Belief in religion is something that can be hard in Western culture. Yet, it is something worth working towards. This idea is something that Terryl and Nathaniel Givens discussed in a recent interview on the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk. The context of their discussion has to do with a book they recently published called Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard–and Still Is (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2022). What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).
The publisher of Into the Headwinds describes their book as follows:
Acclaimed author Terryl Givens and his son, Nathaniel Givens, combine their respective areas of expertise to offer a fresh take on religious belief through the lens of contemporary research on psychology, cognition, and human nature. They also address two of faith’s foremost modern-day antagonists: rationalism, the myth that humans can or should make the majority of their choices based on logical thought, and scientism, the myth that science is the only reliable means of discovering truth. After reckoning with the surprising fact that people often don’t even understand their own beliefs and are influenced in ways they seldom perceive, the authors go on to describe genuine faith as an act of will—an effortful response to the deepest yearnings of the mind and heart—that engenders moral responsibility, the ability to embrace uncertainty, the motivation and means to relate to others, and the capacity to apprehend reality through nonrational means.
Much of this is reflected in their interview.
Rather than saying that rationality and science need to be ignored to believe, they do make it clear that their book is more of an effort to recognize the limitations of science and rationality. For example, they write that:
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.
Further explaining their goals and direction, they stated that:
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.
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.
Thus, it’s a broader discussion about how reasons, science, and religion aren’t necessarily at odds with each other.
Part of the discussion revolves around comparing the unconscious parts of our mind to an elephant and the conscious parts to a person riding that elephant. As they shared in the interview:
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.
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. …
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.
They are approaching the topic of choosing belief and faith from a standpoint of current research on psychology, cognition, and human nature as they tackle this approach of integration of rationality and intuition. As they explained during the interview, their project in writing this books 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.
So, it’s an argument for faith from a holistic standpoint.
For more of Terryl and Nathaniel Givens’ thoughts about belief, faith, and the book Into the Headwinds, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk to read the full interview.
Thanks for the synopsis; I’ve been meaning to check this out.
Neither of these guys are actual theologians. Terryl is a lit scholar who knows virtually noting about academic theology. One of the problems of Mormon apologetics is the that PhD=theologian. (This is a false assumption and demonstrably problematic). But if you guys wish to continue to put Givens out as a “theologian” or even a “religious scholar” good luck with that. I have a graduate degree in theology (from a school that actually does really academic theology) and his type of argument would be laughed at by real theology professors. Please feel free to not publish this post (which I am certain you will not do out of fear), but it is the truth. Givens doesn’t know what he is talking about. His son is even less qualified in terms of real academic credentials in this era and is basically a kid being whispered tin his ear by a parent in a testimony meeting. He is like a blind man at an orgy. I realize you guys are desperate to find some actual academic credentials and real evidence to support your point of view, but neither of these guys haven them. I realize you are trying ever desperate means to support a demonstrably false system and “theology.” I understand it sells books and preys upon the faithful, but it is a joke! Mormons don’t do real theology, because if they did it would sink their entire project. Good luck, have fun and keep up the “good work.” Please continue to provide “faith promoting lies” to your audience. At the end of the day it is a lie. I am happy to debate Givens or any other “scholar” you put forward. They don’t have a real leg to stand on. I welcome the opportunity but know it will never come. This blog is terrified of the truth, So please keep feeding your one or two readers lies. Good luck!
Fascinating, Mr. Spock. :D
Latter-day saints may not do real theology. But we *do* do real revelation.
Mr. Spock –
Why does academics matter for an average person trying to live a spiritual life? Why does getting doctrine or theology correct matter in trying to live the beatitudes, follow Jesus, connect to deity?
I’m happy to criticism the Givens and/or Mormonism on any number of factors, but your criticism seems a bit odd to me. Their books seems to be about getting average people to consider the value of a life of faith from a different avenue. Don’t all of us trying to follow spiritual journeys want that for ourselves, our family and our neighbors?
It seems to me that the Givens have co opted Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt uses the elephant/rider metaphor abundantly throughout his book. I have read Haidt’s book more than once, but, as I recollect, it was written from lecture notes for his first year psychology students. The book is for the general public, not for academia, and I have recommended it to many of my family members and friends. According to Haidt, the mind is the rational part and the elephant which looms so large in us is the irrational, emotional side of us which can get out of control. Haidt continues explaining how we can use this rational part, the rider, to, overtime, get the irrational part under control. The three basics are cognitive behavior, medication, (I.e. Prosac) and meditation. He writes throughout this book to explain how this process works. This is the work of becoming happy. Haidt also delves into the development of morality. Essentially, the work Haidt discusses involves three parts – cognition (CBT), medication and meditation.
According to your post, the Givens identify the basic work of discovering belief as the three fold process of cognition, psychology, and human nature. Is this a spin on Haidt’s work? By mentioning psychology, does he really mean psychiatry and the need for medication, because he left that part out, which is crucial for a large population of people? Is human nature a substitute for meditation. I haven’t read the Givens’ book, but I feel he has misunderstood the point of Haidt’s work which is the development of decent, happy, moral people. It seems to me that the Givens have conflated morality with religion, as many religious people don’t feel we can be a moral society without religion. There is much evidence to the contrary, but very little evidence in Faith based religions for the rider (our rational self) to work with. Using the rational mind to believe the irrational? Well, it is irrational.
