I’m not even sure how I got it, surprisingly, but in the short time I lived in Idaho, I received an interesting gem. It’s a book called Religions of the World: A Latter-day Saint Perspective, by Spencer J. Palmer.
I’ve always enjoyed books about world religions, especially the obscure and forgotten, but I was expecting something rather bland, or apologetic, or dismissive. I was pleasantly surprised. This one was actually very unbiased, concise, and interesting. It didn’t break any new ground, necessarily, except that it offered interesting comparisons and contrasts with other major world religions.
I found that book packed in an anonymous box last week and decided to give it another read. As I read about Guru Nanak I was struck by one tiny thing: how comparatively little we really know about him or his life. How can anyone believe in a prophet whose life we can’t relentlessly scrutinize?
I’m not going to go into detail about his life here. A quick appeal to Wikipedia will take care of the information you need to get started, I guess, but let me get to the thrust of this post. How do we test the fruits of a prophet we know so little about? As I read, my mind went over the prophet I feel I know so well, Joseph Smith, and I was impressed by how we scrutinize his life for tiny details. Every scrap of information about his life has been scoured by historians, theologians, apologists, and lay-people, for clues as to whether he is a true prophet, and yet no-one to date has really been able to come to a consensus. Was he a charlatan? A saint? A prophet? A nut?
Right around the time of Christopher Columbus, northern India was embroiled, as it is now, in a theological struggle between Hindu and Muslim. To be fair, Guru Nanak does have a few interesting sources about his life (all written after his death), but for the most part, we know little about him compared to Joseph Smith. The people he lived with in the north of India spent their entire lives agonizing and struggling over their age-old question: which religion is right, Hinduism or Islam? No doubt many people prayed mightily towards Heaven asking for divine guidance. Is Hinduism worth dying for? Was Mohamed really a true prophet? That struggle was personified in Guru Nanak, whose simple initial revelation, “There is neither Hindu nor Muslim,” must have jarred most of his listeners. “Neither Hindu nor Muslim?” they must have asked themselves. “What else is there?”
I felt moved with immense compassion as I read about this struggle, especially in light of the invasion of India by the Moguls. Here was a whole civilization, turned over by wars and religious strife, foreign to Americans, who lived and died struggling with the great questions of the soul, and here was a prophet among them, Guru Nanak, who offered peace, and eschewed outward ordinances in favor of clean living and always remembering God in your heart.
How can I possibly determine whether Guru Nanak is a true prophet if I have so little information about him? Where are all the documents? Stanford hasn’t done any word imprint studies on his writings, his mother never wrote a Biography of his life. There are definitely no Sikhs here in Lexington repeatedly bearing testimony to me, “I know that Guru Nanak was a true prophet.” Not to say there isn’t any information about him (and, to be fair, there are some Sikhs here in Lexington, if you seek them out, pun intended) but it seems quite lean compared to what we have about Joseph Smith.
Let us swing back a few thousand years and move a few hundred miles to the West to Iran, where we find the cradle of another world religion, that of Zoroastrianism. One could easily argue that Zoroastrianism is the grandfather of all monotheistic faiths. They have been around for thousands of years, though their numbers have dwindled in the last couple centuries. Want to approach Zoroastrianism objectively, and test the fruits of Zoroaster (Zarathustra)? What do we know about him? Well, a quick survey of historians will reveal that he probably lived sometime between 6000 BC and 100 BC. That’s right, we can nail down his life to a 5900-year period. Recently, the number has settled right around 1100 to 1000 BC, but how on God’s Green Earth are we supposed to find out if Zoroaster was a true prophet if we can’t even agree on the millennium in which he lived?
And where did Zoroaster live in this period of time? I’ll quote Wikipedia this time:
Yasna 9 & 17 cite the Ditya River in Airyanem Vaējah (Middle Persian Ērān Wēj) as Zoroaster’s home and the scene of his first appearance. Nowhere in the Avesta (both Old and Younger portions) is there a mention of the Achaemenids or of any West Iranian tribes such as the Medes, Persians, or even Parthians.
