I could be annoyed by Terryl Givens.  His new Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity has been keeping me up at night, throwing off my biological clock, further complicating my thinking and interfering with my already compromised “productivity.”  But I am not annoyed, I am profoundly grateful, as all advised readers will be.  This book is a monumental contribution to understanding Mormonism that it will take us some time to digest.  And it promises to meet a very distinct need in modern society and in contemporary LDS thought, though just the way it might help to define and meet that intellectual and spiritual, that moral and theological need – well, that is part of what we will have to begin to digest.  (This volume, I should note, focusses on “cosmology, the nature of the divine, and the anthropology and destiny of the human,” while a second volume promises to treat “ecclesiology, including such topics as authority, sacraments, spiritual gifts, and worship.”)

Click to buy.

Click to buy.

Given’s title captures both the bold ambition of the book and a humbling sense of the inevitable limits of such an enterprise.  As Givens writes, “’WRESTLING THE ANGEL’ seems an apt image for any mortal attempt to capture in finite time and in human language the essential propositions about the nature of God.”  If the author braves these limitations of our mortal condition and ventures onto the mat with the angel of theology, it is because – well, mainly because, I sense, he can’t help it, he longs to understand what it all means and to share with others in this quest for understanding.  Givens notes a certain decline in LDS theological passion in the 20th century, and even accepts the usefulness of a separation between rather minimalist official “doctrine” and somewhat less reputable and potentially counter-productive theological speculation, but he seems convinced that exploring “the unbounded range of Smith’s vision,” however fuzzy around certain edges and subject to multiple interpretations, is important to the continuing vitality of Mormonism.

Contesting a common view that the most distinctive and venturesome elements of Mormon thought were products of his last years in Nauvoo, Givens shows that the “enlargement of Mormon theology to encompass a materialistic cosmology, Adamic gospel, anthropomorphic God, pre-existent humans, and post-mortal families was rooted in the 1830s,” even though the “full elaboration” of the Prophet’s distinctive vision would depend upon others, and upon no one more than Parley Pratt.  Givens finds “moral agency,” or “the capacity for independent virtuous activity” to be the “bedrock value” expressed in Mormon theology, and he finds this value reflected in a “dynamic, fundamentally Romantic view of the world.”  Here we see the convergence of Givens interests and competencies as interpreter of LDS thought on the one hand and literary scholar of the Romantic period (but not only this period, of course) on the other hand.  One question we will have going forward is just how Givens understands the essence of Romanticism, and whether this frame of reference is in all respects adequate to grasping what is at stake in a distinctively LDS understanding of the nature and destiny of humanity.

In what follows I just begin to grapple with the angel of Mormon theology, a task that Givens’ magisterial new interpretation has helped to make at once more urgent and more possible.  And then I engage a discussion with the author, which is to be pursued in subsequent posts.


For those with a very tidy and finalized view of LDS doctrine, this book can only be unsettling.  Our beliefs have a history, and that history includes many puzzles, aporias, and fissures.  This might be a good reason to let history be history and even to leave it to historians, thus allowing today’s Saints to live by our own best doctrinal lights (according to authoritative present teaching), as well as by individual and ecclesial revelation.  In fact I think this is generally a wise practice, since puzzles, aporias and fissures are not exactly the stuff (certainly not the whole stuff) of faithful religious practice.  This is one reason to respect the argument of the “atheological” school of thought, best championed (with due caution and much nuance, to be sure) by my BYU and Patheos colleague James Faulconer.  There is no reason to assume that a complete and airtight theological system is possible or even desirable; this seems true in general, and even more true of LDS belief and practice (with its commitments to personal and to ongoing institutional revelation) than of other Christian traditions.  But Givens reasonably answers that “it is obvious that a body of teachings and propositions and beliefs have arisen in the Mormon faith tradition, and the question is how to establish general grounds for relative authority.”  Givens could not be more aware that this “how” raises a very difficult question, and modestly proposes a presentation of doctrines that is “primarily descriptive,” while admitted that his “judgments are obviously selective and subjective.”

