In his book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. (Oxford University Press, 2007), Terryl Givens identifies four areas of paradox within Mormonism that affect the practice and development of the cultural arts.
The first is the tension between free agency and authoritarianism. Givens identifies moral agency – the right of each individual to choose and act for oneself – as one of the indispensable foundations of Joseph Smith’s teachings. The paradox, then, is that “the church Joseph founded is one of the most centralized, hierarchical, authoritarian churches in America.” (8)
The second area of paradox is the relationship between holding truth with absolute certainty and the quest for gaining new knowledge. Givens notes (27), “There seems in Mormonism an emphasis on certainty, rather than faith, that is theologically, rhetorically, and culturally pervasive….” He relates this certainty to the unique LDS conversion experience.
“To be converted is to experience a moment of recognition, or receive through the Spirit a confirmation, of certain truths that one can henceforth confidently affirm as part of a publicly transmissible ‘testimony.’ When Mormons speak of their conversion, they almost universally have in mind the moment when they came to know through the Spirit that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that the church he founded is ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ (D & C 1:30)”
Latter-day Saints hold to their convictions with absolute certainty because of the emphasis on this kind of confirming experience.
But while the truths of Mormonism are held with confident certainty, Givens suggests that the goals of Mormonism can never be claimed as a completed venture.
“But these tendencies [to certainty] operate in tandem with a powerful countercurrent: salvation is for Mormons an endless project, not an event, and is therefore never complete, never fully attained, never a realized state or object of secure possession. It is, in a word, agonistic – that is, predicated on a process of ceaseless struggle.” (28)
In other words, while Latter-day Saints believe they can know and avow certain truths with absolute confidence, they do not believe they can know their own ultimate status or standing with God.
Givens understands some of the personal issues this paradox engenders. He notes that “this distinctive Mormon rhetoric of ‘knowing’ creates both an impression of arrogance and smugness to outsiders, and immense cultural pressure to adherents to know for themselves rather than to merely believe.” (27)
He adds, “A related tension not always fully visible to outsiders is one in which Mormons publicly express absolute certitude about the great issues of faith and existence, but may privately harbor doubts for which Mormon culture has few avenues of sanctioned expression.” (32)
Givens’ analysis suggests two areas where witness to Latter-day Saints might be fruitful. First, churches can create an environment where doubt can be expressed. We believe we have reasons to be confident about what we believe. But our faith can still be tested and challenged in a way that leads to deeper understanding. We can model a community where questions and doubts can be expressed and worked through without disapproval or penalty.
Second, the good news of traditional, biblical Christianity is that we can know where we stand with God, not based on our own endless struggle for advancement, but based on God’s bestowal of his gifts of grace. Our message offers freedom from the impossibility of knowing where you stand, and from the hard burden of not measuring up. If the good news of grace is coupled (as in the Bible) with an appropriate emphasis on the lifestyle that results from receiving God’s grace – versus the antinomian emphasis of much current evangelicalism (which Mormons are quick to notice and critique) – the church has a great deal to offer to Latter-day Saints who struggle with the ceaseless project of exaltation.