Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, co-author of _The God Who Weeps_

4.7.13 | | 7 comments
Fiona A Givens

Fiona Givens

         I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it’s not hyperbole, it’s that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona’s articulate voice, engaging ideas, and her powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:  

         MS:  First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens.

FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university.  The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself.  The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated.  Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends.  I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind.  Eventually she took me to her “church”–a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building.  What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before–a spiritual warmth that was inviting.  And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more.  That being said,  I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.  

However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful.  I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me.  I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room.  It is still there. The wounds are still palpable.  However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.

Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young.  I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer.  Terryl was seated on the back row.  I was seated on the front.  He was self-effacing.  I was not.  We were married a year later.  He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak.  

We were poverty stricken students.  I helped with the family income of $7000 per annum (Terryl’s scholarship) by adding more babyspeakers to my home and typing papers and dissertations after the children were abed .  I then volunteered for the Virginia Society for Human Life as lobbyist and spokesperson and spent a considerable amount of time travelling the Commonwealth on speaking engagements and participating in media interviews.   The grey matter jogging helped prevent a complete collapse into babyspeak and Terryl assumed the role of single parent during the annual General Assembly session in Richmond where I was completely immersed in promoting the passage of our bills.   My six children were also wonderfully supportive.

They would take turns  traveling with me on my speaking engagements when they were older  and they cheered me on when the going got tough.   A number of years later I graduated with a double major in French and German from the University of Richmond, followed by a Master’s degree in European History from the same university.   Again, my family provided the greatest support and encouragement.  Bless them!  They even soldiered through the four hour graduation ceremony at the end!

MS: In The God Who Weeps, you and Terryl paint a beautiful vision of Mormon theology. However, there are elements of it—such as your more Universalist and inclusive tendencies when it comes to salvation—that many Latter-day Saints may not relate with the version that has been portrayed to them in some Sunday school classes. I prefer your version over that of many interpretations I’ve heard, but in what way do you think yours and Terryl’s vision differs from those versions? In what ways would you justify your position to those who have read your book, but question this unique emphasis? 

FG: Universalism.  The idea had been swimming in my mind for a number of years.  When the brilliant and insightful David Bokovoy shared with me the same sentiments on an illuminating car ride in Boston, I gathered more resolve and kept pushing.  If all of humanity did indeed comprise God’s children, and if He loved us with all the affection of a tender parent, it followed that if His plan to return us all to Him left even one of His children without the chance to return, then the plan, that entailed the horrendous sacrifice of His Son, would be a colossal failure.  I don’t believe our God is a failure and neither do I believe that His plan is ill considered.  If that is the case, then God must have made provision to ensure that all His children were granted the opportunity to return to Him, not matter how long it takes.

As many of us have lived and died and will continue to live and die without ever hearing of Christ, the Redeemer of the world and the Bearer of the good tidings of everlasting life in the Kingdom of Heaven, the plan would have to extend past this life, as Joseph taught, as well as into the eternities to come.  God is not confined by the limitations of time.  “Endless” is His name, the implication being that God will work patiently with each one of His children, moving at the pace at which they are comfortable to bring them safely home.  The Mormon confinement to kingdoms is of recent construction.  Joseph, Hyrum, Brigham, B.H. Roberts, James Talmage and J. Reuben Clark all espoused the view that progression is eternal—through all the kingdoms—until at last, when we are in sight of our home, our Father rushes out to greet us, to embrace us and to celebrate our homecoming with a feast of the greatest magnificence.  His entire Kingdom rejoices with Him at the return of each one of us, His prodigal children


 MS: I think it’s wonderful that as a wife and husband you and Terryl worked on this book together. What is the genesis of the book and the decision for you to work on it together? In what ways was it helpful and in what ways was it difficult to write this book together? What was your process as co-writers? Are there sections that are “yours” and sections that are “his” or is the collaboration completely immersive?

