A Personal and Rhetorical Review of The Crucible of Doubt

Givens, Terryl and Fiona. The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Question for Faith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014. 168 pages. $19.99 in hardback, $11.99 Kindle. Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Back in 2012, Ensign Peak (an imprint of Deseret Book), published The God Who Weeps, also by Terryl and Fiona Givens, which I described in an earlier review as both “explain[ing] to non-believing readers just why Mormonism might reasonably appeal to intelligent, thoughful people” and issuing to potentially doubting Mormons “an implicit invitation and challenge not to leave the LDS Church without spending some time thinking about what the Church teaches and the value those teachings may have.”

The current volume is clearly intended at least in part as a follow-up to that earlier book. And yet the two are quite different, in several important ways. Unlike The God Who Weeps, The Crucible of Doubt both is more overtly directed toward members of the LDS Church (hence, perhaps, its lack of the Ensign Peak imprint?) and more specifically addresses potential sources of doubt that may trouble such readers. As such, the style is more personal and direct, the tone less abstract, though still both conceptually broad and intellectually rewarding. To illustrate what I mean, compare the following two quotes, both chosen at random by flipping open the two books:

“Most human hearts, we find, are made of penetrable stuff. Several catalysts to change open to our possible futures” (The God Who Weeps, p. 85).

“If God can transform cosmic entropy and malice alike into fire that purifies rather than destroys, how much more can He do this with the actions of well-intentioned but less-than-perfect leaders” (The Crucible of Doubt, p. 79).

The God Who Weeps cites a broad combination of poets, novelists, theologians, and other noteworthy writers from across and even beyond the Christian tradition; The Crucible of Doubt is equally quote-laden, but with more of an emphasis on Mormon leaders. Where The God Who Weeps summarizes its argument in five clear propositions, each spelled out in the Introduction and expanded upon in a later chapter, The Crucible of Doubt refrains from self-summarization. The God Who Weeps uses a chatty, less formal endnote format to cite its sources; The Crucible of Doubt employs standard endnotes.

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I enjoyed reading The God Who Weeps, less for any new ideas it provided than for how well it stated them. In contrast, The Crucible of Doubt provided what I found to be ample food for thought. Despite its relative brevity, this book took me quite a long time to finish, mostly because every page or two, I would want to stop and think about something I’d read.

In this book, the Givenses mostly neither answer specific doubts nor give reasons for belief. Rather, what they do is make a comprehensive argument why doubt should not prevent us from belief. More specifically, they present an argument for a revised paradigm in which facts and phenomena that often are taken as causes for disbelief do not need to be seen as such.

Some of their ideas are likely to strike many Mormons are unjustifiably liberal, or even too optimistically liberal. A major thrust of the Givenses’ argument is to make the case not only that these ideas are reasonable in the context of Mormonism, but that they have in fact been articulated by credible early Mormon leaders such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor — and by modern Mormons such as Jeffrey R. Holland, D. Todd Christofferson, Boyd K. Packer, and Dieter F. Uchtdorff. For me at least, the results were persuasive.

And just what are those ideas? In their Introduction, the Givenses suggest that trials of faith may in part be the product of mistaken assumptions. Each of the book’s eleven chapters then tackles one area where such mistaken assumptions may come into play. Below, I’ve taken the liberty of formulating, mostly in my own words, what I think might be resulting propositions to be drawn from each chapter, insofar as they relate to common sources of doubt:

  1. Reason is limited as a way of knowing, and must be joined to other ways of knowing that speak to our intuitive, artistic, and emotional natures.
  2. The purpose of religion is not necessarily to provide clear answers and make life simpler and less challenging.
  3. Church is important because it is a place where we become more like Christ by “bear[ing] with one another in all our infirmities and ineptitude” (p. 42) and in so doing relinquishing our own will.
  4. It is possible to believe that scriptures are the result of revelation without believing that they are infallible or should always be interpreted literally, because “scripture comes to us through human conduits” (p. 56).
  5. Leaders are fallible and human — but this does not invalidate the legitimacy of their calling.
  6. The nature of delegation of divine authority to humans means that leaders, even prophets, can and do make mistakes in what they teach and the decisions they make — but that does not remove our responsibility to sustain them in their callings, though “sustaining” may mean different things in different circumstances.
  7. Mormonism claims no monopoly on “righteousness, truth, or God’s approbation” (p. 91). God has set his heart on saving all his children who do not utterly reject him.
  8. Participation in the Church is a personal responsibility requiring forbearance, patience, and tolerance of individual differences.
  9. In order to be true followers of Christ, we need to recognize and experience the reality of human misery and trials without being overwhelmed by them.
  10. There are times when the heavens are silent, or seem to be. We need to be more flexible in recognizing the ways God may speak to us.
  11. The choice to believe in the framework of Mormon doctrine is no more a leap of faith — and no less reasonable — than either a belief that existence is a product of random events, or the essentials of traditional Christian belief at the time of Joseph Smith.

Finally, the Epilogue bears the Givenses’ testimony of the value of faith and the key teachings of Mormonism.

