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Nathaniel and Terryl Givens: Why Is Belief Hard?

Admitting that “belief is hard” could be a step toward accessing the power of faith.

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that faith is the first principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet many people struggle to understand their own beliefs. Furthermore, the importance of belief seems to be on the decline, as evidenced by the rise of those leaving organized religion. In this interview, Terryl Givens, and his son, Nathaniel, explain that admitting “belief is hard” could be a step toward accessing the power of faith—and balancing faith and intellect.

Read the book by Terryl Givens and Nathaniel Givens written for a general Christian audience, Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard—and Still Is (Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2022).

Why did Terryl Givens and Nathaniel Givens write Into the Headwinds?

We refer to the book at one point as a “plea for faith,” and that’s really at the heart of our motivation for writing this book. Critiques of faith that originate in rationalism and scientism are effective because they have a lot of truth to them.

We are right to be concerned with wishful thinking and to be skeptical of believing things without evidence, for example. But these critiques are often presented in a one-sided way that papers over the reality that all facets of human inquiry must grapple with uncertainty and the limits of reason and the paucity of data. The idea that we can do an end-run around uncertainty by appealing to reason or science is a myth.

It takes no courage to go along.

One of our aims is to help people recognize that myth, and in so doing to reconsider faith. For the believer who may feel besieged by appeals to the authority of science, we hope this perspective offers encouragement.

And for non-believers, although of course we invite them to reconsider that non-belief, we hope that at least it affords a better appreciation for the reasonableness of faith. Because, in the end, if there is no escape from uncertainty then faith—properly understood—is all any of us can ever lay claim to.

Why did Nathaniel Givens and Terryl Givens choose Eerdman’s as their publisher?

When we finished the first draft of our manuscript, we realized that we were addressing faith in such a general way that it could have equal interest for people from any religious background. In addition, we had—without intending to do so—relied very sparingly on any particularly Latter-day Saint sources. (That was just a natural result of relying so heavily on science writers.)

So, we made the decision to take out a couple of Latter-day Saint-specific citations and address the book to the widest possible audience.

We’re really thrilled that Eerdman’s agreed that the work had broad appeal and agreed to publish it.

The book cover for "Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard—and Still Is" by Nathaniel and Terryl Givens (published by Eerdman's)
Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard—and Still Is was written by Terryl Givens and his son, Nathaniel.

What was it like to be co-authors as father and son?

In many ways, this book is just the extension of conversations we have been having together for decades. Although we chose to focus in different fields, we’ve always had overlapping interests, and in many cases the writers we cite and the ideas we proposed were ones we’d already both shared before working together on this book.

Still, we did specialize a little bit, with Nathaniel writing more of the technical sections and Terryl providing the lion’s share of the historical and philosophical contextualization.

What’s the connection between moral courage and belief that is “too easy”?

One direct implication for our present moment is on understanding the “Rise of the Nones.” Once we draw a distinction between religious conversion and religious affiliation, it allows us to think more critically about the drivers behind and implications of declining religiosity in America.

And—to take that further—it allows us to reconnect with the distant Christian past. Christianity has been ascendant (at least in the West) for such a long time that there can be a sense of real fear when that ascendancy starts to degrade.

We should all strive to behave rationally, but not only rationally.

But the church (in the broadest sense possible) has been here before. Not only at the start, when Christ’s disciples were few in absolute terms, but also again and again whenever Christianity has spread to a new nation or people or context.

And that brings us to the question of moral courage, perhaps. When everyone else identifies as Christian, it takes no courage to go along. As fewer and fewer people do–and as the costs for maintaining Christian beliefs increases–that gets harder to do. We would not say that it takes a great deal of courage to be a Christian in most places in America today, but it certainly takes a little more than it did in decades past. If present trends hold, then it will take yet more moral courage to do so in the future.

It’s also the case, as David French has recently argued, that Christianity (as a standard of discipleship) and Christendom (as a cultural formation) are always in tension. That means that our faith commitments always require self-vigilance and a willingness to sometimes face the headwinds of our co-religionists.

You mention Commander Data and Vulcans, and then quote Jonathan Haidt: “Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason.” Why not reason?

This shouldn’t be taken too far, of course. We’re not writing an anti-rationalist book. It’s not about less reason. I think pretty much everyone could always stand to act with more reason in their life.

What “worshiping reason” refers to is the idea that reason alone is sufficient. That’s the critical error. We should all strive to behave rationally, but not only rationally. Intuition—empathy, moral reasoning, emotion—these are not optional and they are certainly not detrimental.