FG: I have always been the first, intermediate and final reader of Terryl’s works.  And, yes, it is hard to keep up.  When Terryl was a graduate student writing his dissertation, his mentor, Eugene Falk, flung up his arms in frustration and proclaimed:  “Terryl, I cannot keep up with these intellectual gymnastics.  You need to write with such clarity that even a ten year old can understand what you are writing.  Take this home to your wife and have her read it.”  Terryl’s dumber-downer has been my official designation ever since, albeit with varying success.  Much of my involvement in Terryl’s work has been to make his writing more accessible (no more “intellectual gymnastics”).  As we hope these books will be read by a public outside of Mormonism as well, tone is important.  The fact that I am a convert and continue to be engaged in an extra-Mormon world has been helpful, I think, in ensuring that Terryl’s books are amenable by their tone as well.

The God who Weeps, however, was different in that the thoughts that had been germinating, some of them for many years in my mind, finally found a place to reside.   A number of years ago I submitted a paper, at Richard Bushman’s request, to a small group of people called “Mormons of the Diaspora.”  The topic Richard wanted us to address was that one thing which animated our worship.  I wrote my paper on the Vulnerable God of Enoch as revealed in Moses 7 of the Pearl of Great Price.  The discovery of the Vulnerable God is my pearl of great price.  To my mind, this is God’s central attribute from which all His other lovely, edifying and empowering attributes derive.  If we understand that our God chose to make Himself vulnerable by setting His heart upon us, then of all possible Gods, He is the most deserving of adoration and emulation–hence the title of the book.  The chapter on Pre-existence is a brief synopsis of Terryl’s When Souls had Wings, which is, quite simply, a masterpiece.   My task here was to sift through the tome for examples that sparkled.

As for the chapters on mortality, we drew on the heroic status of Eve as articulated in the Mormon canon. The Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price finally reveal to the world an Eve who is strong, courageous and the prime mover behind Heavenly Father’s Plan for His children to “become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22).  The fall, therefore, is no fall at all but an ascent towards God and this mortal life, wracked with torment and pain as it is, “is for our experience” and shall be for our “good”.  Life is educative not punitive.  There can be no joy without suffering.  We cannot become like God unless we too embrace vulnerability.  Sin has its part to play, therefore, as Eve recognized:  “Were it not for our transgression…we never should have known [experienced] good and evil, and the joy of our redemption” (Moses 5:11).  The final chapter is Terryl’s beautiful articulation of a Heaven that comprises the continuation of the relationships we most cherish here on earth and the materials to construct it lie all around us—here and now.

For those familiar with Terryl’s writing, it should be quite obvious that the book is evidence, not only of his literary genius, but also of his power of synthesis.  As Terryl is more theologically conservative than I, we had to make some compromises to strike the right balance we felt was needed for this book.  For example, a few readers suggested that the concepts we were presenting were radical enough without the insertion of the Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother.  In my opinion one can feel Her presence permeating  the volume but I wanted Her presence explicitly mentioned.  Mormonism is unique among Christian faith traditions in its belief that there is a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father and that they work in tandem to bring us home.  The story we incorporate entitled “The Hymn of the Pearl” brings Her to the fore in a particularly beautiful way I think.

We also felt strongly that we needed to speak to those who had lost their faith.  One of the most powerful ways we could do that, I felt, was to show that Christ, Himself, was also intimately familiar with that desolate feeling of despair and abandonment.   In order for the Lord to empathize with those who have lost or are losing their faith, He needed also to have experienced that agony, which I believe He did as evidenced in His anguished cry from the cross: “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me.”  

Terryl and I both feel that this particular collaboration was one of the most beautiful and emancipating projects in which we have ever been engaged.  We felt as though we were being pushed by a tidal wave that immersed us in a convergence of all our ideas–separate and combined—together with poets, philosophers and theologians we most admire and love.  When we found ourselves back on the shore, we were holding this book in our hands.

MS: The God Who Weeps was published by Ensign Peak, which is the imprint Deseret Book uses for their theological works. What led to this partnership with Deseret Book? How was your working relationship with them? What did you find particularly fruitful in working with Sheri Dew and Company? 

FG: Terryl made a very frank public comment about Deseret Book which was then related to Sheri Dew, who instead of being offended, reached out to Terryl to see what she could do to address his grievances.  This book is the product of their communication.  I cannot speak  highly enough of Sheri Dew’s and Deseret Book’s commitment to getting this book out whole and entire.  Their support and encouragement have been most gratifying.  Sheri and her exceptional staff have been a pleasure to work with.

