Every person alive stays alive by destroying things. Be as environmentalist and vegan as you like, shop only at the most ethically sourced grocers, and the fact remains: we are members of kingdom Animalia and cannot produce our own food. Instead, nutrients painstakingly assembled by other living creatures must be taken from them by force, usually killing them or their germinal offspring, and then smashed into a paste, drowned first in acid and then in bile, fed to foul-smelling bacteria, and gradually converted into excrement. When they cease to be useful they’re disposed of and forgotten, but by then we’ve already moved on to our next victims.

It’s not optional. You do that or you die. But let’s be honest—we don’t want it to be optional. We like eating. We like it so much we plan our days and our years around it; the old word for “holiday” is “feast,” and from “Turkey Day” to Fourth of July barbecues, it still fits. Even our religious service often revolves around eating. We weekly commemorate the holiest moments of human history by consuming the crushed remains of grass seeds and the scorched corpses of microorganisms that we murder by the millions just to make the grass seeds more pleasant to consume.

This is what it means to be human—to be, as Tocqueville put it, the beast with the angel in him, our rational and spiritual natures shot through with desires that would be instantly recognizable to a wolf or a weasel. Solzhenitsyn expressed deep wisdom when he said the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, but in fact, you can rarely see any line; in fact, good and evil are usually twisted up together even in the best things we do. Did Bach write the St. Matthew Passion looking up to God in humble worship, or looking down his nose at his better-known and better-paid contemporaries who couldn’t dream of composing such a thing? Does an exhausted mother walking a frustrated child through long division show us Christ-like patience or the same selfish Darwinian need for successful offspring that sent Lori Laughlin to prison? Being human means the answer is almost always “both,” both good and evil together in some ever-changing mix that even we ourselves can never confidently measure.

The foregoing reflections were prompted by my feeling that, despite its obvious merits, Fiona and Terryl Givens’ latest book All Things New is wrong about something important. 

According to the Givenses, many Latter-day Saints struggle with guilt, inadequacy, and fear that they will not qualify for salvation. Their struggles would end if they understood that people are fundamentally divine and God is fundamentally a loving Parent, but they don’t understand it, not really: our culture has inherited from Augustine (by way of Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards) a picture of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” a wrathful sovereign proving His majesty by creating a whole human species that deserves to be damned and then, for no reasons outside His own arbitrary will, electing some few of them to be saved from their rightful fate.

The Restoration was supposed to heal the souls this Augustinian story had wounded—in fact, the Givenses suggest, Joseph Smith’s attacks on creeds were aimed at Augustine-inspired Protestant creeds like Augsburg and Westminster and not at the Nicene Creed as Latter-day Saints often imagine. But Augustine still lurks in our understanding of words like “sin” and “salvation,” and we need to reinterpret those words to reflect the true character of God and humanity. Sin should change from “guilt” to “woundedness,” salvation from “rescue” to “realization,” and justice from “punishment” to “restoration.” The Fall of Adam becomes the “ascension” of Eve, and the penal substitutionary model of the Atonement is replaced with “radical healing.”

I find much of this interesting; in particular, the Givenses’ thought about creeds is really new (at least to me) and valuable. If their goal was to give their audience thought-provoking new interpretations of scripture, they certainly succeeded with this reader, and I do not doubt there are people who will benefit from these ideas.

My problem is with the Givenses’ assumed either/or: why can’t sin be both woundedness and guilt? Why can’t salvation both fulfill our natures and also repair our (rather obvious) flaws? Why can’t the Atonement, as the hymn teaches, “Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure?” After all, though the Givenses have found scriptural evidence for their preferred side of each binary, scripture gives us plenty of evidence for the other side, too.

“The natural man is an enemy to God”: it’s not a rhetorical flourish dropped carelessly into a single Book of Mormon sermon. It would make a decent subtitle for the whole book, which begins with God telling a prophet His own chosen people are so corrupt that He’s about to destroy them, and then plays variations on the same theme for another 530 pages. Over and over, God calls prophets to tell His covenant people to repent; over and over, the covenant people respond by trying to kill the prophets. Sometimes they repent a bit, usually when they’re enslaved or death is imminent, but usually, it doesn’t stick. When God delivers them from their enemies or sends rain to end the famine, they pray gratefully and then, sooner or later, go back to their old ways. Sometimes it only takes a year or two, and often they end up worse than they were before.

The Pearl of Great Price reveals a God who weeps. It also reveals a human race that gives Him a lot to weep about.

The Book ends with two different civilizations, each given every opportunity to repent, deciding to a man that they would literally rather die.

