Guest post by Thomas
In C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia book The Last Battle, there is a powerful scene of an encounter between the Christ-symbolizing lion Aslan and Emeth, a noble-minded worshipper of the false Calormene demon-god Tash:
“[The Lion] touched my forehead…and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true…that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I aer one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For he and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.”
Needless to say, a certain type of Christian evangelical is appalled by this. I read an essay (by someone who evidently has reading-comprehension problems) arguing that by Lewis’s logic, Osama bin Laden’s diligence in pursuit of what he understands to be his religious duty must be credited as salvific worship of Christ.
And there is a danger, in seeking to be courteous to people who believe fundamentally different things from our own faith, to drift into seeming to say that there is no absolute truth — that all religious traditions are equally valid, that all religious roads lead to God, and the like. And in fact, the varieties of religious experience are often used by folk-postmodernists to argue there is no absolute truth — that all truths are simply fronts for cultural biases, interests, or power relations. However — although there is more of a common core of shared moral truth, across many diverse cultures, than often gets acknowledged — the truth claims of different religious traditions are often mutually exclusive. In the case of Christianity and Islam, for example, Jesus Christ was either a prophet, or the incarnate God. He can’t be both. So the only way that “all religious teachings can be equally valid” is for none of them to be valid. They obtain whatever fiction of validity they have, only from what they are given by their adherents. Asking, like Joseph Smith, “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” (JS-H 1:10), the vernacular relativist concludes the answer must be “all wrong together.” Otherwise, we’d have to privilege one faith claim above another — and in a pluralist society, we certainly can’t have that. Wouldn’t be courteous.
But it does not follow, from the fact that finding the absolute truth is so difficult that different people, exercising the best of their imperfect judgment, reach different conclusions, that there is no absolute truth. It is possible that, among all the “contests of these parties of religionists,” somebody is actually right — or more right than others. Christians give the assent of faith to the proposition that Christ “is the way, the Truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father except by [Him].” (John 14:6.) We are committed to believing that there is one absolute Truth, and that it includes the basic fact that the salvation of humanity rests on Christ crucified.
How can faith in an exclusive Truth be reconciled with religious pluralism, not to mention God’s justice, in a world where the accidents of birth are probably the greatest factor that determines what religion a person practices?
I think C.S. Lewis was on to something with his parable of Emeth — whose name is Hebrew for “Truth.” I think of Matthew 26:32-46, where the sheep are divided from from the goats. The scripture seems to indicate that at least some of the sheep are surprised at being sheep: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who was one of the major influences in the restatement of Catholic doctrine at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, articulated a concept he called “Anonymous Christianity”:
“Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity — Let us say, a Buddhist monk — who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.”
The Catholic Church subsequently adopted the substance of Rahner’s thinking. The Church’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium provides,
“Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”
The present Catechism now provides,
“Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
The declaration Dominus Iesus (criticized by some religious liberals for, evidently, not abandoning altogether the Catholic Church’s proclamation that it is the one true church), stated,
“Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, “does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors”. Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.”
Mormonism, of course, may have anticipated this doctrine (or a version of it) with the doctrine of proxy ordinance work for the dead. Although there has been controversy on the point, many LDS authorities suggest that even those who have had the gospel presented to them in this life, but rejected it for good-faith reasons, may obtain to salvation.
Some consider the doctrine of “Anonymous Christianity” to be condescending: Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, goes this argument, don’t want to be saved as “anonymous” or honorary Christians; they should insist on being saved qua Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. In my view, “Anonymous Christianity” is as far as a revealed religion can possibly go and remain anything like itself.
However, “Anonymous Christianity” has a potentially startling flip side: Just as a noble-minded Muslim, who follows the truly holy aspects of his religion, may have his inherently holy actions counted as worship of Christ, isn’t it also at least conceivably possible that I — by practicing the noble truths contained in my Mormon variety of Christianity — could be an “anonymous Buddhist?” We tend to view even entertaining the possibility that the things to which we give the assent of faith may not be in every respect exactly as we understand them as a kind of infidelity, but is it really so? To have effective faith in something, do we really have to know it with every fiber of our being, or say that we do?