 MS: The Mormon idea of Pre-Existence (which, as we discover, isn’t exclusively Mormon) figures prominently in the text, garnering its own section. Terryl also delved into the subject matter in his book When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought.  What has drawn both of you so much into the idea of a pre-mortal existence? What does it say about our relationship with Deity? What does it say about our understanding of ourselves?

FG: Oh! Good I get to talk more about pre-existence.  Terryl and I both believe that the concept of having existed before this life answers  myriad tricksy questions from God’s character to man’s suffering.  The idea that the Plan was a partnership rather than an obligation we needed to endure is very empowering.  I very much like the idea of choosing and being cognizant of the dangers that lay ahead of us and making the leap into mortality nevertheless.  It shows us humans to be perpetrators of the course of our lives rather than victims of our lives.  There is solace in that I find.

  

          MS: One of my favorite subjects is the idea of a “yearning,” what C.S. Lewis called “joy.” Feeling an intense longing for something otherworldly, a yearning for sometimes you can’t put a name to. Another home, an ache that makes us feel like we’re strangers here. You and Terryl mention this in The God Who Weeps, “But reason comes up short as well in accounting those moments of deepest love and yearning, of unspeakable calm in the midnights of anguish, of the shards of light visible to the inner eye alone” (p. 1). How has your experiences with this yearning affected both your life and your work?

 

 FG: This yearning has been the catalyst of my life and work.  As a very young child I felt I belonged to a Heavenly Family of which I would receive the occasional glimpse.  That being said, the glimpses were vivid and have remained in that small part of my brain that doesn’t forget things.  I have felt a yearning to return there for as long as I can remember and this yearning has consciously or unconsciously fueled all the decisions of my life.   This yearning has shaped the way I think about God and the Heavenly Family as well as having a fundamental impact on what I now consider to be the purpose of life.  I doubt I would have converted were it not for this yearning, dormant at the time though it was.  This yearning has also helped me to develop a more authentic self.  It was Shakespeare’s maxim, given, ironically, through his character, Polonius: “Above all to thine own self be true; thou canst not then be false to any man” that emboldened me to enter the waters of baptism and has become the motto for my life.


MS:
In the book you and Terryl challenge a lot of post-creed traditional Christian thought with many ideas rooted in your experience with Mormonism. Your ideas about a fortunate fall; a pre-existence; about an embodied God, who has vulnerability and emotion; about an inclusive heaven rather than an exclusive one; about eternal relationships that are bound by a sealing power. What do you think other Christian theologians are missing that make them reject these ideas, either in Mormonism or in your book? In what ways are Mormons not making their case persuasively enough? In what ways do you feel Biblical and religious texts support these ideas?

FG: Regrettably, I feel Mormons are mostly to blame for our inability to posit successfully these salvific doctrines at the core of our religious tradition.  As Terryl has argued, ever since the Chicago World Fair in 1893, following the runaway victory of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as well as the Church’s inability to access the World Council of Religions taking place at the same time, we have been quite happy to entertain—singing and dancing with the stars, providing the NFL and the NBA with a steady stream of quarterbacks and basketball players–and not proclaim that which we hold most sacred.  The conversations involving Mormonism include polygamy (ad nauseam), magic underwear, Kolob and the location of the Garden of Eden among other esoterica.

We need to take back our doctrine.  We should own it.  Our theology at its most fundamental level is empowering and liberating:  God is good and so are we. We are not alone in espousing these beliefs as the book amply demonstrates.  Sensitive philosophers, theologians and poets have articulated even more beautifully these principles.  So, yes, Biblical and religious texts do support the “fundamental five.”  One may have to search for them but they’re there like buried treasure or like the leaven the woman “hid” in her loaves.  Rob Bell’s surprising book, Love Wins, had an enormous impact on me personally and helped solidify in my mind that God’s Plan of Happiness extends to the entire human family.  It also helped me understand that the most important work we can undertake in this life is to ensure that those who have already “shuffled off this mortal coil” receive the saving ordinances of the Temple.  I love Terryl’s take on this.  He says we are the Sadducees.  The Temples have been put into our keeping for this specific purpose: to be “Saviours on Mount Zion.”  That’s way cool.

