Toward Interreligious Oneness

Toward Interreligious Oneness: Advice for Latter-day Saints on Building on Commonalities While Acknowledging Differences

 By Ken K. Gourdin

Without apology, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaim that the darkness of a long night of prophetically-foretold apostasy was dispelled at the dawn of a Restoration on a spring day in 1820; that the Restoration began with the visitation of God, the Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, to a young boy; that, with that appearance, prophets again began to walk the Earth and that God again began to speak through them; that priesthood authority, also lost, was restored; that the canon, once closed, was reopened; and that revelation continues.

But what of those who either have not heard or have not accepted that witness yet continue to walk, as best they know how, in the light of what truth they have received?  We know that in addition to giving those who will receive it prophetically-revealed truth, most all are susceptible, to one degree or another, to the influence of the Holy Ghost: “[T]he Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit.”[1]

Is the devotion of those who are outside the Restoration’s fold somehow less acceptable to God?  What should be our attitude, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, toward them and toward their faith?    I believe answers to these questions can be found in the Parable of the Sower; in the Savior’s admonition that “ye shall know them by their fruits”; in the Savior’s invitation to “ask, seek, and knock”; in the Parable of the Talents; in modern-day revelation; in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican; and in John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees, who thought that salvation could be found in their pedigree alone.  Let us consider each of these sources in turn.

First, let us turn to the Parable of the Sower.  The Savior renders this Parable thus:

3 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;

4 And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:

5 Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:

6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.

7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:

8 But  other  fell  into  good  ground,  and  brought  forth  fruit,  some  an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.[2]

In Latter-day Saint circles the Parable of the Sower often is read as a warning to guard the testimony we have received from being choked off by the poor-quality earth, or thorns, or stones of the world, and rightly so.  And certainly, all testimonies of what Latter-day Saints believe to be revealed truth are not created equal.  There are varying “testimony yields” within the Church of Jesus Christ, “some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, and some thirtyfold.”  But there is another way to read the parable which I believe to be equally valid.

I am a Latter-day Saint because I believe that the gospel as promulgated by the Church of Jesus Christ is capable of yielding the most bounteous harvest—“an hundredfold”—in my life.  However, my exposure to my brothers and sisters who espouse equal devotion to differing faith traditions compels me, not to look down my nose at their “sixtyfold” or “thirtyfold,” but rather to admire their devotion and to congratulate them that the good seeds sown in their lives have, just as the good seeds I sow in my life, brought forth a bounteous harvest.

Second, It seems religiously provincial, at best (and just plain wrong, at worst) to suggest that good trees and good fruit can only be grown in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  As  the Savior reminds us elsewhere in the New Testament, we can know our brothers and sisters by their fruits, and that a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit:

16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.[3]

Surely Christ does not mean to suggest that good fruit can only be found in the comparatively small spots of the vineyard where members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be found.  Do we tell converts, or potential converts, “Yes, we know you have a lot of what you think is good fruit there, but you’re simply going to have to discard it in order to accept the Restoration”?  No; we tell them, in the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Bring all of the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it.”[4]

Indeed, it is only through the efforts of other faiths having first laid the groundwork that the Church is able to be effective in sowing good fruit through humanitarian endeavors in many parts of the world.  Much aid provided by the Church of Jesus Christ, for example, is distributed through frameworks which first were established by such charitable faith-based organizations as Catholic Charities.  Wherever doctrinal differences can be set aside in focusing on what we have in common with other faiths in order to accomplish higher purposes, we should do so.

Third, I am also persuaded by the Savior’s reminder that, in general, just as our earthly parents give good gifts in response to the supplications of their children, our Heavenly Parent does nothing less:

7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:

8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? [5]

Again, there is no religious limitation on this scripture.  I don’t believe God gives me grapes and figs when I ask for fruit while giving my non-Mormon brothers and sisters thorns and thistles; I don’t believe He gives me bread when I ask for sustenance while giving my non-Mormon brothers and sisters stones; and I don’t believe He gives me fish when I ask for meat while giving my non-Mormon brothers and sisters serpents.  Good fruit is good fruit, bread is bread, and fish is fish, period.

