Earlier this week, a guest post by Michael Davidson titled “The Givens Attack the First Vision” was published here at the Millennial Star.
You can read it here: https://www.millennialstar.org/guest-post-the-givens-attack-the-first-vision/
Michael’s post has attracted some attention, and I want to post a counterpoint response to what he has written that I hope will demonstrate why I think his post was inappropriately personal and accusatory, even though I sympathize with his concerns.
Please note too that the current text of his post is different than what was first posted. The final three paragraphs, which were the more inflammatory section, have been removed after the fact.
First, I need to explain Steelman argument, provisional language, and a clarification about M* editors.
I’m sure you’ve heard of a Strawman Argument. But have you heard of a Steelman argument? It means that you purposely choose to attribute the most charitable intentions to someone with whom you are arguing and you attempt to argue against the strongest interpretation of their argument instead of the weakest.
You find the most charitable possible interpretation for the words of your opponent, and you try to agree with whatever good motivations you can identify, while still raising your disagreements. And sometimes it means that you choose to argue not against what your opponent actually said, but against the strongest version of what he might have been trying to say. Even if his reasons are stupid or misinformed, you choose to argue against the best argument that he could have made, and assume that is what he meant.
It is a very useful tool. But it runs contrary to our natural inclinations. It takes effort. And it is hard to steelman others when it feels like they are doing the opposite to you. But it is really worth the effort.
In this post, I will try to steelman both Michael Davidson and Brother and Sister Givens. I may not succeed. But I will have tried. And I hope that it can make a difference.
When we are disagree with one another, it is important to be precise, provisional, and measured. It is legitimate to challenge interpretations and beliefs. But when we state our conclusions as absolutes, we risk making a mistake and an enemy, all in one.
Michael felt the Givens were teaching dangerous doctrine. But Michael could have made his point while taking a more measured and less accusatory approach.
Using provisional language is an important aspect of constructive debate. With just a little more effort, Michael could have peppered his analysis with words like “Unless I am misreading, …” “I could be wrong, but …” And “I am concerned that some readers will take this to mean that…” “If this is what they mean, then…” Always leaving open the possibility that he has misunderstood their intentions or meaning.
It is rarely productive to insist our interpretation is the only logical possibility.
Millennial Star Editors
When the Millennial Star posts submissions by guests, they are posted under a user with the name “Millennial Star Editors” so that they will not be attributed to the contributor that is posting them on behalf of the guest. The name of the account under which they are posted is not meant to imply that the guest post has been considered and approved by everyone who contributes to the blog. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or individual authors that also publish here. But it is completely understandable how someone could come away with that impression.
The Givens and Micheal Davidson
I know Michael Davidson and consider him a friend. He is fiercely dedicated to the church and the gospel. He is intelligent, perceptive, and faithful. And I appreciate his many efforts to defend the church in the public square.
I do not know Terryl and Fiona Givens personally, but I am friends with their son. I have read a couple of their books, and I have read quite a few of the essays they have published over the years. I also appreciate their efforts to help those who struggled with faith. I have not read the book that is the focus of Michael’s essay, The Crucible of Doubt.
While I am sympathetic to Michael’s concerns, and acknowledge that some of his criticisms have merit, I think that his post unfairly impugns the intentions and faithfulness of Brother and Sister Givens.
Michael’s concern arises from an excerpt from The Crucible of Doubt that was recently posted online at LDS Living. (It is worth noting that the excerpt omits a number of paragraphs from the same section of the book.)
In the excerpt, Brother and Sister Givens attempt to address a common criticism of the church, which is the idea that the LDS church claims to have an exclusive monopoly on the truth, and teaches that other christian churches are nothing but corrupt and abominable.
This criticism is based on an oversimplification of what the church actually teaches, but it is not easy to explain why. So let’s back up a bit and review some background.
In a revelation given to Joseph Smith recorded in Doctrine & Covenants Section 1, the Lord describes the Church as “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.”
And in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, when Joseph asked which church he should join, the Lord responded that he should join none of them, “for they were all wrong; and … all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’ ”
These statements are often perceived as particularly offensive to members of other denominations, many of whom are unquestionably dedicated to the teachings of Christ in the New Testament as they interpret them, and many of whom practice the virtues He taught as best they can according to the truth they have received.
The church does in fact teach that it is the only organization on the earth to which God has given the priesthood authority to bind and loose both on earth and in heaven. The consequence of that exclusive authority is that covenants and ordinances, like baptism and marriage, that are performed by other denominations are not authorized and are not valid or not binding in the hereafter. It also means that the First Presidency of the church and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles claim exclusive authority to be God’s official spokesmen. And God himself guides the church through revelation to these authorized representatives.