 MS: You and Terryl quote from a whole gamut of philosophers, novelists, poets, playwrights, scientists, theologians, and other thinkers (especially from the Western tradition). Everyone from Aristophanes to George Bernard Shaw to Kant to Sam Shepherd to Julian of Norwich to Darwin to Freud to Charles Beecher to C.S. Lewis to Robert Bolt to… well, the list goes on for a while. The depth and breadth of your own reading is very evident, not only in the text but in the many interviews I’ve heard you participate in. In what ways do you feel like being well read is helpful to a person of faith generally, and to a Mormon specifically? I also noted that you and Terryl seem especially fond of the Romantic poets (this shows up in Terryl’s other work as well). In what ways does Romanticism inform your faith and worldview? How do you think it connects to Mormonism?

FG: We are instructed, because not all of us have faith, to seek “diligently words of wisdom; yea seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith (D&C 88:118).  Some Mormons confuse “best books” with the scriptures.  When God refers to scriptures, He mentions them by name.  “Best books” are exactly that and in them reside “words of wisdom.”  “Best books” implies that there is a hierarchy of books.  Thus, the Lord has directed us to “seek for wisdom.”  Finding the “best books” is a treasure hunt and it requires effort.  Now, will your “best books” be the same as mine?  Well, there may be some overlap but the search is innately personal.  

We are to search for and find those books that enhance our individual wisdom or help us find wisdom if we don’t have it—and faith—if we are lacking that also.  What your “best books” and my “best books” should have in common, however, is the effort required to glean their wisdom, hence the emphasis on study and learning.  If our minds are not enlightened and our souls not enlivened, the book probably does not fall into the category of “best books.”   I love a light read just as much as the next person but fluff should be exactly that—the occasional high calorie dessert.  It should not constitute the basis of our reading material.

Romanticism:  Yes, it does rather dominate does it not?  Well, Terryl and I both consider Joseph [Smith] to be a Romantic and there was enormous wisdom that came with the movement.  This included a more optimistic view of human nature, an appreciation for the dynamic rather than static nature of the cosmos, an understanding, in Blake’s words, that “without contraries is no progression,” a celebration of man’s capacity to react to his vulnerable predicament with dignity, and so on. Of the romantic writers Byron has had the greatest impact on me, particularly his character Cain, who continues to pull on my heart and mind.

 MS: As a Mormon woman author, how does that inform your work differently than your male counterpart? Does a faithful form of feminism factor at all in your thinking? In what ways in your life in the Church and in your professional work do you feel that being a woman has influenced your approach and experience, if at all?

FG: I was raised in female only schools all my life and educated by women mostly.  I never encountered a glass ceiling—except when I tried to join the Royal Navy—and was told that the navy didn’t accept people with “large lungs.”  So, I just switched dreams and determined to become the first woman to fly with the Red Arrows.  I wasn’t. I also wanted all of Emma Thompson’s roles and didn’t get those either.  But you get my drift—even the sky was no limit.  We school girls had very little to do with our male counterparts who were trapped in a gothic style structure in the north of England while we resided in a spacious Henry Tudor home in the south with loads of land on which to canter our horses.  When the two schools intersected, we found our male counterparts to be useful dance partners, and, if they added something intelligible to the conversation, that was a plus.  

I come from a long line of strong women—from Boudicea to Maggie Thatcher (the Iron Lady) and the current monarch, whose energy and longevity continue to amaze.  And the term “bloody” does not just apply to Queen Mary.  Elizabeth committed her fair share of atrocities and Boudicea—well—there’s a story.  My feminist perspective is informed by a very different cultural and spiritual history than that of many of my LDS American counterparts.  My feminist role model is Eve.  It was she who proved the contraries.  It was she who instigated the ascent into mortality.  Adam was more reflective and a lot more reticent about going where no man (or woman) had gone before—and most definitely not boldly.  I love her pluck.  I love her courage.  I love the fact that she engaged the issue head on.  She analyzed the fruit carefully and found it to be nutritionally valuable, aesthetically pleasing and, I think this was the key for Eve, it would open the door to wisdom.  Once she felt she had thoughtfully weighed the stakes–the safety and security of the Garden on the one hand and painful, lived experience on the other, she made her decision for which we are eternally indebted to her.   Yeh!  She rocks. 

