Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt: A Review

Recently, the cover of Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith has been splashed across seemingly every major Mormon blog as reviewers have praised its frankness and lack of “theological Twinkies.” I myself preordered a copy of the book shortly before its release—and subtly endorsed it—based solely on the high praise of many early reviews; my admiration for the authors’ previous book, The God Who Weeps; and my respect for Givens themselves, who have become vocal champions of what we might call the “New Faithful” of Mormonism. Since The God Who Weeps, that is, the Givens have come to represent an alternative approach to faithful Mormon practice that seeks to change certain culturally-inscribed attitudes and practices by modifying the tone and focus of the dominant discourse of contemporary Mormonism. (To get a sense of what I mean, I recommend listening to interviews with the Givens on Mormon Stories and other podcasts. Or read their books.) Buying the book, and encouraging others to read it, seemed like a safe bet a month ago. And now that I’ve read the book, I can say, with great relief, that it was. The Crucible of Doubt is a beautiful book, and you should read it as soon as possible.

If you do, you’ll soon discover that the Givens are revolutionaries, but not in any radical sense. As you would expect from authors published through Deseret Book, their tone towards the institutional church is always positive and affirming. This accounts probably for their popularity with readers, including me, who are easily wearied by disillusioned critics of the institution; yet, I think it also strikes a chord with readers for the honest, earnest way it offers hope to those who struggle with faith, who recognize within themselves an encroaching disillusionment. If The God Who Weeps is a book for believing Mormons seeking cultural-intellectual affirmation for their beliefs, as well as a slightly bigger tent, then The Crucible of Doubt is for Mormons who are beginning to wonder, in an era of MormonThink “objectivity,” if there is anything in the Church worth affirming. Like The God Who Weeps, therefore, it makes a case for Mormonism and faith drawing upon the great minds of the Western tradition, particularly the Romantics Terryl Givens so admires. Yet, the book is more ostensibly Mormon than its predecessor, particularly in the way it draws unabashedly from latter-day scripture and General Authorities. For me, this subtle change in approach is a necessary shift, considering their topic, because it reiterates the value of Mormonism’s intellectual tradition and heritage, which critical voices often disparage as thin and platitudinous.

The Givens begin their book with an introduction that invites readers to change the way they think about Mormonism. Writing generally of the metanarratives that govern our lives, the Givens note that “we are inevitably living under the burden of some paradigms, individually and collectively, that will one day be relics with other conceptual assumptions we have cast off,” rightly characterizing such as “intellectual straitjackets” that bind our minds and “limit our understanding, and even warp the questions we ask” (3). Applying this observation specifically to Mormonism, and the way members of the Church have sometimes misapplied certain paradigms to their foundational beliefs and practices with disastrous effect, gives the book direction as it asks readers to question their own assumptions about what Mormonism is and asks of us. As the Givens argue:

Disciples too must persevere until we get the questions right [….] We are all prisoners of our preconceptions and faulty models. Those are frequently the problem in faith crises—not the questions that arise from them. After all, the Restoration unfolded because a young man asked questions [….] The unexamined paradigms with which we begin can negatively affect a healthy propensity to question. They can point us in the wrong direction, misdirect our attention, or constrain the answers we are capable of hearing. (9)

Accordingly, what The Crucible of Doubt advocates throughout its eleven chapters and epilogue is a “faith that is open to any answer.” To achieve it, though, readers must “invest in the effort to free [themselves] from [their] own conditioning and expectations,” which often poses challenges for contemporary Mormons, whose experiences with faith and religious practice has been highly conditioned through the correlation program (10). As practicing Mormons themselves, however, the Givens are aware of and sympathetic to this aspect of Mormon life and offer, in my opinion, several strategies for working faithfully and honestly within the highly-structured system. While I do not have space or time to go through each strategy, they include suggestions for how readers could rethink their relationship to reason, the institutional church, scripture, church leadership and heroes, revelation, other faith traditions, spiritual nourishment, sin and evil, prayer, and doubt itself. It also concludes with a final chapter that proposes belief as a risky endeavor. “[T]o believe is to risk disappointment,” the Givens write. “To trust in a man, or a cause, or a God, is to risk disappointment. To act in faith is to risk failure, betrayal, even humiliation.” For them, the risk is worth it if the result of that faith is goodness and love in our individual lives, even if that goodness and love is “incomprehensible” to others (139-140). In a sense, The Crucible of Doubt encourages doubters to stop relegating their relationship with God to other taskmasters and take ownership of their spiritual lives. It calls on readers to make their faith a more personal thing, something that cannot be outsourced to manuals or skeptics.

As executed, The Crucible of Doubt is a thoughtful, well-written book that will likely do a lot of good for its target audience. For certain readers struggling with doubt, however, particularly those whose struggles are severe, the book’s relatively gentle, conciliatory approach might not be enough to ease the burden and stem the tide of disillusionment. Nor is the book likely to bring hardened backsliders back to the fold, although I think it has great potential to meet them on some middle-ground of understanding. At its core, The Crucible of Doubt is for those who sincerely want to believe, but need help with their unbelief. For this reason, I also see it as an invaluable resource for Relief Society presidents, bishops, stake presidents, visiting teachers, home teachers, seminary teachers and anyone else who occupies a pastoral position in the church. Too often, that is, members of the church struggle to help those who doubt because they themselves are unprepared not only to talk about the troubling alleyways of Mormon history and culture, but also to broach the topic doubt itself. While The Crucible of Doubt will not provide these pastors with ready-made answers to the difficult questions, it will help them to begin to offer faithful alternatives to those who stumble along the most “conventional” or “orthodox” of paths.

“Some of us,” the Givens write near the end of the book, “[…] are called to live lives of commitment and devotion while dwelling in the realms of belief alone, or harboring an earnest desire to believe” (138). I believe most Mormons, along with most other religious people, fall into this camp. As a devout believer myself, I know that my faith is largely a matter of belief and hope rather than knowledge, even if I do at times say, with so many of my fellow Latter-day Saints, that I know the Church is true. Implicit in The Crucible of Doubt is an invitation to step back from this discourse of certainty and embrace the beauty of “[seeing] through a glass darkly” (see 1 Corinthians 13.12). As a teenager struggling with my faith, I wanted to be sure of everything about Mormonism before I made a lifetime commitment to it. The crucible of doubt I passed through at that time was painful, lonely, and often chaotic because it lacked so much guidance and direction. I survived it, somehow, more mature in faith and devoted to the Gospel and the Church. But the recovery, the coming to terms with God and community, continues to this day as I strive to find the most ethical way to deal with the messiest baggage of Mormonism. It’s possible that had I had The Crucible of Doubt as a fifteen-year-old, when I had my first real doubts about the ChurchI’d be further along than I am today in my faith journey and understanding of the Plan of Salvation. But neither faith nor the Plan is really about the distance you can cover in a lifetime. Both, if understood, point you to the present and the goodness and grace God offers in the here and now. And that, I think, is what The Crucible of Doubt wants readers to know.

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