Recently the Department of Church history and doctrine at BYU hosted a guest lecture by Terryl L. Givens, professor of literature and religion and James A. Bostwick Chair of English, University of Richmond. Such opportunities allow BYU faculty to rub shoulders with well-known professors from around the world.
I was particularly interested in one lecture during his weeklong visit. It was a follow-up to his book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). I recommend the book for its thoughtful insights about Mormonism and Mormons. It is certainly a tour de force!
You may recall that a paradox is “a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). I have often been drawn to such tensions but have become very comfortable with the notion of paradoxes since I realized the greatest paradox is the truth that Jesus died that we might live.
Givens first discusses “the polarity of authoritarianism and individualism” (xiv), followed by the contrast in the Prophet’s teachings about what we already know and an ambitious “program of eternal learning” (xv).
Next he tackles the Prophet’s insight that “God [is] an exalted man, man a God in embryo.” Givens states, “The resulting paradox is manifest in the recurrent invasions of the banal into the realm of the holy and the infusion of the sacred into the realm of the quotidian” (xv). Then he discusses the “two related tensions in Mormonism: exile and integration, and a gospel viewed as both American and universal” (xv).
During his time with the faculty, Givens discussed yet another paradox—the Prophet’s “competing impulse of assimilation and innovation.” I believe he is correct on this point. Latter-day Saints tend to highlight the Prophet’s innovations (he restored doctrine that had been “kept hid from before the foundation of the world” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:41). Yet Joseph Smith also assimilated truth from the world around him, saying, “[If the] Presbyterians [have] a truth [we] embrace that. Baptist, Methodist etc. get all the good in the world [and] come out a pure Mormon” (The Words of Joseph Smith [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980], 234). It would not hurt us to identify those truths he found in other faith traditions, paying attention to how he adopted and adapted them as part of the message he proclaimed. This does not in any way diminish the flood of revelation that constantly flowed down from heaven upon him as the Lord’s anointed.