Home / Testimonies / Terryl L. Givens

If I have a spiritual gift it is perhaps an immense capacity for doubt. I have long lived in the Mormon Diaspora, growing up in Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg, Virginia. My closest colleagues for twenty years have been a devout Catholic, an observant Jew, a seminary student turned Buddhist, and a born again Episcopalian. My wife Fiona is a lapsed Catholic, lover of the temple and all things beautiful, and fervent disciple of the weeping God of Enoch. I have, in other words, spent my life in intimate association with devout believers from myriad religious traditions; I hear my own professions of faith through their ears, and examine my own religious presuppositions with an eye to theirs.

In the course of my spiritual pilgrimage, my innate capacity for doubt led me to the insight that faith is a choice. That the call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, for only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other,” is my heart truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness. Under these conditions, what I choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who I am and what I love. I choose to affirm that truthfulness of the Restored Gospel for five principal reasons.

1. Joseph Smith revealed the God I am most irresistibly drawn to worship.
2. He gave the only account of moral agency that to my mind can justify the horrific costs of our mortal probation.
3. He provided a story of the soul’s origin and destiny that resonates with the truth and the appeal of cosmic poetry.
4. The fruits of the gospel are real and discernible.
5. The restoration is generous in its embrace.

My two literary heroes are Dostoevsky’s Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov, and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Confronted with the God of their contemporaries, they chose to renounce the ticket rather than bow to the cruelty or the injustice of an omnipotent God.

I could never worship or adore a God who recoils in jealous insecurity because “man has become as one of us.” I could never desire to emulate the divine nature of a sovereign who does not save all of those who are in his power to save. And I could never love a God “without body, parts, or passions,” who does not himself feel love, or grief, or joy, or gladness. Christianity gave us the only God who was willing to die on behalf of his creation, as my wife has taught me. Joseph Smith added to that conception a God who intends our full participation in “the divine nature,” who will bestow upon every single one of his children all that they “are willing to receive,” and who made himself vulnerable enough to weep at our pain and misery. That is a God I am powerfully drawn to and gladly worship.

To say that without moral independence “there is no existence” is to make agency the essential constituent of our human identity. To my understanding, this means that God’s intervention in our personal and collective destiny is self-circumscribed by his reverence for that fact. And any gift he gives us which we do not choose to receive is an abrogation of that agency. This is the only theodicy or beginning to a theory of human salvation that makes any sense to me.

I sense, but do not know for certain, that the spiritual part of my being has an eternal past. As an explanatory paradigm, this view has awesome power. It provides a compelling reason for the intuitive sense of right and wrong, the familiar ring of myriad truths, friendships that erupt full-blown, hunger for a God we have not known in mortality, and a hundred moments of déjà vu in the presence of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. And I cannot begin to fathom what it means to “become like God,” but Enoch gave us a glimpse. It means to love with infinite cost, to have a heart that “swells wide as eternity” in order to be filled with joy and sorrow alike. It is a prospect that sobers more than excites, but it is a prospect nonetheless that the pilgrimage of parenthood affirms and foreshadows.

The gospel works. I have seen its power to transform human life. I can affirm, as Gerard Manley Hopkins did, that “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes, not his, to the Father, through the features of men’s faces.” New converts and returned missionaries, who in their testimonies unexpectedly speak “with the tongues of angels,” a simple eloquence not of their own resources. Parting words of a beloved friend near death, before whom the veil grew suddenly thin to transparency. Lives redirected and imbued with sudden beauty, to rival anything narrated by a Dickens or a Hugo (whose stories of redemption resonate with their own transcendent power and familiarity).

Finally, the restored gospel is a gospel of liberality and generosity. It took my former-Catholic wife Fiona to teach me that the church John saw did not disappear; it retreated into the wilderness. Joseph Smith saw the Restoration as a bringing of that church back out of the wilderness, a restoration of the “ancient palace” now reduced to ruins, a reassembling of all the good and beautiful in the world and in the Christian tradition, that had been lost or corrupted from Eden forward. The church I love has invisible borders, and reminds me of what was written of Spinoza, that “he rejected the orthodoxy of his day not because he believed less, but because he believed more.” Or as Joseph wrote, “it feels so good not to be trammeled.”

For myriad reasons, but these five principally, I choose and affirm this path in order better to live as what Elder Uchtdorf calls “a disciple of the gentle Christ.”

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Terryl Givens was born in rural upstate New York, but spent his childhood in Arizona and then Virginia. After service as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in São Paulo, Brazil, he received his bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Brigham Young University and then, in 1988, his Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He accepted a position to teach English literature at the University of Richmond in the same year, and has lived with his family near Richmond, Virginia, with his family since then. He currently holds the James A. Bostwick Chair in English at the university, and has also served as a local Latter-day Saint bishop.

Dr. Givens’s early work focused on literary studies and, specifically, on romanticism. His dissertation and early publications treated the classical theory of mimesis and its dissolution in the nineteenth century. He shifted his research emphasis to the intersection of literary and religious studies with his first book, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1997. Since then, he has written prolifically, including By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (Oxford, 2002); The Latter-day Saint Experience in America (Greenwood, 2004); People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (Oxford, 2007); The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009); When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (Oxford, 2010); and, with Matthew Grow, Parley P. Pratt: A Cultural and Intellectual Biography (Oxford, forthcoming). He has also published a well-regarded children’s book, Dragon Scales and Willow Leaves (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997).

Posted November 2010