Fourth, we also find support for this approach to differing faith traditions still elsewhere in the New Testament, in the Parable of the Talents:

14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

15 And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.

17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.

18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.

20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.

21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

22 He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.

23 His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

24 Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

25 And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.

26 His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.[6]

Applying the parable to our discussion, then, as a Latter-day Saint, I believe it is incumbent upon me, having been given so much as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, to make the most of what I have been given.  I believe that the Lord is displeased with me when I fail to do so.

Fifth, modern revelation provides useful guidance in determining what our attitude toward other faiths and their adherents should be.  In the Doctrine and Covenants, we read, “For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.” [7]

Even if there is a potential for greater blessings in the Church, as Latter-day Saints, correspondingly, there is also the potential for greater burdens, as well.  We ought not become so secure in the blessings that we shirk the burdens, and we ought to be humble.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, I believe the Lord gave me five talents.  Perhaps we can analogize the devout in other faiths to those to whom he has given two talents.  The Master condemned the servant to whom he had given one talent not because the servant failed to earn as much increase as the servant who doubled his two talents or the servant who doubled his five talents, but rather because the slothful servant failed to earn any increase at all.  Whatever our particular faith tradition, and whatever the differences among the various traditions, it’s what we do with what light we’ve been given that counts.

I believe that other restoration scriptures support this view.  Elsewhere in the Doctrine and Covenants, we read: “28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.”[8]

The promise of this verse is not limited to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It does not say, “Inasmuch as Mormons do good, they shall in nowise lose their reward.”  It applies to Catholics, to Baptists, to Methodists, to Buddhists, to Muslims, indeed, to people of whatever religious persuasion, or even to good-hearted people of no religious persuasion at all.

And  finally, in saying everything I’ve said herein, by no means do I wish to discount the blessings I have received through my membership and participation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  But what should be our attitude toward those blessings?  They should make us all the more humble rather than prideful.  Repeatedly, we are cautioned in the scriptures against becoming provincial in our possession of truth, and hence too secure in our salvation.

In this connection, the Savior rendered the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am anot as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

13 And the publican, standing far off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.[9]

When considering our standing before God vis-à-vis that of members of other faiths, we would do well to emulate the publican more, and to emulate the Pharisee less.  Indeed, we would do well to emulate the latter not at all.

Likewise, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible renders John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees in this regard thus: “36 And think not to say within yourselves, We are the children of Abraham, and we only have power to bring seed unto our father Abraham; for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children into Abraham.”[10]

Whether we are new converts or whether we have roots in the Restored Church extending back several generations, we would do well to heed these warnings.  We are to be judged by the intent of our hearts, and by our thoughts, words, and deeds—not by our “church pedigree” (or lack of one).

We can also look to other leaders in the Restoration for support of the point that neither the Church of Jesus Christ nor its members have any corner on “goodness.”  While the source of this quote is unknown, Brigham Young is reported to have once said, “A good man is a good man, whether in this church or out of it.”  Similarly, Joseph Smith once said:

I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the smooth-faced hypocrite. I do not want you to think that I’m very righteous, for I am not. There was one good man, and his name was Jesus.[11]

If Joseph Smith could appreciate someone who swears as much as that for his good heart and his good deeds, surely we can appreciate the same qualities in our religiously-devout brothers and sisters of all faiths (who do not swear!).

In summary, then, the Parable of the Sower teaches us that good seeds can yield good fruit in Catholic ground, in Protestant ground, among the non-Christian religiously devout, and even among the nonreligious.  The Savior’s admonition to judge people by their fruits teaches a similar principle.  His admonition to “ask, seek, and knock” tells us that His Father gives good gifts to all varieties of people who ask Him, irrespective of religion.  The Parable of the Talents teaches us that the Lord is displeased only with those who fail to live the best they know how according to the light they’ve been given.  Modern revelation teaches us that the more we have been given, the more will be required of us, and that we will be rewarded for the good we do, likewise irrespective of religion. John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees teaches us that we ought not become too provincial in our possession of truth nor too secure in our own salvation. and finally, early leaders of the Restoration remind us that, while much good can be found in the Church of Jesus Christ and among its members, we have no corner on “goodness.”

