Has Mormonism unconsciously inherited ideas from western Christianity, particularly from Protestantism, that have kept us from fully realizing and embracing some essential truths of the restored gospel? In their inspiring and persuasive new book, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saves Us, Terryl and Fiona Givens explore that question and much more. They paint a compelling portrait of the Mormon theology of atonement, judgement and eternal growth. What revolutionary truths about the nature of our relationship to Christ, to our Heavenly Parents and to each other does Mormonism offer the world?
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond. In the past two decades, he has established himself as perhaps Mormonism’s preeminent theologian with books such as Wrestling the Angel. But arguably his most influential work has been his collaborations with wife Fiona, an independent scholar and lecturer. In 2013, Deseret book published their book The God Who Weeps, How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. It is a beautiful summary of Mormonism’s profoundly optimistic message to the world.
Recently, in the studio of Faith Matters Foundation, Terryl and Fiona sat down with Spencer Fluhman, Executive Director of BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell institute, to explore some of the key themes and ideas from their new book. This conversation marks the first installment in the new video/audio podcast Conversations with Terryl Givens.
- The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saves Us
- Conversations with Terryl Givens Podcast
Full Conversation Transcript:
Fiona Givens: This is Fiona Givens. My husband, Terryl, and I recently sat down in studio with our friend Spencer Fluhman, Executive Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU, to talk about ideas and themes from our new book, “The Christ Who Heals.” We hope you enjoy the conversations.
Over the coming months, Terryl Givens will be sitting down with some of the most fascinating and influential people in Mormonism. To watch or listen in on those conversations, please be sure to subscribe to the “Conversations with Terryl Givens” podcast on iTunes, or wherever you access podcasts. You can also visit faithmatters.org and subscribe to this and other fascinating podcasts there.
Spencer Fluhman: I am Spencer Fluhman, executive director at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU and I’m here with my friends, Terryl and Fiona Givens. We’re here to talk about some important things. They’re the authors of “The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saves Us.” Terryl, Fiona, this is a beautiful book.
Fiona Givens: Thank you.
Terryl Givens: Thank you, Spencer.
Spencer Fluhman: A beautiful book. This is not the first book you’ve co-written together. You’ve written “The God Who Weeps,” you wrote “The Crucible of Doubt.” What brought up a third?
Terryl Givens: The question that really guided the writing in this book was, I think, best framed by Fiona. We’d been talking about this for a few years, doing a book on the Christ. She said, “You know, the real question that we need to think about and answer is what does the Latter-day Saint Restoration bring to the table when it comes to the Christ?” Because if we really worship the same Christ as the Christian world does, then the whole Restoration would have been redundant — if all Joseph was doing was tinkering with the details around the periphery. We had to believe that no, there had to be some fundamental elements of Christology that were just missing, misunderstood or distorted that Joseph Smith set to rights. And so as we set about to methodically answer that question, the book took shape.
Spencer Fluhman: Give us a history lesson would you? Because you start the book with a description of a kind of crisis that divides the Christian community basically in half between an Eastern half and a Western half. This starts early, culminates around 1054 formally, but over these years a division happens and you think this is important for Latter-day Saints to understand. It’s not just a history lesson, it has to do with the need for the Restoration. Tell us about it.
Fiona Givens: It’s absolutely essential that we understand. I’m not quite sure where I read this, but the mantra for the Eastern Orthodox tradition — actually for all of Christianity in the East — was that “for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” And it’s made very apparent in the literature of the Eastern Orthodox Church that it was death and resurrection rather than sin and salvation around which the theology formed. There are missteps right at the get-go.
We have Irenaeus who lived about 200 AD when the Christians were under attack literally, and they’re accused of worshiping two gods, therefore violating the idea of monotheism: worshiping Jesus Christ and the Father. So as to not collapse into this idea of plurality of gods, they were forced, to save themselves literally, to adopt the neoplatonic model of an impassable God and a God who didn’t mind working with matter. But primarily in the early Eastern tradition we find that the theological discourse resonates so much more with Mormonism than anything in the West, particularly from Augustine on. Would you not agree?
