Roundtable: God Does Not Do “Small Talk”

Givens-coverBy Fiona Givens, Joanna Brooks, Jana Riess, and Dan Wotherspoon

This is an excerpt from the Mormon Matters podcast, “A Beautiful Vision of Mormonism”—a conversation about the richness of Mormon theology prompted by the release of, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, written by Terryl and Fiona Givens (Deseret Book, 2012). The entire conversation, which includes far more biographical material and specific information about the book, can be listened to in its entirety, or downloaded, for free by visiting  


Dan Wotherspoon: Fiona, I don’t know if you know it, but The God Who Weeps became famous among a lot of people simply for the second paragraph of the endnotes. “Mormons also believe that whatever God’s servants ‘speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture’ (D&C 68:4). Accepting that more liberal sense of inspired writings, we have culled our sources also from a wider tradition that includes Classical, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant texts.” The very first time someone showed the book to me, they said “Look at this! They’re broadening scripture!” I’ve heard the same thing from two or three other people, with all of us feeling how beautiful it is that you weave all these sources together.


Fiona Givens: What prompted that approach was my understanding of the apostasy. If we look at Revelation 12:6, we find the woman we know as the church fleeing into the wilderness. We assume that this section is referring to the apostasy, suggesting a complete eclipse of the truth. But very few of us actually read further to see that God nourishes her there for more than a thousand years. How do you nourish a church during an apostasy? Well, you send her the greatest poets, the greatest philosophers, the greatest musicians, the greatest writers of all time. So, we found that all of these writers and thinkers articulated many Latter-day Saint beliefs in a far more beautiful and expansive way than we have ever articulated them ourselves. So, these are our sources, so to speak.


Joanna Brooks: I love the book for its understanding of how we can seek truth in multiple places. We can seek truth in poetry; we can seek it from theologians. My eyes just lit up when I saw that Bonhoeffer was in the book; Kierkegaard, as well. It’s wonderfully broad-ranging in its source material, and that makes it a great ambassador for our faith. I also love how Darwin is treated as not only a scientist but a theologian, taking it completely for granted that natural selection and evolution are scientific theories and that they are the best thing we have to explain what we see in the world around us. I was cheering.


Dan: One of the things that surprised me when I got the book is that you and Terryl don’t explicitly say, “Here’s Mormonism, and here is how it’s different from the rest of the world.” It’s rare that you even mention the word Mormon. Instead, you’ll say something like, “A nineteenth-century revelation puts it this way,” and only when the readers go to the endnotes do they find that it’s from the D&C. Every once in a while, you’ll say “contemporary theologian Philip Barlow” or something similar, but you’ll rarely mention that the person you’re referring to is LDS. How you do this is seamless and shows that our Mormon stuff fits right in with the wisdom and insights you’re weaving in from non-Mormon sources. I loved it as a beautiful presentation of truth regardless of where it comes from.


Fiona: I think that that was really key. God is a universalist. He wouldn’t be a good God if he didn’t have the power or the capacity to save the entire human family. We are all his creation, and he is bound and set to bring us all home. If something is Mormon, then it must also be universal.

Joseph Smith said that in order to exercise faith unto salvation, we need to know (1) that God exists, and (2) his correct character. We are told that we should engage the scriptures by “searching” them, and if you’re searching, you’re generally searching for something that’s lost. It requires an incredible amount of effort. What we found after this kind of searching is that God’s vulnerability—the fact that God chose to love us despite that love’s monumental cost, to face the horror of it all but still chose to set his heart upon us—is the defining attribute of God from which all else flows.

It seems to me that Mormons tend to squash Heavenly Father and Christ together so one never knows which one of them is speaking. So in Moses 7, the primary chapter on God’s vulnerability, what’s exciting is that we know that Enoch is speaking with Elohim. It’s important for us to understand that the God to whom we pray is vulnerable. Understanding that concept helped me decide that this God is worthy of emulation and adoration; that God is a God who would—instead of taking a book to the Seychelles—choose to submit himself to all the pain of our lives—individual and cumulative—and work patiently with us. Experiential knowledge is the only way we can come to be like God. So we’re all in it together. I found that idea incredibly comforting. I came to embrace the vulnerable God because every other god from other traditions has required its creation to sacrifice themselves. The God of Christianity is the only God who has sacrificed himself for his creation.