Now I am not overly fond of this self-description as “subjective,” because it seems to throw the door wide open to relativism, since it would seem anyone can be a “subject.”  But there is no doubt selective judgments are in order, and Terryl Givens makes a bunch of them very judiciously.  What most interests me is the grounds on which these are made.  These grounds are often historical and ecclesial – what came earlier, what was most official, what is now official, etc. – but they are also significantly … how shall I say: substantive, philosophical, and practical.  Givens’ “selective” judgments confront us with the necessity to consider, not only what is continuous with our history (for this is not always an adequate guide), but what is on balance sound, coherent, and, well, good.  And the question what is sound, coherent and good itself has a historical dimension (albeit one most often slighted by historians), that is: what challenges are faced in our contemporary world that call forth certain strengths of our theological history and tradition?  I intend to argue (in a future post) that it is in view of certain distinct challenges that Givens is justified in imposing some theology on the relatively atheological practice of Mormonism.

If Givens’ remarkably rich historical and comparative treatise on Mormon belief is finally edifying and faith-promoting (as well as challenging, perplexing, even unsettling), it is because he begins to show us how to appreciate on the most critical philosophical grounds, and despite the inevitable failure of any attempt at a whole, complete and uncontested system, the goodness of our tradition as it has been appropriated by living prophets and apostles.

Givens on Mormon “Continuing Revelation”:  History, Intellectual Eclecticism, and the Spirit’s Guidance  (Here I leave in the Kindle place markers, in case they might be useful to other readers.)

Givens provides a very nuanced treatment of the meaning of “Restoration” and “Apostasy,” and the relation of authoritative revelation to history and to intellectual inquiry.  At the same time, he clearly remains open to the distinctive truth and beauty of LDS teaching, and indeed to the role of institutional authority in the sometimes messy but necessary process of defining the parameters of truth for a community of saints.

Here he steers between an overly one-dimensional view of the workings of revelation and the equally simplistic dismissal of a source of truth above historical influences:

This catalog of his liberal statements on religious truth suggests that Smith’s prophetic practice was neither the unstudied and erratic plagiarism of his caricaturists nor always the epiphany-driven receipt of “vertical revelation” imputed to him by his devoted followers. 1009

Smith believed himself to be an oracle of God, subject to moments of heavenly encounter and the pure flow of inspiration. But he also was insatiably eclectic in his borrowings and adaptations, with an adventuresome mind, prone to speculation and fully comfortable with the trial and error of intellectual effort. 1021

This nuanced view leads Givens to one of a number of interesting rapprochements with certain features of Catholicism:

What they actually suggest is that Mormonism, with its espousal of “continuing revelation,” living prophets, and an open canon, is not all that far removed from Catholic conceptions of an original deposit of faith given to the apostles that the church must teach and protect, even while acknowledging that said deposit of faith unfolds and develops over time, subject to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. 552

This makes sense to me, though the comparison/contrast with the Catholic tradition awaits further development.  Surely the continuing role of “epiphanies” or “vertical revelation” or literal “heavenly encounters” is stronger in the LDS understanding.  Or at least I would hope so.

Interview with Terryl Givens (Part One)

RCH: Should there be a Mormon theology, or should we try to be as atheological as possible?  Should we strive for a system that is as coherent, complete, and systematic as possible? What is the role of scholars and lay teachers (as distinct from Church authorities) in defining and defending a theology?

Terryl Givens

TG: I am not sure that an interest in a systematic theology in Mormonism is an undesirable as many believe it to be. First the concessions: revelation trumps scholastic system building, certainly. And we are saved by what we do, and who we are, how we love, not by what we know or understand. So ethics trumps theology, too.  And yes, system implies stasis and finality, and Mormonism is all about dynamism and eternal progression and continuing revelation. I grant that. But I would argue 1) revelation and system building are not mutually antithetical. Talmage and Roberts demonstrated this, by trying to better organize and explicate revealed truth, and by employing their own gifts of inspired insight as they attempted to order and expand Mormon theology. Joseph Smith himself approved and oversaw the canonization of the “Lectures on Theology.” 2) If theology and ethics are disconnected entirely, then our theology isn’t worth a hill of beans. One example: our doctrine tells us ordinances are indispensable. The ethics at the heart of Christianity (and Mormonism) inform us that the Great Commandments are to love God and others. Theology can link the two, by providing a reasoned exposition of ordinances as performative gestures that are themselves constitutive of loving relationships—with our Father, our Savior, and our families. Theology can thus infuse our doctrine and our practices with a more coherent understanding of what seemingly formal observances mean and accomplish; they can instill our outward actions with a catalyst born of heighted love and desire to connect; they can fire up our motivations and catalyze our behavior in more redemptive directions. As Jonathan Mayhew wrote, A right faith is an excellent and valuable thing. But it is advantageous no further than it. . . leads us to live an holy and godly life.” And 3) the fact that revelation continues and our doctrinal understanding is never fixed does not mean we cannot organize it systematically, as long as we understand that all our knowledge and system-building is provisional. Catholics and Protestants also believe in continuing revelation (they call it the unfolding of the original deposit of faith) and it hasn’t hampered their theological projects.