Terryl Givens: Yes, and I think most Latter-day Saints when they talk about Christianity, what they really mean is Western Christianity — the Roman Catholic Church. So to back up even a little bit from what Fiona was saying, what we’re trying to point out first of all is there were really two Christianities. There was the Western and the Eastern tradition. Eastern tradition has just kind of disappeared mostly from our consciousness in the West. What we’re saying is that the more you plumb the early Christian fathers in the East, you find these incredible resonances and echoes and similarities to Restoration teachings. What we find is that to read many of these church fathers like Origen, Irenaeus, and the Gregories of Nice, or Nazianzus, is to hear a familiar voice and to recognize that the apostasy took much later to take effect and didn’t go as far in the Eastern tradition. So we really find our kindred spirits in Christianity more in the Eastern Christian tradition than anywhere else.
Fiona Givens: In fact it’s terribly exciting because some of the quotations and the very positive way in which not only God was viewed but the possibility of mankind to become like God, there are echoes of the Eastern Church in Joseph to such an extent that some of the quotations from Joseph are almost verbatim. And it is unlikely; at least we’ve not seen any evidence that Joseph had access to the early Greek texts. And yet it’s quite extraordinary how closely aligned that the theological thought of early Mormonism and early Eastern Christianity are enmeshed.
Spencer Fluhman: And you’re pointing to what I was hoping for, I think from both of you, a couple of examples maybe from each, of these early Church Fathers who aren’t heard as or recognized in the West. What are these resonances? What are some examples you could provide for us of kindred spirits that Latter-day Saints might sense in some of these early Eastern fathers?
Terryl Givens: Okay, I’ll start with Origen. He’s sometimes called the very first theologian or systematic theologian in the church, writing in the first couple centuries. He taught, for example, that the spirit of man is eternal, that we lived in a premortal state with God, that we come here for purposes of education. He taught that the fall was part of a divine plan, that sin is more collateral damage than a sign of catastrophic failure, of Adam and Eve being in the garden. He taught that God had in mind to find a way to redeem and save the entire human family and that God would find a way to bring all people back to His immediate presence. He was hugely influential in the first five Christian centuries. And then it wasn’t until the 6th century that he’s declared heretical and anathematized for his teachings on pre-existence and on God’s generous and inclusive heaven. And Joseph Smith seems almost to be channeling Origen in his teachings on most topics.
Fiona Givens: It’s interesting that most of Origen’s works were destroyed along with anathema, so it’s only through one of his disciples that we have these sorts of scattered remnants of his thoughts.
For me, I’ve been particularly influenced by Irenaeus. The traditional Western conception of the fall is that it was a tragedy, starting from Augustine onwards, that we were great, marvelous human beings and then we suffered from this hubris and wanted to become like God and so we were cast out and we fell. Essentially Christ came to repair the damage of fallen humanity, whereas in the East it was very different and very Mormon, in fact. I’d like to quote from Irenaeus about the experience, particularly of mortality. He says, “How could mankind have discerned the good without knowing its opposite? For its firsthand experience is more certain and reliable than conjecture. The mind acquires knowledge of the good through the experience of both, and becomes more firmly committed to preserving it by obeying God, first by penance, metanoia, change of heart.” He rejects disobedience because it is bitter. And that really struck me because in Moses 6:55, that is exactly how God defines sin. They need to taste the bitter in order to prize the good. It’s extraordinary.
And then he says, “This, then, was the great-heartedness of God. He allowed humankind to endure all things and to come to know death so that mankind might come to the resurrection from the dead, that humankind might learn by experience what it had been freed from and be always grateful to the Lord.” So it’s just extraordinary. And the other thing that I think is so important for us is that he recognized that Adam and Eve were young, that they were children in the light of the fact that they didn’t understand deception. They’d never been exposed to deception or lies and mortality was a season for them to progress, to develop the maturity to return them to God in a more godly form than they were in the Garden of Eden.
Terryl Givens: So this is almost like that familiar spirit speaking out of the dust—
Fiona Givens: Right.
Terryl Givens: We usually associate that with the Book of Mormon, but we hear that familiar spirit and it’s beautiful because it’s so resonant coming from these early Christian Fathers of the East.
Spencer Fluhman: I’m struck that what this presents for Latter-day Saint readers is a very recognizable story, in a way. There’s something lost here. There’s something lost, there’s a need for a restoration. It’s not like at a certain point you say, well, the lights went out and it’s all wreckage after that.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Spencer Fluhman: What you show is this kind of layered and kind of complicated story of some ideas rising and falling. One of the things you both write, that I wonder if you could speak to, is that in a way you say it’s not just that individual doctrine somehow got corrupted, but you say that there’s a cosmic context for all sorts of doctrines that gets skewed through these historical processes of some teachings being lost.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Spencer Fluhman: What happened?