My faith is in Christ, exercised within the framework of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have reason to believe — or, more precisely, I choose to believe that certain experiences, whose actual import I may not be able to know with certainty, give me reason to believe — that God is pleased that I exercise faith in this way. It may be that this is because the Gospel, as it it has been made known to me, is 100% true, to the exclusion of all contrary traditions — or it may be because my faith contains enough of the true God’s truth to suffice.
Beautiful Thomas. Thank you. I am not sure, though, that two inconsistent things cannot be true at the same time–or at least I understand quantum mechanics to say that two inconsistent things can be true at the same time. My recollection of non-Euclidean geometries is that apparently inconsistent things can also be simulaneously true.
I like the sum of this post. I think Thomas cuts close to the heart of the matter, but I do think he just misses the core. I think that his post shares a common characteristic with most such explorations of thought, putting God in the position of the Ultimate Arbiter of Heart.
I used to have a close friend (at least I thought we were close, and I believe he did, too) who was Muslim. I learned a great deal from him in how he treated his wife, how he attended to his sacred duties, and how he comported himself in an American culture that he both reviled for its lewdness and prized for its openness and freedom. We shared a lab, so we talked religion on numerous occasions. This was the early ’90s, before the Islamofascist terrorist attacks on US soil, so the political atmosphere was different than today. The positive impression he left on me toward Islam remains.
So is my friend’s worship to Allah “counted” by Christ? I think the question misguided; with all due respect both to Mr. Lewis and Br. Thomas, I don’t think God works that way. I suppose I think the question is something more like: What has my friend become? Is my friend the type of man who would be comfortable in Christ’s presence? If so, then when he gets an opportunity to join Christ’s kingdom — a REAL opportunity, not a series of conversations with a Mormon fellow student in a foreign land half a world from home — he will recognize who Christ is and will gladly join up. How will he recognize Christ? Simple: He will be like him.
Anyway, that’s how I think it is done.
If so, then why all of the truth claims and “contests of religionists”? What value does God get out of keeping himself hidden? I appreciate that Thomas’s point is that he believes he is right, while acknowledging that he does not entirely comprehend God. To this he would say, alongside President Uchtdorff, “lift where you stand”. This may suit to assuage the difficulties associated with uncertainty, but at it’s heart beg’s the question of whether God even cares. Revelation is the grounding principle of Mormonism. If it can deliver on that promise then the contest really has merit, but if not then we are just back to time, space, and culture.
#3 Cowboy: Thomas’ post does not beg the question of whether God cares; it assumes that. God hides himself, I believe, to see if we care to seek him.
“If so, then why all of the truth claims and ‘contests of religionists’?”
My best guesses run from mental illness to power-seeking fraud to overinterpretation of ambiguous spiritual experiences.
“What value does God get out of keeping himself hidden?”
Beats me, although I’ve speculated on that question from time to time. I like to think that if He had a more straightforward way that would work, He’d use it. I’ll leave that can of “omnipotence” worms unopened.
Ultimately, you’re correct that I’m either “begging a question” or positing a premise. When I get to the limits of reason, I can either call it a day or hypothetize a being beyond the range of ordinary empirical observation. And it’s just not bothering with, to hypothetize the existence of a God who doesn’t care, or one whom I can never hope to draw closer to, and understand more, by anything I do.
So my choices just got narrowed down from the potentially infinite number of deities who either don’t care about me, or who might care about me, but only if I stumbled on the right combination of ritual incantations and barbecued virgins. I’m left with a binary choice: (1) No God; or (2) A God who cares about me, because it is his nature to care about people, it following that if there are any conditions to his care or favor for me, they would be that I care about people, too, and love them as myself.
I’ve chosen to run with the second presumption, and trust that acting accordingly will open up truths that would not have been available to me through empiricism and reason alone. I wish sometimes the hints that I’m on the right track were a little less ambiguous, but what the hey — global warming catatrophists declare far more certainty based on far less.
“I’ve chosen to run with the second presumption, and trust that acting accordingly will open up truths that would not have been available to me through empiricism and reason alone. I wish sometimes the hints that I’m on the right track were a little less ambiguous, but what the hey — global warming catatrophists declare far more certainty based on far less.”