May these principles guide us as we seek to reach out and to build bridges of understanding and friendship, both to the religious and to the irreligious, to people of all faiths (and to people of no faith); may we build upon common ground and seek to work in harmony toward common goals; may we do these things in order better to heed the admonition of the Apostle Paul to be “knit together in love.”[12]

END NOTES

 [1] Doctrine and Covenants 84:46

[2] Matthew 13:3-8, King James Version of the Holy Bible (hereinafter “KJV”)

[3] Matthew 7:16-20, KJV

 [4] Hinckley, Gordon B. (November 4, 1997), “The BYU Experience,” Speeches of the Year, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, accessed on-line on April 16, 2012 at the following address: http://www.speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=2973

 [5] Matthew 7:7-11, KJV

 [6] Matthew 25:14-29, KJV

[7] Doctrine and Covenants 82:3

 [8] Doctrine and Covenants 58:28

 [9] Luke 18:10-14, KJV

 [10] John 3:36, Joseph Smith Translation of the Holy Bible

[11] Smith, Joseph Jr. (Brigham H. Roberts, ed.)  (1949) History of the Church (6 vols.), 5:401, Salt Lake City, Utah:  Deseret News Press, as quoted in Barrett, Ivan J. (August 12, 1975) “Joseph Smith—The Chosen of God and the Friend of Man,” Speeches of the Year, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, accessed on-line on April 14, 2012 at http://www.speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6015.

[12] See Colossians 2:2, KJV

Update: June 6, 2013 – I posted the following on the Mormon Dialogue & Discussion Board on the date indicated as part of a discussion about the fate of those who depart this life without yet having accepted the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

________________________________

… I don’t think God, at the judgment, is going to say to others not of my faith (or even those of no faith … that is, those who profess no religion), “Ohhhh, I’m so sorry! You were mostly wrong …” Rather, I think He’s going to say to them, “You were mostly right, and here are some other things you might want to consider …” Otherwise, why perform Temple ordinances for those who departed this life without having accepted the Gospel?  [Mormons believe that those who depart this life without accepting the Gospel will be given an opportunity to accept it in the life to come, including the ordinance of authorized baptism consistent with 1 Corinthians 15:29, John 3:5, 1 Peter 4:6, and other scriptures.]   We will be judged by our efforts to live the best we know how according to what light we’ve been given. I’ve also recently related an experience here which occurred when my parents and I, in company with nearly fifty others, took a tour of Spain. We had the usual, “Where are you from?” “Utah.” “Oh. Are you Mormon? …” And of course, we had the opportunity to overturn our wine glasses and politely decline the copious amounts of wine that were served. ;-)

[LDS author and BYU Professor] Robert L. Millet tells a story of knocking on doors as a missionary, when someone answered the door and, in the course of a conversation with the missionaries, expressed a belief (I can’t remember exactly on what subject) that was right in line with the Church’s teachings. The next thing out of then-Elder Millet’s companion’s mouth was, “Did you know we also used to practice polygamy?” End of discussion!

I had a conversation with a dinner companion in Spain shortly before we returned home in which I mentioned Doctrine & Covenants 58:28, and that we believe that “(I)nasmuch as men do good [regardless of religious persuasion or lack thereof] they shall in nowise lose their reward.” She spoke very highly of other Mormons she has known, and chimed in with a belief in universal salvation. Is she exactly right? No. Is she mostly wrong? No. Did I miss out on a golden teaching moment? Did I simply “lose my nerve”? Should I have come back with, “But we have authority, and you don’t”? I think that would’ve led to an outcome similar to what occurred in Elder Millet’s encounter.

To her enormous credit, my dinner companion knows what makes Mormons similar to other Christians, and in that regard, she’s light years ahead of the, “Mormons-worship-a-diffurnt-Jeezus” crowd. Eventually, she’ll be ready to hear what does make us different, but “all things must be done in wisdom and order” [Mosiah 4:27, The Book of Mormon]. In the meantime, I hope I planted some more seeds and helped cultivate the seeds that had been planted by others.

