Review: “The God Who Weeps,” by Terryl and Fiona Givens

by Jason A. Kerr

Terryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012)

Readers of Terryl Givens’s “Letter to a Doubter” that recently made the rounds, or listeners to his epic interview with John Dehlin on Mormon Stories, will recognize a pattern in his approach to questions that often challenge or trouble people’s faith. This strategy is to ask whether the problem has roots in assumptions that might turn out upon further inspection to have been unwarranted. In their new book, Terryl and Fiona Givens apply this strategy to one of the thorniest questions in theology: theodicy, often expressed in the question of why bad things happen to good people. The result is a book that functions more as a provocation to further conversation than as a compelling argument: it offers a beautiful vision of Mormonism that ought to reorient our understanding of God in fruitful ways, but it leaves many questions unanswered.

In the Givens’ view, the unwarranted assumption that seems to make theodicy a problem is that God is sovereign, meaning that all things that happen are in accordance with his omnicompetent will. Such a God surely stands indicted by the fact of human suffering, because his failure to prevent it means in effect that he has chosen either to inflict or ignore it. Such a God can hardly be called “loving,” and, as the authors suggest, such a God hardly merits human worship. Instead of a sovereign God, the authors present us with a vulnerable God, a God who weeps upon seeing the pain that humans inflict on themselves and others.

This vulnerable God is defined not by ultimate power, but by ultimate empathy for the human condition. The distinction turns on two major tenets of Mormonism: the idea that humans are coeternal with God, and the idea that agency is sacrosanct. The first idea means that the difference between God and humans is one of degree, not one of kind, with the consequence that divine power is not qualitatively different than human power. The second means that, considered collectively, humans choose their own destiny.

Audaciously, then, the authors suggest that human suffering is the consequence of human choice—not only the choices whose effects might redound to the ill as their effects ripple out into society, but also, more profoundly, the human choice to enter into mortality in the first place. The authors, following on writings by Beverley Campbell and others, argue that Eve’s choice in Eden was not a tragic mistake, but a wise decision that enabled humanity to gain experience without which the divine nature would be forever unattainable. This educative experience, to which we all consented, would entail pain, because there is no other way we could know joy. Even if God remains all-powerful in principle, divine self-limiting prevents intrusions on human will. The God who weeps invites, but does not compel.

The God Who Weeps offers a strongly articulated vision of the plan whereby humans could come to participate in the divine nature. With an understanding of this plan rooted in Joseph Smith’s 1844 King Follett Discourse, the authors depict a God who saw others in a position to advance in knowledge and devised a way to make that possible. Unable clearly to remember our premortal existence, we immerse ourselves in an environment whereby we can learn good and evil by experience, with the intent of learning to freely choose the good. Christ’s atonement affords the grace necessary to heal from the inevitable mistakes.

Moreover, this salvific healing is available not to a select few, but to all the earth’s inhabitants throughout time. This universalism is manifest in the book’s wide-ranging quotations from writers scattered throughout the Western tradition. One can only hope for a companion volume drawing on traditions from the rest of the world. In any event I’d love to see Herbert and Hopkins become more a part of LDS religious life as a result of this book.

Coming into the book with some advance knowledge of its argument, I wondered how a vulnerable, self-limiting God could actually save anybody. I don’t feel that the book fully resolves this question, but its attempt seems centered on a model of cooperative grace. By rejecting the doctrine of Original Sin, the book likewise rejects Augustinian teachings about human depravity. People do have an innate capacity to do good. Neither, however, does the book embrace Pelagianism, because it insists that actually learning how to do good can only happen within an empowering context of grace, which allows people to learn from their mistakes rather than being hemmed in by them forever.

The focus does fall squarely on human choice, however. Access to the context of grace requires choosing a relationship with God, by responding to the always-open divine invitation. Presumably people are not any more uniformly capable of getting this choice exactly right than they are with any other choice. Thus salvation becomes an iterative process, defined by persistent trial and error and presided over by a very patient God.

Perhaps this vulnerable God saves, not by conquering sin and suffering, but by incorporating them in a sort of bricolage—that form of backyard puttering used by Claude Lèvi-Strauss to understand the process of appropriating objects or ideas and putting them to new uses. One recognizes the hockey stick or the tire iron in that new bit of garden furniture, but one also recognizes that the old words for them are no longer quite accurate. So it might be with a God whose openness absorbs the horror of life and crafts it into the divine nature.

Ultimately, The God Who Weeps is an essayistic provocation, not a theological argument. One suspects that this generic choice is quite deliberate; Terryl Givens spoke to John Dehlin of the beautifully intricate, but widely ignored, theological pronouncements issuing from the Vatican, contrasting these with the homelier efforts of LDS leaders like Gordon B. Hinckley, whose simply stated “six be’s” spread quickly through the church. In LDS parlance, the book is a testimony, albeit a rather erudite and ecumenical one. It is one, I suspect, to which many Latter-day Saints will gladly say, “Amen.”

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