“The Crucible of Doubt” by Fiona and Terryl Givens

Aug 31, 14 “The Crucible of Doubt” by Fiona and Terryl Givens

I remember being taught as a young public relations student at BYU-Idaho that one of the keys to dealing with reporters and their probing questions – ever searching for a soundbyte they can lead their story with – is to, instead of finding the best answer to the question, examine and even reject the premise of the question.

I wish I had taken that advice to heart when it came not only to my professional career, but in my spiritual life as well. I’ll get to that later.

The Crucible of Doubt, available now from Deseret Book and on Amazon, does exactly that with some of Mormonism’s most pressing issues that seem to most often cause doubt. In the poetic, graceful and beautiful way that only Fiona and Terryl Givens can, they examine and invite us to examine the paradigms through which we have examined Mormonism.

Like so many of us who roam the halls of the Mormon blogosphere, I’ve had my dark days of faith crisis lately. In fact, just a few months ago, I was on the brink of abandoning my membership in the Church. After corresponding with Terryl via email, he consented as part of a preparation for a Mormon Stories interview to allow me to preview a copy of the book. Its calming effect on my heart in the midst of a wrestle I had been having with God over how to best be my authentic self in a church that seem so different now than the one I grew up in cannot be understated.

Which is all to say that this is clearly not an objective book review, and I make no attempt to treat it as such. Why? Because I am not objective about the book. I consider The Crucible of Doubt to be one of the most important and potentially impactful works produced under the banner of the Church in the last decade.

Consider its publisher. Then consider some of the common and costly paradigms the book directly – and deftly – challenges within its pages:

  • The fallibility of prophets
  • The fallibility of scripture
  • The concept of the “one true church”
  • The weaponizing of scripture
  • Mormonism’s “Follow the Prophet” culture
  • Correlated Sunday curriculum as it relates to our spiritual nourishment

I’ll admit that I have always been intrinsically drawn to all of the Givenses’ works. Their ability to weave philosophy, literature, non-Mormon religious history and poetry into and out of their writing speaks to my soul with a peace and a purity that I find very rare.

The bottom line is that, no matter the challenges that the book still cannot fully solve, Mormonism needs a book like this right now. This time, this place in history calls for someone standing up and saying, yes, there is a way to make it work, to make it all make sense, if you are open to re-examining some of your own paradigms.

To be open to truth, we must invest in the effort to free ourselves from our own conditioning and expectations. This means we have to pursue any earnest investigation by asking what the philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer calls the “genuine question.” And that is a question that involves openness and risk. As he explains, “our own prejudice is properly brought into play by being put at risk.

– The Crucible of Doubt, page 10

The Givenses’ tone within the book is not a “blame the victim” attempt to tell us that we’ve just been viewing the world the wrong way. It’s a poetic invitation to put our view of the world – and thus our biases, our preconceived notions – on the shelf along with all of our doubts and try, just for a moment, to view the world from a different angle. And then, to see if that view doesn’t help make a little more sense of the problematic aspects of Mormonism.

After a period of several months where I found myself on the brink of resigning my membership, the book spurred me to a new and very real desire to make the Church work for me. Why? Because it helped orient me toward a more thoughtful approach to my faith and away from the pain and anger and anguish that were triggered by my faith crisis. Consider this passage from their chapter challenging cultural Mormonism’s view of the role and function of the church:

Lessons and talks are to some Mormons what cafeteria food is to teenagers—not just in the way they can be bland and boring, but in the way that they sometimes bring us together in mutual griping rather than mutual edification. But what if we saw lessons and talks as connections to the sacrament rather than as unrelated secondary activities? What if we saw them as opportunities to bear with one another in all our infirmities and ineptitude? What if we saw the mediocre talk, the overbearing counselor, the lesson read straight from the manual, as a lay member’s equivalent of the widow’s mite? … If that sounds too idealistic, if we insist on imposing a higher standard on our co-worshippers, if we insist on measuring our worship service in terms of what we “get out of” the meeting, then perhaps we have erred in our understanding of worship.

– Page 42

Like a clarion call to give Mormonism another try from a different angle, the book speaks to the type of Mormon who, like me, fundamentally wants to make the Church work, but struggles to see the divine in so much clutter, pain and frustration.