Update: August 18, 2013 –  The date indicated was a Sunday, and I happened to visit the Mormon Dialogue & Discussion Board in the midst of undertaking my duties that day.  My next meeting was about to start, so I didn’t have a lot of time.  In response to the question whether there are many paths to Christ, I said (consistent with the foregoing update that the Lord will tell many of us, “You were mostly right; here are some other things you might want to consider”) I look at it like this: Only one path will get you all the way there, but many paths will get you most of the way there.”

Update, February 27, 2014: Some Thoughts on Faith, on Evidence, and on Standards of “Proof” 

By Ken K. Gourdin

I posted the following today at the Times & Seasons blog/discussion board, on a thread which can be found here (last accessed today): http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php/2014/02/an-offhand-apologion-and-testimony-of-sorts-and-some-reflections/#comment-518941.

_________________________________________

Mtnmarty: “Is losing faith in Allah, coming closer to the truth or receding farther from it?”

I get what you’re trying to say, but Arabic-speaking non-Mormon Christians and any Mormons who might happen to speak (or pray) in Arabic (as well as Muslims) also have faith in Allah.  Allah is simply the Arabic word used for “God.”

To your broader point, it depends: If I think Allah has commanded me to destroy infidels (along with some believers, but hey, if you’re going to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs; what’s a little collateral damage, right?) by flying planes full of passengers into buildings full of inhabitants, then I would have to say losing faith in Allah is, at least in a roundabout way, coming closer to the truth.  On the other hand, if I think Allah has commanded me to love my neighbor, live the Golden Rule (although it might not be called that in Islam), give alms to the poor, and so on, losing faith in Him might not be such a good thing.

Me?  I think Allah revealed the Book of Mormon (and a bunch of other cool stuff) to Joseph Smith, as well as to all of his successors in what has become what might be called “main-branch” Mormonism.  As for what “standard of evidence” I might pass along to my children (I don’t have any, and probably never will – children, that is; not evidence! ;-D), I’m not exactly sure what you mean when you use that term.  Does such evidence have to hold up in a court of law?  In a civil case?  In an administrative proceeding?  In a criminal case?  In a lab?  Somewhere else?

I might teach my child that God tends to speak to all of us in ways we can understand.  (A child might understand that even better than I do: “Out of the mouths of babes. . . .”)  I certainly wouldn’t teach my child that God gives me/us (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) bread, fruit, and fish when we ask for them while giving everyone else stones, thorns, thistles, and serpents – or stones that at least seem somewhat like bread, or thorns and thistles that at least seem like fruit, or serpents that at least seem like fish.  Bread is bread, fruit is fruit, and fish is fish – period.

I would teach my child the truths of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ because I have a firm testimony that that’s the best way to get “an hundredfold” harvest, but I would also teach him that we also ought not be too provincial in our possession of truth, nor ought we to look down our noses at someone else’s sixtyfold or thirtyfold.  I would teach him that, at the pearly gates, God isn’t going to tell faithful adherents of other religions who responded to the light they were given, “Oooh, sorry!  You were mostly wrong,” and press the buttoI n for the trap door that leads straight to hell (or to the Terrestrial or Telestial Kingdom, or to Outer Darkness).  I think He’ll say, “Congratulations!  You were mostly right.  Here are some other things you might want to consider. . . .”  Otherwise, that whole “ordinances on behalf of the dead” thing is kinda superfluous.

And if, despite my best efforts, my child eventually were to opt for a different path, I would wish him happiness, and would reinforce anything positive I saw in that new path: if I saw anything outright dangerous or destructive about it, I couldn’t still love my child and remain silent about those destructive dangers.  (To say that God would still give my child bread, fruit, and fish if he were to opt for a different faith path is not to say that there’s no difference between Thomas S. Monson and The People’s Temple’s Jim Jones.)  Either way, I would do my best to employ the counsel of Doctrine and Covenants 121. 

About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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