Miller Eccles Study Group – Texas Edition: Terryl & Fiona Givens and the Use and Abuse of Reason

This past weekend (Jan. 17-19), Terryl and Fiona Givens were the speakers for the Miller Eccles Study Group and the Genesis Group. I was privileged to attend the Saturday study group as well as the Sunday Fireside. While the Fireside was largely based on their book The God Who Weeps, Saturday focused on their upcoming book, The Crucible of Doubt. The following is a mixture of reporting and commentary on both the Saturday discussion and the Givenses’ new book (out this spring). Faulty paradigms can lead to what Terryl and Fiona call “spiritual pathogens.” While they listed several, the one that I think is foundational is what they call “The Use and Abuse of Reason.” I believe this based on two points: (1) one can still be reasonable with bad information and false premises and (2) we have a skewed view of reason in the modern age (i.e. divorced from emotion).

False Premises

Fiona began by discussing the sixteen “showings” of the 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich, which were brought about by a grave illness in 1373. After recovering her health, Julian reflected on these visions as an anchorite for the next 20 years. During her prayerful solitude, she asked God for an explanation of sin and to be shown hell and purgatory. It was eventually revealed to Julian that religious traditions had created “a view wholly out of keeping with the nature of the God who had revealed Himself to her through visions. This God revealed to her that the hell and purgatory of her imaginings did not exist. And as for sin, she learned that there is “no harder hell than sin.” Hell was not a place, but the experience of our own alienation from God. In other words, it is the condition of suffering that results from sin.”[1] The answers had taken so long because the questions and assumptions had been wrong.

This served as the introduction to asking the right questions regarding Mormonism. Fiona spoke of our preconceptions as the water in which we swim, unchecked and unrecognized. We become the fish that asks, “What is wet?” I was reminded of the late David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 commencement speech:

"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"" - From 'This Is Water'

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”” – From ‘This Is Water’

Little progress can be made if you’re starting in the wrong place. In Edingburgh, Scotland stands the John Knox house. As Terryl recounted their visit to the home, he explained that the 16th-century goldsmith Thomas Mossman had been the one to occupy it. The third floor features a door with a keyhole that would be immune to a burglar’s tampering. “For the keyhole is a dummy key hole. The ornamental bar next to it conceals the true keyhole, and the location of the true lock. It’s impossible to know how many would-be thieves dulled their picks and rubbed their fingers raw in a fruitless effort to gain access to the riches on the far side of Mossman’s door. Their assumption would have been reasonable enough. Here is the door, here is the keyhole, this is the way to the treasure. But their assumption would have been wrong.”[2]

Reason vs. Emotion

Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio

Many are familiar with the arguments against a hyper-rational “scientism” when it comes to epistemology. Terryl and Fiona argue that “emotion is not a defect in an otherwise perfect reasoning machine…Charles Darwin himself acknowledged that strict obedience to “hard reason” rather than sympathy for fellow humans would represent a sacrifice of “the noblest part of our nature.””[3] Even Adam Smith–whose economics is often described as the epitome of cold, rational self-interest–authored The Theory of Moral Sentiments (before Wealth of the Nations even), arguing that mankind has an innate sense of sympathy for other human beings. The Givenses are on solid ground, especially considering the research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Far from being a hindrance to rationality, Damasio has found that emotions are in fact necessary for it.[4] Furthermore, things like emotional intelligence (i.e. the ability to identify, interpret, and regulates one’s own emotions and the emotions of others) and social intelligence (i.e. the capacity to navigate complex social environments via awareness and facilitation) have become a major field of study (popularized by psychologist and science writer Daniel Goleman).[5] While some of the hype may be overstated, modern science shows that we are (as Damasio has put it) feeling beings that think rather than thinking beings that feel. Intuitions such as “gut feelings” play an important role in our decision-making:

As we go through every situation in life, the basal ganglia extracts decision rules…Our accumulated life wisdom is stored in this primitive circuitry…While the basal ganglia have some direct connection to the verbal areas, it turns out also to have very rich connections to the gastrointestinal tract – the gut. So in making the decision, a gut sense of it being right or wrong is important information, too…The answer to the question, “Is what I’m about to do in keeping with my sense of purpose, meaning, or ethics?” doesn’t come to us in words; it comes to us via this gut sense. Then we put it into words.[6]

In what I consider to be one of the most profound statements in their book, the Givenses write,

In the most emphatic and urgent meaning of the word, love reveals truth. It does not create the impression of truth, love does not merely endow something with a subjective truth—love is the only position or emotional disposition from which we become fully aware of the already present reality of the other person as more than a mere object among other objects in a crowded universe. Love alone reveals the full reality and value of the other person.[7]

This fits accordingly with the deepest urges of human nature:

Evolution by selection, though of great importance to human life, is an incomplete explanation unless we first understand that what it produced were not robots that acted automatically on biological instincts but thinking, feeling people equipped by nature with a complex psychology that predisposed but did not compel them to act in certain ways…Part of the reason we help others at some sacrifice to ourselves is that they are our children; by helping them we perpetuate our genes. And another part is that we help people who are not our children in order to impress these people with our dependability and win from them some reciprocal help in the future. But these two explanations, inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism, while quite powerful, do not clarify everything…To explain all of altruism, it is necessary to first understand that what evolution has given to us is not a fixed mechanism to achieve a specific goal, but an emotion that not only serves that goal but achieves related ones as well. Let us call that emotion a desire for affiliation or, in simple language, a desire to be part of a social group.[8]

The Crucible of Doubt will (perhaps unconsciously) be an excellent companion piece to The God Who Weeps. The two construct a view of human existence that is reasonable, enlightening, and fulfilling. The authors not only have a firm grasp of Mormon history and theology, but deep insights into human nature. The humanist Mormonism presented by the Givenses is compelling and exciting.

And I’m happy to be a part of it.



1. Givens & Givens, The Crucible of Doubt, 8 (manuscript).

2. Ibid., 5.

3. Ibid., 17-18.

4. See his Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1994).

5. See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Batnam Books, 1997); Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (New York: Batnam Books, 2006).

6. Daniel Goleman, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights (Northampton: More Than Sound, 2011), Kindle book. “Self-Awareness.”

7. Crucible, 18-19.

8. James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 35-36.


Miller Eccles Study Group – Texas Edition: Terryl & Fiona Givens and the Use and Abuse of Reason — 4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the write up, Walker. It seems like Team Givens publishes three books a year. How do they do it? I’m looking forward to Crucible of Doubt, which I am guessing reflects their experience doing presentations around the country aimed at helping doubting Mormons think through their issues. Is it sort of like Bushman’s On the Road With Joseph Smith?

  2. Not sure, Dave. I haven’t read the Bushman book you mention. There’s much more to their presentation and book than what I mention above, but my write-up was becoming rather long-winded. That and I was excessively quoting from the manuscript.

    It’s a good one though. Be excited. 🙂

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  4. Thanks, Walker. I look forward to the book. I didn’t know they had another one coming out! They are a prolific team.