In this episode, Terryl sits down with his good friend, Judge Thomas Griffith. Thomas has had a fascinating career in the highest levels of power in Washington, D.C., but politics takes a back seat as Terryl and Tom explore what really matters most. Their conversation covers a lot of interesting ground, and we hope you enjoy it.
Aubrey Chaves: Hi everybody, this is Aubrey Chaves from Faith Matters. First we just want to say that we hope you and your loved ones are staying healthy and safe. We’re releasing this podcast the weekend of March 15, 2020, and we know that a lot of people are worried about or even directly facing scary circumstances right now. We hope that by continuing to publish content that Faith Matters can be a bit of spiritual nourishment during an uncertain time. In this episode, Terryl sits down with his good friend, Judge Thomas Griffith. Thomas has had a fascinating career in the highest levels of power in Washington, D.C., but politics takes a back seat as Terryl and Tom explore what really matters most. Their conversation covers a lot of interesting ground, and we hope you enjoy it.
Terryl Givens: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Conversations with Terryl Givens. I’m the host. This is a podcast sponsored by the Faith Matters organization. My guest with us today is Thomas Griffith, a Federal Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Did I get that right?
Thomas Griffith: You got it right, a mouthful.
Terryl Givens: Okay. Bring us up to date a little bit with you your career, some of your prior experience that led to you getting to the post that you hold today, and tell us a little bit about how if Americans had heard the name Thomas Griffith, oh, say 20 or so years ago now, why might that have been the case?
Thomas Griffith: Well, they would be Americans who were obsessed with the impeachment trial of President Clinton, and as it turned out, there weren’t that many that were obsessed with it. But I played a minor role in the impeachment trial of President Clinton. I held a position called Senate Legal Counsel, it’s the Chief Legal Officer of the United States Senate. It’s a nonpartisan position.
Terryl Givens: It usually doesn’t have a very big role to play in American politics.
Thomas Griffith: That’s right, that’s right. It’s an interesting job, it’s a fascinating job. You’re representing the Senate as an institution in the courts and in other capacities. But during the impeachment trial of President Clinton, my office played the nonpartisan role of counsel for the entire Senate, for the Democrats and the Republicans. In that capacity, Senator Trent Lott was the Majority Leader, he asked me if I would be willing to be the one to go and meet with the pundits and be interviewed. So I found myself being interviewed by various media outlets, and sitting in green rooms, and having makeup put on my face. I think the only people who remember that or watched were my family. But yeah, that was my … but it led directly to my present appointment that, in that capacity, I got to know lots of United States Senators.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Thomas Griffith: When President Bush nominated me for this court, I don’t know, but I’m assuming that part of the calculation was that I had friends on both sides of the aisle coming out of that time as Senate Legal Counsel.
Terryl Givens: So you’re the highest ranking judicial official in the LDS Church.
Thomas Griffith: No, no, no, no, we don’t get into those games. We don’t think about that at all. We are well represented in the federal judiciary with wonderful Latter-day Saints.
Terryl Givens: And you have some experience with Brigham Young University as well in your legal profession.
Thomas Griffith: Yeah, immediately prior to the time that I was appointed to the D.C. Circuit, I was the General Counsel at BYU. That was a great job. I loved that job. That was a wonderful job. I mean, I’m a fan of BYU’s, I attended BYU as an undergraduate. And to go back there in the administration, be on campus amongst the students, to deal with the interesting legal issues we had, and the only downside of it was that the sports teams didn’t do particularly well during the time when I had access to great tickets.
Terryl Givens: Well, they got better.
Thomas Griffith: Yes.
Terryl Givens: A committed member of the church, but not a life long member?
Thomas Griffith: No, I’m a convert to the church. I joined the church as a junior in high school, in McLean, Virginia, which is a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Terryl Givens: And at one time you wore the false robes of an apostate priest, is that right?
Thomas Griffith: No, that’s not true. That’s not true.
Terryl Givens: Almost.
Thomas Griffith: I was an acolyte.
Terryl Givens: I thought you wore robes as an acolyte.
Thomas Griffith: You wore robes, but I won’t go with the false part. No, my family, we belonged to St. John’s Church in McLean, Virginia, it’s an Episcopal church in McLean, and I was an acolyte, an altar boy. Now, it’s altar boys and girls, but at the time, acolytes were just males. I did that for a couple of years, I think I was 14, 15 years old or so.
As it turns out, that experience had a much greater influence on me than I probably thought at the time. I did it in large measure because I wanted to please my parents, particularly my father. It was meaningful for him, so I went along with it. You would not have mistaken me for devout or pious at all. I was interested in things, but seeking for holiness and having a prayer life or that, I didn’t have any of those. But it turned out to be a really meaningful experience to me that I think I only began to appreciate many years later, honestly.
Terryl Givens: Yeah, I’ve teased you in times past. You’re an episcopalian who happens to believe in the Book of Mormon.
Thomas Griffith: You say that a lot, and there’s probably some truth to it. But my Anglican roots, I didn’t appreciate them until more recently in life. In fact, I thought in some of my naïvety or foolishness as a 16 year old, I think I viewed my conversion as part form of rebellion. What a way to rebel, right, to become a Latter-day Saint? But I think I viewed it as rebellion, and I think now, with a little more experience and hindsight, it wasn’t an act of rebellion, it was actually a fulfillment, an enlargement, if that’s the right word. There’s a continuity between my experience, particularly as an acolyte, and my conversion, and my life now.
