The Crucible of Doubt – A Review

Fiona and Terryl Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt is a nearly perfect book. I hope that a million Mormons read it.

Crucible manages to do what all great religious writing must: it sacrifices the impulse to prove its religion and, instead, takes up the yoke of living it.

Its treatments of doubt, reason, incompletion, sacraments, scripture, hero worship, delegation, exclusivism, personal responsibility, silence, and risk are each worth exploring in detail.

But the book’s details aren’t what convinced me. What’s convincing about the book is the tack it takes in relation to these issues. What matters here is that its treatments ring true when you strike them. They resonate with life.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius urges the following:

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.

This is crucial advice for living life, but it’s also good advice for religious writing.

With this thought experiment, Marcus is urging us to swap ends for means. He’s urging us to stop treating life as a means to some other end, as an obstacle to be overcome on our way to winning the real prize. Rather, treat your life as if the end had already arrived, as if you had already died and everything that was going to be achieved had already been achieved. And then, in light of this completion, return to the work of living what remains and live it properly. Live that life for its own sake, as an act of love for the process rather than just its goal.

This same approach, I think, characterizes good theology. Theology considers the world from the perspective of its having already ended. And then, in light of this completion, theology returns to that naked world and its vulnerable living in order to love the whole thing properly this time, for its own sake.

Only when the world and its living are no longer treated as means to some other end (no matter how noble or true or supernatural or transcendent that end) can the world show itself as just whatever it is. And only when the world is seen as just whatever it is do we become capable of loving it.

This is, I think, what The Crucible of Doubt accomplishes and this is the source of its ringing perfection. It doesn’t treat Mormonism as a means to some future end. It doesn’t treat Mormonism as if it’s crucial features were always defined by someone else (Gods, prophets) from somewhere else (the past, the future, outer space).

No, Crucible treats Mormonism as something to be loved for its own sake. Its treatment allows Mormon life to appear as just whatever it is. And, as a result, what often gets treated as a risky, unfortunate process to be endured with clenched teeth on the way to someplace better is instead treated with honesty and care as the substance of religion itself.

To the degree that we aim through doubt (and loss and fear and weakness) rather than fully and compassionately at them, we’ll have missed the life that religion is at such pains to show.

It is in this sense that The Crucible of Doubt is a remarkable achievement: it emphatically does not treat doubt as an obstacle on the way to certainty but as the very stuff that composes a religious life and marks it as living.

If our faith is damaged beyond repair or lacking altogether, if we cannot find it in ourselves to proclaim the gospel or embrace its tenets, we can still live its essence. Many in the Church and world are doing just that. Just as some have entertained “angels unawares,” so might we well be exercising faith unbeknown. Faith is lived, not thought. (Crucible, 143)


6 comments for “The Crucible of Doubt – A Review

  1. I just finished this book and will probably try to re-read it again in a month. I read it from the standpoint of one who has been inactive for 40 years and yet in turmoil over it just as long. It has given me much to consider…. I could go on about how it would straighten out people from whom I’ve taken offense but I really need to look at whether I’m ready or willing to take on LDS discipleship–and can I get to the five points of the gospel without being deafened by all the other noise in the culture and myths.

  2. Adam, if a person is presently in doubt about particular truth claims (God, afterlife, eternal families), is certainty at some future point desirable?

  3. Thanks for the review. I likely won’t read it. I love their prose. I love their intellect, but I can’t risk the hope that I fear will be squashed after I finish the book and try to return to life. I am grateful for their efforts I just know from experience I can’t read it. Thanks.

  4. The Marcus Aurelius quote is a game-changer! Thank you for sharing it. Now I’m ashamed that Meditations has sat on my bookshelf for many years with being read.

  5. Thanks, Adam. I’m only a couple chapters in, so far, but I am more ambivalent so far — I love the main thrust of the book, as you describe, but I’m rather worried about the strong dichotomy presented between emotion and reason (in ch. 2), and I worry about a conflation between questioning/seeking (which I’d say is good) and doubting (which, if properly defined and understood in a way that is consistent with condemnations of doubting in scripture, is bad).

    But I’ll be posting my own thoughts as I continue reading over the next few weeks at Jana Reiss’s blog in the form of a reading group for this book (and, more importantly, other commentators will be posting that you won’t want to miss!):

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