Jana Riess: Fiona, I want to return to your comments earlier about the apostasy. I’m a convert from Protestantism. I’m married to a Protestant. My daughter is a Protestant. My mother was a Protestant. So I’m deeply bothered with how Mormons throw around the language of apostasy. Some weeks ago, we had the missionaries over, and the lesson they chose out of all the thousands of gospel topics they had to choose from was on the Great Apostasy. And that was the second time it had happened to us (with a different set of missionaries). I don’t know why you would select that topic in a mixed-faith home. I wanted to look at these nineteen-year-old boys in all their earnestness and say, “Do you know what you’re saying? Do you know what the alleged ‘Dark Ages’ really were? Do you have any idea what happened during that time in history and how grateful we ought to be for all of the progress that occurred?”


Fiona: Occasionally we do understand how rich that period was, but overall you are quite right. In the book, we quote John Taylor about the Dark Ages. He gets it right:

There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world. There were men who could gaze upon the face of God, have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were the dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness.


Jana: Could you cross stitch that for the missionaries?!




Dan: Fiona, one of the things I understand that you and Terryl are hearing from some who have read the book is, “Yes, these things are lovely, but this isn’t the Mormonism I know. This isn’t the Mormonism I get on Sunday.” How do you engage with comments like these?


Fiona: I feel that the umbrella of the Church is broad enough to encompass us all. I think complaints like this come mostly from those on the margins—those who are hanging in there but feel they’re being pushed back, pushed away, or ignored by those who are considered to be more “righteous.” But my experience is that many of our testimonies are brittle and fragile. And I think those who express their doubts and fears somehow instigate doubts and fears in others, and because those others don’t know how to cope with it, they put up these walls and become more rigid in their orthodoxy. It’s sort of a protection that they’re putting around themselves. It’s unfortunate; the gospel should be, and is, liberating.

And their point that this isn’t what they hear in church—well, the fact is, Mormonism runs on a lay ministry, and most times you get what you pay for—which, in our case, is nothing. And so you go to church and find that the talks are off, or that they’re boring, or whatever. Our congregations are geographically centered. We can’t choose our congregation; it’s like having a family. You’re stuck with them. So what do you do? When I enter our church building, I try to recognize that some people come bearing treasures, and some come bearing the widow’s mite. Should we prefer one over the other? I mean, we’re all making ourselves vulnerable. We’re all feeling we’re not up to the task, or the calling, or the talk.

My youngest son is on a mission in Frankfurt, and his first Sunday there he was asked to go up and bear his testimony in German. He said, “Mum, what came out of my mouth wasn’t English; it wasn’t German, either. But I really felt that when I was finished, the congregation wanted to stand up and applaud.” He felt that. He said as he went back to his seat he got a lot of thumbs up. But what they were saying was, “You’re at the bottom. It was absolutely dreadful. But there’s nowhere to go from here but up!” If everybody who taught or gave a talk felt that way, it would empower them, and it would empower us. And we would all be uplifted and edified.


Joanna: Our Sunday meetings actually host an unspoken breadth of experience, capacity, belief, and interest. The great experiment of Mormonism is that—united by this interesting identity, by this common name, by this sort of tribal sense of belonging—we’re going to try and make a place for everybody. As a result, Sundays tend to be rather formulaic, and I think it’s a reflection of the great effort we put into making church a space where everyone can participate at their own level. And that’s not always satisfying—that’s why we get podcasts like this and books like the Givens’.


Jana: I struggle with the stultifying results that come about when the manuals tell the  teachers to teach only from the book when there is this entire beautiful world of experience to draw from—poetry and thinkers through the ages. When something is lovely, when something is of good report, Brigham Young says, “I claim that for Mormonism. That is Mormonism to me.”


