Friday, September 30, 2016

Review of "The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith"

I had wanted to read The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith by Terryl and Fiona Givens for some time, especially since I was so impressed with Terryl's earlier book By the Hand of Mormon (which I reviewed here). Also, considering that Terryl co-authored the book with his wife (who is a convert from Roman Catholicism), I was especially intrigued. However, since the book itself is less than 150 pages, I was a little surprised that they could tackle such a broad issue like doubt in so few pages.

As it turns out, my surprise was warranted because the book has little to do with the subject of doubt and skepticism as much as it has to do with asking the right kind of question and believing for its own sake at times. The book does start out strong, showing that some of peoples doubts come from asking the wrong kind of question or making false assumptions. For instance, the Givens use the example of B.H. Roberts, one of Mormonism's premier philosophers and theologians, and how he was once asked how the tribes of North America, who the Book of Mormon taught were descendants or a remnant of the Nephites/Lamanites, could have so diverse languages and they shared a common ancestry of just 2,000 years. Roberts, who was usually quick to answer critics, was never able to answer this question during his lifetime.

However, the premise of the question was flawed; the Book of Mormon does not teach that all inhabitants of North America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus were descendants of the family of Lehi. Rather that is something that certain members chose to believe, and they read their belief into the text. So, there was really no conflict after all.

One of the best chapters in the book is titled "Mormons and Monopolies: Holy Persons You Know Not Of", where the Givens tackle the issue of religious pluralism, which is the subject of whether one religion is true, or whether all are true in some way. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be the Church that has priesthood keys, there is truth in other religions, and their sacrifice and worship is acceptable to God as well. Also, a key element of this chapter that might be overlooked is that often times members of the Church tell an incorrect narrative of the Restoration. The common message is that the Church established by Jesus of Nazareth in the first century was lost and taken from the earth not long after that, but that is not the case. Rather, it retreated and was held from view for a time, but it was still there.

Also in this chapter, the theme of judging religions at their best is repeated, one that was first enunciated by Krister Stendahl, former Bishop of Stockholm in the Lutheran Church. Often we judge a religious tradition at its worst (such is the case with the so called "New Atheists") rather than at its best. A duty of anyone making judgement on the value of a tradition must judge it at its best.

Most of the book in some is not written to those who doubt whether or not God exists or have troubles with certain matters of Church history (blacks and the priesthood, polygamy, etc). In fact, the book is not really about doubt as much as it is about paradigms, or ways of looking at things. However, the last chapter does address those with serious doubts.

On this subject of doubt, the Givens offer the example of Pascal's wager (although they don't mention Pascal by name), that it is better to believe for beliefs sake and possibly be wrong because in the end what you gained will be better than what you lost. I disagree. You should believe what you have evidence or warrant to believe, not because something makes you happy or not happy. If you find life miserable because there is no God, do what Alex Rosenberg suggests in his book The Atheist's Guide to Reality: take Prozac. If a person cannot bring themselves to believe, and the Doctrine and Covenants state that to some it is given to believe and to some it is not, then a loving God who weeps at our pain will accept the honest persons unbelief and skepticism more readily than a person who believed only to get gain.

However, the Givens do make a great point in the epilogue:
"Not once, but twice the Lord prefaced His commandment that we strengthen each other with this explanation: "As all have not faith." He thus acknowledged that even among His modern disciples, there would be-and must be-room for those who live in doubt."
In the modern Church where many Mormons do not know much about their history and theology and then squirm when they hear it the first time, the reaction cannot be to judge and dismiss them or to say that they do not have a testimony; the reaction should be to help them, weep with them, and shoulder their burden. After all, that is what Jesus of Nazareth would do if he were present with them. Can his disciples do any less?

Whether or not one is impressed with the arguments (or lack thereof) presented in this book, the Givens are splendid writers, and a joy to read for their own sake. If you have a friend who is doubting, or if you doubt yourself, this book is for you. Even if you don't doubt, there is something in this book for you as well. 4 out of 5 stars.

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