MS: You mention Julian of Norwich in the text. How has she influenced your thinking and faith? Are there other female writers, theologians, figures (Mormon and non-Mormon) that have influenced your thinking in particular ways?

FG: Ah! Julian of Norwich—remarkable woman.  She came as a gift to me from my dear friend Zina Nibley Petersen.  And, yes, her revelations have had a huge impact, particularly on my thinking of mortality as ascent rather than fall.  Also, the fact that she had revelations that were recorded and handed down and respected and were not censured is huge.  No burning at the stake for Julian!  There is, here too, a biblical precedent.  When Rebekah was weighed down with anxiety about her pregnancy, she did not go to Isaac, she went straight to the Lord and the Lord answered her directly.  He didn’t go through Isaac either.  Sarah Edwards, the wife of the famous American “Hell and Damnation” preacher, Jonathan Edwards, had a similar experience.  She prayed to God, prompted to address Him as “Heavenly Father” and a remarkable vision ensued wherein she saw The Father and The Son and felt, who “seemed as distinct persons, both manifesting their inconceivable loveliness and mildness, and gentleness, and their great, immutable love to me.”   A close reading of her experience, suggests that this was a Joseph-like manifestation of the Father and the Son.  Wow!

When I was about fourteen I attended, together with my school, a lecture that Mother Teresa gave in Norwich Cathedral .  During a break, two of my friends and I were wandering around the cathedral when Mother Teresa emerged from one of the chapels where she had been praying.  Upon meeting her I was struck by how small and frail she was and the immediate question that sprung to mind was: How was she physically capable of doing all that she did, limited as she was by this feeble frame?  Observing Mother Teresa closely, I noticed that she always touched people.  So too did the Saviour.  There is great healing power in touch.  My admiration for her has grown considerably since the discovery that, aside from her call to service, she lived the rest of her life in spiritual darkness.  Courage is a virtue I very much admire.  To me, doing good in the midst of spiritual blight, is the highest form of courage.

MS: I’ve also heard you mention in interviews a favorite Biblical scholar of my wife and mine, Margaret Barker. I also noted that Barker, a Methodist, contributed a great essay to the collection Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, which your husband helped edit. What ideas that Barker advocates have influenced you specifically, and in what ways do you think she connects to Mormonism in general? Do you happen to know her personally? How has she commented on the Mormonism that connects so interestingly with her work (I know she gave a speech at BYU), if at all?

Oh! I should also have mentioned Margaret Barker in question 10.  But I now have a whole answer to devote to her alone.  Thank you!  Barker has probably had the most powerful  impact on my theological evolution.  It would take me too long to go into detail, so I shall enumerate some areas as briefly as I can (yes, I know I’m sounding like Polonius).

1)      I was first introduced to her at the Joseph Smith Bicentennial Conference in Washington D.C.  I was enthralled by the paper she delivered on whether it was possible that The Book of Mormon could, in fact, be a 600 BCE text.  Barker’s fascinating explication of Lehi’s vision illustrated that The Book of Mormon could be just that.  I bought all her books and started ploughing through them.

2)       I am impressed, foremost, by her honesty as a scholar.  She is careful to presage her works by admitting that it is a challenge to support her claims, given the paucity and the quality of the manuscripts with which she is working.

3)       I find her argument, that an earlier Hebrew faith tradition that revolved around the Temple and the Atonement was replaced by the Deuteronomist focus on Moses and the law during King Josiah’s reform, compelling.  “Reform” is a two edged sword—great if you are on the “right” side of it, disastrous if you are not.  The “Temple Priesthood” which espoused a belief in a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Son was ousted in favour of monotheism.   The Book of Mormon introduces the prophet, Lehi, during this reform.  The fact that he was being hunted strongly suggests that he was on the wrong side of the reform movement. When I read the first few chapters of the Book of Mormon I now see historical figures depicted rather than mythical ones.

4)       I find Barker’s extra-canonical research on the Feminine Divine in the First Temple tradition fascinating.  I am currently reading her two-volume work: The Mother of the Lord, which is both rich with detail and resonant.