However, the prophets and apostles of the church have clarified that this does not mean that other Christian denominations do not have any truth at all. For example, in the October 1971 General Conference, President Boyd K. Packer explained, “Now this is not to say that the churches, all of them, are without some truth. They have some truth– some of them very much of it. They have a form of godliness. Often the clergy and adherents are not without dedication, and many of them practice remarkably well the virtues of Christianity. They are, nonetheless, incomplete.”
President Packer compared other Christian churches to pianos that are missing keys, some of which are out of tune. They can still make music, but their music is limited, and possibly off-key. The church doesn’t even claim to currently possess all truth that could ever be revealed. In its articles of faith, it explicitly declares that there are many things that are yet to be revealed. If they are yet to be revealed, then obviously the church doesn’t know them yet.
Comparing other churches to out of tune pianos that are missing keys is still potentially offensive to other Christians, but it certainly doesn’t amount to a claim that the LDS Church has an exclusive monopoly on truth, or that other churches are wholly corrupt and abominable.
However, for those who struggle with doubts about the legitimacy of the church’s claims to truth and authority, this presents an apparent contradiction: since they have personally observed members of other denominations who are clearly living virtuous, Christian lives (and sometimes doing it better than those who profess to be Latter-day Saints); and since the modern prophets acknowledge that these other churches have truth, some of them a great deal of it, as President Packer said, then why would the Lord, in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, declare that they are all wrong, that all of their creeds were not just off-key or incomplete, but an “abomination,” and that the professors (meaning those who profess faith in them) are all corrupt?
When critics raise this point they tend to be far less precise, and they often overstate the church’s teachings, and they they misconstrue them as a claim to have a “monopoly on truth.” And this lack of precision muddles the conversations about the issue.
At the same time, there are also some believing members of the church who make the same mistake, and incorrectly look on other Christians as wholly corrupt and abominable (even though the prophets and apostles have said otherwise). This makes the discussions even more muddled because these members end up perpetuating the false idea and appear to validate the critic’s claims.
Multiple Interpretations of the Givens’ Argument
Now that we have reviewed the background context, let’s return to the current controversy.
The Givens try to address this problem in the chapter that was excerpted by LDS Living. It is clear that their intention is to help people work their way through this concern so that they can continue to believe in the church. And their primary goal seems to be to debunk the “monopoly on truth” mischaracterization.
Unfortunately, for all of their good intentions, portions of their chapter raise a number of serious red flags for many faithful members of the church.
Believing members are rightfully wary of those who seem to be more than willing to abandon the church’s claims to truth and authority in favor of a kind of squishy mormonish universalism. And they understandably recoil from an intellectual overemphasis on the fallibility of the prophets, which is more often than not used to justify rejecting the teachings and direction of the living prophets.
The first red flag has to do with the introduction of the chapter. The first paragraph asserts that
1.1 The language of Mormon culture is fraught with contradictions
1.2 All faiths include intemperate zealots
1.3 Even wise and good people can say uninspired, ridiculous, and even reprehensible things.
1.4 We should characterize other faiths by their best manifestations, not their worst
There is nothing particularly objectionable about these declarations in isolation. However, they are immediately followed in the second paragraph by the following observations:
2.1 The language in which other churches are described in the First Vision sounds harsh to modern ears– seeming like shockingly abrasive and nasty insults and slurs
2.2 Such language was not unusual or inappropriate at the time, nor in previous eras.
Likewise, by themselves, these observations are not particularly controversial. It is the combination of the 1st and 2nd paragraphs together that raises concerns.
In combination with the first paragraph, the 2nd paragraph could easily be interpreted to mean that the seemingly abrasive words attributed to the Lord by Joseph when recounting his First Vision are not actually what the Lord said, but a product of Joseph and the era in which he lived. And that they were in fact an example of the kind of uninspired, ridiculous, and even reprehensible things that even good people, like Joseph Smith, can say.
That is the way that Michael Davidson took them, and it is not an unreasonable interpretation.
But it is also not the only possible interpretation.
It is possible that the 1st paragraph and the 2nd paragraph were not intended to be so tightly coupled. In that case, the 1st paragraph can be interpreted as a more general admonition that you can find intemperate, uninspired, ridiculous, and reprehensible things that people have said in every religion, but that we should charitably try to characterize them by the best actions and words of their adherents rather than the worst.
