Elizabeth Pinborough is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Dialogue, Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets, and Wilderness Interface Zone.
I learned about The God Who Weeps when I was invited to a blogger Q&A with Terryl and Fiona Givens at Deseret Book in Salt Lake City about a month ago. I quickly picked the book up, reading half of it, along with Ben Parks’ and Jacob’s and Julie Smith’s initial reviews, before the event. The God Who Weeps is a beautiful little book. Aside from its comparatively slim 148 pages, there is nothing remotely little about it. It is impressive in its scope and literariness. Its prose is sparsely elegant and accessible. And it is lovingly written. Most of all, though, the book is beautiful in what it aspires to do. The Givenses said that they wrote the book out of respect for the “sanctity of doubt”: that is, for real faith to exist, both reasonable grounds to believe and reasonable grounds to disbelieve must exist. Within the “context of reasonable doubt” the Givenses created their book with strugglers in mind, the number of young people who are leaving the church perhaps because they do not understand the principles of Mormon doctrine. The book functions as an extended and heartfelt letter to a doubter and “a prose hymn to the reasonable gospel that Joseph Smith articulated.”
They are offering “accessible evidences for finding belief in God a reasonable choice” (11). To step up to the frontlines of a battle against secularism, vague spirituality, and uninformed faith amid a youthful exodus from organized religion, and from Mormonism in this particular instance, and to attempt to offer a compassionate and reasoned response to doubt is a hefty task. But such a response is much needed, and the Givenses offer a tremendous one with their book.
To a degree, to fully grasp the power of the Givenses’ book you must read with an eye of faith.* Although the book is written for doubters, it is scholarship from a believing perspective; its reason is a faithful reason. For Terryl, this book represents a reconciliation of the academic and the devotional, a merging of what he called a “binocular view.” During the Q&A Terryl shared an anecdote that perfectly illustrates the differences between these approaches, or the progression from the strict academic to the believing academic perspective. Not long ago Fiona and he spent some time at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. At first they ambulated around the grounds and took in the exterior of the building. This imparted to them a sense of the building’s structure. It was not until they entered the cathedral, however, and saw the stained glass windows from the inside that they could fully grasp the beauty of that space. So, too, it is with faithful scholarship. It is not possible to grasp the entirety of the gospel picture’s beauty through mere intellection. A “living principle of holiness”** must be planted in us, Fiona said.
The Q&A participants asked the Givenses for help with untangling the implications of theological practice in Mormonism. Terryl said they do not use the term “theology” to describe their project within the book itself. This suggests to me, and is evident from the book’s contents, that they are not interested in creating an insider/outsider conversation by adhering to the vocabulary of what is at times an admittedly arcane intellectual discipline. Fiona pointed to the strict etymological definition of “theology,” which is sustained reflection on the divine. Everyone is responsible for her own religion and her own religious beliefs, Fiona said. Theology is not an exclusive discipline: “our own inclination to God is what leads us to do theology.” Everyone is responsible for her own theological reflection and growing in her own knowledge of the divine. This personal agential emphasis is so refreshing, compared with the anxious striving of looking to authority figures to provide answers to questions or to give us permission to think through difficult questions, even if that means dwelling in the difficulty for a while.
An understanding of the operations of divine and human agency heavily drive the book. God as a vulnerable being seeking communion with his creations chooses to set his heart on humanity; and humans choose to set their hearts on God as they strive to literally imitate God (imitatio Christi/imitatio dei). Enoch’s encounter with God in the book of Moses features as the cardinal example of a human viewing the divine nature and then participating in it. Enoch views God’s anguish over his people’s suffering and asks how it is that God is able to weep for them. (It is this suffering and vulnerable God that the Givenses see as being the most worthy of our worship and admiration: “There could be nothing in this universe, or in any possible universe, more perfectly good, absolutely beautiful, worthy of adoration, and deserving of emulation, than this God of love and kindness and vulnerability” .)
Next Enoch experiences the divine nature for himself. He knows, looking on humanity’s misery, weeps, and his heart swells as wide as eternity (see Moses 7:41). The Givenses write, “Taught of the 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. Enoch’s encounter with God, his vicarious experience of infinite love, serves as a template for the path to heaven he—and all of us—hope to follow. . . . As the embodiment of the most perfect love the universe has known, Christ is the model to which we aspire” (105, 117). One of the sisters in my Relief Society offered a wonderfully succinct explanation of our participation in Christ’s love. She said that through living as Christ lived we offer healing to others. As the Givenses demonstrate, theological reflection ought to lead to correct action, through which we uplift our fallen brothers and sisters, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. The purpose of the church, according to C. S. Lewis, is to teach us to be “little Christs” (qtd. 117). Ultimately “more important” than the knowledge we gain “will be how we transform such learning into loving” (118).
I love that this theology is not merely contemplative but active also. In the Q&A the question of theodicy inevitably came up—why doesn’t God intervene to prevent the large-scale atrocities that occur around the world every day? Terryl’s answer was that we put too much responsibility on God. Perhaps it is not God’s job to fix the world’s problems. We are responsible for filling the needs of the world. This is a theology that actually cannot be passively absorbed. It places claims upon us and requires our full transformation into loving servants.
The Q&A turned out to be a very moving experience and part of the culmination of my own faith journey over the past four years. The Givenses’ message was especially poignant since I had experienced the despair of distance and had managed to salvage faith in a personal God. It was bittersweet because their message and method could have provided help for an impressionable seeker. I am grateful that The God Who Weeps will reach many more seekers in desperate need of confirmation that “God is not radically Other, and neither is His heaven” (121). Perhaps Rilke encapsulates the argument of this book best:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.***
*“For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Hebrews 4:2).
**“That which enables us to know and understand aright the things of God must be a living principle of holiness within us. . . . Divine truth is better understood as it unfolds itself in the purity of men’s hearts and lives, than in all those subtle niceties into which curious wits may lay it forth. . . . Some men have too bad hearts to have good heads. . . . He that will find truth must seek it with a free judgment and a sanctified mind” (John Smith, “The True Method of Attaining Divine Knowledge,” The Methodist Magazine 4, vol. 8 (April 1825), 122–26).
P.S. The conversation continues. And please don’t neglect to read it yourself!
1. Derek’s review of the same event.
2. Adam Miller on faith in the book; on satisfaction; on preexistence; on Darwin; on agency.
3. The first part in Jacob’s series of reviews.
4. Peggy Fletcher Stack’s review.