I gravitate toward authors who love and engage the Western literary tradition in their explications, who seek to understand things in terms of the great literature they’ve read. This is my preferred method for studying the Restored Gospel, accepting that our Heavenly Parents have always been inspiring humankind in every endeavor that tends toward the good, true, and beautiful.
For this reason I profoundly appreciate the writing of Terryl Givens; he explicates Mormonism by the light of the greatest minds of Western civilization. While this post is concerned with his most recent publication Feeding the Flock, The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis, I have read others of his work and perhaps will comment on them in the future.
A brief overview:
As noted (in the title), this volume is focused on praxis, a transliteration of the Greek πρᾶξις, which has to do with the manner or mode in which a doxy (opinion or belief, from the Greek δόξα) is implemented. Also as noted (in the title), there is a focus on foundations, aptly plural, as it involves weighing the several influences of Protestant manifestations of Christendom on Joseph Smith’s culture as well as that of the Catholic tradition. Like Victor Hugo, Givens heralds each (Mormon) topic to be addressed with a historically informed preface; also like Hugo, these prefaces are rich and not to be skipped.
Passages significant (to me):
“In sum, Smith’s ‘Restoration’ is not about correcting particular doctrines or practices as much as it is about restoring their cosmic context.” (pg. 27)
This is representative of an important summit in the range of Givens’ thought and appears throughout his written or spoken corpus. Essentially, Joseph Smith reconstituted a centuries-strewn Gospel; truths were never lost, merely fragmented. Thus, existing systems of Christian thought were less often discarded than reinterpreted in Mormonism. Such a view does not diminish Smith’s stature as a prophet; on the contrary it situates him in the great tradition of inspired writers, canonical and otherwise, who have re-purposed the insight of their forebears to inform their respective contemporaneities. See my essay on the nature of inspiration for more on this.
“…’Mormonism’ is the name for an epiphenomenal institution whose reach is universal and timeless.” (pg. 29)
One of the great tenets of Mormonism, as set forth by Joseph Smith and his immediate predecessors (but not so much anymore without qualifiers) is the universal embrace, the catholicism, of Mormonism. Here is one reason for my love for this religion Joseph articulated; not only does it allow me, it practically commands me, to accept the good, true, and beautiful things of all religions and thought systems of all eras. With Mormonism, everything is mine (everybody’s).
“…for Mormons, heaven is relational, not situational.” (pg. 54)
Another pillar of Mormon ecumenism. In our heaven(s) is a place for all, largely unchanged from the nature chosen in life. O, were we to realize the social implications for this mortal sphere as contained in section 76!
“…Smith’s refusal to recognize a fundamental distinction between the old and the new.” (pg. 118)
This is in keeping with Joseph’s prophethood, which is institutionalized poethood.
“Consistent with Mormonism’s view of exaltation as a joint entry of a man and woman into the Heavenly Family, and of God himself as an exalted man and woman, the culminating ordinance of LDS temple theology is jointly received.” (pg. 192)
I have loved to think that every encounter with the Father in history and scripture has actually been with Him and our Mother. In addition, I appreciate that, as often as clarity permits, Givens says Heavenly Parents instead of merely God.
I appreciate his relaxed candor when discussing what sources Joseph used when constructing this religion; the forms utilized in the Temple are Masonic (who cares?!).
I noticed (and began marking) instances of what I thought was subdued exultation when a parallel could be drawn between Mormonism and Catholicism. I share that sentiment.
What complaints I have are rooted in the brevity with which a book of this size must treat its foci. It’s message, for it has a message, is timely; hopefully Givens’ literarily informed method of exposition will inspire the kind of wide reading that Mormon scripture has enjoined upon its adherents since the mid-nineteenth century.