I need to read their book to make a judgement, but there is enough to make me suspicious.
“He is like a blind man at an orgy.”
Well, they definitely taught you the use of appropriate and tasteful analogies in theology school.
I am completely agree with Mr. Spock. Neither of the Givens clan have any real training in Theology. I also have a graduate degree in Theology from a Catholic school that actually teaches theology. I have read the Givens book and it would receive a D or C, at best in the program I attended. What is interesting is that Mormonism is so desperate to put themselves forward “Theologians” that they end up putting works out such as the current Givens book and do not realize that for those of us actually trained at the graduate level in theology this is simply a bush league effort. The Givens are not theologians. I would not presume to challenge them in literary studies (I am not qualified to do so), so why do they claim to be theologians. I can clearly see my systematics professor literally chucking at he effort of the Givens in their new book. Stop pretending you are theologians, you are not. I remember reading Given’s book on the Pearl of Great Price and chucking throughout it. It would have received a failing grade in my graduate level theology program. Please stop pretending you have any real knowledge in Theology, you don’t. All you are doing is providing cover for Church members to say,”see Givens has a PhD. he is an expert.” This is not true, you are not an expert or a theologian. Please stop putting yourself out as one. You are being disingenuous by claiming that your PhD in Literature Studies qualifies you as a theologian, it does not. Please stop already, you are simply providing more confusion among the body of the Church. Please stop.
I mean, CS Lewis was also a Lit professor with no formal theological training, but there’s a reason his Christian apologetics are so much more widely quoted and read than almost any other theologian you could name—he wasn’t writing for a trained-theological audience.
No disrespect to those of you who put in the long, hard work to get an advanced Divinity school degree, but getting mad at the Givens for not having an M.Div is like a university physicist getting mad at Bill Nye for not having a STEM PhD—you are not the target audience here.
Nice try using the C.S, Lewis defense, but Givens is out of his league, I realize that Lewis is commonly accepted as an LDS defense (quoted in conference, etc.), but with all due respect Lewis is not a theologian. Please stop confusing the issue by citing him, Givens is not a theologian. Lewis has some good thoughts, not doubt but Givens is simply out of his league. You may take comfort in Lewis or Givens, but that does mean they know what they are talking about. If it makes you feel good great but that does not make their arguments valid. The fact of the matter is that neither of them have any real training as a theologian. If it makes you feel good great. Nevertheless their arguments do not hold water no matter how they make you feel.
I have a Phd, in Theology maybe you should familiarize yourself with the difference between the Mdv. and the Phd. degrees. I am not trying to pick a fight with you. You can think whatever you like. I am mere saying that the Given’s do not have academic credentials to speak as theologians, just as I have not academic credentials to speak as a literary scholar. If it makes you feel good to accept what they say, good for you. The fact is they are not theologians. C.S. Lewis is not a theologian. Period. Just a side note I love C.S. Lewis as a devotional writer, however I do not read him as a theologian. Again I am not trying to pick a fight with you. I am, trying to help you understand the difference between a theologian, a literary scholar and a devotional writer. The Givens are not theologians, just as I am not literary scholar and would never claim to be. Take this for what it is worth. You can hold whatever option you like, it does not make any difference in my daily life, I am merely trying to help you understand the difference between these academic disciplines. Now I realize you may say, “oh well you are splitting hairs, fine.” I am ok with that. You can hold whatever opinion you wish. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t take any of this personally.
As a matter of policy we never reveal emails used in comments, but I think I’m on pretty okay ethical ground to point out to everyone that you are using the same email for both aliases, and that Plutarch is a sock puppet account to support Mr. Spock.
“I have a PhD in theology and find it totally ethical to use sock accounts to bolster my own claims.”
Kindly, I don’t want that kind of theological credentials preaching to me.
While there is merit to the claim that Latter Day Saints are not particularly good at theology and I really think there is an important discussion to be had about this, Dr. Spock/Plutarch had done very little to advance their argument beyond insults and poorly edited generalizations. Anyone that has to keep reminding everyone that they have a PhD is either very insecure about their qualifications or do not actually hold a PhD.
“Just a side note I love C.S. Lewis as a devotional writer, however I do not read him as a theologian.”
I don’t know that any plain-jane regular Mormons are reading the Givens as theologians. The Givens built there book catalog as devotional writers doing apologetics, although I’d argue that most Mormons don’t distinguish between theologydevotionals.
Dr. Spock/Plutarch, it seems like your objections are because your categorizing their book wrong….
I think Spock/Plutarch’s posts are a cruel parody of theologians. He/they are trying too hard to confirm the stereotypes church members have about the academic study of theology. I mean, seriously, who picks up a devotional work from another church and gets incensed that the authors aren’t D.Div.s?