Terryl Givens: So do you miss the high church ritual?
Thomas Griffith: I do, I do, yeah. I enjoy that.
Terryl Givens: Why are Mormons so hostile to ritual?
Thomas Griffith: You know, I don’t know, you’d have to ask sociologist of religion.
Terryl Givens: [crosstalk 00:06:45], right?
Thomas Griffith: I mean, the explanation I’ve always heard, but I’ve asked some experts about it, is that the earliest converts to the restoration-
Terryl Givens: Were Methodists.
Thomas Griffith: … well, it came out of Methodism, or Puritans, and sort of a rebellion against high church liturgy. I’ve always … when I was participating in it, I didn’t find it as meaningful as I do now. So on occasion, when I have the time, inevitably, I will enjoy an evensong service at the-
Terryl Givens: Westminster?
Thomas Griffith: … anywhere, National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is beautiful. I think you and I have gone to evensong at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. So there’s a part of me that appeals to it a great deal.
Having said that, I love Latter-day Saint worship. I love our emphasis on spoken word, personal narrative, personal testimony. I love the democratization of it, that everyone gets a chance to speak, and you hear from all sorts of different perspective. So I love that, I’m comfortable with that, it’s changed my life, and hopefully it does continually. But there’s a part of me that still enjoys the high church liturgy.
Terryl Givens: I want to ask you to take us through your entire conversion experience. But can you single out one pivotal moment, one pivotal moment on which your conversion hinged?
Thomas Griffith: Yeah. I’m typically reluctant to speak about this, and now you’ve got me on a video cast talking about it. The reason I’m reluctant to speak about it is because it’s so unusual that I fear, particularly in my teaching experience in the church in dealing with high school and college age students, that they may think that this is a norm, that this is what has to happen. But it was an unusual experience.
I was invited to attend an early morning seminary class in the McLean Ward, back in Northern Virginia. And at the end of the class, the instructor, by the name Ivan [Calviner 00:09:05], handed me a copy of the Book of Mormon, and showed me Moroni’s Promise, the beginning of it, and I took it off to school that day. Went to my first class, and it’s a class that I normally sat in the front of the class, and was really obnoxious, I was arrogant, and outspoken, and that was my normal perch.
But this day, I decided to sit in the back of the class. It was actually a large lecture class, 120 people or so. I sat in the back of the class, and I opened the textbook, and I slid this copy of the Book of Mormon inside, and I leafed through the pages, looking at the pictures, the Arnold Friberg pictures. They were interspersed throughout the text, which I think we ought to resort to, at least based on my experience, because it got me into the text. So I’m looking at these strange scenes that weren’t familiar at all to me.
I got to the one I now know of as the Lord touching the stones for the Brother of Jared. And if you recall the picture, it’s very strange. He has strange headgear on, the lighting is rather arresting. I remember stopping there and looking at that, and then starting, I decided to read the text on the other side of the page. And I don’t remember what the text was, it might’ve been a genealogy of ether or something for all I know, I don’t remember.
But as I began to read, something unusual happened in me that had never happened before, and has never happened since in quite the same way. But I had this overwhelming feeling of joy, a feeling of excitement, I had sense that what I was reading was ancient, that it was the record of real people, that it confirmed the trustworthiness of the Biblical account, generally, and that the rest of my life was going to be tied up with this book.
Now, that was a pretty heavy experience to have, sitting in the back of my American Civilization class. But I came out of that experience convinced that I needed to learn more about the church that was the custodian of this.
Terryl Givens: And you did.
Thomas Griffith: Exactly.
Terryl Givens: Well, let me see if I can use something that you once quoted from Ross Douthat as a bridge to what happened subsequently.
Thomas Griffith: Okay, yeah.
Terryl Givens: You quote the columnist is saying, “The Christian story is not theology, or commandments or a road map. It recounts a series of events that, if real, tell us something profound about the nature of God and His relationship to His creatures.” Reminds me a little bit of David Bentley Hart-
Thomas Griffith: Right.
Terryl Givens: … who talks about the radical intrusion of Christ into history.
Thomas Griffith: History has been invaded by God in Christ.
Terryl Givens: Right. So what did your engagement with Latter-day Saint-ism add to that? Or did it reinterpret that? In other words, once that has happened, what was the need for something subsequent to that to unfold?
Thomas Griffith: Well, to me, the reason I like the Douthat quote is because it describes my view, my credo, my reason for being committed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I think something happened between 1823 and 1827, something happened. I believe that an angel appeared to this boy, and gave him golden plates that he translated miraculously. I think that really happened.
I’m a skeptic by nature. I’m the one that, when someone in church talks about having lost their keys, and praying for it, and finding it, my initial reaction to that is I don’t believe that. I just don’t believe that. Now, having said that, when I lose my keys-
Terryl Givens: You pray too.
Thomas Griffith: … I pray for it. But my name is Thomas, after all, my inclination is not to believe. So this is an audacious story of angel, gold plates, miraculous translation. But over the years, quite apart from that initial experience that I’ve had, because the initial experience that I’ve had, it’s pretty easy for someone like me, to least, to find ways around that, to imagine, “Oh, that was … ” I don’t know, something was going on emotionally with me. It’d be easy for me to talk myself out of that.
For me, the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and then the text itself, and its complexity, its profundity, its ties to the ancient world, there are anachronisms to be sure, right, but the large picture of it is I can’t come up with a better explanation for its origin than the audacious one.