However, in Yasna 59.18, the zaraθuštrotema, or supreme head of the Zoroastrian priesthood, is said to reside in ‘Ragha’. In the ninth to twelfth century Middle Persian texts of Zoroastrian tradition, this ‘Ragha’ – along with many other places – appear as locations in Western Iran. While Medea does not figure at all in the Avesta (the westernmost location noted in scripture is Arachosia), the Būndahišn, or “Primordial Creation,” (20.32 and 24.15) puts Ragha in Medea (medieval Rai). However, in Avestan, Ragha is simply a toponym meaning “plain, hillside.”
Apart from these indications in Middle Persian sources which are open to interpretations, there are a number of other sources. The Greek and Latin sources are divided on the birth place of Zarathustra. There are many Greek accounts of Zarathustra, referred usually as Persian or Perso-Median Zoroaster. Moreover they have the suggestion that there has been more than one Zoroaster. On the other hand in post-Islamic sources Shahrastani (1086-1153) an Iranian writer originally from Shahristān, present-day Turkmenistan, proposed that Zoroaster’s father was from Atropatene (also in Medea) and his mother was from Rai. Coming from a reputed scholar of religions, this was a serious blow for the various regions who all claimed that Zoroaster originated from their homelands, some of which then decided that Zoroaster must then have then been buried in their regions or composed his Gathas there or preached there. Also Arabic sources of the same period and the same region of historical Persia consider Azerbaijan as the birth place of Zarathustra.
By the late twentieth century the consensus among some scholars had settled on an origin in Eastern Iran and/or Central Asia (to include present-day Afghanistan): Gnoli proposed Sistan (though in a much wider scope than the present-day province) as the homeland of Zoroastrianism; Frye voted for Bactria and Chorasmia; Khlopin suggests the Tedzen Delta in present-day Turkmenistan. Sarianidi considered the BMAC region as “the native land of the Zoroastrians and, probably, of Zoroaster himself.” Boyce includes the steppes of the former Soviet republics. The medieval “from Media” hypothesis is no longer taken seriously, and Zaehner has even suggested that this was a Magi-mediated issue to garner legitimacy, but this has been likewise rejected by Gershevitch and others.
So we know where he lived, give or take a thousand miles, and we know what time period, give or take a few thousand years. And by the way, there may have been more than one Zoroaster.
Again I ask, how do we know a true prophet? The Bible says a few things, but let’s focus on one:
15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
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 devil 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.
So my question is, how do we test the fruits of these prophets? Not only these prophets, but anyone who has claimed revelation in the past. What about Mani, who led the people now known as Manicheans, who expanded upon what he saw as truths in Christianity and Zoroastrianism? What of Confucius, whose followers led thousands in Ancient China (all bureaucrats in the government were well-versed in Confucian texts). Do we know as much about Mo Tzu, whose teachings were seen as a real competitor to Confucianism early in its history, as we do about Sidney Rigdon or John Taylor or Thomas S. Monson?
A few possibilities come immediately to mind, some conclusions that easily could be made by the modern reader.
1. We don’t need to test their fruits. Zoroaster was a prophet who lived thousands of years ago, to a people who lived thousands of years ago. These people don’t pertain to us. We know the truth, and we can just forget about these guys. Besides, if they were so right, where are they now?
Forgive me, but doesn’t this seem like an arrogant conclusion? To dismiss an honest, sincere group of people because of distance or difference seems quite wrong, at least to my heart, especially in the case of Zoroaster, whose religion has endured longer than any other monotheistic religion, and that historians even date to before Judaism (many historians believe that it was actually the Babylonian exile, and the Jews’ exposure to Zoroastrian thought, that really ironed out their concepts of Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, etc.). If time is any indication of truth, it’s arguably on their side, not ours.
2. We can automatically dismiss anyone who didn’t teach about Christ.
Fair enough, if you believe Christ really was the Son of God, which I do, for the record. However, how many of Basava’s followers knew about Christ or His teachings? Guru Nanak’s world was divided into Hindus and Muslims, and the wars between them. Christ, to them, was some obscure prophet, mentioned in the Qur’an, or maybe a Bodhisattva, but not really someone whom the average person knew about. Furthermore, is it useless for a prophet to teach about loving one another in a land where Christ’s name is not mentioned? Is a prophet not “true” if he teaches that we should cease our murders and contentions and try our best to live a holy, charitable life?
