Thursday, July 16, 2015

Cricible of Doubt: book summary and some reflections

I have loved Terryl and Fiona Givens's books and podcast interviews, so I was pleased my parents sent me a copy of The Crucible of Doubt. It is filled with beautifully written messages and guidance to help pursue one's personal journey of faith through times of doubt. My life has been substantially improved by messages like these. This post is more a topic summary from my own understanding with a few comments at the end about my thoughts on the context of this book--a public record of my thoughts where I'm at now more than a reflection of the quality or importance of the book.

Paradigms and Premises: starting off on the wrong foot

"Great Christian thinkers of the past have operated with assumptions--some of them deeply ingrained, sanctioned by long tradition, by ecclesiastical authority, and by scripture--that made answers difficult or impossible to obtain. At the least, such assumptions can delay prayerful responses to earnest questions, even by decades." p.4

". . . the mystery . . . could unfold no faster than she was willing to let go of her premises. That can be a wrenching process, requiring much time--and much humility." p. 6

B. H. Roberts couldn't let go of the whole Americas model of the Book of Mormon, so he couldn't find a good explanation for certain measurable phenomena like the diversity of languages among Native Americans (it didn't take DNA evidence for LDS scholars to face this problem).

"If a devout visionary and an ordained Seventy can ask the wrong questions [and he was the church expert on the topic at the time], it is likely that many of us do as well. We are all prisoners of our preconceptions and faulty models." p.9 One contributing factor in faith crises is the lack of corporate ownership of this idea--individuals are flawed, but the Church is perfect.

"To be open to truth, we must invest in the effort to free ourselves from our own conditioning and expectations." This means asking questions that involve risk.

I love the messages of this introduction. Understanding is hard, takes a lot of work, and can be prevented due to mistaken assumptions even by the best, most informed, sincerely seeking expert on a subject. This really is a call to use perseverance and humility in the quest to take personal responsibility for one's own learning and moral code.
Of Method and Maps: the use and abuse of reason
There are real limits to reason and measurement. These faculties should be used appropriately and not stretched beyond their practical bounds. Emotion is real and important and has a valuable place in the world. This should be accounted for in our use of reason and measurement. When you doubt your past experiences and your emotions, be careful not to swing to the extreme of dismissing them, or of thinking that reason is all.

On Provocation and Peace: of life's fundamental incompleteness

A life of engaged faith is a life of courage, not a cowardly retreat from the challenges of this world and life.

There will always be big things that are beyond your understanding. We have to embrace this even as we go forward perpetually trying to understand and grow in wisdom.
Of Sadducees and Sacraments: the role and function of the church
Religion is inseparably tied to fallible human agents.

Geographical community in our wards has a profound impact on Mormon culture. The ward functions socially much more like family relationships than non-geographic associations [for good or ill].

What is the purpose of ordinances? "Heaven is not a location to which good people are assigned, and salvation is not a simple condition of perfect righteousness." We are to become Gods, and God exists in engaged relationships. Ordinances formalize our relationships in powerful, ritual ways that have consequences [individually and corporately] beyond simple intellectual or emotional assent. "Religion without those institutional forms [ordinances] that give us the means to formalize, to concretize, and to strengthen our bonds with each other and with loving Heavenly Parents would be only an alluring promise devoid of substance.

[I note that this fits with many of my feelings about ordinances and ritual right now. There are powerful reasons for and benefits from ritual related to community and their effect on our relationship with the divine, but there is no reason given why LDS rituals are of particular importance beyond the LDS community. The Givenses may believe there is unique importance to LDS ritual, and I'm ok with that being a possibility because of the universal access to LDS ritual over time, but I can't defend the claim of uniquely important authority (which is different from unique authority), and the Givenses don't provide an argument for it.]

Of Canons and Cannons: the use and abuse of scripture

Scripture is wonderful and powerful and important, but don't idolize it by presuming either inerrancy or anyone's ability to interpret it inerrantly. You have to develop your own connection with God.

On Prophecy and Prophets: the perils of hero worship

Church leaders are wonderful in many ways, but as with scripture don't make idols out of them. Listen because they have taught and done wise and good things, and sustain them with the prayer of faith, but you have to develop your own connection with God and trust in that.

On Delegation and Discipleship: the ring of Pharaoh

"God really means it when He delegates His authority to men and women--and expects them to use their wisdom and judgment in executing His will." [except He doesn't delegate very much to women.]

I like how they quote an unpublished manuscript from their son. It's a good quote, too. He says pretty clearly that God expects us to figure out for ourselves what is right for us to do. This doesn't imply that we do it in a vacuum, but anytime you use arguments about scriptural or prophetic inerrancy, or that the prophet won't lead us astray, or otherwise turn your moral authority over to someone else, you are making an idol and not doing the hard work God expects of us.