And in many ways, this is getting back to Douthat now, I think it’s quite parallel to the original Christian witness. I mean-
Terryl Givens: It just recharges it after 2000 years of moribund-
Thomas Griffith: Exactly. And it’s similar in the following way: they both rely on the tangible, the objective. I mean, the claim of the early disciples was not just a visionary claim of the Risen Lord, it’s the bodily resurrection, touching, and feeling. I mean, N.T. Wright has written about this persuasively, and effectively. It’s the bodily resurrection of Christ that was what drove and animated the earliest Christians, because it was history being invaded by God in Christ. Not visionary.
So I think that the gold plates, and the story surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon serve the same purpose for Latter-day Saint Christianity as the bodily resurrection of Jesus does for First Century Christianity.
Terryl Givens: Okay, let’s push that a little bit further. You’ve written very movingly about the appearance of the resurrected Christ in the new world, recounting 3 Nephi.
Thomas Griffith: Right.
Terryl Givens: I want to read something that I’ve written, and see how that connects to your insights about Christ’s resurrection. I’ve observed that when Thomas is invited to feel the wounds of the resurrected Christ in the Book of Luke, that he came to know the persisting reality of Jesus Christ, His lived presence in the world, when he actually felt His wounds. I think there’s a logical symmetry here that we only know Christ, really know Him, to the extent that we know what His love for us cost Him. And maybe that is the primary mode by which Christ knows us and engages us, which is by our wounds, by feeling our wounds, which is what we think in some way happened in His working out of the atonement. That would seem to be the meaning off His words, “I have grave in you upon my palms.” We know Him by His wounds as He knows us by ours.
So how does that relate to your reading of Christ’s appearance, and what happens in the immediate aftermath?
Thomas Griffith: Well, again, I come back to it’s the physical, it’s the material witness that energizes my faith. I think you have, in the story of 3 Nephi 11, just a really powerful demonstration of that. Let me back up a little bit more to tell you how I got to the view I have now. It came out, I had a church calling where I presided over, we now call them a young single adults stake, it was then called a BYU campus stake. It was a remarkable group of young people. I mean, mostly upperclassmen, I don’t remember the numbers, but I think over 90% of the males were retuning missionaries, and I think even over 40% of the young women, and this was before the age change. So it was really a remarkable group of young people.
As a campus stake president, you can imagine i worried about the things that anyone worries about when they have stewardship for young single adults. But what I really worried about was the temple recommended an interview question that I’ve never, in years as a bishop or as a stake president, I’ve never had anyone pause, or hesitate about this question at all. Do you have a testimony about the atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and a Redeemer? Everyone just says yes, right? My concern was whether that was genuine. Was it genuine of me? Was it genuine with the members of my stake?
So I can remember, one day, reading everyone’s favorite passage, and 3 Nephi 11, where Christ, the Risen Lord visits the people in Bountiful. Here’s what struck me about that. I mean, there’s a lot to unpack in there, but here’s what struck me on that occasion. This is the righteous remnant, right? These are the folks who are more righteous than those who are no longer around. So I imagined that that was talking about those who were faithful, and participating, and trying-
Terryl Givens: Temple [crosstalk 00:19:10].
Thomas Griffith: … or equivalent to that, that’s right. And it’s curious, at least curious to me, in the account that’s given, He comes, He descends in this dramatic fashion, descends from heaven, comes in the mysticism, and the author of the account tells us that the people fell on the ground. It just says they fell on the ground. It doesn’t say why. Now, we can imagine why, it’s an awesome experience. They might’ve been afraid, it might’ve been peer pressure. But they fell to the ground.
Then the Lord commands to them to arise and to come forth one by one, and to do something that is odd to most sensibilities, to touch the wounds, the scars that He had in His hands, feet, and side. And as I read it, that wasn’t an invitation, it was a command, that they had to do it. That’s an awfully intimate sort of encounter with scars of Christ’s suffering, the emblems of His suffering. So they do that.
Then comes what I think is a really remarkable thing. The author tells us they all, they cried out, “Hosanna,” which I understand means save us now. That seems curious to me. Weren’t these people already saved? Apparently not. Apparently there was something about that experience that they had with the Lord that triggered that immediate reaction, “Save us now.” So I’m reading into that that there was a deficit in their prior experience that was now being filled with this immediacy of touching the wounds.
But then, then, they cry out, “Save us now,” and then it says they all fell to the ground and worshiped Him. That phrase isn’t in the description of the first time they fell to the ground. So from that, I try to make the idea, and I think it works, is that the worship of Christ, the adoration of the Savior comes most powerfully, most directly from the fact that they had physical contact with the emblems of His suffering. There was something about that experience that was transformative to this good group of people.
So the way that I like to, I’m teaching this lesson, say these were good folks, going to church, doing the things that faithful people do before, but there was something lacking. They hadn’t yet had, at some level, this experience of having this transformative worshipful experience with Christ’s suffering. Right?
Then it dawned on me. So I’m thinking about this as how do you implement this? Okay, well we have Christ … this is going to sound blasphemous, we have Christ appear at stake. Then it dawned on me, no, we actually have that experience every week of having physical contact with the emblems and suffering. That’s the sacrament, right? That’s the sacrament.
So I think that’s what I do, that’s what I get out of 3 Nephi 11, and there’s a lot more there, but I think there’s something about-
Terryl Givens: I wonder to what extent your sensibility was shaped by your religious background.