Terryl Givens: This is one of our major ambitions, really, in this book we’re trying to kind of reset the narrative. We feel that we have been so much raised — indoctrinated — in the Protestant heritage that we still think very much in terms of Protestant models and understandings of our place here on earth, the nature of salvation, and Christ’s role in our lives. We’re saying we’ve got to scrap all of that. Grace, for example, erupts not on Calvary when Christ decides to right a broken covenant. From a Mormon perspective, grace erupts in the universe when Christ emerges in the pre-existent Council in heaven and says I will step forward and make possible this planned ascent of the human family to godliness.
In that context then, death becomes a necessary part of the process. In fact, significant then in the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price, the wording indicates that by the fall of man came human life. That’s a paraphrase, but it’s not death that is introduced, it’s human life! Because Adam and Eve’s decision makes possible the entry of the entire human family into mortality. And so it recalibrates everything and instead of seeing Christ’s work as an attempt to recuperate an original condition of bliss or righteousness, we see Christ’s role as that of shepherding us along a process which was planned from the beginning, is still intact, and still unfolding according to his designs. So that’s what we mean about the larger cosmic narrative. Understanding the new and everlasting covenant is a holistic covenant that begins in the premortal councils in heaven and continues until the end of time.
Fiona Givens: The wonderful thing about Mormons is not so that the term saviors on Mount Zion is not unfamiliar — and I think that’s very helpful for what Terryl and I have been exploring in this particular part — but we seldom see ourselves as collaborators, living collaborators, with each other. I understand that in the early church the baptismal covenants in Mosiah were actually articulated aloud and I rather wished they still were.
Terryl Givens: At the time of baptism.
Fiona Givens: At the time of baptism. Because they are so powerful. For me to have been able to stand and say, “I covenant with you that I will carry your burdens. I covenant with you that I will mourn with you when you mourn. I covenant with you that I will comfort when you are in need of comfort.” And then we read that as we make these covenants, then we become adopted by Christ, but when we’re adopted by Christ, we’re adopted by Christ’s family. And then when one looks at the three members of the Godhead, they are all there in that covenant. The God who mourns is the God who weeps, Man of Holiness, God the Father. The God who carries our burdens is Christ, carrying our sufferings and being the co-sufferer. And the God who comforts is the Holy Spirit. For me this makes this divine plan so much more universal and so much more powerful than any other theology I have encountered.
Terryl Givens: We think one of the disasters of Reformation thought was that God becomes sovereign. This is one of Calvin’s favorite words, meaning that He is is the author of everything that exists and everything that happens. And Christ increasingly becomes relegated to the role of defending us against the Father’s wrath.
Spencer Fluhman: Yeah, kind of a buffer.
Terryl Givens: He’s the buffer.
Fiona Givens: Exactly, he’s the shield.
Terryl Givens: As Fiona said, what is so beautiful about Mormon thought is that the three are recuperated into this collaborative entity where they all work together, contributing towards the same end rather than positing this radical dichotomy where we’re protected by Christ from the Father’s wrath, which is a terrible way to think about a father. But it’s the God of Jonathan Edwards that in some ways still infiltrates Mormon thinking about judgment and hell.
Fiona Givens: Which is unfortunate because I think it’s so beautifully elaborated in the Pearl of Great Price, in the book of Moses and particularly in Abraham, where you have this idea of councils and it’s emphasized again and again, I think in two verses 4 times: as we counseled, as we counseled, as we counseled. This idea that Christ and God could not possibly be working against each other, that God is holding us like spiders. He can’t wait to throw us all into hell, and Christ is fighting against his Father desperately to save us. It’s perverse.
Terryl Givens: Just today in a class I was visiting on campus, a student objected to what I was saying and he was saying, “But Jesus does save me from the Father’s wrath. He does protect me from his justice.” And I thought, “Well, that’s not my God.”
Fiona Givens: That’s very Protestant, Puritan. This is what Terryl is saying. One of the reasons we wrote this book is we feel we’re almost saturated, if not indoctrinated by this Protestant view because Mormonism was birthed in a radically Protestant America.
Spencer Fluhman: Right, the air that they all breathed. It’s their language.
