of effective human moral agency. Behind these doctrines stood the fundamental premise of the creation of human beings and their world “ex nihilo”(635, 638) – out of absolute nothingness. According to this corrupted Christian teaching, human beings are God’s helpless, resourceless subject because they purely the creation of an absolutely mysterious Deity; there is an “infinite distance” (705) between Creator and his creation.
This is the corrupt tradition that still beclouds our understanding of God and humanity today. (The Givens rightly point out that, contrary to a conventional Latter-day Saint understanding, the Protestant Reformation by no means helped to correct the Augustinian corruption of Christianity, but in fact aggravated the problem. However we understand the historical effects of the Reformation, the Givens are undoubtedly correct that theologically the teaching of Luther and Calvin and their successors served to harden and even radicalize the Augustinian commitment to original sin and to God as a remote, absolute sovereign. Thus, when Amulek, in response to Zeezrom, teaches in Alma chapter 11 that God will save us not in our sins, but from our sins (2462), this can certainly be read as responding in advance to Martin Luther’s radicalized Augustinian teaching of “simul justus et peccator” (2462) – that is, “at once righteous and a sinner”: we are justified by Christ’s grace alone and remain in ourselves, in our natures determined by Original Sin, as much sinners as ever. Certainly the Givens are right that no teaching could be more alien to the essence of the Restoration in its affirmation of the eternal reality of moral agency.
The Givens are convinced that an Augustinian shadow continues to hang over the membership of the Church today, despite the truths restored and even enhanced by the Restoration that began in 1820. They propose that much of the debilitating anxiety, dread and loneliness experienced by members today stems from the disastrous residual effects of the dreary Augustinian theology of a remote, incomprehensible God and a helplessly sinful human nature. Their book seeks to dispel this Augustinian gloom by highlighting crucial anti-Augustinian features of the Restoration.
Central to the Givens’ “new” understanding of the gospel is the teaching that “salvation is the flowering of divine potential, not the correction of an innate fault;” (2456) salvation should be understood as “additive,” not “restorative” (1353) – that is, as continuous with the best of our human desires and possibilities, and not as utterly alien to them. Central to this “additive” view is a retrieval of an understanding of God as referring to our Heavenly Parents, and thus a denial of Creation Ex Nihilo in favor of confidence in the eternal reality of our being as moral agents. This view of the eternity of the human person as agent accords with an understanding of Heaven as essentially a matter of relationships – that is, of building eternal bonds of love with Heavenly Father and Mother and with our brothers and sisters. And from these teachings there follows as very un-traditional understanding of the “Fall of Man” as good news, as a necessary step towards our eternal progression, and not the Augustinian disaster of Original Sin.
The central, distinguishing truth of the Restoration, according to the Givens, is the eternal significance of “free will,” that is, the possibility “to act and choose and create in ways that are never fully predictable.” (1413) This I think is a beautiful and true insight into the essence of the truth that had been lost, the core truth that Heavenly Father restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith and his successors. Human beings, as moral agents, are not pawns in some incomprehensible scheme of a remote divinity, but literal children of a loving Father and Mother whose work and glory is our flourishing as agents for good. This flourishing, moreover, is inseparable from the forging of “relationships … [as] eternity unfolds before us … in ways that can delight and surprise us – and perhaps God as well.” (1413) A certain “surprise,” in this beautiful conception, is essential to our eternal purpose, because freedom as open possibility is real, and at the heart of the meaning of eternity – by no means merely a mortal illusion.