Thomas Griffith: Well, see, that’s what I’m getting to. I think perhaps it was.
Terryl Givens: I remember going to a Eucharist, a mass with a Catholic friend, and at the end of it I said, “So that was it? As a Catholic, you just go to mass?” And he was kind of incredulous. He says, “Well, that’s everything, right? That’s everything.” At the time, I didn’t understand that. But if I see it through the prism that you just constructed for us, that makes a lot more sense.
Thomas Griffith: Yeah. And as I’ve gotten older, I think there is a direct connection between my experience as an acolyte and my current view. When I was an acolyte, helping the priest with the Eucharist, with Holy Communion, as I said, you wouldn’t mistake me for pious or devout, yeah I sensed there was a holiness there, there was something going on there that meant a great deal to me.
Now, with your thought, with your experience with your Catholic friend, try this out. A good friend of mine, years ago, had a suggestion for what wards ought to do with the sacrament that I never had the courage to do as either a bishop or a stake president, because I was afraid I’d get released, I guess. But here’s the idea. The idea is that at the end of church one Sunday, the bishop stands up and announces to the ward that, “Next Sunday church is going to be a little bit different. We’re only going to have sacrament meeting, that’s all we’re going to have. We’re not going to have any other meetings. There’ll be no bishop meetings, there’ll be no presidency meetings, there’ll be no choir practice, nothing. It’s just sacrament meeting. That’s it. Nothing else.”
“And here’s what sacrament meeting is going to look like,” says the Bishop. “We’re going to assemble in the chapel, we’re going to sing a hymn, we’re going to take the sacrament, and we’re going to go home. That’s it. The idea behind it is tear down all the scaffolding and see what the heart of the experience is. Then maybe with that view, when we come back the next time, we’ll see that everything else is scaffolding.”
Terryl Givens: It’s just scaffolding.
Thomas Griffith: Everything else needs to be directly related to that experience that we’ve just shared one with another in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.
Terryl Givens: Okay, this leads to my next question, which you’ve already kind of partially answered. I remember hearing a story, it may have come from you, of President Hinkley saying on one occasion, “How can we get this Gospel of Jesus Christ down into the hearts of the people?” We’re going to be talking-
Thomas Griffith: For instance, we need to do a better job of getting it down, yeah.
Terryl Givens: Okay. And clearly, we do. It strikes me that, we can argue about the terminology, but we’re herding right now as a church. Right? We’re losing thousands and thousands of our best and brightest. It strikes me that if any of them had had an experience comparable to Thomas, feeling the wounds, or the Nephites, they wouldn’t leave because they have questions about horses in the Book of Mormon.
So how have we gone so wrong, or how have we been so deficient in constructing the bases on which Latter-day Saints claim membership or discipleship?
Thomas Griffith: Well, that’s a tough question, and I’m not certain that I like the lead up, that I’m now going to comment on deficiencies. Way above my [crosstalk 00:26:29]-
Terryl Givens: What could we do better?
Thomas Griffith: Well, this is one of them. I think a laser-like intensity on the sacrament. Another experience that was formative to me in this is when I first joined the church, I was ordained a priest, which just boggled my mind. I didn’t realize that was going to come with it. I held priest in such high regard because of my experience as an Anglican. That now this 16 year old is going to be a priest was a bit overwhelming. We had a large priest quorum, such that you wouldn’t bless the sacrament every Sunday, but maybe every third Sunday or so.
So I had a couple of friends, Mike Schurtliff and Tom Ruche. No, got it just backwards, Mike Ruche and Tom Schurtliff, sorry guys. Two of my closest friends. We, on our own, decided that when it was our turn in the rotation to bless the sacrament, we would go down the hall before the meeting began and have our own little prayer meeting. That was a really powerful experience. Years later, as an adult, when I was a bishop, I would do that with the Aaronic Priesthood. The boys that were going to be blessing the sacrament, we would go off before sacrament meeting and have a prayer about that.
So there are lots of things that we can do. You haven’t asked me, but I’m going to give you one of my pet peeves. One of my pet peeves is when that wonderful member of the bishop ring stands up in sacrament meeting and says, “We are now going to have the sacrament portion of our meeting.” That just drives me crazy. I just feel like standing up and saying, “There is no sacrament portion of our meeting. It’s a sacrament meeting. The whole thing is supposed to reflect, all the talks, all the hymns, everything in the ideal world reflects the fact that we’ve just, as a community, had this experience where we’ve shared with one another the emblems of Christ’s death and resurrection. And everything ought to be an echo of that.
I remember years ago hearing John Staley, John Staley was a benedictine monk for several decades before he joined the church, and then he was a sociology professor at BYU for a number of years, and he had wonderful insights into liturgy, and the relationship between Catholic tradition and Latter-day Saint sensibilities. He was just wonderful. I can remember him talking about the significance, what he thought as the significance in the way the sacrament is administered in Latter-day Saint congregations in contrasting it with the way it’s done in a Catholic parish. He thought both were great. He’s not critical of either.
But he pointed out the significance of the symbolism in a Catholic parish where one goes to receive the host and the wine, the emblems of the Eucharist, from the priest, and what a sacred moment that is. What that says about the role of the priest, what that says about the role of a parishioner, and it’s a sacred bond there. It’s really important.