The second paragraph, as an independent thought from the first, can be read to mean that the perceived harshness of the words of the First Vision are a function of the anachronistic imposition of modern cultural expectations on language of the past. And in that case, it is a warning to modern readers that they are likely misinterpreting the words, and not a suggestion that the words are incorrect.
The 2nd paragraph leads into the 3rd:
3.1 The language in the First Vision has been used to support the false idea that the church claims to have a monopoly on truth
3.2 The notion that the church claims a monopoly on truth can contribute to those who become disaffected from the church
3.3 Some members seem to believe the false “monopoly on truth” idea.
3.4 Reiterate 1.4
3.5 The Lord and the leaders of the church, including Joseph Smith and John Taylor, contradict the “monopoly on truth” claim
Depending on the interpretation of the 2nd paragraph, the 3rd paragraph can also be interpreted in multiple ways.
If you interpret the 2nd paragraph, as Michael does, to say that the language of the first vision was a product of Joseph and not the Lord, then the 3rd paragraph seems to be saying that Joseph’s harsh language, falsely attributed to the Lord, has created the idea that the church has a monopoly on truth.
But if you take the 2nd paragraph as a warning against projecting modern expectations on the previous era, then the 3rd paragraph would be saying that the projection of modern exceptions onto the past contributes to the false “monopoly on truth” narrative.
Which of these interpretations represents what Brother and Sister Givens intended to say?
I do not know. But my inclination is to try to assume the most charitable interpretation.
Communication is difficult– especially in writing. We often try to explain complicated thoughts and ideas and end up using insufficiently precise words or discovering that the words we have chosen carry different connotations for different audiences. It is easy to over-interpret or misinterpret things.
In 1978, Finnish Professor Osmo Wiio humorously observed:
“Human communications usually fail except by accident. If communication can fail, it will. If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails. If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding. If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds. The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.”
While, like Murphy’s Law, Wiio’s observations are meant to be humorous, they are also often true.
While it is easy to see how Michael came to his conclusions, in the broader context of their accumulated works, the accusation that Brother and Sister Givens are intentionally attacking the First Vision doesn’t make sense. The Givens have never implied that the First Vision didn’t happen. By all accounts they wholeheartedly believe that Joseph Smith was visited by God and Jesus Christ, and called to be a prophet. They believe that the church is indeed the only organization with the authority of God to performing binding ordinances and covenants. And they believe that the prophet and apostles are God’s authentic spokesmen and representatives to the world. While perhaps it would be prudent for them to be more explicit about these beliefs, they continually refer to them in their chapter. While their words raise legitimate questions, calling them an attack on the First Vision seems overinflated and disproportionate.
And this is where I believe that Michael’s post was inappropriate and wrong and beyond the mark.
It is perfectly legitimate to challenge their interpretations of D&C 149 and D&C 10.
It is perfectly reasonable to question the doctrinal implications of the kind of universalism that they seem to advocate.
And it is important to identify that the opening paragraphs of their chapter could be read to suggest that the Givens seem to be saying that the language in Joseph Smith’s recounting of the First Vision is wrong, and merely the uninspired words of Joseph, and that if that is indeed their argument, it is important to show how it undercuts the foundational doctrines of the church and is incompatible with the church’s claims.
Michael could have said something like “I could be wrong, but it looks like this is what the Givens are saying. Is that what they intended to say? Because if it is, then here are the problems I see with it and I think it hurts faith in the church.”
Instead, Michael said: “This is what the Givens are saying. There is no other interpretation. The only possible conclusion is that they are purposefully undermining the church. Prove me wrong.”
We all say things that, upon reflection, we wish we could have said a different way. I do not want to be too harsh toward Michael. He is a good man and he raises legitimate concerns. I do not want him to stop defending the church against ideas that undermine faith. But there are many ways to defend the Church, and I submit that Michael’s post was inappropriately accusatory and went beyond the mark.
I hope also that Brother and Sister Givens are aware that in the ongoing battle of words concerning the church, some of the ways in which they have tried to help those who doubt can sometimes appear to concede too much to the critics of the church. Though I am certain that it is not their intention, to everyday members of the church who do not struggle with the same doubts, their arguments can be perceived as giving away the farm in an effort to improve the harvest. And critics of the church have been willing to reenforce that perception by construing their efforts as friendly to the apostate view. Brother and Sister Givens should be aware of this dynamic and prayerfully consider ways to counteract it while still ministering to those who struggle.