Recently I’ve been listening to podcasts discussing Fiona and Terryl Givens’ book The Christ Who Heals, and have noticed a repeating theme that I have also seen mentioned on Reddit – that there is a divide, where some people really embrace the Givens’ message, while others state that the Givens are moving the goalposts, using flowery language to skirt the tough issues, or lack institutional authority, rendering the message impractical outside firesides or blogs. I want to take a stab at addressing the concerns of the latter group, for two reasons: 1) I appreciate the Givens’ message; and 2) The concerns about their effectiveness seem correlated with my previous post regarding authority.
Throughout my life I was taught a particular narrative and understanding of the Mormon faith. This perspective was taught to me as the only valid path to God and the “true” way of understanding Joseph Smith’s spiritual message. Add to this the long history within the LDS Church, going all the way back to the conflicts in Missouri, of expected obedience to authority, and the result was a dependence upon Church leaders for answers. I was taught to interpret Mormonism through their lens, and that their lens was the only one capable of returning me to God.
As that perspective and narrative broke down under the scrutiny of study, I, as so many others have, struggled in my faith. I found that there were significant aberrations in the lens with which I had been provided to view my Mormon heritage. I had been told that no other lens was “true”, yet I found that the lens provided to me could also not be “true”. Over time I learned to develop my own lens, grinding and polishing the imperfections as I found them, eventually creating the lens I use today.
I went through a lot of work to rebuild the lens of my faith. It was not easy and I faced significant cultural pressure to conform to the accepted lens. Such difficulty is unnecessary, however. It needn’t be so. What if there were alternatives? Why have only one lens?
If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.
This is why I appreciate the lens with which the Givens see their Mormon faith, and why I especially appreciate that they are sharing it. I see many who discount the Givens as peddling a Mormonism different than the official narrative. Indeed, that is so, but why is that a problem? Like the literalist, conservative leaders who declare one “true” lens, those who complain about the Givens are also caught in the single lens paradigm, only, rather than accepting the lens, they toss it out.
What if, rather than setting up this dichotomy, other perspectives were seen as valid? What if we were allowed to explore varying perspectives of our Mormon faith – some seeing, for example, Joseph Smith according to the traditional narrative, while others rejecting a lot of what Joseph taught, but holding on to his teachings that taste sweet to their soul? Elder Ballard, in a recent BYU devotional address, may have opened the door to such a spiritual marketplace:
As we begin to consider some of your questions, it’s important to remember I am a general authority, but that doesn’t make me an authority in general. My calling and life’s experiences allow me to respond to certain types of questions. There are other types of questions that require an expert in the specific subject matter. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to such questions. I seek others including those with degrees and expertise in such fields.
I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers, expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. The Lord called the apostles and prophets to invite others to come unto Christ, not to obtain advanced degrees in ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields that may be useful in answering all the questions we may have about scriptures, history, and about the Church. Our primary duty is to build up the church, teach the doctrine of Christ, and help those in need of our help.
Fortunately, the Lord provided this counsel for those asking questions: “Seek ye diligently[,]… teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118) If you have a question that requires an expert please take the time to find a thoughtful qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus and elsewhere who have the degrees and expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.
I really appreciate that Elder Ballard seems to be walking back the “one true lens” type of thinking. We need not rely solely upon our leaders to interpret the Mormon faith for us. The Mormon faith has for too long been dominated by one particular perspective – one “true lens” with which to view our spiritual heritage. However, if the religion is to remain vibrant and compelling into the future, dogmatic adherence to one particular perspective, given to us by our leaders, must come to an end. Those on both sides who deride the Givens’ work are limiting themselves to a Mormonism consisting of that one lens. It need not be so. Instead, we should explore our faith through our own lens. Doing so requires persuasion, patience, and love for each other and, again, the Givens are showing a great example in doing so. They have not declared their perspective as the one true lens through which all must view the Mormon faith. Instead, they have sought to persuade others and offer their perspective as an aid to others. Some may utilize aspects of the Givens’ perspective while others may not, but each person should have the freedom to develop a faith and lens that fits their unique gifts and life. As these varying perspectives come together, a vibrant community can develop – a community capable of supporting and strengthening those of varying faith, whether they be Bruce R. McConkie Mormons, literalists, or liberals.
I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes along these lines. It comes from a Sunstone essay authored by Lavina Fielding Anderson titled, “In the Garden God Hath Planted: Explorations Toward a Maturing Faith”:
God doesn’t plant lawns. He plants meadows. But we belong to a church that, currently, values lawns–their sameness, their conformity, the ease with which they can all be cut to the same height, watered on schedule, and replaced by new turf if necessary. (And against which it is easy to spot dandelions.) All organizations are limited in their ability to handle diversity, but our church seems particularly limited right now in it’s ability to cherish and nurture individuals as individuals–as wild geraniums, catnip, western coneflowers, or yarrow–not as identical blades of grass in a uniformly green lawn…Patience is hard, but I plan to still be here when the Church stops experimenting with lawns and refocuses on the garden which the Lord hath planted.
I believe Fiona and Terryl Givens are working at being gardeners in God’s meadow. They provide a message that gives room for varying types of faith to flourish, and I appreciate their work. To force the false dichotomy of the old narrative upon them is to ignore the sprouting of a variety of faiths in the meadow. Rather than deride their work, we should grab some fertilizer and join them.