Then Brother Staley would point out, he would ask, “Okay, so who did you get the sacrament from last Sunday?” And it’s somebody sitting next to you, right? Might be a family member, might be a stranger, but it’s nobody special. He pointed out that that itself is highly special. Now, we all know, maybe the way we do it, the way we do it is because we’re efficient, right? We’re the people of the beehive, and we figured out the quickest way to get this thing done. That’s the skeptics view of it.
Terryl Givens: Maybe the lesson is what C.S. Lewis was teaching about the holiest thing next to [crosstalk 00:30:28]-
Thomas Griffith: That’s where I was headed to. My favorite quote from Lewis is, I think, his greatest sermon, The Weight of Glory, at St. Mary’s Church. You and I have been there together, and I tried to sneak up in the pulpit from where he gave it. But he closes that by saying, “Next, the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” In the Latter-day Saint form of taking the Eucharist, we get that, right? Because to my neighbor, who’s holy, I hand the emblems of Christ’s suffering. That’s powerful.
One thing we can do is just become more sacramentalist in that way. If there’s a reluctance to do that because there’s a lot of skepticism about liturgy in our worship services, I guess I get that, I don’t share those concerns. You know?
Terryl Givens: Yeah. I think that could be a powerful aid in centering faith and testimonial practice on Christ.
Thomas Griffith: I’ll tell you another one that’s related to it, it comes out of our experience. I had this wonderful experience of presiding over a BYU campus stake, and that’s great for many reasons. One of the reasons it’s really great is because nobody’s really watching you. No, just kidding. No, I mean, certainly you’re being watched, there’s supervision, but I can’t imagine it’s the same level of super … Well, maybe it is, but at least Elder John Grover was the general authority who supervised us, and what a wonderful man to work-
Terryl Givens: The Other Side of Heaven.
Thomas Griffith: The Other Side of … What a wonderful man to work with. So we presented an idea to him as a stake presidency, and he let us do it. The idea was to lay down the law, lay down a rule. As my wife said, “Honey, you were the type of stake president you would’ve hated as a bishop because you were laying down all these rules.”
But here’s the rule we laid down: that every talk in sacrament meeting, every lesson in priesthood, Sunday school, relief society, all had to be about the atonement of Christ in a direct and an express way. What that meant was if the bishop wanted to have a sacrament meeting on provident living, that’s fine, great topic. But the talks had to be about provident living and the atonement of Christ. What we’d say is, “If you can’t make that connection, then you either haven’t thought about it enough or what you’re talking about probably ought to be talked about somewhere else, but not in sacrament meeting, not in the block of meetings that follows that, which are all supposed to echo that.”
So we did that, and I just have to tell you, it was a remarkable experience. It was transformative for all of us. We really thought we had stumbled upon something that’s powerful. And it took some administering to do. We would have workshops regularly where we would teach teachers how to take the curriculum, the approved curriculum, and how to tease out of that atonement principles, how it relates to the atonement of Christ. I tell you, it changes everything.
Anyway, so I have to believe that if we’re having experiences like that, if we come to the sabbath and are having experiences like that, connected to Christ and His atoning sacrifice, yeah, it doesn’t solve all of your discomfort, but it puts it in perspective.
Terryl Givens: It’s a gesture in that direction. I think that more attention toward language could be helpful as well. As you know, you and I’ve spent a lot of time and space in suggesting that if we think of Christ as our Healer, it’s about woundedness as much as about sin. If we think of sin as a form of woundedness, look upon Him as the God who wants to minister to us rather than the God who stands in judgment over us.
I just have found that there are so many members of the church who have a relationship to our Heavenly Father and to Christ that are uninformed by the beautiful truths of The Restoration. I think so much of what Joseph was doing was trying to move us forward in taking more literally a conception of God as our Father. He’s not the sovereign deity who’s concerned about our obedience to Him as much as He’s …
I mean, here’s an example. I just discovered this week, re-reading for the millionth time the beautiful Moses 7, the encounter of Enoch with a weeping God. I had never noticed before, as God is talking to Enoch and Enoch asks Him for the third time, “Why are you weeping? How can you weep?” The Father repeats the two great commandments, but He repeats them in reverse order.
Thomas Griffith: Really?
Terryl Givens: He says, “I gave commandment to my children that they should love one another, and that they should honor me, their Father. But they are without natural affection.” [crosstalk 00:35:56]
Thomas Griffith: So what do you think that means? What does that flip?
Terryl Givens: Well, when He describes His grief, He doesn’t say, “They’re ignoring me, they’re disobeying me, they’re rebellious.”
Thomas Griffith: Right, it’s not about Him. Okay, yeah.
Terryl Givens: It’s not about Him. What makes Him weep is that they’re killing each other. I think that’s such a more beautiful conception of our Father’s relationship to us, that He’s about us loving each other first and foremost. And if we think of atonement in the broader sense of reconciliation, well, what reconciliation? Well, He’s tried to reconcile the human family to each other, as well as to Him.
Thomas Griffith: We had the really good fortune in our stake back then of having a bishop who unfortunately didn’t stay with us for long because he became a general authority. That’s Elder Craig Christiansen of the 70 was in our stake. He taught us something very profound about this when we started down this path of focusing on the atonement. He pointed out that there are at least two components to the atonement, what he would call the vertical pull of the atonement, where our heavenly parents are pulling us to them through Christ, and then equally as strong and equally as important is the horizontal pull of the atonement, where they’re trying to reconcile us, one to another.
I loved your emphasis on the Christ who heals. That’s been really helpful to me, and it helps explain an experience I had on my mission. Am I allowed to do that? Am I allowed to tell stories about my mission?