Joanna: I agree. I think a lot of us give up more space than we need to. People around us can stand to hear what we have to contribute—they really can. We should feel emboldened to share things, even if it’s not in the manual. They can’t stop us from bringing poetry into our comments. We shouldn’t give up that space.




Dan: In preparing for this conversation, a friend of all of ours, Chelsea Robarge Fife, and I were talking about how each of you are not only well versed in Mormonism, but also other faith traditions and thought systems. We talked about how if you only know one language, you actually know none. Until you study another language, you really can’t understand the one you speak. Until you understand other traditions, you can’t understand your own.


Fiona: I agree with that entirely. Like Jana, I’m a convert, though from Catholicism. It contains such a wealth of insight and beauty—and it’s part of me. I wear my cross because it reminds me that I am part of this great and noble faith tradition called Christianity. I would like to see us building more bridges with wider Christendom. I love that scripture where God says to Joseph that he has holy men that we know not of. And it’s clear that these holy people are not in the Church. I hope that we can break away from the idea that we are the sole repository of truth. Joseph, I think, very clearly understood that his job was not to restore truth. He felt that his job was to restore priesthood keys. He understood that the truth is out there. Both he and Brigham said go out, find truth, and bring it to Zion. Go out and find all that is beautiful and bring it, because we need it.


Jana: I think Mormons tend to imagine that our truths are more unique than they probably are. We also tend to imagine that our problems are more unique than they probably are. And one of the benefits of studying other faiths is recognizing the flawed humanity in all of us—seeing that many of the issues that people might encounter within Mormonism are quite universal. This realization has a wonderful leveling effect.


Joanna: It also helps to understand that faith traditions develop over time. And unfortunately that’s not a perspective we get in post-correlation manuals. I suspect that, since there was more intimacy in the early LDS community, Mormons before correlation had a larger sense of time and how their tradition had changed during their lifetimes. It was a time when you knew that President Taylor saw things differently than President Young because you kind of knew them.

In a post-correlation Mormon theology, all these categories of thought have been crafted and taught to us to appear as if they emerged with no belly button. But, you know, really we do have a history, and our thought has emerged out of other sources—they have a lineage. Being able to locate ourselves in that history is vital, because history is the unfolding of something divine.

So yes, historical perspective helps tremendously, and that comparative angle helps, too. It helps us understand what we are and what we are not. That’s why I’m so glad that Terryl and Fiona reached out and conceptualized Mormon thought within the wisdom of the world’s faith and knowledge traditions.




Dan: One of the other things I think is interesting and important about this book is that though you—Fiona and Terryl—are doing theology, you’re not arguing for these positions. None of what you present is put forth as an argument. You are simply sorting through material and showing these threads—these beautiful things.


Fiona: Terryl calls the book our “prose hymn” to the gospel. I think every faith tradition has something—or a lot—to celebrate, and I hope there will be many more books like this.

Joanna: While we are on the topic of doing theology, I think Fiona has given us a beautiful example of how women do theology, and how they’ve done it for centuries. Eliza Snow’s hymn “O My Father” is applied theology. It didn’t invent Mother in Heaven out of thin air, it crystallized the concept and give it articulation in a hymn—in the lived body of Mormon culture—rather than letting it stay tucked away in the Journal of Discourses. That’s how women work.


Fiona: Terryl and I gave a fireside in Boston, and that song was the opening hymn. I was like, “Yes, we still sing it; yes, she is there!” We have a hymn of Heavenly Mother, and we need to be championing this. Let’s not lag here. We’ve taught the feminine divine for more than a hundred years, and it’s just magnificent, but I fear that we are lagging because it’s become such a sexy thing now in the academic community. You know, the idea of the feminine divine—she’s everywhere.


Dan: On the other hand, at least in your book, it seems you two chose to not really push that aspect of God, or its presence in Mormon theology.