MS: You mention the Mormon idea of a Heavenly Mother in The God Who Weeps by quoting Eliza R. Snow’s poem/hymn “O My Father” (which was previously titled at one time by Snow, “Invocation, or The Eternal Father and Mother”). First of all, how has the Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother affected your life personally? Second, how do you think she should figure in the more universal Mormon belief system?

FG: As a young girl I remember praying the rosary with my mother.  The prayer to Mary, the mother of Christ, is the one most oft repeated.  I actually joined the Mormon Church because, to my mind, Christ had been completely obscured by the worship of a myriad saints but most especially by His mother, thus losing His role as our Advocate with Heaven.  That being said, having spent much of my life praying to what had now become the Feminine Divine in the Catholic tradition, I was very comforted to find Her anchored in the foundations of the Mormon tradition.  I was also very relieved to discover that the identities of Heavenly Mother and Mary, the mortal mother of the Lord, were distinct.  The idea that we have Heavenly Parents resonates very strongly with me.  It is proof to me that family is the divine societal structure on which to model our own. 

MS: What other wonderful projects can we expect from you in the future? Do you and Terryl plan on tag teaming again at any point in the future, or are you both off onto independent projects?

FG: Yes, we have several projects in mind.  We would like to write a book on the Christ who heals, expand Terryl’s essay  Letter to a Doubter (seehttp://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Letter-to-a-Doubter.pdf )  into a book and I am engaging with ideas for a book entitled Letters to my Daughter.  

MS: In what ways has being a Latter-day Saint blessed your personal life and that of your family? Why have you felt compelled to write about your faith and spirituality?

FG: Being a Latter-Day Saint has given me scope for my imagination.  It is a young faith tradition and Joseph was not a systematic thinker.  He would drop ideas, like pre-existence and Heavenly Mother out of the blue and then walk away sans explanation or explication.  Thus, he left us much room for exploration.  Our tradition has theologically rich ideas to plumb and the materials are all around us—in extra-canonical texts and in the writings of the greatest minds that have graced the earth.  Our opportunity is to search for them both in and outside the scriptural cannon as well as among the “best books.”

This is not to say that I don’t have issues with Mormon culture.  I struggle with the “low church” aspects of it.  And I find that Easter and Christmas draw me to the larger more established faith traditions with their beautiful music and the knowledge that I will hear eloquent, profound sermons on Christ and the centrality of the Atonement.  Whereas in a Mormon service I might hear talks on Joseph Smith whose birthday brushes up against the one we celebrate for our Lord.  And Easter falls close to the organization of the Mormon Church.  The loss of liturgy and the yearly stampede over Good Friday in the rush to get to Resurrection Sunday is painful for me.  Regrettably, Mormonism has lost sight of the significance of the day on which the Saviour died and which is commemorated in other Christian faith traditions.  There would be no resurrection without crucifixion.

When I attend Catholic or High Anglican churches I am overwhelmed by a feeling of belonging to a global faith, which fills me with a sense of belonging to the body of Christ, the heart of which has beating for centuries and spans the world.  I think our vocabulary is unfortunate.  We attend “meetings” rather than worship services.  Janna Riess wrote an excellent post on this very problem.  That being said, I love the close bonds our wards provide.  While we may have very little in common with each other, our focus on love and service make of us a family and engenders a familial-like loyalty to each other.  I think much of it has to do with the fact that we are a lay church and everyone recognizes the courage and the humility it takes to accept most, if not all of our callings.  As a member of our faith tradition I have developed a profound love for my co-members—and a respect.  We complain about the quality of talks and lessons, but need to remember they are often the Sabbath equivalent of the widow’s mite–a meager but sincere offering by our lay brothers and sisters.

Over the years Terryl and I have been plied with opportunities to render acts of service from which my children have benefited.  We, as a family, have been the recipients of numerous acts of kindness and generosity, which have created in us a sense of belonging as well as the feeling of being loved and valued.  Emblazoned in my memory for time and eternity are sisters and brothers who have extended love, time, effort and sacrifice in service to my loved ones–bringing my family meals, taking my children, and doing my laundry while I was confined to my bed during illness. I am proud to belong to a church that takes literally the words of the Saviour: “Feed my sheep.”  In addition, the scope of our local and global humanitarian service is amazing, given the size of our church. Quite frankly, when it comes to complying with the Saviour’s injunction, we rock!

