Book review: “The Doors of Faith” by Terryl Givens

I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Terryl Givens’ Doors of Faith in the mail the other week. I had been getting a book here and there from the A Brief Theological Introduction series on the Book of Mormon, but I assumed I had been removed from the list. Good to know I haven’t been kicked off yet!

I met Terryl Givens once. I didn’t get to talk to him, but he was a keynote speaker at the one Northstar conference I attended (not really my thing now, but it was a help during a chapter of my life). I found it an interesting choice of guest speaker given the context– all of us sad gays– but Givens’ address was masterful. His talk centered around adjust our focus in the Church and Christianity in general around sinfulness to woundedness. It wasn’t an entirely new idea for me– my mission had centered Alma 7:11-13 that says Christ came to take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. But for me it still seemed like a “yes, and” kind of statement, while Givens was radically recentering Christ’s mission around our wounds rather than our sins. I remember him saying something along the lines of, this generation doesn’t respond to messages of hellfire and damnation and instead are yearning for a message of healing.

I went through an extended Givens obsession where I tried to read everything Givens had released in print. I read The Good Who Weeps, The Christ Who Heals, The Crucible of Doubt, Wrestling with the Angel, and Feeding the Flock. While the books cover a lot of ground, I would distill Givens’ work down to five main ideas:

  • God feels for us and this is how his Atonement works.
  • We are learning to become like God, and mortality is a part of that process e.g. the doctrine of theosis
  • The three kingdoms of glory is not only approaching a doctrine of universal salvation, it is a doctrine of universal salvation; God will never give up on our ability to progress
  • Joseph Smith was an eclectic borrower and theological experimenter. His method of revelation wasn’t downloaded directly from heaven.
  • The Church doesn’t have a monopoly on truth. You can find Restoration truths in early church fathers, medieval mystics, poets and philosophers. These don’t compete with the Restoration, but instead bear witness to it.

That last point in particular is threaded through every page of Givens’ work. He quotes widely from Julian of Norwich to David Hume, from Emanuel Swedenborg to Dorothy Sayers. I read Terryl Givens not only for his own ideas but for his bibliography. I ended up going down a Nikolai Berdyaev rabbit hole a few years ago, just as one example. Givens kind of popped on the lid open on a world of beautiful Christian and religious ideas that I had never encountered before. It helped spark my own search for the good and the true that I now knew wasn’t only contained in my own tradition.

Terryl’s vision of the Church is not what the Church looks like now:

I worship a Christ who wants peers, not subjects. Friends, not servants. He comes as our healer, not our judge.

At its worst, our culture can be anti-intellectual, judgmental, authoritarian and shallow. But I love it for what is best in it: the total commitment it invites, its optimistic assessment of human potential, and the most generous God in the religious universe, one who is willing to shepherd every human soul without exception to his own exalted status as a holy being living in holy relationships.

His is a very progressive and open-minded church that engages with the world, not one that holds itself above the world grasping its capital-T Truth. He emphasizes doctrines that are truly a part of our heritage, but are no longer emphasized and oftentimes forgotten our outright countered e.g. the idea that we can progress through kingdoms. How can we aspire to this if most do not share this vision?

On the other hand, I think Givens judges those who leave the Church too harshly. He allows himself to see the flaws of the Church, but he also doesn’t seem to be able to fully sympathize with those who leave. But then, this is fundamentally a work of apologetics. In the early chapters of his book, he describes members who leave as not being “witting” enough to stay in the Church:

In the Christian world and among our fellow Latter-Day Saints, many are choosing, in John’s words, to “[walk] no more with [us].” The numbers are heartbreaking. Many and varied are the causes, and all are to be lamented. I am going to propose, as one explanation for what is happening among our own community, the words of the poet Thomas Traherne: “No man… that clearly seeth the beauty of God’s face… can when he sees it clearly, willingly, and wittingly forsake it.”

If that is true– yet everywhere we turn, men and women are “willingly forsaking the beauty of God’s face”– then perhaps the choices are not being made “wittingly.” Perhaps too many of us never came to fully know and see what Traherne and Gregory– knew and saw and therefore loved.

I don’t think this is the case. I think many choose to leave because they too like Givens do find that God is a loving God, and yet don’t see it in the institutional church they are a part of. They can’t reconcile the two. People aren’t leaving because they don’t love God or haven’t come to know him; they are leaving because they have, and it is not the God they were taught to know.

In sum, I don’t feel like Doors of Faith doesn’t cover a lot of new ground, but I don’t think the book is meant to do that. It does have a good overview of the ideas that Terryl has developed throughout his works, a body of ideas that paints a picture of what it could mean to be a Latter-Day Saint.

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