And Restoration scripture doesn’t get any more optimistic as it goes. The Doctrine and Covenants presents itself as a warning to a wicked people that desperately need to repent but mostly won’t, which is why the Saints have to “go out” from Babylon instead of turning it into Zion. The Book of Moses teaches that humanity is “conceived in sin” and proves it by describing the invention of fratricide, of genocide, and of secret combinations through which much of humanity literally “covenanted with Satan.” The Book of Abraham begins with the patriarch’s own father offering him to be sacrificed to an idol. As the Givenses famously teach, the Pearl of Great Price reveals a God who weeps. It also reveals a human race that gives Him a lot to weep about.

The Givenses would not deny any of this, I think. Instead they argue that a person’s real, essential self is not the “natural man” but rather the core intelligence that exists eternally and whose nature is not fundamentally different from God’s. That is who we really are, they say, so we need not wrack our souls over our guilt and sinfulness.

On this point, the Givenses seem to miss the moral implication of their own teaching, as you can see by comparing it to their great enemy, Calvinism. If, as some Calvinists teach, I am created every moment out of nothing by the divine will and my every thought and action was decreed on high from eternity past; if God is so sovereign over His creation that there is no part of myself I have ever truly controlled; then how can my sins be my fault? How can God justly blame and punish me for them?

But if the Givenses are right and my nature was in the beginning like God’s, then I can’t blame my current sinfulness on some initial defect that I can’t overcome—at some point I must have changed and become sinful. And if I truly have a power of moral agency that lets me choose for myself, independent of God’s will, then becoming sinful must have been my own choice, for which blame and punishment are perfectly just.

It does no good to say I am not responsible for my sins because of my imperfect flesh, or because of the way others have wounded me. That’s like a drunk on trial for murder saying the liquor did it—yes, defendant, but who made you drink?

We’re not Gnostic sparks of divinity, tied up in corrupt matter through no fault of our own and becoming more truly ourselves as we escape our fleshly entanglement. We as premortal spirits chose our embodiment, and as postmortal spirits, we’ll miss it once it’s gone. Our imperfect flesh is us, just as much as our imperfect spirit. Its corruption is our corruption and its sins are our sins. The same is true of our relationships: we chose life knowing it would involve relationships that wound us, and our wounding relationships are as much a part of us as our flesh and bones. We are responsible for what they lead us to do.

And further: we are responsible not merely because we chose to be born and thus put ourselves in temptation’s path. We are responsible because, even now, we would not have it any other way. We like devouring other creatures to satisfy our bodies’ hunger, and that is hardly the only biological urge we’d be sad to lose. The worst of these come from the social side of our evolutionary inheritance: we like craving and winning social status; we like feeling superior. We like resenting it when others wound us—we like it so much that we stop our wounds from healing, and maybe open them a little wider, just so we’ll have more to resent.

If sin is woundedness, then we like our woundedness.

When Jesus taught “there is none good but one, that is, God,” He did not make an exception for you.

What then would I say to those young saints who write the Givenses struggling with guilt, inadequacy, and fear that they’ll never qualify for salvation?

To begin with, don’t put your trust in advice from strangers, whether online essays like this one or even books by justly renowned scholars. You need inspired counsel from people who can receive revelation on your behalf, and you need to receive revelation yourself.

But beyond that . . .

When Jesus taught “there is none good but one, that is, God,” He did not make an exception for you—you are not a good person, none of us are, and it’s okay! We don’t have to pretend! God always knew this was how it would be.

Imagine going one by one through your sins and finding reasons you’re not truly responsible for them: your addiction is a neurological disorder, your temper is from your upbringing, and so on. For each sin you might be perfectly right, but what happens when you do the honest thing and apply the same process to your virtues? Your professional achievements are a combination of the genetic lottery, chance connections, and hard work, and your hard work is a habit you were dragged into, literally kicking and screaming, by your mother. You learned kindness from Grandma, and you learned how to make a marriage last by watching your parents. Your gift for teaching the Gospel is a fire kindled by those who taught you.

I’m not saying you should take the blame for the bad so you can take credit for the good—if you’re really struggling with guilt, that tradeoff won’t attract you. Rather, I’m asking a question: if you start pointing to parts of yourself influenced by our fallen world and saying, “That’s not really me,” then what will be left of you when you’re done?

When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, He did not say, “Father, take this cup from me—these sins I’m suffering for aren’t my fault!” He did not seek to escape our shame on the grounds that we’re actually good people, deep down, and He didn’t atone only for the eternal God-like intelligence in each soul while leaving the rest of the spirit and body to their fate. Instead God “made Him to be sin for us” even though He knew no sin, and Jesus drank the bitter cup without a filter. He accepted and bore it all.

I hope, when I stand before my God, that I will follow His example and accept responsibility for everything: my wisdom and my foolishness, my work and my laziness, my sin and my virtue, the wounds others inflict on me and the ones I inflict on them. It is all me, I own it all, and it does not qualify me for salvation. The wages of sin is death.

But although I own it all, I do not own myself. I sold that to the Savior in a font in West Jordan and—not because of who I am, but because of who He is—I do not doubt that He will save me.

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