Consider the implications of a book published by the Church that openly acknowledges the faults and foibles of Joseph Smith by smartly pointing out that Joseph put his faults out there in the light for all the world to see, something we rarely acknowledge because we’re too busy singing “Praise to the Man.”

Nor did Joseph Smith claim to be holier than the people he led. On one occasion, he said emphatically, “I do not want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous.” …To drive home the point, he canonized those scriptures in which he was rebuked for his inconsistency and weakness.

– Pages 64-65

And above all, as the Givenses have been known to emphasize, the book invites us to view belief as not a virtue and a paragon of the righteous, but rather a choice designed to stir the soul. The two equally viable options of belief and disbelief stand suspended before us, and we are free to choose between the two.

We have learned to relish a commitment that is born of faith freely chosen rather than of certainty compelled by evidence. As we have written elsewhere, we believe deeply in the value of faith as a choice. That call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and that we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true.

– Page 144

If The Crucible of Doubt is one frequency on some spectrum of hope for Mormonism, I highly recommend anyone struggling with doubt to tune in.

 

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James Patterson lives with his wife and two children near Washington, D.C., where he teaches primary and invents new ways to make his wife roll her eyes.

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26 Comments

  1. but isn't it still cafeteria food?

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  2. Minorityofone /

    Thank you for this article. I have recently resigned from the church and have been blessed for doing so. The problem with this article is this in my view, you mentioned the need to look at things from different angles which I agree with. I agree with that because it helps us to open our minds and hearts to other possibilities.

    The problem is that looking at things alone and being open does not change the truth. Either Thomas S Monson is a seer or he is not. I received a clear witness that none of those 15 men are seers or revelators. Either polygamy was commanded or it was not. I received a clear witness that polygamy has always been an abomination. Either the endowment was commanded of God as a “perfect ordinance” or it wasn’t. It wasn’t. And the list goes on and on.

    I do hope people read the book but please don’t stop there. Go to God with your doubts and trust that He will answer you. And be open to answers against the church. Otherwise you are not genuinely seeking the truth.

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    • Jonathan Cannon

      I have not found this black and white approach to life very productive, for me. As I have asked similar questions, I have found that while my old understanding was flawed, the truth was not the exact opposite, but a third option I hadn’t considered. For example, rather than finding the endowment is false because it wasn’t what I thought it was before, I discovered the iterative process through which God works with willing, but human, individuals. So besides being willing to accept answers that are the opposite of what we expected, preparing to accept answers that are completely outside of our expectations is an additional challenge.

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      • Gary Forrester /

        This is the problem with trying to use “the spirit” as a magic 8 ball. If God communicates to us that way, then God must be deliberately trying to create confusion.

        Consider this radical possibility – perhaps God is not an ego and does not communicate to us using literal words.

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        • Jonathan Cannon

          I have considered this possibility, among many others. I consider characteristics of God or Gods in a rather extensive, intellectual game type fashion in my posts coming up in October and November, having laid some groundwork for the discussion since last January. The posts should stand alone fairly well, though.

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    • furusatoe /

      I find it quite interesting that many ex-Mormons seem to abide by the same binaries they deride in TBMs. The former group often claims to “know” the church is false with as much emphatic certainty as the latter group claims to “know” it’s true. I am very skeptical of the certainty of both poles. There is no “objective” way to interpret the data, period. Historical and religious analyses are inherently subjective and interpretive endeavors. I believe the Givens’ are correct in their assertion that two people, confronted with the same doubts, questions, and data, may legitimately come to different conclusions – one leading to faith and activity in the church, and another leading to disillusionment and departure from the church. The trick for both sides is not becoming fundamentalist about it; an ex-Mormon should not assume that their negative interpretation of the data is somehow “more correct” than someone who believes, and vice versa.

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      • Gary Forrester /

        “I find it quite interesting that many ex-Mormons seem to abide by the same binaries they deride in TBMs.”

        Yes, especially newly-ex Mormons. There isn’t really much difference in approach

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      • Thomas Eastmond /

        “It’s true, isn’t it? Then what else matters?”

        “It’s untrue, isn’t it? Then what else matters?”

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  3. Thanks for the review. Sounds like this book will be quite a help (and timely.)

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  4. After you finish reading this book, try another approach and read “The Outsider Test for Faith–How to Know Which Religion Is True”, by John W. Loftus, and then consider your options.

