Friday, January 4, 2013

A Review of The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens

by Shauni

I’m a hard person to shop for, which is probably why my dad bought me a car jump start kit for Christmas.   In full disclosure, my car battery dies more often than any battery should.  Sometimes it’s my own fault, but most of the time, I can’t find an explanation and neither can the mechanic.  Even though I’m sure the jump start kit will turn out to be a very useful gift, my dad immediately felt “buyer’s remorse” (his own words), and he also bought me something a bit more sentimental and personal.  The second gift was Terryl and Fiona Givens’ new book The God Who Weeps:How Mormonism Makes Sense of LifeMy dad and I both had recently listened to a Mormon Matters podcast, A Beautiful Vision of Mormonism, in which the host Dan Wotherspoon discussed the book with Fiona Givens, Joanna Brooks, and Jana Reiss, so he knew buying it for me would be a pretty safe bet.  As a completely unrelated side note, Fiona Givens has a beautiful voice and an awesome international accent!

I started reading the book immediately (it gave me a chance to try out my new Kindle Fire), and I finished it on New Year's Day.  I don’t think I've ever made so many notes and highlights in a single book!

What I love most about The God Who Weeps is its humility. Even though it was published by Deseret Book (Ensign Peak), it doesn't assume a Mormon audience.  For that matter, it doesn't assume much at all, not even the existence of God.  Rather, it merely attempts to place Mormonism in a broader philosophical context and to show that Mormonism’s theological claims are not unreasonable.  Terryl and Fiona Givens quote extensively from philosophers, scientists, and theologians from the so-called “dark ages,” and surprisingly enough, they quote very sparsely from LDS leaders.  The topic of discussion here is not Mormon history, culture, or policy.  Rather, it digs right into the very heart of Mormonism, or in other words, our views on God and the purpose and nature of human existence.  They quote from outside sources in order to back up the validity of Mormonism’s hopes and claims, rather than simply to reinforce the belief of those who are already familiar with Mormon doctrine.  They make the case that Mormonism isn't unique in expressing these ideas for the first time; rather, it brings these ideas together in a way that has never been done before.

The title The God Who Weeps refers to the prophet Enoch’s vision, in which he is taken into heaven.  He sees how much power Satan has over the earth, and sees that the world is veiled in darkness.  “The God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and He wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?  And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep?” (Moses 7:28-29).  He’s not asking God why He weeps, but how it is that His tears are even possible.

Throughout the book, Terryl and Fiona Givens discuss five key doctrines that make Mormonism unique, and they connect these concepts to their broader theological context.  These doctrines are 1) God is a personal entity, 2) We lived as spirit beings before our mortal births, 3) Mortality is an ascent, not a fall, 4) God has the desire and the power to unite and elevate the entire human family, and 5) Heaven will consist of those relationships that matter most to us now.  Not a word is mentioned about the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, modern prophets, or even temples.  As I mentioned, this book is theology at its core.
Much of The God Who Weeps deals with theodicy, the problem of evil.  This is a subject that has been weighing on my mind lately, especially after watching PBS’s Half the Sky documentary (and reading the book), hearing a Holocaust survivor tell her story, watching the coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings, and hearing about the gang rape victim in India (one of far too many).  Terryl and Fiona Givens make the case that it is God’s vulnerability that made Christ’s atonement possible.  “That vulnerability is both the price of the power to save, and that which saves […] This supernal act of vulnerability invited His own destruction, even as it drew millions to Him […] Such weakness and the love behind Christ’s sacrifice cannot be bracketed as a unique act of condescension, supernal as it was.  This vulnerability, this openness to pain and exposure to risk, is the eternal condition of the divine.”  And here is the crux: “God does not instigate pain or suffering, but He can weave it into His purposes.  God’s power rests not on totalizing omnipotence, but on His ability to alchemize suffering, tragedy, and loss into wisdom, understanding, and joy.”

One point the authors make is that we should not just wait for the next life for the problem of evil to be resolved, but that we should do our part to build a Zion-like society in the here and now.  As William James said, “Pure religion is to care for widows and orphans, not to sermonize about their plight.”  Terryl and Fiona Givens go on to add, “Enoch’s vision is a useful corrective to the ‘blue sky heaven’ that would seduce us into seeing less continuity between this world and the next than we have good reason to suspect exists.”  In other words, if our goals is to be Christlike, we should be doing everything we personally can do eradicate pain and suffering from the world now, rather than waiting for the next life for everything to be resolved.

I’m almost positive that this book was a shout-out to skeptics like me, who have not been blessed with the gift of simple belief.  The authors even say that “reason must be a part of any solution to the mystery of life that we find satisfactory. A supreme deity would no more gift us with intellect and expect us to forsake it in moments of bafflement, than He would fashion us eyes to see and bid us shut them to the stars.”  Later in the book, they write: “Those mortals who operate in the grey area between conviction and incredulity are in a position to choose most meaningfully, and with most meaningful consequences […] Perhaps only a doubter can appreciate the miracle of life without end.”   This book has certainly touched my heart, helped me to understand my religion in its proper context, and has motivated me to do my part in making the world a better place.

P.S. I’m a big fan of TED, so I compiled a short list of TED talks related to the themes discussed in the book:
Letting Go of God (Non-Mormon perspective on meeting with Mormon missionaries)


Stephanie said...

Thanks for this post Shauni. I've now asked for this book for my birthday :) I especially liked the point you discussed about how God would not give us reason and then ask us to forsake it: it enables us to make more meaningful choices. I think that's a really profound concept.

Shauni said...

Thanks, Steph! I thought that point tied in well with the tapestry analogy in your last post. :)

kels said...

I just cannot get over this quote "A supreme deity would no more gift us with intellect and expect us to forsake it in moments of bafflement, than He would fashion us eyes to see and bid us shut them to the stars.” I so, so, so, strongly agree with that metaphor. Thanks so much for sharing your insights and reviewing this book.

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