We are one of the newest churches on the block with all the ire that entails.  Christianity once shared our lot.  We may often be derided but at least we’re not tossed to lions for fodder in packed arenas!  Still, those brave Christians continued to spread the message of Jesus Christ in spite of persecution and derision.  I see ourselves in the same metaphorical boat and thus I feel compelled to write about the same salvific doctrines we shared with the early Christians.  The core tenets of Christianity are beautiful, liberating and expansive.  Our theological tenets resonate because they are profoundly Christian and they offer hope to a world wearied by suffering and feelings of hopelessness, struggling to find light among the vestiges of the Holy Church.  They are “balm of Gilead.”

MS: To end, I’d like to go back to your more inclusive idea of Heaven. In The God Who Weeps, you and Terryl write: “God is personally invested in shepherding His children through the process of mortality and beyond; His desires are set upon the whole human family, not upon a select few. He is not predisposed to just the fast learners, the naturally inclined, or the morally gifted. The project of human advancement that God designed offers a hope to the entire human race. It is universal in its appeal and reach alike” (p. 77). In the book you have a fascinating discussion about how that interplays with human agency (making it distinct from Satan’s similar proposal to force this kind of salvation), the vital role of experience in human progression, and that life is much more meaningful when it is “designed for spiritual formation, rather than a spiritual evaluation” (p. 87).  To close, can you speak a little to this more inclusive idea of heaven that you have which is more about becoming rather than punishment and reward? How is that different than some have presented, and what in Mormonism and your personal life leads you to that conclusion?                        

FG: First off, I don’t think that Satan would have used force.  It is much too unsophisticated a means of achieving an end and is unlikely to have garnered the support of a full third of the hosts of Heaven, prompting them to open warfare.  There are more sophisticated means of destroying agency. Lucifer, by all accounts is brilliant—“a son of the morning”.  He was probably closest in rank to Christ, which it was why he stepped forward.   His counter proposal must have been extraordinarily attractive.  Personally, I think his plan was originally motivated, even if not sustained, by love.  And it went something like this: let them become mortal but in order to prevent their suffering during their mortal sojourn which necessarily leads to death, let there be no consequences for their choices—good or ill.  However, as Eve realized, in order to become like God—experiencing pain and suffering, including that made from bad choices (sin)– is imperative for our spiritual progress:  “Were it not for our transgressions we never should have…known [experienced] good and evil [and made partakers of misery and woe], and, thus, the joy of our redemption and the eternal life which God giveth unto all” (Moses 5:11; 6:48).  Christ’s Atonement ensured that we would never experience the full, harrowing consequences of our choices and, thus, be overcome or paralyzed by them.  His Atonement gave us the space to continue to repent until we eventually shuffle off our vices and debilitating habits.  Again, there is no time constraint.  Heavenly Father recognizes that each of us “learn” differently and at different speeds.

“They have become as one of us” (Genesis 3:22) has been overlooked in what so many, through the centuries, have seen as the tragedy of the fall.  Clearly, God did not see the event as many theologians have.  God and then Eve and Adam, view the consumption of the fruit as an ascent not a fall, fortunate or otherwise.  What this means, is that mortality provides space for our further development and formation.  Mortality is full of trials but it is not a test in the sense of evaluation.  Given the myriad difficulties we face and the uneven field on which we are playing that type of evaluation would be terribly unfair and uneven.  What matters is how we respond to the light of Christ, no matter our time, our place, or our situation.  Our Heavenly Parents are not going to ask for a checklist of tasks we have performed.  Our sojourn in mortality is not evaluated on a bubble sheet with a correct answer for every question.  Their interest is in what we have learned from the experiential knowledge of good and evil, and how our character is transformed by our responses.  Our first parents are our role model.  What Adam and Eve enjoyed till that point in their spiritual evolution was a theoretical knowledge of good and evil.  What they lacked was experiential knowledge in an unpredictable universe where bad things happen to good people, where the sun rises on those who commit awful crimes against their fellow men as well as on the “holy men [and women]” among us.  The field on which we play is not even.  We come to earth carrying the baggage of genetics and hormones and a host of other things to which are added the painful experiences of life, many of which enter our lives when we are but children and leave scars which never heal.  