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    • Jonathan Cannon

      The Givenses encourage such searching of other viewpoints. They use it to enrich their own beliefs rather than reject belief in God.

      I do agree with Loftus’s conclusions that science can explain many things about religious expression and experience in our world today, and that we are better people when we understand these things. I just don’t conclude that atheism is the rational endpoint of this learning.

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  5. TL;DR “I wish Mormonism was like the Givenses view of it. The fact that it isn’t is the most painful and frustrating aspect of Mormonism, which why I’ve stopped attending.

    ——————————–

    18 months ago “The God Who Weeps” (combined with their essay “Letter to a Doubter”) were enough to keep me attending church. At the time, I was on the brink of leaving and moving on.

    In TGWW I found a depiction of Mormonism that was beautiful, expansive and inclusive. I was delighted by the positive and meaningful context it put Mormonism into. 7 or 8 months later and Elder Uchtdorf gave his wonderful talk in Oct 2013 conference. Again, I was motivated to continue attending and to try to represent this positive perspective on life and the human family.

    Sadly it didn’t last. There is a big gap between the Mormonism of the Givenses or some of the “big-tent” mormon communities on the internet compared to the mormonism of the pulpit… both the General Conference pulpit and the local pulpit.

    I wanted to be a “Uchtdorf-ite” and a positive voice for change. I wanted to help to steer the great Mormon ocean liner towards calmer, gentler waters. It was exhausting. I found myself growing more and more frustrated by the gap between what I believed and what I experienced. I have genuine friends at church. I’m happy that they find meaning in their beliefs. I didn’t want to become the apostate in the corner, always pulling out a quote or scripture to counter the main points of the lesson. I didn’t want to become a headache for the leadership in my area… many of whom are dear and sincere friends.

    I understand the need for nuance and changing your paradigm. I’ve done that… but eventually I realised that in many lessons or discussions I would either have to remain silent, and let a comment or principle pass without comment… or make yet another interjection and try to put a different perspective across.

    The problem with silence in a lesson is tacit approval. When people said things I disagreed with, I could either question it and disrupt the lesson or let the comment go. The silence suggests approval.

    My paradigm, now a very grey and nuanced one with next to no black and white thinking remaining, meant that being at church was painful, frustrating and disheartening. Yes, I could have stayed to continue pushing for change. But to what end? My mission in life is not to change Mormonism. My mission is to progress as far as possible on the path to godliness, to become my very best self and to help as many people as possible to become that too.

    Ultimately I prayed and got a confirmation that letting go and moving on was acceptable to the God I still believed in and hoped existed. I’m still inclined to read this book but can’t help that it will be a difficult and painful experience. Not because I will disagree with them, but because they will probably describe a version of Mormonism that I long for but am unlikely to see in my lifetime.

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    • I haven’t fully stopped attending Mackay, but I am darn close. Like you I don’t want to be a thorn in the side, but I can not sit through things anymore. My husband and I discussed this the other day – I enjoy the Givenses work, I appreciate their willingness to try to build a bridge, but the Givenses aren’t the church, the church has no interest in attempting to make their ideas part of the church. This summer is proof that no turning is happening in the ship. I really have no idea why the Givenses remain, if they are so nuanced – how do they stay.

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  6. Gary Forrester /

    “if we insist on imposing a higher standard on our co-worshippers, if we insist on measuring our worship service in terms of what we “get out of” the meeting, then perhaps we have erred in our understanding of worship.”

    I think we need to stop making excuses for the generally poor quality of LDS meetings. The non-LDS world figured this out a long time ago – professional clergy who are actually engaged in the topic matter, feel personally called to the work and are trained to deliver messages effectively are so much more edifying than the system of disinterested amateur teaching hour we have now. It’s gotten so bad that the Givens have elevated the trial of sitting through church meetings as a kind of sacrament, a little atonement that we go through together each Sunday. Whose sins are we suffering for, exactly?

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    • James Patterson /

      I agree that we could be better at having better meetings. But I also find beauty in a lay local clergy comprised of people giving their “widow’s mite” in terms of church service.

      I think if the membership collectively showed up at church looking for ways to uplift each other instead of being personally uplifted, that would make all the difference. It’s the same in my marriage. When I forget about myself and focus solely on meeting my wife’s needs, and she does the same, we are so much more fully uplifted as opposed to us both acting out of self-interest.