Fiona Givens: Exactly, exactly. I think it’s interesting that very few Catholics joined Mormonism. It was primarily Protestants and they brought with them — and unfortunately it’s still in our sensibilities — this idea of a wrathful, vengeful God; that judgment is something absolutely awful; and that we are going to be separated from those whom we love the most when our children are singing primary, “Families Can Be Together Forever.” I think it creates this dreadful cognitive dissonance which could easily be displaced if we understood that there was another theology that was much more optimistic, that talked about man’s eternal progression to become like God, and that God’s continually working with us so that we pass through each schoolroom, rather than this idea of this wrathful vengeful God who can’t wait to deposit us all into some very uncomfortable realm and Christ acting as a mediator, but failing in the end.
Spencer Fluhman: Well, I’m struck, too, by the way in which you’ve shown us how a larger kind of Restoration frame for understanding some of these doctrines not only kind of repositions baptism as adoption, this really comes forward, but it also, by emphasizing the collaborative nature of individual divine beings we actually get a clearer sense of their unity.
Terryl Givens: Right, right.
Fiona Givens: Yes, exactly.
Spencer Fluhman: We weren’t expecting that emphasis on collaboration and individual identities within the Godhead would end up. You’re resolving that problem of pitting the Father and the Son against each other in whatever metaphor we want to make of that.
Fiona Givens: This is Fiona Givens. My husband, Terryl, and I recently sat down in studio with our friend Spencer Fluhman, Executive Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU, to talk about ideas and themes from our new book, “The Christ Who Heals.” We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Over the coming months Terryl Givens will be sitting down with some of most fascinating and influential people in Mormonism. To watch or listen in on those conversations, please be sure to subscribe to the “Conversations with Terryl Givens” podcast on iTunes, or wherever you access podcasts. You can also visit faithmatters.org and subscribe to this and other fascinating podcasts there.
Spencer Fluhman: You’re making me think, too, of the title. and I wanted to pause on the title of your book and to have you both talk through, why is it “The Christ Who Heals”? Why does that come forward for you as you’re working through what the Restoration actually restores in terms of Christ?
Terryl Givens: I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s, “Gilead,” which I think is one of the greatest novels of our lifetime. There’s a line in there where a preacher notes the fact that sozo, the Greek word for saving, can also mean to heal. And that was the trigger that got me thinking along these lines. So I went to the Greek text and I looked at how this word is being used in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It turns out that every time there’s a healing (the woman with the issue of blood, the girl that dies, the man born blind), it’s always sozo. They’re “sozo-ed”, and that’s translated as healed. But if you look at every time the word save appears in the New Testament, it’s from the same word, sozo. In other words, you could, with just as much linguistic accuracy, translate the term Jesus Christ, Healer of the world. And in fact, that’s how the word operates in German, die Heilung, which means the Healing Place, or the Healing One. It seems to us that there’s a huge difference between conceiving of Christ’s work as that of saving us from our sinful selves and healing us of the harm that we do to ourselves and to each other through poor choices.
And I was reading the 1830 edition of the book of Mormon, at about the same time and came across what today is 1 Nephi 13, at which point Nephi is talking bout the plain and precious parts that have been taken from the Bible.
Fiona Givens: It’s in verse 32 as I recall, isn’t it?
Terryl Givens: I think it’s verse 32, and there’s this magnificent promise which I think is a condensation of the whole Restoration in this one line. That God will not forever suffer them to remain in their state of woundedness because of the plain and previous parts that have been taken from the Bible.
Spencer Fluhman: And that gets changed.
Fiona Givens: It does.
Terryl Givens: That gets changed.
Spencer Fluhman: A lot of Latter-day Saint readers are going to say, I don’t remember that verse.
Terryl Givens: It gets changes to “blindness”, and then a Book of Mormon scholar things that it actually should be “wickedness”. And I’m saying, “No, no, no! You’re missing the point, you’re going back to the Protestant school of thought.” It is a verse of promise and mercy. The Lord is saying, “Look, it’s not your fault those plain and precious things were gone.” What plain and precious things? We think the plainest and precious things were the true nature of God the Father is a suffering, vulnerable, weeping God. You take those things out and we live in a life of fear, perpetual woundedness. And the Lord is promising, through some mechanism which we think is the Restoration, I will bring healing to that woundedness, which is another sign to us. This is what Krister Stendhal said. Krister Stendhal may not be a name familiar to everybody, he was the Dean of Harvard Divinity School, he was a Lutheran Bishop, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century and he said Paul’s preoccupation was not with his sinful self; it was with his weakness. Very different from the Protestant narrative.
