Let’s Talk About Faith and Intellect with Terryl Givens

It can be hard to know when intellect supplements faith—and when it supplants faith.

There’s a unique tension between faith and intellect. For example, believers sometimes struggle with nuanced terms such as certainty and doubt. And it can be hard to know when intellect supplements faith—versus when it supplants faith. In this interview, Terryl Givens shares quotes from Joseph Smith, and expounds on the relationship between intellect and belief.

Read the book by Terryl Givens, Let’s Talk About Faith and Intellect.

What is the book’s backstory—and audience?

Recurrently in the present day church one hears of people who feel they can no longer harmonize their faith and their rational nature. The question of whether heart and mind are allies or antagonists is as old as Christianity. This seemed an apt moment to say something about the topic.

I struggle to feed my heart and mind in equal degrees.

How can Latter-day Saints navigate certainty and doubt?

Scripture is clear on the topic: Some have the gift of knowledge, and some have the gift of being able to believe without certainty (D&C 46). Charity of each kind of disciple for the other seems an unambiguous imperative. If you’re in a “camp” you’re already outside the body of Christ.

In my own journey, I just try to make sure my questions are my own, and I look for opportunities to reaffirm rather than question my faith.

Terryl Givens and Spencer Fluhman discuss faith and doubt in a video production of the Faith Matters Foundation.

What other virtues should be discussed alongside rationality?

Epistemic humility in science, in the humanities, and in Christian discipleship is always the best companion to rationality.

Realizing the fallibility and limits of human reason allows other human faculties to supplement our reason: moral sense, intuition, spiritual promptings, aesthetic responsiveness, and other agencies we may not know how to name but have learned to trust.

There is no shortcut to intellectual competence.

When can we be willfully blind?

We do well to acknowledge the reality of biological factors and natural forces in shaping human identity (and the human organism).

But to concede to those elements the decisive influence in constituting human identity is to concede no greater end to human existence than the ends other animals seek: physical satisfaction, pleasure, survival. We alone can imagine a future self and a future community, and then consciously work toward their attainment.

We are being willfully blind if we don’t ever ask why that might be the case.

What does Terryl Givens mean when he says supercolliders are less important a statement of humanity than orphanages?

Qualitatively speaking, the difference between a beaver dam and an automobile is one of degree. Both are technological achievements. The difference between a group of aid workers in Uganda and a school of fish is one of kind.

I know which achievement I would be prouder to own as a species.

Pure religion is about feeding the poor.

Are seeking God and truth a singular endeavor?

Almost, but I am reluctant to use formulations that make God less than a personal Being or equate him with particular universals. And I think Christianity took many wrong turns when it made love one of God’s subsidiary attributes, giving pride of place to sovereignty, or unchangeableness, or perfection, or—truth.

God loves us enough to desire that we enjoy all of the attributes and conditions He (They) enjoys in fullness. Truth is one of those, but so are compassion, wisdom, humor, curiosity, and others.

How do we teach a truer narrative about the relationship between religion and truth?

I think Latter-day Saint scholars are making enormous strides in that regard. Joseph Smith said the “Catholic church had more truth than all the rest”—which means a careful assessment of what was lost and what restored must be an ongoing project.

The apostasy conference at BYU almost a decade ago did significant work in reevaluating the meaning of those terms apostasy and restoration (see the resultant publication: Standing Apart).

Christianity is rooted in history, and so is the Restoration.

The recent Maxwell publication on the Ancient Christians furthered that project by assembling outstanding essays on the contributions of early Christians. We need to continue the work of refining those words (apostasy and restoration) without abandoning the claims they represent.

Does seeking require us to speak against untruth?

Joseph Smith said:

It is our duty to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good and unpopular that which is unsound.

Joseph Smith

But the ways in which contemporary Americans are speaking against what they take to be unsound are far more divisive than clarifying.