We can't be saved without doing the personal, hard work of knowing what is right for ourselves. It is work that never ends and that never has a final word. But the Atonement is there all the time giving us grace in all our strivings. That is what the Atonement is about, not about fixing things after they go wrong or after we complete some repentance checklist. We can participate in it as we are generous with our own attempts to serve and minister, and with our leaders attempts to do the same.

Mormons and Monopolies: holy persons "ye know not of"

Mormonism doesn't have a monopoly on holiness or salvation. Mormon leaders have repeatedly taught as much. [They pretty much ignore the lines of thought that have also been preached in Mormonism that are much less Universalist. I'm with them on that, although they teach the universalism in the context of temple work providing ordinances for all. I believe that could be true--it won't really be that hard to do for a few billion people if it is truly necessary--one person can do a lot of ordinances, even if Mormons (and other "true Christians") only constitute 1 in several thousand through the history of humanity. Yet while I understand and even embrace the particular value of LDS ordinances, I find it hard to preach their universal value--a belief that the Givenses seem more ready to entertain even though they don't clearly state a personal testimony of such a belief.]

Spirituality and Self-Sufficiency: find your watering place

We need to take a lot more personal responsibility for our own development spiritually and in our families and communities. The efficiency of the church providing solutions for everything comes at a real spiritual cost. Participation is valuable, but conformity must be always in tension with agency.
The Too-Tender Heart: rethinking being "overcome with evil"
Being "overcome with evil" is not about falling into sin, but about letting evil in the world turn us away from faith and hope and solace. In seeking and remembering good and comforting things, we can keep from losing our hope in the midst of doubt.

Of Silence and Solitude: "speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth"

There are numerous ways to hear God other than the few we may think of when we think or speak of revelation. Even in the midst of doubt, trust that you are connected to God, even if it is just in everyday experiences that you never thought of as spiritual before. Listen to the goodness in the world and in your life. God isn't gone even if He seems silent in the ways you used to think He was speaking.

To the Godless and Guileless: belief as risk

There are different models we can believe in for God or the absence of God. "A third alternative is the one proposed by Joseph Smith. A scenario in which an intelligence not absolutely and utterly dissimilar from our own--possibly even the result of cosmic evolution spanning eons of time--presides over our world." [Yes, this is what I think the true Mormon alternative is. You can see why I like their thinking. But it implies a connection of God with the measurable and the mundane, and that is disturbing for many for a great variety of reasons.] Our choices to believe and what to believe are truly and deeply ambiguous, and carry real physical, spiritual, and emotional risks. But actively choosing to seek, to do good, and to believe are risks worth taking.

Epilogue: Doubt and Discipleship

The Givenses have experienced the power of the LDS gospel to transform human life. They have experienced its goodness.

My Depressed Thoughts

Most of my thoughts are depressed now, so take them with a grain of salt. This is a fantastic book. An easy read. A clear read. A substantial read. I have over the last several years learned through my own personal experience and study eight of the nine lessons they share. Some of them I have learned joyfully, and others quite painfully. I'm still looking for a thirst-quenching watering hole, but drinks from others' fountains have kept me from dying of thirst. I'm sure that learning these lessons and my own experience of the gospel to change lives are part of why I love Mormonism as intensely as I do. But while this book has important messages for anyone to learn, it is really best for a Mormon audience. It is best for doubters who doubt intellectually. It is best for LDSs who wish to understand and value their doubting family and friends. It is best for young people seeking guidance on how to live a life of seeking and doubt. It is not a book for those who have left Mormonism. It is not a call to come back and repent. It is not a book for those who have been hurt by the LDS church. It is not for the young feminist who has had her self worth destroyed by messages that her only value is through her impact on men. It is not for the member who has been ostracized by his ward for whatever reason. Yes, it can help those people understand those who stay and those who believe, but this book of advice to the individual cannot protect the individual from real harms that happen because of institutional structures and culturally ingrained ills. So Mormons, read the book. But read it for you. It's written for you. It's written for me. It's not written to fix anyone else.

The Crucible of Doubt is a call to take personal responsibility, and it is a call that may not lead where you want it to or think it should. Terryl and Fiona Givens have written a book of ideas that are at the foundation of subversion. They are ideas that can lead to real change in our lives, our church, and the world. But they have written it in such a way that it feels unthreatening to most Latter-day Saints, and probably to most people anywhere. They have questioned and even contradicted many commonly held LDS beliefs, but in ways that could be easily ignored or overlooked. Perhaps because of this their ideas will percolate and have a profound impact on a generation of Mormons. I hope so. God knows we need room for doubt and for change.

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