Spencer Fluhman: Very different sense of the problem for the human condition.
Terryl Givens: Exactly, and now there’s this enormous movement of tremendous importance called the “New Perspective on Paul” movement, which is coming to realize maybe we’ve been reading Paul wrong every since St. Augustine, and maybe in fact Paul wasn’t obsessed with this human depravity, but he sees the greater problem as just our incapacity. And Christ comes not to remedy this depraved horrific condition, but to heal and nurture us and restore us to unity with ourselves, with each other, with our Father.
Fiona Givens: I know some people are going to say, “But I see a lot of that rhetoric in the Restoration scriptures.”
Spencer Fluhman: Sure, sin.
Fiona Givens: Absolutely.
Spencer Fluhman: Salvation from sin, it’s a prominent thing.
Fiona Givens: Exactly, and then we have, is it Section 76, 46? Where we have that idea of Christ, “I will take those sins upon me. I am the advocate for the Father.”
Terryl Givens: 45.
Fiona Givens: Is is section 45? What verse is it?
Terryl Givens: Yes, the first three verses.
Fiona Givens: Thank you, darling. So you do see this idea of Christ behaving as a shield, but when one understands that Christ is not behaving like that, he is behaving as a healer, that “I’ve come to heal them”, then one has a much better understanding. For me the Restoration scriptures are transitional texts in that they had to be written in 19th century religious rhetoric, otherwise nobody would have understood.
Spencer Fluhman: They’re foreign.
Fiona Givens: They’d be completely foreign, they’d be speaking a completely different language. So of course we’re going to see remnants in that.
Terryl Givens: This is where Brigham Young said if the Book of Mormon were translated today it’d be translated in a different language—
Fiona Givens: There is this wonderful quote from Brigham Young, he says if the Book of Mormon were written in any other century it would be considerably different. It was written in the 19th century, in 19th century Protestant America, so we’re going to find a lot of that language in that, but — this is what is so crucial — we also find those transitional texts. I’m not sure why Joseph took out woundedness. It may have been his advisors were saying it doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit, what does it mean? That’s a 21st century word.
Spencer Fluhman: Or a knee-jerk reaction, it seems off, given its own cultural setting.
Terryl Givens: There’s a moment like that in Helaman where he feels awkward about the grammar. So in 1837 he changes the grammar. We now know that the 1830 language was a perfect replication of Hebraic construction. He was insecure enough about his own grammar — his own language — and sometimes his edits were not always the best.
Fiona Givens: But that being said, we do have Moses 7; we do have Jacob 5. Those are the longest treatises of a vulnerable weeping God that exists in all of religious,well Christian religious canon.So those are incredibly important.
Then the idea that Terryl was talking about: healing, I think, is really important when we see repeated the combination of good and evil. For example, after Adam and Eve take of the fruit, nobody ever reads as far as Genesis 3. They all think it’s a done deal, but Genesis 3:22, God says they have become as one of us, knowing good and evil. So if we use that in Hebraic sense, it’s experiencing good and evil. Now, this is the exact passage which the Western Christianity took and ran with and said obvious, this was hubris, that they dared to become like God.
Spencer Fluhman: This was the great sin, yeah.
Fiona Givens: This was the great sin. So, we are born into a wounded world, going back to 1 Nephi 13:32. It’s not sinful, it’s wounded, and probably the most efficacious analogy, at least for me, is schizophrenia. So a child is born. There is no evidence of schizophrenia. He grows up, the schizophrenia grows up with him. There’s still no evidence that the child is thus encumbered until he turns 19 or 20, and then he starts hearing the voices in his head. I think if we look at this, we are born into a wounded world of wounded parents. We’re all carrying DNA and genetic dispositions that then to, for example, depression, addiction, and one thing or another, then I think we get a much greater understanding of what this is all about.
This is more about suffering and how suffering sanctifies. We have Christ, this beautiful scripture of Christ, I come with healing in my wings. ‘Not only have I come to bring life, but I have come to bring life more abundantly and I have not to condemn.’ So if He’s not coming to condemn, then sin cannot be the major perspective of the theology — cannot be what we’re here for, but we all understand suffering.
Terryl Givens: So you’ve also raised the topic of judgment.
