NOTE: This is a guest post by David Stout, Disciples of Christ minister.
I write from the perspective of a Disciples of Christ minister whose girlfriend is a devout Mormon. I am, therefore, very sympathetic and supportive of the LDS (I pray for your church daily) but embrace the theological position often known as Protestant Liberalism. In reading one of Mr. Nielson’s posts a while ago, two things jumped out at me. One is the issue of the relationship of Jesus and the Father and the other is the relationship of faith and logic. I will address the latter in this response and leave the former for another time.
There are many brilliant people in all the various religions, including those which tend to downplay the role of scholarship. Yet in spite of all this brilliance there is still considerable disagreement over many religious teachings. In the early 1800s this state of affairs led a number of individuals to conclude that there was something seriously wrong with this picture and that it needed to be fixed. Among those individuals were the founders of my religious tradition (Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell) and your Prophet, Joseph Smith. All of these folks felt the solution was to restore the Church to its pristine, original form. While they obviously disagreed on the path and shape of restoration, they nevertheless agreed on the need for it.
The result, ironically, was the formation of yet several more religious bodies that do not agree with each other even though all of them contain a number of pretty smart people. While members of these various churches are by and large convinced that they succeeded in restoring primitive Christianity, the problem of Christian unity has not been solved. A common response to this state of affairs from within the “restored” churches is that the people who stayed Catholic or Presbyterian or whatever are either mistaken or, less charitably, rebellious.
My take on this is that religion, by its very nature, precludes a great deal of unanimity in the field of doctrine. In the physical realm various measurements and observations can be made and the nature of a thing pretty well settled. (Though even here there are some mysterious phenomena that set scientists at odds with each other.) But what measurement can be taken of God? Even if God does have a physical body it is not visible to us, except in the world of dreams and visions (not exactly test tube material).
The end result is that all of us are reliant upon own experiences of the divine and/or the experiences of others. Some of these experiences have, for various reasons, become normative for certain groups of people. None has been compelling enough to capture everyone or even most everyone on this planet. Then within each religious (and non religious) group there is further reflection, teaching, revelation, and enculturation. The result is the establishment of certain presuppositions and beliefs that are extremely difficult to even see, much less question, from within one’s own tradition, regardless of how brilliant one might be.
In other words, while science has pretty well established norms and standards that almost every scientist accepts, religion has no uniform code, just a variety of traditions and tests that have grown up over time in different parts of the world. While one would think that this situation would make religious folk tentative in their beliefs, the fact of the matter is that religious people tend to be among the most certain, sometimes with devastating results, sometimes with remarkably healing results.
And therein lies the difficult thing about religion: it can give incredible levels of certainty to different people even though those certainties are diametrically opposed to each other. And what’s more, the same certainties can produce diametrically opposed results. My girlfriend, for example, is absolutely certain that the Book of Mormon is true and the result is a life of love. That same certainty in another person can produce a harsh and judgmental attitude that is at best abrasive.
So how do we proceed in an area of life that is so important, where there is so much certainty, and yet so little agreement? To put it personally, how do I respond to people who are certain that such and such is true even when I am just as sure it’s not?
The bottom line for me (for now anyway) is that I have to hold to my convictions while honoring the right of others to hold theirs. That means not only their beliefs but the means by which they come by those beliefs. For some, a revelatory experience is supreme; for others the dictates of logic; and for still others some sort of historical/scientific/archeological evidence. It is the combination and interaction of meaningful criteria and religious background that determine what makes sense to each person.
To illustrate, “I’ve read the Book of Mormon and God has told me it is true,” is very compelling for some people while for others (myself included) something a little less subjective is needed. This isn’t just a matter of religious belief; it’s also a matter of epistemology, of how someone knows something to be true. It was when this fact dawned on me that I stopped arguing theology with people and began to listen and discuss instead. The result has been most helpful and I am so pleased to discover other people, from other religious traditions, who are also willing to approach religious differences from a desire to understand rather than convert. (I am, BTW, not opposed to missionary activity. I just think it should take the form of invitation and development of thought and faith rather than, “I’ve got to convince you of this stuff.”)
I don’t think belief renders logic useless or irrelevant in the religious quest. I also don’t think logic should be the final arbiter of religion. Instead, I think logic should be seen as one tool in the human quest for understanding. Like any tool it has its place and will be used with different results and levels of effectiveness, depending upon who is using it and when and where they’re using it. I also think that encounters with people outside of our faith tradition, if conducted with respect and the desire to learn, can be a tremendous source of enrichment. At the very least these encounters will remind us that good and intelligent people can come to different understandings. At best they can give us deeper insight into how we understand ourselves and God.