As I was ruminating upon these things over the kitchen sink one morning I realized in a flash that because sin is unavoidable, there must be a purpose to it.  Otherwise, quite frankly, God could have created us with better natures and in more favourable circumstances.  The fact that He didn’t would seem to have made Him an evil, capricious God.  He is neither.  Therefore, sin must be beneficial.  It is here that Julian of Norwich is so instructive.  As Mormons we believe that we were sent to this life from the pre-existence with missions to perform and also that we chose to come, aware of the dangers we faced.  Since we undertook our missions out of love and “good will”, we shall be compensated for our pain and suffering, our fear and anxiety to an extent “above that [we] would have known if [we] had not fallen [sinned]”.  Brigham Young expressed his belief in the inherent goodness of man.   No-one would choose evil deliberately.  None of our choices are made with clarity.  They are all influenced by misinformation, lack of information, poor role models, environment…..We are shrouded in second-hand smoke and deafened by white noise.

“Man is that he might have joy.”  Mormonism is redolent with this imagery and we understand the Biblical message to be just that:  We will all have the opportunity to become joint-heirs with Christ.  “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38-39). These truths resonate powerfully with me.  They infuse my worship.  As Joseph said, they are sweet.  They “taste” good.

7 comments: “Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, co-author of _The God Who Weeps_

  1. William Morris

    “We are shrouded in second-hand smoke and deafened by white noise.”

    Exactly. And the trick is to love and believe and serve amidst all that.

  2. Scott Hales

    I finished this book about a month ago and I enjoyed it immensely, particularly the way it brought in (as you point out in the interview) so much from the best books of literature and philosophy. In fact, it made me wish I had more opportunities to talk in sacrament meeting so I could do just that.

    One thing that surprised me, though, was the way it purported to be “How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life,” yet very infrequently made direct references to Mormonism by name and, if I remember right, almost no direct references to the institutional church. That said, I think it is safe to say that the ideas the Givens’ presented were thoroughly Mormon, or at least clearly influenced from a Mormon background.

    This, of course, is not a criticism; rather, it’s an observation that the book does much to suggest that Mormonism, as a theology, is something that is hardly confined to a church. It is, in a sense, an imperfect name for Truth wherever and whenever it is found. This rhetorical move, I think, is very different from, say, authors who take great measures to cover up the fact that they are Mormons with Mormon perspectives.

    Also, I should say how I liked the way they ended the book with Levi Peterson. I don’t know if that was a deliberate nod to Mormon literature, but I took it as such.

  3. Christopher Cunningham

    Mahonri what a great interview. I have also enjoyed the coverage about the book’s release, and found it very interesting to read directly from Fiona’s point of view. What a fascinating and thoughtful person. It is very clear that this book is just as much hers as Terryl’s. I can’t wait to read it.

  4. anne (uk)

    Fascinating interview, thank you. Maybe it is because I am an English convert (longer than I care to remember) but I still miss the CofE/RC celebrations of major events on the Christian calendar. So glad it’s not just me!

  5. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    @Scott: I noticed the same thing when reading it and found the lack of Mormon sources to be really interesting, too. As you say, it’s like they’re trying to build up the fact that the principles of Mormonism are of a universal rather than a particular nature. I think they said in a different interview, when God doesn’t have prophets, he uses poets.

    @Christopher: That’s the sense I’ve gotten from listening to interiews of the Givens’, that this particular project was driven just as much by Fiona’s ideas as Terryl’s. I think Terryl said in another interview that she was the main impetus behind this particular book.

    @Anne: I really wish we as Mormons found more holidays to celebrate, and more ritual to bring that kind of “remembrance.” Passover, Good Friday… I keep meaning to find a meaningful way of recognize Joseph Smith’s martyrdom… I would love to find ways personally or institutionally to make more meaningful days of worship and religious celebration. We do have Pioneer Day, but it’s not as big of a deal when you don’t live in Utah.

  6. Kevin Christensen

    Lovely and eloquent thoughts. A splendid coda to the book and provocation to seek more.

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