Fiona Givens: Yes.
Terryl Givens: That’s another word that we think needs scrutiny. Judgment is from the Greek word krino. A fuller, richer definition would be discernment, differentiation, distinction, and that’s what we see God himself manifesting in the first days of creation. He separates, everything is separated. Earth from water, earth from sky, man from woman, and then he judges it good. He recognizes these differentiations, these distinctions are what constitute divine activity. President Uchtdorf gave a talk recently in conference when he used judgment in a very unconventional way, when he said that judgment day will be a day of mercy and of healing. Now we don’t typically think of judgment as a day of healing.
Spencer Fluhman: It’s striking.
Terryl Givens: That’s right.
Fiona Givens: It is.
Terryl Givens: But I think the key is in Paul, his epistle to the Corinthians, when he tells us that Jesus will judge us so that He need not condemn us. Judgment, as I understand — as we understand, as it’s being used in both the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, is that process by which we are brought to recognize distinctions and how they have operated in our lives and in our character. Judgment in this sense is the prelude to further progress. So judgment is that process by which we are made to become aware of where we are, what yet needs to be done, what lies have we been telling ourselves, how have we been alienated from our true identities.
Spencer Fluhman: It’s self-realization in a way.
Terryl Givens: It’s self-realization, yes. And the Book of Mormon has this wonderful language about coming to a perfect knowledge of themselves. “They shall have a perfect knowledge of their happiness,” is one phrase that’s used. We think that the judgment is much less threatening, and Christ is very emphatic. “I don’t come to judge the world, I don’t come to condemn the world.” Even the woman caught in adultery. I judge in the sense of “go thy way and sin no more.”’ This is a distinction that needs to be made, but it’s not tied to condemnation.
This isn’t to say we don’t sin. We’re capable of doing really bad things.
Spencer Fluhman: I was just going to say that. You’re not denying the reality of evil. You’re not denying the reality of sin, acting knowingly against God’s will for your life. It’s not to deny Christ as judge, either. What it does is it reframes, reformats all of those words in that cosmic context of healing, of education, where the Atonement is not simply a way to undo your sins and get you back to a kind of starting point. That’s one way that Latter-day Saints could think wrong in a way.
Fiona Givens: Right.
Spencer Fluhman: But instead, it’s transformative. It’s educative, it’s progressive. And you end the book with a kind of striking crescendo where that educative, progressive, developmental sense of Christ’s mission for humanity doesn’t end, that it’s kind of striking. Talk us through that. Judgment is reframed in a particular way and can be for Latter-day Saints.
Terryl Givens: Joseph F. Smith as prophet, gave this magnificent expression when he said that Christ’s work wasn’t finished when he died on the cross and it doesn’t finish today. He continues his work and it will continue to go on until the entire human family is fully redeemed. Joseph Smith taught very clearly and explicitly that progress is eternal. There’s a marvelous moment that occurs, and if we start with section 76, when he has a vision of the terrestrial world and he sees the terrestrial world is inhabited by those who received not the witness of Christ in the flesh, those who were not baptized, who didn’t go through the ordinances of salvation. He had lost his brother Alvin in 1823 and never, never fully recovered from that loss. He knows how there’s some comfort Alvin will be in the terrestrial kingdom.
And then six years later in 1838 he has the vision of the celestial kingdom.
Spencer Fluhman: There’s a very different picture of Alvin!
Terryl Givens: A very different picture. And he’s shocked! And he tells in the first verse of the scripture, “I was amazed! There’s my brother Alvin and he’s in the celestial kingdom.”
Spencer Fluhman: How could he be here?
Terryl Givens: How could he be here? And that’s where we believe he first came to understand, that, no, progress is eternal. Contemporaries of Joseph Smith recorded him giving public sermons in which he was very explicit about this, that progress is eternal. This is why, I think it was B. H. Roberts who first used the term eternal progress, eternal progressivism. Hyrum Smith taught the same thing, Brigham Young, Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, they all taught that God never shuts the door on our salvation. Elder Hales recently deceased gave a beautiful talk five or six years ago in which he pled with the parents of the church, he said, “Please never, never, never shut the door of your hearts to your children.”
Fiona Givens: And Elder Packer said that there is no sin — no sin — that we can commit that is not beyond the bounds of complete and full forgiveness.