It may seem that after all of these qualifications and justifications, what is left is a fool’s faith, undisprovable by any conceivable counter-evidence. Rather, I would argue that what is left is a faith that does not rely on absolutes, but rather that requires judgment and, well, faith. You cannot say that any single error (or the presence of error) disproves the body of doctine, that any single mistake disproves the inspiration of leaders, that any misstep disproves the authority of the organization. Rather, you have to judge by the totality of evidence, including the overall impact on yourself, the harvest of “fruits,” and the whisperings of the Spirit. If that is complicated, well, existence was meant to be complex. God’s plan is one that has less to do with removing difficulty than with giving us tools to successfully confront and learn from it. That includes conceptual and spiritual difficulties. “If it’s fair,” Elder Maxwell reminds us, “it isn’t a trial.”

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So where does our hope for the gospel and for God’s Church leave us, in this revised paradigm of incomplete assurances and an accepted reality of falling short of the mark? For me at least, the answer is that my faith feels strangely strengthened — my understanding of the gospel enhanced by a greater sense of how the will of God interacts with the process of mortality in ways that elevate growth toward an eventual perfection as the end goal for all of us, prophet and Primary worker alike. It’s a view of God’s plan that harmonizes with the breathtaking riskiness of sending God’s children to foster-parents who are, all of us, no more than children ourselves — with a forgetfulness drawn over our memories in a way that pretty much guarantees that all of us will make mistakes that harm not only us but others as well. Only a faith in the infinite capability of God to make all things better could possibly justify such a path. That fact that we want assurances that the path isn’t really that risky only shows just how challenging it is.

I don’t think this book will persuade anyone whose faith has already been severely damaged by doubts. But for those still looking for a constructive way to embrace belief despite the presence of doubts, I see great potential value, both in the specifics of the arguments the Givenses make and, more broadly, in the example they set of how to honestly talk about such issues.

Meanwhile, as regards positive reasons for faith, The God Who Weeps — the Givenses’ earlier publication — presented several excellent candidates. I add to that these others: the fact that the gospel of Christ makes me a better and more hopeful person, overall (and in acknowledgment of the ways it also makes me more unhappy with myself due to my fallings-short of where I should be). The fact that the doctrines of the Restoration “taste good” to me, in Joseph Smith’s memorable phrase (which the Givenses also cite in their Epilogue to this book). The various ways that the experience of membership in the Church makes me a better person. The feelings I have experienced of closeness to and care from God. Ties that bind me to my Mormon upbringing and to those who share my Mormon beliefs. The intellectual comprehensiveness of the gospel, compared to theories of existence that may explain existence without reference to God but in the process leave me wishing for something more. Some of these reasons are doubtless better than others, but I offer the complete list, inspired by the example of the Givenses in describing the mix of clay and gold that characterizes our existence in mortality.

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It is an irony of Mormon culture that the Givenses’ very success in articulating ideas that resonate so well for me and other readers puts their work in danger of a kind of unofficial quasi-canonization that is the opposite of the spirit of liberal inquiry they advocate.

We saw it with Hugh Nibley. After a certain point in his career, his writing — quirky, brilliant, eccentric, and uncomfortable — became somehow “safe” in the view of many members. Things that would have raised eyebrows from other Mormon writers were smiled upon when he said them — and ignored. More dangerously, the generation before mine did something similar with the writings of W. Cleon Skousen, a man who did far too much to shape popular Mormon thought during the 1960s and 1970s. Additional examples can be multiplied, both inside and outside the ranks of LDS General Authorities.

My point here isn’t to compare Nibley with Skousen, or either of them with the Givenses. Rather, it is to point out that we as Mormons have a tendency to think in dangerously binary terms about writers on Mormon doctrinal issues, categorizing them as either correct/inspired or misguided/apostate. The very concept of a conversation in which views are neither accepted nor rejected but discussed sometimes seems alien to us as a culture.

This places an intolerable burden on those who speak and write publicly about Mormonism, whether or not from a position of ecclesiastical responsibility. Joseph Smith — in a passage quoted by the Givenses — “once complained that ‘he did not enjoy the right vouchsafed to every American citizen — that of free speech. He said that when he ventured to give his private opinion’ about various subjects, they ended up ‘being given out as the word of the Lord because they came from him’” (The Crucible of Doubt, p. 69). I don’t want to see the same thing happen to the Givenses: that their words be accepted uncritically; that they be seized upon as a light to guide others, rather than as sharers in a common gospel light; that they be held to an impossibly high standard of correctness.

And so — while I wholeheartedly recommend this book, and plan to buy and lend out copies to family and ward members — I can’t help but feel that perhaps I should apologize to Terryl and Fiona for doing so. Better still, perhaps I should do more to turn my own gospel discussions into a genuine conversation — as should we all, in our classes and quorums, our blogs and online chats, our families and our gatherings of friends.

Meanwhile, I salute the Givenses for providing such an excellent contribution, and Deseret Book for giving them a forum for doing so where the general body of Mormons is more likely to see and consider what they have to say. Though I still think Deseret Book should issue this volume and The God Who Weeps in paperback.

3 thoughts on “A Personal and Rhetorical Review of The Crucible of Doubt”

  1. Agreed — the Nibley and Skousen examples are interesting to think about in relation to the Givens. Important differences between the three, of course, but the tendency to either unofficially canonize and thus domesticate what is radical seems to me be a fairly consistent tendency among American Mormons over the past 5-6 decades.

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