      In that way, my marriage indeed does become a sacrament. You may not see the application (and beauty) of that on a local church setting, but I and many others do.

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      • Gary Forrester /

        Unitarian services are mutually uplifting both for those being taught (the congregation) and those teaching (professional clergy). Very rarely is this the case in LDS meetings.

        The ideas you espouse are interesting in theory. Even beautiful – in theory. But in practice, mostly disastrous. I really think most of our inactivity rate is down to the awful quality of our meetings, not any historical issues. How long will we live in denial about this?

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        • James Patterson /

          Yours is a strawman argument: “Why do we stick with a clergy model that is clearly broken?”

          I don’t believe it’s broken, any more than I believe the Constitution is broken just because there are laws and processes and modes of the U.S. government I find incredibly inefficient.

          It’s the interpretation of the document (and in this case the gospel) that could use some tweaking — by member and leader alike.

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          • Gary Forrester /

            Well, there is no research we can point to to say definitively whether it’s working or not. I can just say nearly Sunday service I’ve ever attended in 36 years has been, for the most part, joyless drudgery. Going to church is a dreary experience, even for believers.

            Where has the model ever been successfully implemented, other than in the mind?

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  7. Gary Forrester /

    “We have learned to relish a commitment that is born of faith freely chosen rather than of certainty compelled by evidence. As we have written elsewhere, we believe deeply in the value of faith as a choice. That call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and that we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true.”

    This again. If the withholding of evidence is necessary for free agency to exist (a claim not evident from the theology of the preexistence and choices made there), then the test becomes nothing more than a guessing game. Guess which church among all (none supported by any real evidence) is the one true church? This really highlights the problematic theology shared by traditional Christians and Mormons that we are rewarded or punished based on our beliefs – the things we think are true. Such a theology is morally problematic to say the least.

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    • James Patterson /

      “Guess which church among all is the one true church.”

      Again, it all depends on which paradigm you’re using.

      My paradigm does not involve a God who puts forth such a question.

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      • Gary Forrester /

        Yes, it does depend on one’s paradigm. But, the Givens have written that “faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance”.

        And I find that paradigm very morally troubling indeed.

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        • James Patterson /

          And your is the choice to not believe in it. If that paradigm offers you peace, be at peace.

          But I can make little sense of tearing down the paradigm of someone else who has found not just sense, but peace, from it.

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          • Gary Forrester /

            I don’t think I’ve shared my views or my own paradigm. I’m just saying the idea that the choice to believe or not is “laden with moral significance” is a morally troubling position. It makes God a capricious God. A God of gamblers hoping against hope that they’ve guessed which church is the right one, or which faith is the right faith. Reasonable and good people can and do believe wildly different things about faith and God.

            Any kind of moral test would completely ignore what we believe, and instead focus on how we treat each other.

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  8. One thing I'm still grappling with, when it comes to the Givenses: The concept of faith as choice.

    Yes, faith is a choice when the thing you are invited to have faith in is either beyond the reach of reason, or, possibly, is both supported and weighed against by roughly equal bodies of evidence.

    But what if it's not close? What about those times when the evidence is not in anything resembling equipoise? Is it still a virtuous choice to choose "faith" (I'm not even convinced that's the right word for that kind of conscious unreason) in the face of evidence that would be compelling in another circumstance?

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    • Jonathan Cannon

      This is one of the great challenges of weighing evidence. My experience is that much of the equality or inequality of evidence on questions like theism vs atheism is strongly dependent on which set of unprovable assumptions the evaluator chooses to accept. There are reasons to believe God interacts with humanity, and reasons to believe He does not. Close scrutiny of many reasons people give for God interacting with humanity leads to explanations that don’t require God. But then arguments like The New God Argument give reason to trust that some kind of God exists, or to expect that humanity will go extinct. So I could pick the former, reject God, and expect humanity will end, or I could pick the latter and maintain my unreasonable beliefs about an arbitrarily interventionist God, or I could pick the latter and seek to understand the circumstances under which a powerful, compassionate God would put us in a situation where He is so hard to find.

      There are additional alternatives and variations on these, but when you keep pushing, every philosophy is founded on the untestable and unprovable. Everyone chooses faith. Not everyone chooses the same object of faith.

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