Other worries associated with Mormon theology are forms of the question, who has authority to theologize? The answer, of course, is that we all do. We need to have our definitions straight. Theology is reasoned discourse about God. It is not doctrine. Only those with the keys can pronounce doctrine (authoritative teachings). Theology is not doctrine. It is a reasoned consideration and exposition of what those doctrines are, and what they imply, and how they are interrelated. It behooves us all to be more reflective, thoughtful, and studious about our faith in its several dimensions and groundings: The things of God are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O Man if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse.

Finally, a clarification. I titled my own project, “The Foundations of Mormon Thought,” deliberately avoiding use of the word theology. The distinction may be slight, but I am not a trained theologian, and make no pretense of being one. I think my work falls under the rubric of intellectual history more than theology per se—though in studying the origin and evolution of religious teachings the distinction can blur.

RCH:  Thank you Terryl, all those points are illuminating and helpful.  If I understand you, you acknowledge the rightful place to “doctrine,” the core of shared teachings determined by Church Authorities, and then you see “theology” as a natural and good intellectual quest for order, consistency and wholeness in our beliefs, but an intellectual quest that is not vouchsafed to any exclusive class of theological priests, any magisterium.  Thus, it seems to me, doctrine in a way rules theology, but somewhat indirectly, at one or two removes, allowing considerable “play” in the intellectual quest.    

What you say then about the role of ordinances is then central, it seems to me.  In fact it strikes me that the “ordinances” properly understood provide the crucial linkage between practices and beliefs — they are both practices and beliefs at the same time, in a way, a vital middle term or perhaps rather synthesis between religion viewed as practical law (a theological “orthopraxy”) and religion viewed as driven by authorized philosophical theology (“orthodoxy”).  Ordinances are doctrine-soaked observances and they are at the same time performative theologies, an enacted system of belief.  Or are they are a kind of living poetry, in which articulate meaning informs bodily enactments but never presumes to operate in some pure intellectual realm apart from covenants performed.  

It is the practical authority, in a way the ultimacy of ordinances (temple ordinances in particular) that then might be said to help keep open a free space for the irrepressible and edifying quest for theology, for  a coherent and ordered body of belief.  Beliefs can be somewhat provisional, fuzzy around the edges, open to articulation and re-articulation, because ordinances and covenants provide the terra firma of religious life.  (Of course there has been development in ordinances too, which might raise further questions.  But it seems to me there is in a sense an eternity in the performances that exceeds the particular and adaptable forms.)

But then there is the key question of the theology-ethics nexus, which is perhaps not exhausted in the understanding of ordinances.  Morality in its eternal significance is figured in the ordinances, one might say, but morality also is inevitably embedded in a social and political economy; its function is both personal and communal; it equips the individual to be a part of a responsible part of an actual social whole, it coordinates or reconciles the good of the soul and that of the city (as I like to say in my Greek style).  This socially embedded morality is also part of the meaning of religion, isn’t it? — part of the necessary bond between belief and ethics?  

And so must not this bond be kept in mind as we praise the openness and as you say I think “provisional” quality of our theologizing?  For morality is the one thing that cannot be “provisional.”  At least it is not likely to work very well if we think of it as provisional.  A religious and moral law that is supposed to restrain my passions will not give me very reliable guidance if I am invited to wish that it might change or “progress,” whether next month or in the next generation.  As all moral philosophers have noticed, every human being is all too ready to make an exception for himself where the burdens of morality are concerned.  And so any provisional theology that seemed to make moral doctrine provisional could only undermine the essential authority of the moral law.  No?