Terryl Givens: Yeah.
Thomas Griffith: Yeah, sorry. But I served a mission in Southern Africa, and I was in a wonderful city called Durban on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Gandhi was actually from Durban. A beautiful area that is about as diverse as certainly any place that I’ve ever been, because you have East Asians, Southeast Asians there, Southern Asians, you have Black Africans, Europeans, just a real interesting mix of folks.
One day, it was a preparation day, I was on the bus with my companion, and we were going to the chapel. They had a squash court at the chapel in Durban. How did that get past church real estate? But they had a squash court, and we were going to play squash that day, on our preparation day. We’re on the bus, the bus, for some reason, gets stalled in downtown Durban, so we’re sitting there on this hot day, and I’m looking out over the … it was in the Central Plaza, but there was a large open area. And it was just this incredible diversity of humanity, so some people in traditional African garb, people in European business suits, the smell of the spices. It was just very exotic, and I was sort of looking at that and thinking, “How amazing is this that I’m in this part of the world having this experience?”
Then the thought came to me. This doesn’t happen often, but it came to me. The thought was, Elder Griffith, every person you see out there … this wasn’t a vision, but it was almost like they were representing every nation kindred tongue and people. The thought was every person you see out there hurts, they have pain. They have pain. They don’t know how to reach that pain with the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. You do.
I have to tell you, that changed my mission on a dime. Up to that point in time, I was trying to be resourceful, and coming up with interesting ideas to attract people’s attention about the nature of the Trinity, and continuing revelation, all these sort of interesting things. But after that, I tried to approach every person I met with the assumption that there was something deep inside of them that really hurt. And I assumed that was true because I knew that was true for me, right?
It changed things. With that view, that people hurt and that Christ is the Healer, it affects the way we approach everything.
Terryl Givens: I think it gives us an answer to one of the deepest theological questions, which is, well, exactly how does that healing happen? I think we sometimes, and I think President Nelson has warned against this, we sometimes objectify the atonement as this magical genie’s lamp.
Thomas Griffith: Right.
Terryl Givens: No, I think, at least this is how I experience it, that if you consider that when Joseph went into the sacred grove and heard that there was a problem with the creeds. I think the principal abomination to which the Lord was referring was this espousal of a God who’s without passion, who’s incapable of being moved. I think replacing that with the God of Enoch, recognizing that we have a God who literally hurts over our pain, Joseph’s conception of creation, which is completely different than the entire Christian tradition, from Tertullian to John Piper, who says that God created us for our joy,, not for His glory.
In other words, the more you flesh out the nature of the God that Joseph reveals, the more you come face to face with a purity of absolute divine love, that I think the Christian world has never successfully expressed or articulated. And it’s that experience-
Thomas Griffith: Although it’s there, it’s certainly there in the New Testament accounts, there in Hebrews.
Terryl Givens: It’s there in [inaudible 00:42:00].
Thomas Griffith: He’s moved the high priest who feels what we feel. But I don’t know the theology. You’re the expert there. I don’t know the theology. But my experience may be a little bit different in this regard, and you tell me where the theology is. All of my Catholic and Evangelical friends view the God of Enoch, they may not think of Him in those terms, but they experience a God who weeps for them and cares for them.
Terryl Givens: I think that increasingly has come to be the case. That is undoubtedly a modern development. It’s undoubtedly a modern development. Every historian in theology will tell you that until the late 19th century, nobody was embracing the idea of a God who can be moved by our pain or suffering. So that’s a new development.
I’m reminded the experience I had at a Methodist seminary in Baltimore, where I was making essentially the same claims, and a Dean of Theology objected strenuously, and he said, “Oh, we Methodists have been preaching that longer than Joseph Smith.” I said, “Well, are you familiar with your creeds?” And he thought a minute, and then got a little bit uncomfortable and said, “Well, we don’t really pay attention to the creeds.”
So to the extent that, at the popular level of lived Christianity, people have felt free to dismiss those creeds, I think they’ve been drawn to the true God.
Thomas Griffith: Yeah. What it reminds me of in your talk, your BYU talk Lightning From Heaven, the story about Jonathan Edwards’ wife. Right?
Terryl Givens: Right.
Thomas Griffith: Remind me of that story.
Terryl Givens: Well, Jonathan Edwards was out of town, probably on a speaking circuit, and his wife, Sarah, was at home. So the equivalent of a home teacher stopped by, an assistant-
Thomas Griffith: A minister.
Terryl Givens: Yeah. And I can just imagine him thinking, “Okay, I’m home-teaching Jonathan Edwards’ wife, I better do a good job just like he would.” So he asks her if he can pray, and he leaves this prayer with the family, and it just appalls her. It’s a prayer to this sovereign, threatening kind of … that’s the impression you get from her reaction. She said, “I was so disturbed after he left, and I wondered, ‘Why can’t I address him as father?’ So I retired to my chamber to pray, and there appeared to me God the Father and His Son Jesus as two distinct loving beings.” I mean, she describes the experience as just transformative.
I don’t think it was a real vision she’s describing, she just had this intimation of a father figure completely unlike the one that-
Thomas Griffith: And don’t you think that’s natural? I mean, that’s-
Terryl Givens: Well, if it’s not beaten out of us by culture.
Thomas Griffith: And we are not immune from doing that either, right?
Terryl Givens: Well, no.
Thomas Griffith: Yeah, we’re not immune from making Heavenly Father, making our heavenly parents maybe different than they are. Right?