3. We can dismiss them because we don’t have any useful information about their lives, like we do about Joseph Smith. We simply can’t test their fruits, and thus we can see that God doesn’t want us to know about them. If God wanted us to know about them, information about them would have fallen into our (or Joseph Smith’s) hands.
Pleading ignorance? Really? “We don’t need to know something because we don’t know something.” This may be precisely the reason why most people in the world don’t know who Jesus Christ really is. “If God wanted me, here in Urumqi (or Jakarta or Chongking or Tokyo or anywhere else not predominantly Christian), to know about Jesus Christ, God would have sent that information here, but He hasn’t.”
4. We can dismiss any religion whose followers are a tiny group compared to the whole. For instance, why study the teachings of Alevi Muslims if they are such a minority in the world, even amongst the Muslim world?
For the record, there are probably more Alevi Muslims in the world as there are Latter-day Saints, and the Alevi are a tiny minority compared to the Muslim World as a whole. Secondly, when has truth been determined by the majority? And what was the result?
5. The particulars of a prophet’s life aren’t important, what matters is the fruits we see in the followers.
Take quantum mechanics as some sort of analogy here. By the 1800s, Newtonian Physics had pretty much permeated all of the scientific community. Edmund Halley’s orbital prediction of what is now called Halley’s Comet was regarded as an ultimate triumph of Newtonian Physics, and the philosophers finally concluded that if one could know the starting positions of all the atoms and matter in the Universe, one could calculate all of history over billions of years. However, when we really started to dissect the atom, Newton’s ideas broke down on the quantum level. We discovered entanglement and particle spin and all sorts of new, amazing, sometimes counter-intuitive facts about how things work on a tiny scale. Yet, to this day, we haven’t seemed to reconcile Quantum Mechanics with the Universe on a large scale, and the search for a Unified Theory is one of the most interesting searches in physics.
So the resulting Universe we see has emergent properties that seem (we’re still working on this) different than the properties on the Quantum level. Are prophets the same way? Does the whole of a religion have emergent properties that aren’t explained by the life of a single person who founded it? Can we test the “truth” of a religion by these emergent fruits, ignoring what the prophet did?
This seems a bit more plausible, considering there are so many prophets we don’t have information about. Except, is that really what we’re taught in the Church? Furthermore, what if the religion died out many years ago, so we can’t necessarily see the fruits of it now?
6. We can test a prophet by the book they brought forth. If we ask if the book is true, then we can know if the prophet is true. No book? Then see #3.
Does that mean that if you can’t read, then you’ll never know? Does that mean all the prophets in history who didn’t have a book are not true? Literacy is truth, and illiteracy is damnation? What about the Christians in the Middle Ages who didn’t have access to the Bible because the Bible was restricted to the clergy? Were they doomed, never having a true testimony?
7. Those prophets taught some truth, we know that from Latter-day revelation. Therefore, we can just accept that they taught some truths, but reading about them, knowing about them, or studying their teachings is unnecessary. All truth is contained in this Church.
This is pretty much what our Church teaches us, right? Certain prophets had access to the Light of Christ at certain times in history, and did much good, but we really needn’t concern ourselves with the particulars. I can’t help but thinking this is still being overly dismissive of other teachings, other cultures, and other people. Shouldn’t we search diligently for truth wherever it can be found? Joseph Smith seemed to snatch up truth wherever he saw it, whether it be in the rituals of the Masons or papyri he thought belonged to Abraham. This has led me to #8, which is closest to what I consider to be the truth.
8. The truth is complicated.
The older I get, the closer #8 seems to reality. However, I thank God that I’m in a religion right now that can tie the Human Family together in a way that accepts and appreciates truths everywhere and anywhen. In the darkest times at night, and on Sundays when I listen to what’s taught from the pulpit, and when I travel and see people of all different colors and faiths and nationalities, and when I read history books full of brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for their faith, even faiths much different than my own, I don’t have to accept on blind faith the conclusion that the majority of my family (the Human Race) is damned for Eternity for not knowing the name of Christ. There isn’t a privileged time or place for personal salvation.
And this is very comforting to me.