This “surprise” inherent in Eternal Life as Eternal Agency is of course not an absolute surprise, otherwise we could not know by anticipation of its goodness. (Here I beg permission to expand a bit on the Givens’ beautiful speculations.) The unfolding of eternity is by no means arbitrary or absolutely open-ended but conforms to a framework of eternal law attuned to our fulfillment as eternal beings. As Terryl Givens wrote in Wrestling the Angel: “In God’s conception of human existence, moral agency is the bedrock value, and the capacity for independent virtuous activity is a crucial part of eternal moral development.” (Kindle 1116) Citing Blake Ostler on “the uncreated realities which exist of metaphysical necessity” and thus within which the possibilities of agency unfold, Givens references “the natural laws which structure reality,” as well as “moral principles grounded in the intrinsic value of selves and the requirements for growth and happiness.” (1217) Only within this perspective is it possible to understand that what the Christian tradition has called “the Fall of man” was fortunate, indeed an essential part of God’s plan, because our agency could not enfold within the laws of love without the anguished separation wrought by Eve’s and Adam’s transgression.
The Givens eloquently highlight this positive vision of humanity and of our earthly sojourn as a blessed alternative to the corrupt Augustinian tradition of Original Sin under an Incomprehensible God, an Absolute Sovereign. They explain, one lucid, elegant and genuinely inspiring chapter at a time, how every core doctrine of the Restoration appears in a new light when removed from Augustinian shadow: Salvation is not “rescue” but “realization;” we obey not as “subjects” but as “heirs;” sin is not “guilt” but “woundedness,” etc. Their effort to extract us from the oppressive obscurity of Augustine’s incomprehensible God and inhuman Original Sin is a powerful reminder of the humane clarity of the Restoration.
Against the darkness of this tradition the authors of All Things New present a naturally attractive gospel of divinely supported free choice and ongoing progress. Against the idea of “a limitless and unqualified guilt” stemming from “moral defect or depravity” (1711-1712) which produces a “preoccupation with unworthiness that is self-concerned and unproductive” (1761) they propose a teaching according to which sin is simply “error” (1702), and what was considered “wickedness” is only a “woundedness” that does not touch our essentially good desires as eternal beings. Although the Givens once recognize that “we are … capable of sin in the sense of a deliberately chosen action that is wrong and harmful” and cite the philosopher Kant in support of the validity of “guilt” (1743), they are determined to emphasize a gospel of “charity” as opposed to one of “judgment,” with its “boundaries” and “categories like ‘the saved’ and ‘the damned,’ ‘the sinner’ and ‘the righteous.’” (1723) Their chapter title, after all, is “From Guilt to Woundedness.” Citing the contemporary theologian David Bentley Hart, they note that “we are incapable of contracting a limitless or unqualified guilt,” because “there are always extenuating circumstances.” (1693)
In All Things New the Givens’ thus provide us with a beautiful and theologically rich perspective on what is restored in the Restoration. They offer us the aid of faithful scholarship in the task of clearly apprehending the value of teachings we often take for granted and of distinguishing them from a false tradition that obscures our eternal destiny and our relationship with Divine Parents. Theirs is a theologically important and inspiring contribution. Still, we would be wise not to exaggerate the clarity and simplicity of the Gospel, as if all the mystery and tragedy of the human condition could be resolved if only we applied the proper theological template. On the Givens’ view, we need a Savior to “rescue” us, but only from physical death (1713), not from any “innate fault” (1499), any essential turning away from the path of “liberty and eternal life.” There is no dark tendency or possibility to fear, no essential potential for evil in human agency, but only a need for “love-based counsel” (1611-1614) to direct us to what we always already desire. In this sense the Givens approach perilously near the teaching proposed (with some irony, I think) by the founder of Western rationalist morality, Socrates: there is no sin but ignorance.
The central truths of the Gospel are certainly clear, simple, and beautiful – divinely adapted to our needs and longings as human beings and, through living prophets, to our times. But their interpretation in terms of systematic philosophy and theology is another matter. To recognize the necessarily unfinished quality of our ideas – the limitations inherent in the ambition of “theology” – counsels modesty at least as much as theological creativity, much less some confidence in the necessary “progress” of our conceptual formulation of essential saving truths.