Terryl Givens: Well, listen, we’re running out of time. I do want to turn to one topic that may seem unrelated to what’s gone before, but you insist that it’s not. That is, lawyers and the atonement.
Thomas Griffith: Right, right, right.
Terryl Givens: Or just the general, what you have titled times in your remarks I think the Mormon approach to politics. Is there a Mormon approach? Should there be a [crosstalk 00:45:16] approach?
Thomas Griffith: I think there should, I think there should. This comes out of my … I’m a native Washingtonian. On my mother’s side of the family, the Bells go back to the Washington area to the 1700s. Laborers, farmers, artisans, all. But we go back that far. On the Griffith side of the family, we go back to the Washington area to the 1820s or 1830s. So I am in the swamp, I am the swamp, right?
I grew up with a fascination for national politics. Living in McLean, Virginia in the 60s and 70s, in those days, congressmen and senators actually lived in the Washington area because they could afford it. They can’t anymore, they can’t afford to live there, so they don’t. They just visit a couple days a week, and then go to their home districts. But in those days, they lived there. So I went to school with the sons and daughters of congressmen and senators. That wasn’t unusual.
But developed an interest in national politics early on, had the wonderful good fortune of being a neighbor to Mo Udall, who was a Democratic Congressman from Arizona, and a Latter-day Saint.
Terryl Givens: You’ve got a great story with him and John McCain. Maybe you’ll-
Thomas Griffith: I’ll tell that.
Terryl Givens: … tell that.
Thomas Griffith: Yeah. Mo, by his own description was a Jack Mormon, but his father was a Supreme Court Justice in Arizona, a long time stake president.
Terryl Givens: Stewart, is that his name?
Thomas Griffith: Stewart was his elder brother, was President Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior. The Udall family is a remarkable family. And I had the good fortune of living in the same neighborhood as him. To make a long story short, he hired me, and I worked for him for a couple of summers, and worked in his office in D.C. He took me everywhere. He would take me to press conferences, he’d take me to media appearances.
So here is a 15 year old, I’m rubbing shoulders with these national politicians, so I had a deep interest in politics. At one point, the plan was that I was going to run for Congress in Northern Virginia, and Mo Udall was going to be in the district to help me. A lot of things changed since then, including my political views. But I was steeped in that culture.
I remember, on my mission, talking to mission president about my interest in politics, and I adored my mission president, one of the greatest humans I’ve ever met, Robert Thorn. He was just baffled by the fact that someone could be interested in politics, and also try and be a Christian. And actually, maybe he’s right, I don’t know. But I was steeped in it, and so I followed it carefully. I’ve never run for elected office, but I was active in Republican Party politics before I became a judge. I no longer have any partisan affiliations.
But as a result of all that, I have developed views about politics, and public life, and what The Restoration insights can and I think should bring to bear on public life, and Latter-day Saints, and their role in public life. First of all, we ought to be there. I’m not a benedict option fellow, to retreat from society and let it all go to chaos and then 300 years from now emerge with saving civilization. Glad the benedictine monks did that; I don’t think that’s a model.
Terryl Givens: Some temptation to do that.
Thomas Griffith: It is a constant temptation, but I think we’re called to do just the opposite. I think we’re called to be actively engaged in the life of the world. So the question is how do you do that?
A Mormon approach to politics would be one where there is vigorous disagreement, but the primary objective, the primary objective is to build community and build unity amongst a diverse group of people. Try this out, and I’m borrowing this, now, from Jack Welch, and the role King Benjamin plays, what King Benjamin did. As Jack points out, a close read of the Book of Mormon shows that Benjamin is really the towering figure, excuse the pun, the towering figure for Nephite society. His influence was long-lasting in many, many ways.
Mormon starts his account after he does the small plates, you got to do Nephi, he’s the founder, okay, Mormon puts the small plates in there. But now when it’s Mormon getting to write his account for us-
Terryl Givens: Benjamin.
Thomas Griffith: … who does he start with? He starts with an Enoch-like figure, city builder, it’s Benjamin. And, this is again from Jack, a close read shows that Benjamin has this diverse population, right? He’s got different ethnic groups, got the Mulekites, and got the Nephites, and they’re very different. They are very different in terms of their educational background, their literacy, there’s a big class divide.
As Jack points out, if you look carefully, the first part of Mormon’s account of Benjamin shows that Benjamin had spent his life trying to bring these people together through educational reform, as we get that from his description of how he taught his sons, through legal reform, they did away with [inaudible 00:51:12] like they did with slavery and debtors prisons. So the story, it looks like this is a man who’s really tried hard to bring his people together, and it hasn’t worked. So what is it that brings it together? It’s the speech.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Thomas Griffith: King Benjamin’s address, and the center of that speech is about the atonement of Christ and its transformative power. After that, they call themselves by the same name. So there’s your model.
Now, Mormon, Latter-day Saint politicians can’t get up and give talks about the atonement of Christ in a debate, but we ought to be the ones who are working at unity. We’re the people of the beehive. I once heard Richard Bushman say this, that of all the wonderful contributions Latter-day Saints can make to the world, and there are many, there are lots of great things we can do, he thought that maybe the chief among them would be we know how to build community. We know how to do that.
So to me, a Mormon approach to politics would be one where we take those lessons that we learn and practice every Sunday at a ward council, and as we try and get along with our ward members who are of different views than us-
Terryl Givens: In wards where we don’t get to choose our neighbors at the parish.