Fair enough, that’s not exactly the way my perspective is structured – but certainly a valid and optimistic take on things. The difficulty I have in totally embracing this perspective is that it is hinged on Mormonism which more or less advocates certainty and prescribed formulas (barbecued virgings) to accomplish the goal of drawing near to God. I understand that point is somewhat debatable, but I just don’t see Mormonism as a universalist religion that outlines a path for individual spirituality. Instead I see a communal organization that places it’s hierarchy at a point of intercession between God and the group. Again, I realize that many people may disagree with this point of view, but seeing as how this post is largely about individual belief, and therefore perspective, there’s my two cents. Even so, good post.
Awesome post Thomas! I have about a million thoughts, but not quite sure how to articulate them. This one sticks out though for me.
I like this. This is basically the same line of reasoning I use in my own life. The one very disturbing thought to me is this – how would I know if God was NOT pleased that I exercise faith in this way? In Mormonism we have an obsession with the Spirit confirming our various actions and beliefs to us, but what do we have telling us the opposite? The closest we get is Cowdery’s stupor of thought. But what the heck does that mean? Does the fact that no one can find solid evidence for the historicity of the BoM indicate such a stupor? Or how about the fact that, like you, my certain experiences, whose import I don’t know, only happen sparsely throughout my life? Is this an indicator of my stupor? How would I know whether or not there is another faith path that is better for me, even if it is of the anonymous variety?
Re Cowboy #6
This is how I see it too. Many of the things we discuss in the b’nacle seems like two personalities arguing – one that views certainty as supremely important – and one that sees open mindedness as supremely important. They seem at odds with each other and by the fruits I think we can see what is important in Mormonism.
Unfortunately, in my Mormon lifetime, I have to say that Mormonism feels a bit more like a way of life, a career, a job if you will. Sometimes I’m interested in the spiritual experience, and very often the normal rituals leave me wanting. Nevertheless, I recognize this could be nothing more than my own fault!
“Many of the things we discuss in the b’nacle seems like two personalities arguing – one that views certainty as supremely important – and one that sees open mindedness as supremely important. They seem at odds with each other and by the fruits I think we can see what is important in Mormonism.” Kind of, yet, JS was IMO pretty clearly in the open minded camp rather than the certainty camp. And ironically, his stuff is then interpreted as the yardstick for certainty. I think certainty doesn’t serve us well (if it means not questioning or deactivating our minds). I think decisive action is better than certainty; making a conscious choice while still acknowledging inner conflict and the possibility of being wrong.
And I agree that Mormonism doesn’t bring the bacon, as it were. To me, it’s like a house without people. We bring the people. Sometimes it also is missing furniture, and we bring that too.
Yeah, I agree.
Actually, I’m conflicted on this as well. Generally, I agree, but I actually think certainty has its place. For example, I think Obama is pretty open-minded and follows this model fairly well (I’m sure many will disagree). But he’s not who I think needs to fix this country. I would probably vote for a Libertarian who was certain in his views, and unbending in his ideology. I admit that this certainty is only acceptable when I’m on the same team, hence the danger, but I can’t help acknowledge there is likely a place for such certainty, particularly when revolutionary changes need to happen.
Perhaps there is an element of this in our certainty in Mormonism.
“I think decisive action is better than certainty; making a conscious choice while still acknowledging inner conflict and the possibility of being wrong.”
I really like this statement because 1) I think it sums up at least part of what Thomas’s post was trying to say 2) because like it or not, this is a paradigm we are all confronted with regularly in most of our decision making. We rarely have all of the information, so how do take the available information and make good choices.
The only point I would nitpick is the part about decisive action being better than certainty. So long as the opportunity cost of obtaining certainty is not too great compared to decisive action, I would prefer certainty. I believe decisive action is the next best approach in lieu of certainty. I think this is part of why the Church generally favors “knowing”.
An interesting read on this topic is Mark Heim’s _Salvations_. I did a brief post on this a while back: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2007/09/salvations/
“I think decisive action is better than certainty; making a conscious choice while still acknowledging inner conflict and the possibility of being wrong.”
Or, as Lincoln said it:
“With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”
I love that statement. It acknowledges the necessity of acting with firmness (if we are to get anything worthwhile done), and yet acknowledges that God may well not have given us to see the right entirely clearly.
