First Published May 21, 2008
If there is one thing that can make religion unpopular in today’s pluralistic society, It is the idea of claiming access to exclusive truth. On my mission I learned firsthand how the act of sending someone to your door is felt deeply offensive for so many people. It is one reason religion is just something you are not supposed to talk about, in the interest of keeping peace. Religion is simultaneously deeply personal and deeply divisive.
When you feel a strong spiritual bond of community, spirituality and faith, the proselyting of others is seen as an assault on everything you stand for. At the same time, helping others see what you have and sharing it also becomes important the more invested you become and the more joy you find in your faith. Calm assurance that you are “right” has been used to justify coercion, violence and even genocide against outsiders through history. This in spite of the fact that such actions are almost always roundly condemned in the holy writings of all the faiths involved.
Religions are now routinely beat over the head because of this idea. For a religion to be a religion it has to make some claim to truth or authority, otherwise it becomes a set of hollow set of customs and ritual. Yet, one could easily ask, “if you guys have it all figured out, why is God so inefficient as to include a just a small minority of his children in his plan?” The question becomes Is it true that you believe only (Christians, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, etc) go to heaven. The implication is intuitive. How would God justify privileging a certain group over everyone else? It seems unjust and tyrannical. At the same time, why does your faith matter if this is not true?
The act of proselyting becomes an assertion that you have something better than the other and they will resent it. It is only human to resent it. On the other hand, If you really do believe an exclusive truth claim, you very well better be spreading the message because those others are in trouble if you don’t. Proselyting becomes a labor of simultaneous arrogance and concern.
My question is if there is a way to lose the arrogance. C. S. Lewis wrote, ” Pride gets no joy out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” The sneaky seduction of a truth claim is the joy we start taking in having what others do not have. Religion too easily becomes a competition, with each person trying to seem more pious than the next. Appearances are maintained, often to gain more authority. Hypocrisy is the inevitable result.
Christ’s harshest words went to the religious leaders of his day, as he quoted Isaiah, “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Yet, I think we have to be very careful applying this to anyone but ourselves, as we cannot know another’s heart. Paradoxically, when we start proclaiming the hypocrisy of others, suddenly we are the “right” ones while the others are “evil.” We are stuck in the same trap.
This has led many to take the all mountains lead to mount Fuji approach. Mohandas Ghandi certainly saw it this way. He once stated, “My effort should never be to undermine another’s faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith”
It seems he backed this up in his life. Speaking of Christianity he said,”I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.” Pretty challenging and confrontational and yet, in a way that asks people to live their own faith’s teachings. I think it’s brilliant.
This path is easier in Eastern traditions because they don’t necessarily believe in God as a being, per say. Thus, living, ethics, spirituality, and practice become the important components of religion and faith, but they really become more relative to what you understand truth to be. It can become somewhat fuzzy. The monotheistic Abrahamic Faiths, on the other hand, do claim a God above all other Gods, and Lord of Lords. They do this for very good reason. Ethics and spirituality are only meaningful if there is an absolute right and a wrong. Otherwise any position can be rationalized. There has to be an ideal. The monotheistic idea of God defines this. It gives a position of Authority backing the truth claim. So how on Earth do we reconcile an ideal of authoritative truth with the sneaky temptation to be “right” for the sake of being the right ones. It is a fine line.
I think the most tried and true way is to live as an example. My hands down favorite, deepest, most powerful and profound verses in all the Mormon Canon of scripture came through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.45 Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.46 The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.