Terryl Givens: We are convinced that the historical record makes clear this isn’t speculation. The historical record makes clear that Joseph believed in a God who never shut the door on his children. And it would seem that history bears record of every prophet up through the 1950’s teaching that same principle. In the 1950’s and 60’s there were dissident voice on that subject heard in the Church and when the First Presidency was appealed to on two different occasions by members of the Church to arbitrate the dispute, the Secretary to the First Presidency responded by saying this is not a point of settled doctrine. So there is no official position as to what is the meaning of final judgment. All we’re saying is that the historical record suggests that Joseph’s understanding, and as I said, that of every other prophet up to the 1950’s, was that progress is eternal only if we have a complete and unqualified knowledge of all things and in the face of that brilliance of the sun at noonday, reject Christ’s offer, do we qualify to be a son of perdition.
Fiona Givens: Most of us are making decisions under incredible duress and simply cannot see.
Terryl Givens: Compromised will.
Fiona Givens: Yes, it is to a certain extent. So then I think it leads to a much greater emphasis to this idea of healing and of mercy. I was asked once by a BYU student — we’d been discussing Julian of Norwich, who is one of my greatest heroines, and talking about God’s absolute love. How absolutely love, in fact, is so absolute she says it does not matter whether we be foul or clean. God loves us with absolutely love equally. And this young man stood up and he put up his hand and said, “Well, what about judgment?” And I paused and I asked him, “How do you feel when you hear the word judgment?” He said, “I feel fear. I am afraid.” And I responded by saying, “If you feel fear, that is not God speaking.” And this is what is so beautiful about our theology, is that we worship a God who chose to love us absolutely and made himself vulnerable. And it is through this vulnerability that he has the power to draw all mankind to him. And that I find is so beautiful, radically resonant.
Terryl Givens: We sometimes use the analogy of the schoolteacher and we think that Latter-day Saints have too often been misled into thinking there are only two options. We believe in the sweet school marm—
Spencer Fluhman: Who lets anything go.
Terryl Givens: Who lets anything go, “I’m going to pass you all, give everybody a pass.”
Fiona Givens: Beats you with a few stripes with the cane and then you’ll still go in—
Terryl Givens: That false universalism of the Book of Mormon. Or you’ve got the strict disciplinarian schoolteacher who, no, you’ve studied to take the exam and if you fail, you fail and you’re out. We believe there’s a third way. There’s the God who is the ever-patient tutor who commits to us and says, “I will never forsake you and I will do whatever it takes until you master this material and are transformed by it.” And that’s the God that we believe Joseph Smith restored.
Fiona Givens: I think this sort of emphasizes our point that, given all of these handicaps, so to speak, with which we are all working, then judgment cannot be final. If we consider our spirits to be eternal, to be coexistent with God and for us to become like God, then there have to be many, many stages. This is one of them. This is a particularly brutal stage. Which is why God promised, “I will make sure it’s short,” because it’s particularly painful, but it’s also a crucible. Our daughter Rachel quoted this, this idea idea of this crucible being able to refine. What is her exact quote?
Terryl Givens: Alchemized, that our suffering can be alchemized into something sanctified.
Fiona Givens: That the Godhead has the power to alchemize our suffering into something beautiful. So it is only by our patience being challenged, our love being challenged, our mercy being challenged, in very real and personal and painful ways that we can actually learn what it means to be patient, loving, and merciful. And that is going to take a long time, far beyond—
Terryl Givens: Yeah, James Talmage, in “The House of the Lord,” he said if we believe in eternal progression then we have to believe in eternal repentance. Because that means to continually revise our conduct, our attitude.
Fiona Givens: So it’s not repentance in the negative way; it’s education. Got that sum wrong, so let’s try a different equation. It’s never under threat and it’s never under coercion. I think that hangs over us definitely as Protestants, but unfortunately even as Mormons, this idea that there’s almost a coercive element, that if you don’t do exactly what I say — and again President Uchtdorf was so brilliant, he said obedience for obedience sake is not a thing.
Terryl Givens: Well, this is why we love Kenneth Kirk, who is my favorite Anglican theologian, and he said three things are true of God’s love. He said, first, God’s love frees the giver because you give without expectation of return. It frees the recipient because you’re under no contractual obligation. But he said most importantly, the third thing that is true of love is that in the end it’s irresistible. And nothing can withstand the force and power of an overwhelming love. That’s why we think it’s very, very deliberate and inspired that the Book of Mormon uses the word “draw” so often. We’re drawn to Christ. We’re drawn.