Fiona: I feel her presence is there throughout the book, but it’s not her reputation that’s at stake. It’s Heavenly Father’s. He’s been characterized as distant, severe, impatient, angry, and genocidal—particularly in his portrayal in the Old Testament. So it’s his nature that is in need of rescue. I think all of the qualities of long-suffering, tenderness, and mercy are feminine divine, but the scriptures are not replete with those in regards to Heavenly Father, so that’s why the focus is on him. He is all of those things—they’ve just been lost in the blood and smoke of Canaan.


Joanna: Books about Mormon theology tend to be really anecdotal, and they end up sounding sort of like Church manuals with a lot of proof texting and, “Okay, we’re going to take this scripture and interpret it, and here’s a story from my life and one from the life of one of my seminary students.” But what Fiona and Terryl have done is said, “Here is Mormon doctrine, and now we’re going to put it in the context of the world’s great thinkers, the world’s great religious minds and souls. It’s a cosmopolitan approach to applied theology. It’s the kind of book that makes you hold your head up and say, “Yeah, Mormonism may have home-spun American origins, but over the centuries, it has unquestionably developed a robust, distinctive, fairly coherent, and beautiful theology.” I love the application of our wisdom to the world’s great conversations about what it means to be alive, and what it means to be in a faith relationship with God in history.


Jana: Mormonism has so much to give. For example, while conversing with people from other Christian traditions I will sometimes talk about how Mormons have a very different understanding of the Fall. This is often news to them, but a kind of beautiful news. They say, “Really? That is fascinating. I’m so intrigued that you could re-imagine the Fall as something Miltonian—that we are falling forward, that we are falling upward, that it’s a fortunate fall.” As Fiona and Terryl point out in the book, these perspectives on the Fall have resonances throughout western history, so they aren’t unique to Mormonism, but I think Mormonism articulates them in a particularly beautiful way that many people are just not aware of.


Fiona: Theology means a sustained reflection on the divine—or the divine attributes—and all of us can do that kind of reflection. In fact, all of us should be involved in it on a regular basis—really engaging with texts, with the scriptures.  My hope for the future of Mormonism is not rooted in relying on the established theologians within or outside our faith tradition, but in a personal engagement with the scriptures, in assuming more responsibility toward our relationship with God. That’s what I would love to see happening in everybody’s lives.


Jana: Yes! We all do theology, but we should do it more explicitly, and articulate it more clearly.


Dan: Over the course of this podcast series, I often have talked about how natural human development leads us to love our parents and to be grateful for them and to think that they’ve got it all figured out, but when life shows us a more complex picture of them, we make peace with this new view and eventually learn to love and appreciate them in a new way. We do the same thing in many other contexts—the natural process of learning how to stand on our own two feet. But we seem to feel more hesitant about following this path when it comes to scripture and prophets, seers, and revelators. And yet, this is the very essence of the human journey. We are called to “partake of the Divine Nature” ourselves. It is a big task to undertake, and a long, long process. In order to accomplish it, we have to learn to stand on our own two feet, to have confidence in the presence of God because we are “like God.” The call to develop a mature relationship with God, with the scriptures, and with our leaders, is everywhere. And, as I believe you say in the book, it isn’t blasphemous to talk of such things.


Fiona: No, it’s really not. I think we give too much responsibility to our leaders. When we abstain from searching and from engaging in our own theologizing, then we are cheating ourselves. We need to take more responsibility for ourselves. Brigham Young constantly articulated how he was really, really concerned about the Saints becoming used to avoiding the difficult questions, becoming a people who just follow, who switch off our brains and our hearts.

I have found that God does not do “small talk.” We are only really engaged with him when we are encountering those really profound, almost terrifying, aspects of our lives. Crises of faith are not inimical to Mormonism—and neither are they found only in Mormonism. They are avenues leading us toward growth and exploration. Darkness can be really transforming. It cuts everything else off from our senses; it allows us to meditate and ponder and search deep within ourselves to find beauty that we normally can’t see. And all the while, God is trying to say, “You are beautiful. You are beautiful. I love you.” And yet most of us spend our lives thinking we are deficient and that God does not love us. Crises of faith open an avenue for God to reaffirm his love for us—and for us to discover the beauty that lies deep within our souls.