In my personal work, my philosophy has been that the best defense is a good offense. We don’t need to tear down “untruth” if we are doing the best job we can of celebrating and elucidating the true and the beautiful.

How do we guard against cheap intellectualism?

There is no shortcut to intellectual competence. One thing I love about the Latter-day Saint past is the heritage of genuine intellectual appetite.

Consider just a few relevant groups that were filled with eager amateur:

  • The Hebrew School;
  • The School of the Prophets;
  • The Polysophical Society;
  • The debating societies and book clubs of Joseph Smith and B. H. Roberts.

I rely upon my deep sense of the sacred.

One reason Oxford and Illinois and the University of North Carolina compete for the best books in “Mormon Studies” is because they all learned the same thing a few decades ago: the Saints read.

They can sell lots of books on Latter-day Saint topics because there is an audience who read them. Not all of us and not as much as we should, but for many it’s a life-long commitment. The life of the mind has to be.

What does Terryl Givens mean when he says that “history matters”?

“In the same breath,” I try to always say—but not all history. Christianity is predicated, first and foremost, on three facts that are historical:

  1. Birth. The Son of God was made flesh through an actual birth by the Virgin Mary.
  2. Death. The Savior of the World suffered and died at a particular moment in time in a real location in such a way as to bring about our healing and resurrection.
  3. Resurrection. And the crucified God rose from the dead on the first Easter morning.

Any attempt to turn those three events into mere allegory or inspirational fiction would destroy the bases of any genuine Christian faith.

Christianity is rooted in history, and so is the Restoration. What happened to Joseph Smith in the sacred grove one spring morning had an objective reality above and beyond the effects it registered in his heart and mind. God delegated authority to a prophet through subsequent visitations.

But not all details about the incarnation or crucifixion or resurrection or First Vision matter equally. If it turns out to be 5 BC for Jesus’ birth, or 1821 for Joseph’s vision, or that Job wasn’t real, or the flood wasn’t universal, or erring leaders did terrible things at Mountain Meadows and and elsewhere—those are facts of human history. They don’t touch the key facts of God’s acts in the world.

What advice would Terryl Givens give someone interested in adding faith to intellect?

Take greater advantage of 2,000 years of scholarship on the Bible to enrich your gospel study. Make the injunction to “Seek ye out of the best books” an active principle.

What is the line between teaching the gospel with intellectual rigor—and making it accessible?

Pure religion is about feeding the poor and ministering to the wounded. It’s not primarily about knowing the history of the deuteronomic reforms or the documentary hypothesis.

I personally find my spiritual hunger leads me to want both: how can I be a better disciple—and how can my study of the Christian past and present factor into that quest?

If you find your gospel study is satisfying spiritually, then I do not want to suggest something is lacking in you. What I am saying is that my experience has been that I am most challenged and most fulfilled when I struggle to feed my heart and mind in equal degrees.

What drives Terryl Givens to seek faith and learning?

Curiosity has been the principal animating force in my own life. And I don’t believe, as a matter of principle or of personal experience, that rationalism has an exclusive lock on the ways that curiosity is satisfied. That strikes me as sterile, limiting, and mechanical.

I want to be open to the myriad ways in which the universe yields up its mysteries—and that means being teachable by way of whatever faculties and agencies make the universe familiar to me.

So, I rely upon—I trust—my deep sense of the sacred. Because it feels that in so doing I am responding to real Light, real Goodness, and real Beauty that transcend any purely rational assessment.

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About Terryl Givens

Terryl Lynn Givens is a Latter-day Saint scholar who has written and spoken about Latter-day Saint history and theology. He has previously spoken with about 2nd Nephi, the theology of grace, and Into the Headwinds, a book co-published with his son, Nathaniel Givens. His latest work, Let’s Talk About Faith and Intellect is available via Deseret Book.

Further reading

Faith and intellect resources

Interviews from the Let’s Talk About series

By Benjamin Pacini

Educator. Proud bow tie wearer. Imperfect disciple.

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