Fiona Givens: And in section 121 the power of the priesthood—
Spencer Fluhman: Which is not coercive. It’s not about dominion.
Fiona Givens: Yes. It’s not about dominion. It’s not coercive, exactly.
Spencer Fluhman: The power rests in — Christ’s power has everything to do with me wanting to follow.
Fiona Givens: Exactly, exactly. And if Christ’s power is that way, then so is God the Father’s, and so is God the Mother. It is not a coercive power, it’s a drawing eventually of all their children back home to them. I don’t think any other religious text has that quite so unambiguously as ours does, particularly section 121. In fact, amen to the priesthood of that person who attempts, even attempts, to coerce, is one of my children.
Anyway, that’s what we found so absolutely beautiful is finding these resonances because we feel, it’s been difficult. So what exactly is it that Joseph is restoring? Because when we go back in the Western tradition, none of it’s very happy. We start off with this veering aside with Augustine, there’s no free will, and there’s only imputed grace. There’s nothing you can do of yourselves, good or bad. And then it’s like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli are like Augustine on crack. It’s like God plans everything, the good and the evil, so suddenly we’ve turned God into a monster. I think with all of these competing ideas in our minds, for me especially, it was so beautiful to discover the early Church fathers. They are post-apostolic immediately and the Christian Church was birthed in the East, not in the West. We tend to think it was in the West, and find those radical resonances with Mormonism and it gave me a greater understanding, okay this is what Joseph is restoring. It is magnificent. It is empowering. It is all-embracing. It is the most beautiful thing that has ever been theologized.
Terryl Givens: So if I can just circle back by way of conclusion to the first question, what generated this book, what did we hope to achieve with it? We live in the midst of a great series of forces and influences hostile to faith. We are in the midst of many thousands of people struggling with their testimony and their spiritual journeys. We believe that Mormonism is so rich, so interesting, it’s got so much going on: gold plates, and angels, and Mesoamerica, and books of Abraham, and we get distracted from the foundation. And it’s our belief that to come to know the true Christ of the Restoration is to have the only testimony that is absolutely impregnable to the assaults of secularism and the modern world. So we were trying to rediscover for ourselves the Christ of the Restoration.
Spencer Fluhman: Terryl, Fiona, we’ve talked about some rich theological perspectives, you’ve given us a kind of history lesson from a very complex past for the Christian tradition, you’ve shown us how the Restoration does just that, restores some things that are beautiful, shown us all sorts of ways that this can enrich our approach to the scriptures, our own approach to the Atonement. I’m wondering if you could each think and briefly give us a thought on practical terms: a Latter-day Saint picks up the book, reads it — what do you hope they take away practically from these ideas about Christ as a healer? Practically, what do you hope they take away from this?
Terryl Givens: As a parent, I think that all those in the Church who have experienced parenthood know that there’s no way on earth that a repentant 25 year old son would come begging at their home’s door to be greeted with the words, “I’m sorry, you had your chance,” and the door shuts. I think that what we’ve tried to rediscover is the reality of a Christ who could no more do that to his children than we could to ours, and that the Christ of the Restoration resonates with those experiences that we’ve actually lived through as parents and children, and attest to the reality of the nature that we’ve tried to recuperate through Joseph Smith’s teachings.
Fiona Givens: Joseph once said that he was empowered to be better and to do better when people treated him with kindness and gentleness rather than when he was rebuked or admonished severely. I feel the same way in my life. When I think of us all struggling under the crosses which we all bear, to be greeted with absolute love: “I know you’re struggling, I am here.” I was in Italy last week and this beautiful institute instructor, Hugo Perego, talked about a comforter. He said in Latin it’s come, but come forte, with strength, and for me that was so lovely. “I come with healing,” and that healing is strengthening. It will strengthen you to take that next step forward and that next step forward. And not only will it do that, but it will empower you to be able to see in times of your life. Sometimes our pain is so deep that we cannot see anything around us, but when those times come when it is not so, that we turn and reach out to each other as we’re struggling beneath our crosses, under that absolute love and that constant “well done my good and faithful servant, keep trying, keep trying, keep coming, keep coming.” Those resonate really beautiful for me, those words.
Spencer Fluhman: Beautiful. Thanks to you both.
Fiona Givens: Thank you, Spencer.
Terryl Givens: Thanks, Spencer.