To their credit, the Givens emphasize that they “are neither offering dogmatic definitions nor offering a comprehensive treatment [but] trying to model and inspire fresh ways of thinking …” (1291) Certainly there is always some new dimension of the Restoration to be articulated and celebrated, but enthusiasm for a fresh articulation should not cause us to forget the eternal framework in which our agency unfolds. The truth of eternity works in both directions – restoring and preserving ancient truths as well as welcoming new possibilities. In their effort to “provide bases” for an “ongoing conversation” (1291), the Givens risk discrediting important resources in our tradition and perhaps amplifying voices for innovation that are not always well grounded. In their worthy struggle against excessive, even pathological preoccupation with fear and guilt, the Givens risk portraying a plan of salvation that emphasizes Divine love and solicitude at the expense of a sobering recognition of the eternal stakes of our moral agency.
It is not clear, moreover, that our contemporary epidemic of loneliness and anxiety stems from some dreadful shadow of Augustinian guilt, or from an excessive emphasis on the moral boundaries and standards of virtue that give meaning to our choices. Do we really suffer from too strong a shared moral framework? Or do our psychological and social pathologies result instead precisely from the absence of real community grounded in a shared morality?
The Givens confront us, apparently unintentionally, with a deep question, perhaps the deepest question of practical theology that underlies all theological puzzles: Does a holy life consist in following God’s plain and reasonable counsel in view of the fruitful eternal exercise of our moral agency, and thus of our happiness and growth? Or does it consist in a radical sacrifice of all concern for our own well-being or our own righteousness under the blinding light of a naturally incomprehensible Love? Does the Gospel promises us things we already desire, or does condemn our natural desires as in some way “guilty,” and call us to a mysterious transformation? The Givens help us understand the Restored Gospel as holding together two dimensions of truth that may seem logically opposed: is our celestial destiny to be understood in terms of Enlightened concern for the eternal good of one’s own soul? Or is the essence of salvation the absolute sacrifice of self-concern to the Other’s good?
I would not have the Givens, or the reader, choose between these alternatives. There must be some truth in each of them. The truth, I think, is contained in a paradox at the center of the Gospel: “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 16:2). Is our fundamental motive to “lose” or to “find”? Despite their passion for innovation, the Givens finally help us to see that we should not imagine that the Restoration is so new as to abandon either side of the truth of this life-giving polarity. We find our true being and fulfill our eternal potential through our willingness to sacrifice our narrow selves. We must not forget either the losing or the finding. And the Givens do well to remind us that the pursuit of Exaltation is necessarily “wrenching, costly, inconceivably difficult, and at times unimaginably painful.” (1363) A cure for our contemporary loneliness and anxiety, our unproductive guilt, must not exclude our acceptance of this glorious but difficult task.
Making all things new – tapping into the fulness of life at the core of Christ’s gospel — is something we are all involved in every day in our worship, our service, and in the ancient pursuit of everything virtuous, lovely and praiseworthy. In striving, on the one hand, to obey and to improve the quality of our souls, and, on the other, to find forgiveness and solace in an understanding of a Love far beyond our mortal measures, our quest is not perhaps so radically different from that of generations and centuries of Christians who have preceded us. Certainly, the Restoration provides a wonderful “big picture” of our eternal quest that holds together lawful obedience and sacrificial love more beautifully than any other conception. Philosophical theology can play an important role in the ongoing renewal of this beautiful and life-giving picture. But let us not imagine that any theological renewal could resolve all tensions and relieve us of the need for finding our own practical equilibrium. And let us not give undue place to a taste for intellectual innovation in the vital and ongoing task of understanding the practical meaning of the Gospel, which both heals us of the wound of sin and enables us as agents for good.
[i] Page references refer to Kindle locations. See also 99, 740.
[ii] A key expression for the Givens, taken from the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. See 38 and many other references. As the Givens note (69)Current editions reflect Joseph Smith’s revision to “awful state of blindness.” Daniel Peterson has raised the question whether the Givens do not stake rather too much on this question of translation.