What are the dangers of rationalism?

One of the reasons that rationalism can be a dangerous trap is that it leads us into a confrontation with the elephant (that is, the unconscious parts of our mind) that we’re never going to win because the elephant is, as we say, hidden and dominant.

We can’t consciously observe our unconscious mental processes (by definition) and in the long-run we can’t override them, either.

But if we stop there, then we have a really depressing picture, right? The last attribute of the elephant—that it is beneficial—is crucial to giving a full picture of what we human beings are like (for one) and providing some real optimism (for another). It’s also the case that we need many of our mental processes to be automatic, to free up our minds for conscious engagement with those matters of ultimate concern.

We don’t have real faith until we have made a costly decision.

So, we go into the ways that the elephant has other really positive attributes, especially empathy. Our ability to connect with other people, to experience belonging, and in fact pretty much all of our moral faculties are inseparable from the elephant.

This is really crucial to understand if we’re going to move beyond a kind of self-hatred (where we lament that we’re not exclusively rational beings) to a positive integration of the elephant and the rider, where we accept our whole selves and work to create an integrous identity that embraces the best of both our rational and intuitive sides.

What is the case for unity in the search for truth?

There’s a saying that all beings—not just humans, but all living creatures—have fundamentally two motivations: attraction and aversion. We run away from things we don’t like. Or we run towards things we do like.

In emotional terms: fear and love. We believe that it’s always better to operate from a position of love rather than fear. To be more motivated by that which we wish to embrace rather than by the thing we wish to eschew. So yes, scientism has a lot of flaws. But if we ended up by, as you say, driving a stake through its heart, then we’ve failed to pivot from aversion and fear to attraction and love.

And so that’s what we’re doing in that final section. We’re saying, “Yeah: here are the faults and shortcomings of scientism. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Scientism is a mutation of science, and science is good. So rather than end with a definitive statement of what is bad, we shifted to an emphasis on what is good.

This also fits with our theme of integration. If you recall, our solution to the elephant/rider situation isn’t to try and have one dominate or expel the other. It’s to integrate them. Because reason and intuition are both valuable. They’re both part of who we are. That’s on an individual level.

You want to have faith? You’re going to have to do something.

Well, when we talk about the unity of truth-seeking we’re replicating that integration on a social level. There’s nothing wrong with science. Science is awesome. And it’s also distinct from religion, just as—within the sciences—we can differentiate between hard and soft (social) sciences.

So, we’re not trying to blur everything together. They are distinct and they should be distinct.

But they’re not opposed because they spring from a common trunk. That commonality is truth-seeking and sense-making. Trying to understand the world around us. That urge—that social project—encompasses everything from physics to philosophy, and a healthy society should regard them—like the elephant and rider—as two aspects of a cohesive whole.

To what extent is humility a key to Christian belief?

So, one of our main points is that we don’t have real faith until we have made a costly decision. And nobody makes a costly decision by just reading a book. So, if you follow that through, you’re unlikely—barring some exceptional cases—to meaningfully grow someone’s faith by anything you put in a book.

That’s not how faith works. You can’t convince someone to have faith, because the actual aspect of faith that matters is skin in the game. Paying a price. Taking a risk. And so for that reason, persuading people to believe (i.e., trying to actually directly increase faith in the book), was never really our goal.

My faith is not strong… yet.

You want to have faith? You’re going to have to do something. And we do make a recommendation on that score.

If you recall, the last section in the book is on the nature of prayer as risk-taking. So, we do hope to convince people that faith is something to take seriously. That’s the case we want to make. And if we make it successfully then, we hope, people will take the steps in their lives—especially attempting sincere prayer—that will lead them to faith.

But our goal is to persuade people of our case about faith. Not—in this book—to convey faith itself. So that’s the hope.

But as for humility, yes, that’s a really important topic to talk about as well. When you talk about uncertainty, people have a hard time reconciling that with faith. Faith, to be strong, shouldn’t coexist with doubts, right? Except, as we talk about it (in the section on “presumptuous certainty”) this can mislead people to try and overstate their confidence. To sort of fake faith they don’t actually have.

Terryl Givens discusses the importance of refining belief and epistemological humility in this conversation with Faith Matters.

This is why humility—spiritual as well as intellectual—is so important. Because faith is ultimately something that we can’t have outside of a relationship with God. And that means it can’t depend on just us. That means that if we give into the temptation to pretend to greater certainty than we actually have, we’re cutting God out of the relationship.

