The following is a partial transcript I made of an excellent Mormon Stories podcast interview with Terryl Givens, one of the most intellectually interesting and thoughtful Mormons I know of. His strong literary background and thoughtful nature provide him a unique perspective and ability to express himself. This transcript comes from part 2 of the podcast, 45:03 – 50:39. Givens references a talk he gave at BYU in 2005 called “Lightening Out of Heaven“. Here he discusses his view on how and why religious belief must be a choice and not simply something that’s obviously false or obviously true.
Terryl Givens: The point that I try to make is that we all understand what physical compulsion is. We all understand how incompatible that is with human freedom. But it’s my belief that intellectual compulsion works in an analogous way. You are not free to believe or disbelieve the Law of Gravity. It’s there. The evidence is so abundant that you are compelled to accept it. So, as a result, there’s no virtue that attaches to your belief in that law. Similarly, if I were to offer you a million dollars to believe in the Easter Bunny, you wouldn’t be able to do it. So, in both of these cases, belief seems to operate outside of the moral sphere. We don’t have control that we can exercise to believe or to disbelieve.
But what I’m saying is that faith is what operates or what unfolds in a middle ground, between the compulsion to affirm and the compulsion to deny. And I believe that God has structured our lives here on this Earth in such a way that, when it comes to those issues of eternal import, we have to be free to affirm or to deny. And therefore, there has to be a balance of evidence, both for the veracity of the Gospel, and against it. It’s essential to God’s divine purposes, and to the flowering of freedom itself, I believe, that there have to be compelling reasons to reject the Book of Mormon, to reject Joseph as a prophet, to reject the existence of God Himself. But they have to exist alongside compelling reasons to affirm those things. Only in those circumstances can we call upon our will and choose to believe or not to believe. And I think in those moments, our choice reflects the most important things about us: our souls, what we love, what is it that we choose to affirm. And so that’s how I think faith operates.
John Dehlin, the interviewer, then references the Native American parable of the two wolves inside each of us. Is the choice to believe similar to deciding which wolf to feed, the believing one or the disbelieving one?
Terryl Givens: Yeah!
The two then digress and briefly discuss Abrahamic tests, after which they come back to the topic of the how choice affects belief.
John Dehlin: I do love the idea that belief exists outside the moral realm, because I don’t like my disbelieving brothers and sisters being disrespected or judged.
Terryl Givens: Right. Well, what I described was an ideal circumstance, right? A balance of evidence pro and contra. But Earth is an uneven playing field, and depending on heredity, and environment, an upbringing, and intellectual proclivities, and what we happen to be exposed to, the possibility of choosing faith in any one context might not really be plausible. And that’s why I can’t ever judge, and you can’t conclude anything from a person’s decision to believe or not believe. But I think that God is striving to create that balance, so that at some point in your life, there will really be a choice that you are free to make.