Cowboy, I understand your point about the interposition, in Mormonism, of a religious hierachy between man and God, and the presence of “barbecued virgin” ritualistic requirements (i.e., things that have nothing directly to do with loving your neighbor.) The importance attached to these things varies among individual Mormons.
I recall reading a statement by Elder Maxwell, to the effect that the only burden involved in keeping the commandments, is to avoid doing things that would destroy us. To the extent that’s true, then the wager of faith makes sense: There really isn’t any downside to the bet, and a substantial upside. However, to the extent it’s not true — to the extent that religion places burdens on us that make our mortal lives unhappier, then the cost-benefit analysis may shift. I would say that the more “barbecued virgin” requirements there are in a religion, the harder it becomes to justify heading down the path it offers, especially if it promises extraordinary payoffs for those sacrifices that don’t materialize. Pace Elder Maxwell, I don’t think it’s entirely true that the Church’s demands on members are limited to avoiding destructive behavior. Earl Grey tea isn’t inherently destructive; neither is spending two hours at church on Sunday instead of two. But overall, I don’t think the Church’s barbecued-virgin commandments are generally so excessive as to materially diminish the average person’s enjoyment of mortal life, when balanced against the happiness-enhancing aspects of the LDS lifestyle. Yes, there’s the occasional troubling data point about elevated rates of bankruptcy and depression (especially among people whose circumstances may be such that the Church’s commandments place a heavier burden on them than others) but overall, I think the package is a positive one.
“Earl Grey tea isn’t inherently destructive; neither is spending two hours at church on Sunday instead of two.”
Argh. Make that “two hours at church…instead of three.”
“[H]ow would I know if God was NOT pleased that I exercise faith in this way?…How would I know whether or not there is another faith path that is better for me?”
There’s a classic British cartoon from a World War I military newspaper. A grizzled old veteran is sharing shelter from an artillery barrage in a shell hole with a wide-eyed new guy, who’s evidently just expressed some dissatisfaction with their circumstances. The caption (under a drawing in which shell bursts just about fill the frame) is “Well, if you knows a better ‘ole, go to it.”
If there’s a better ‘ole for me than this one — taking all the pros and cons into account, including the advantages of staying with a religion where I first learned to pray, and whose habits have become largely second nature — I haven’t found it, some bumps in the road notwithstanding. But then I tend to believe God isn’t a tricky God trying to pick me off base if I happen to get my sectarian affiliation wrong. If a church reinforces your dedication to loving God and your neighbor more than it interferes with it, it’s probably acceptable, and if God wants us somewhere else, I think we can trust Him to make it reasonably clear to us.
Fair enough Thomas, I could more or less buy into that – or at least I can see value in taking the approach you describe.
Re #16 Thomas
Yes, this is how I would (and do actually) answer my own question and is why I’m LDS. However, I admit it doesn’t actually answer the question, as I still don’t know how I would know whether God was displeased. You mentioned you haven’t found the alternative that’s better, but clearly this doesn’t mean there’s not one. If Joseph had followed this line of reasoning where would we be? I have the recipe from scriptures for having truth confirmed, but short of trying out the myriad religions available on planet Earth, I have no corrective mechanism to falsify my hypothesis that this church is the right faith path for me and that God is pleased.
It seems to me the rare individual who actually gets the message that God is displeased with his/her faith path. The result often seems to include a new religion.
BTW, I agree with #14 completely! Well said.
“If Joseph had followed this line of reasoning where would we be?”
This is why I’m highly unlikely ever to get into the religion-founding business.
Thomas, that was very well written. I’ve been reading some buddhist stuff that has made me think a lot about this kind of thing lately.
I think buddhist teach that perhaps buddhism isn’t right even for all people of India, let alone the rest of the world…but that eventually in future lives people will have a chance for more enlightenment to live the buddhist truths. But in this life, people should do the best with whatever helps them develop most in their current situation.
The catholic quotes above suggest that Catholics believe they are the church with authority, but are open to accepting others outside the church can be saved by grace because they are “holy” in practice, such as buddhist monks.