It’s true that faith must work to keep doubt at bay. We have to be patient and let that faith grow as part of our relationship with God. And the humility is necessary for that patience. The humility is what lets us say, “My faith is not strong… yet.”

And if we have that attitude—that willingness to admit our weakness and patiently wait—then we will, in time, achieve a genuinely strong faith.

The whole need no physician, but they that are sick. Admitting our uncertainty in the context of a hopeful expectation that God will increase our faith is humble, but it is not weak.

It is the only way to true faith.

Was it a deliberate choice to use scientific (rather than scriptural) examples?

It’s less a deliberate choice and more a natural and unavoidable consequence of the project, which is to show how the case against religious faith–coming from rationalism and scientism—is misleading.

The way to make that case is to take reason and science on their own terms, and show where they fall short. Not to replace them or criticize them. This book is not anti-reason or anti-science. It is pro-reason and pro-science. But it sees reason and science as necessary but not sufficient on our personal and social journey towards greater light and truth.

Of course, we also hope that making our case with such heavy reliance on secular thinkers and disciplines may make the book more interesting and even perhaps more palatable to those for whom faith is a struggle—or a virtual non-starter.

But that wasn’t something we engineered. It’s not a strategy. We’ve both been reading and talking about these books for years, and so it was natural to build our case with them.

And remember, it’s all about the unity of truth-seeking. Using the science to articulate a case about religious faith is a working prototype of what we mean when we refer to that unity. Science and religion, properly understood, are not only capable of living side-by-side, but of enriching and informing each other.

What is phototropism and how does it apply to faith?

Phototropism is the way that plants bend themselves towards the sun, and it’s one of the last analogies we use in the book. The application to faith is that it’s not so much a question of what we decide based on the evidence, as it is a question of what evidence we decide to admit into our consideration.

And the analogy follows one of the themes of the book—which is that just as rationality is a natural feature of the human mind, so are intuition and moral sense and aesthetic responsiveness aspects of the human soul.

To be human is to be laden with mechanisms that allow us to engage and interact and respond to the world. Some of these are sensory, some are intellectual, and some are spiritual.

We are suggesting that we need to credit some of our innate responses in that latter category especially.

How does Into the Headwinds apply particularly to Latter-day Saints?

For the most part, it doesn’t. Almost every point we make applies to all Christians of all persuasions, and could be just as useful to Jews or Muslims for that matter. Or to anyone who believes in a Creator God who seeks to reveal himself to us.

But there are also aspects that might be of particular interests to Latter-day Saints. One in particular has to do with this idea that the elephant is beneficial, which we talked about in a previous question. This has promising implications for the Latter-day Saint concept that coming to earth and receiving a physical body was a step forward.

We also hope the larger project of integration that we undertake might lead us to rethink some of the simplistic spirit/body dualisms we are especially prone to in our religious culture.

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About the authors

Terryl Givens is the Neal L. Maxwell Senior Research Fellow at Brigham Young University. He formerly held the University of Richmond’s Jabez A. Bostwick Chair of English, where he was professor of literature and religion. He is the author and coauthor of numerous books, including All Things New, The God Who Weeps, and The Crucible of Doubt.

Nathaniel Givens has been published in First Things, Deseret Magazine, and RealClearReligion on topics of faith and politics. With graduate degrees in economics and systems engineering, he is a data analyst and entrepreneur currently with an international startup.

Further reading

Nathaniel Givens and Terryl Givens resources

By Benjamin Pacini

Educator. Proud bow tie wearer. Imperfect disciple.

One reply on “Nathaniel and Terryl Givens: Why Is Belief Hard?”

President Henry B. Eyring told this story from when he was a boy attending a district conference:
“But then I remember hearing something—a man’s voice from the pulpit. I turned around and looked. I still remember that the speaker was at a rostrum set on wooden risers. There was a tall window behind him. He was the priesthood visitor. I don’t know who he was, but he was tall and bald, and he seemed very old to me. He must have been talking about the Savior or the Prophet Joseph, or both, because that was all I remember hearing much about in those days. But as he spoke, I knew that what he said came from God and that it was true, and it burned in my heart. That was before scholars told me how hard it was to know. I just knew with certainty—I knew it was true.”
Eaton and Eyring, I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, 35; also quoted in Henry B. Eyring, To Draw Closer to God: A Collection of Discourses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 5.

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