Consider, then, what you say about the problem of fallibility in the light of this moral dimension of doctrine. You remind us of the very pertinent joke that has it that “Catholics espouse papal infallibility, but no Catholic believes in it. Joseph Smith espoused prophetic fallibility, but no Mormon believes in it. “518   And a little further you note that “the LDS Church has no doctrine of infallibility, but it is characterized by a church culture that elevates the prophet and his mantle to near infallible heights.” 598 

By highlighting the moral dimension of doctrine, I mean to ask whether what we might call this practical infallibility, this practice of infallibility,  is not in fact not only understandable but practically inevitable and indeed good.  Isn’t it important to somewhat isolate the adventure of theology, the open-ended intellectual quest, from the practical, moral dimension of religious life?  Must not a responsible theologizing respect the sacred stability (a practical stability, not a fully articulated theological morality) from the heady delights of philosophical innovation — not to mention the inviting counter-morality of “progress”?  

TG: I perceive in your queries a persistent worry/caution about over-individualizing belief and morality. Perhaps a justified concern, given that others have attempted to draw inferences from our writings that we would disown. For instance, one otherwise astute critic recently invoked these words of ours: “it is exactly in conditions of ‘incertitude,’ when we are open to the ‘indeterminacy of it all,’ that we become, as individuals empowered to make choices, able to ‘act most authentically, calling upon intuition, spiritual intimations, or simply yearning'” (Crucible 32). But he then compared that sentiment to what he considered a kindred statement made by Justice Anthony Kennedy in defending abortion rights: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That comparison is entirely inapt, not least of all because of the infinite chasm that differentiates “defining one’s own concept of existence” and terminating someone else’s existence. And that chasm is the one that, I hope, will alleviate your concerns as well.

Even faithful disciples not only can, but must endow their own existence with those values, morals, and obligations they will live by. But I don’t for a moment suggest that we as believing individuals have the right to redefine morality in any normative way. Nor do I believe that morality is provisional, without any eternal grounding. Our grasp of what constitutes morality may be incomplete, tenuous, fuzzy around the edges–even if revealed truth and prophetic leadership provide a general roadmap. What I am at pains to attempt, in my own work, is a re-centering of personal responsibility for the morality that we do embrace and live by. It is the ever present possibility of fallibility, one might even argue, that is our safeguard against an atrophied moral faculty.

Take the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I dont buy that the Nuremberg Defense is going to work its magic there. Even if the stake president who told you to participate was your priesthood file leader. You had a responsibility to verify through personal reflection, study, prayer, the degree of truth and inspiration behind his directive. Blind obedience is never righteous obedience. No one else can be a keeper of your conscience. You should, in other words, have known better. At the same time, it is important to point out that giving the leadership the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their counsel and teachings and directives, in the to day running of the church and the wards, involves few (some, but few!) issues of such high moral stakes. That is the sense in which I think it safe to say, the principal of delegation as we understand it in the Restored Church, presumes an authority which God has given to his leaders to act in his stead. And though those actions may occasionally be inconsistent with his will (no, he didn’t want Sister Jones to be the pianist; no, God didn’t really want the Bishop to require that you release John from his calling because he wore an earring; no, the Lord didn’t want Brigham Young teaching Adam-God ideas; etc.) , our choosing to sustain leaders as the default position, and sustaining the moral law of the church as it is articulated by its presiding authorities, is the very basis of what makes it possible for the church to act as a unified body of Christ, serving as an unambiguous Ensign amid the current moral cacophany, and fulfill its mandate to be leaven in the world. So I agree that a predisposition to tend toward an effectual belief in infallibility is a good thing for believing Latter-day Saints.

Here is one reason why: it was remarked at Pope John Paul II’s funeral that no pope was ever more beloved in the abstract, and more ignored in practice, by believing Catholics. On matters of profound moral importance to the Catholic leadership, rank and file Catholics are not measurably different than their non-Catholic counterparts (divorce, birth-control, abortion, etc). On the other hand, Mormon members, according to the data, manifest a higher level of conformity with their religion’s teachings than any of their Christian counterparts. If inspired prophetic leadership is a fiction, Mormons are mindless sheep. If inspired leadership is a fact, then Mormons are benefiting from a profound confidence in and conformity with that inspired leadership.