Mormons believe truth is found in many places, but restored truth directly from God with authority for saving ordinances and proxy work for the dead allow everyone to become mormon at some point, if they want exaltation.
It does seem to me that “confidence” that Hawkgrrrl mentions tranlates in religion to “You have agency to believe what you want, but I’m right…you’ll see.”
Maybe that is how it all has to be to have faith. But I like to believe there are multiple ways to become like our Heavenly Father, not just one. I don’t know if that belief will be sustained over time, but I am trying that hat on for now, as I stay LDS.
Heber13, a few years ago I read a great popular history book by Walter McDougall, Let The Sea Make A Noise. It was focused on the post-Magellan history of the North Pacific, but included some interesting commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the societies around the Pacific Rim.
One of the strengths of American civilization McDougall identified was “revealed religion.” It does seem that revealed religion — such as Christianity and Islam — may foster civilizational confidence and dynamism to a greater degree than more philosophical traditions, like Confucianism or Buddhism. (I definitely don’t agree that the differences in outcomes among civilizations is due solely to Jared Diamond’s guns, germs, and steel.) You can question whether that’s necessarily a good thing — maybe Western Civilization wouldn’t have gone around colonizing the world, if it had been a little less Judeo-Christian confident and a little more Buddhist introspective. But revealed religion does seem to have its competitive advantage.
Likewise, Mormonism does seem to foster greater commitment — at least in those who can fully commit themselves — than religious traditions that are less bold in their truth claims. The upside is that the elect — those who are temperamentally suited to Mormon religion, those who have unambiguous conversion experiences, those who are convinced of the accounts of the Church’s founding — enjoy a confidence that probably goes beyond even some of the more confident varieties of evangelical Christianity, which is saying a lot. (My wife’s unscientific sample of her acquaintances who attended Calvary Chapel didn’t reflect highly on that bunch’s commitment to chastity, just to give one data point.) The downside is that affiliation with the Church can be more painful for those who less easily fit the Mormon mold.
Ideally, I’d like to see us able to pull a Kipling — to trust ourselves when all men doubt us, but make allowance for their doubting too, and not look to good, nor talk too wise. I would like us to declare our faith with all the confidence it is due, without expressing false certainty — and where there is certainty, its foundation ought to be laid as thoroughly as possible.
That’s interesting. I agree. I like the idea a religion can give me more confidence that where I am and where I’m going is good.
But I would also like less certainty that the religion contains “all” truth and is the “only true” church on the earth.
Why would you want less certainty?
“Why would you want less certainty?”
So you wouldn’t have to do so much explaining.
When it’s genuine, I don’t.
“He that would seriously set upon the search of truth, ought in the first place to prepare his mind with a love of it. For he that loves it not, will not take much pains to get it; nor be much concerned when he misses it. There is nobody in the commonwealth of learning who does not profess himself a lover of truth: and there is not a rational creature that would not take it amiss to be thought otherwise of. And yet, for all this, one may truly say, that there are very few lovers of truth, for truth’s sake, even amongst those who persuade themselves that they are so. How a man may know whether he be so in earnest, is worth inquiry: and I think there is one unerring mark of it, viz. The not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant. Whoever goes beyond this measure of assent, it is plain receives not the truth in the love of it; loves not truth for truth’s sake, but for some other bye-end.”
There are truths to which I assent by the assent of faith, and there are truths that I know with every fiber of my being (which, in light of my mortal fallibility, may not be all that much.) I try to know the difference.
#24 Why would you want less certainty?
I want my kids to learn there is less certainty that mormonism holds all truth, so they are not limited to the truths found only in the church, so they are not ignorant to all the truths found outside the church.
Open-mindedness. Respect for others and their holy teachings. Non-complacency. Wisdom.
The fool thinks he/she has all the answers, and everyone else is wrong.
If you google the Pew Religious Landscape study done about 18 months ago, you’ll quickly see from the national census that American religious traditions quickly divide themselves into conservative “certainty” wings and more liberal “free-thinking” wings and then form liberal and conservative denominations within the tradition. The different wings can be vastly different in size (sighs the CofChrist guy), but this fundamental way of approaching life seems to be stubborn enough to keep reemerging.