Thomas Griffith: That’s right. Eugene England’s Why the Church is True is the Gospel. As we learn the skills that come from life in the ward, which are so frustrating to us so that we want two hours instead of three, I’m sorry, had to put that plug in, I’m a four hour church guy, I want four hours, we’re sitting on top, we’re in the midst of this radical social engine called the ward, and we sleep through it. We’re bored with it.
But what’s happening there, I think properly understood, is we’re learning skills about how to build community. If we ever get to the point, and a lot of people are doing this already, where we take those skills, take them outside the chapel foyer, and start to work on them in our communities, that’s-
Terryl Givens: That would be transformative.
Thomas Griffith: … that will be transformative. So I’m of the view, we believe that Latter-day Saints have a special stewardship with regard to the United States Constitution, and there’s talk out there, I don’t know, I’ve never checked to see how authentic it is, but there’s talk that there will be a moment when the Constitution will be in peril, and that we’ll have some special role to saving that. I mean, a lot of people have spoken about that over the years, I don’t pretend to know exactly what that means. But many interpretations I’ve heard in the past use that as a goad to people to study the Constitution, understand its history, understand its provisions. And I’m all for that.
But I think if there’s a role for us to play in defending and supporting the Constitution of the United States, and the principles upon which it stands, which are universal principles, that it actually comes in this community building, because the Constitution cannot withstand citizenry that’s contempt with one another. It was born in a moment where … I just gave a talk on this yesterday at Berkeley, so it’s fresh on my mind.
In the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention was about to fail. Six weeks later, it succeeded. In his transmittal letter sending the Constitution to Congress, George Washington wrote that the Constitution was the product of the spirit of enmity and mutual deference, which the peculiarity of our circumstances rendered indispensable. The Constitution was born because that group of people, with all their flaws, decided that they wanted unity above all else. They decided to compromise about the Constitution before they knew what the terms of the compromise were. It was the sense of unity that was primary.
You know, we can do that. That’s what we, I think-
Terryl Givens: That’s what we’re called to do.
Thomas Griffith: … we have a place to play there. That’s my Mormon approach to politics.
Terryl Givens: Okay, thank you. Powerful. Two final questions.
Thomas Griffith: Sure.
Terryl Givens: What inspires you with most hope at this particular moment in our own faith tradition?
Thomas Griffith: In our faith tradition? What inspires me with hope? Well, first of all, I believe it’s true. I believe this movement, this church is founded on a real miracle, that, to use David Bentley Hart’s praise, that history has been invaded by God in Christ in our time, in modern day, through this miracle of the recovery of the Book of Mormon and all that it stands for. So that gives me hope, I mean, to know God is active in the affairs of the world, and this is His, I believe, His primary vehicle. Not His only vehicle, He’s doing lots of great things through lots of different places, but His primary vehicle to prepare the world for the Lord’s return. I believe that.
So because of that, I am-
Terryl Givens: You’re hopeful.
Thomas Griffith: I am hopeful. Now, there’s a lot that I’m discouraged about. It turns out-
Terryl Givens: Well, I thought that would be too easy a question.
Thomas Griffith: … yeah, it’s a tough time.
Terryl Givens: Second question, last question today. Holy envy of what tradition specifically, what practice or characteristics?
Thomas Griffith: Oh gee, I could go on a long time, and you don’t want me to do that.
Terryl Givens: Pick one.
Thomas Griffith: I’m going to pick two. So I tell my Catholic friends and my Jewish friends, of whom I have many they bless my life in such profound ways, but I use this little phrase, I say, “You know, if I wasn’t absolutely convinced that there really golden plates, I’d be at mass with you today.” Then I say to my Jewish friends, “If I wasn’t persuaded and convinced that something special happened on that Easter, I’d be at synagogue with you.”
So I have holy envy for both those traditions, for Roman Catholicism and for Judaism. I’m a Philo-Semite. And there’s lots about both traditions I admire, but I’ll just pick one. I’ll pick one. In both of them, they have displayed the power that comes from joining the life of the mind with the life of the spirit, right? And there’s no false distinction between them. They’re seamless. I admire that because it speaks to the complete human, I believe. So both those traditions, I tip my hat to them. And we’re getting there, you know? We’re new. We’re new at this. But we can learn a lot from both those traditions.
Terryl Givens: Thank you, Tom. As usual, you’ve been eloquent and powerful in your expressions.
Thomas Griffith: Well, I don’t know about that, but I always enjoy talking with you, and this has been great.
Terryl Givens: Which we don’t get to do as often now that I’ve-
Thomas Griffith: Now that you’ve flown the coop.
Terryl Givens: … located here, and you’re still in Loudoun County back East.
Thomas Griffith: But thanks.
Terryl Givens: And thank you for being with us today. This has been Terryl Givens with my close and dear friend Tom Griffith, who I’ve referred to more than once as the king’s good servant, but God’s first. Thank you for being with us today.
Thomas Griffith: Thank you.
Terryl Givens: So long.
Aubrey Chaves: Thanks so much for joining us for this Conversation with Terryl Givens. If you’re listening to this on a podcast platform, remember you can head over to our YouTube channel to watch a video of the conversation, or to our website for a full transcript. If you’d like to support Faith Matters, we’d love for you to leave us a rating on your podcast provider or a thumbs up on YouTube. Thanks so much for listening, and as always, you can check out more at faithmatters.org.