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.
This tells me that spiritual power and authority cannot be maintained by compulsion.  God can’t force us to do the right thing.  This is not righteousness, nor is it truth.  Mormonism sparks anger in many, many people precisely because we collapse the sacred distance between God and humanity.  We claim authority from those who claim to have spoken to him directly.  We even claim authority from Christ, given to apostles who have restored this priesthood by direct contact, laying on their hands on a modern prophet and apostles.  If true, it is a pretty good case for having something important to share.  If false, it can be frightening and percieved as dangerous.  Many, many who have made this claim in the past have exercised tyranny and despotism.  The above scripture becomes that much more critical for us, to my way of thinking.
     Can someone make these kinds of claims and still hold respect for the culture, tradition, faith, spirituality and truth claims of others.  Outrageous as it may seem, I think so.  Mormonism has a mechanism in place, baptism for the dead, for helping everyone enter a covenant with Christ regardless of whether they ever had any chance to learn about him in this life.  Many don’t like this idea, envisioning it as a kind of cultural post-mortal warfare, but I don’t think that is the way it works at all. 
     First of all, if we Mormons are full of it, baptism for the dead is just an empty, goofy practice of ours, without any real effect on those that have passed.  Secondly, the doctrine is that the ordinance must be performed on Earth to make the covenant valid with those who desire it hereafter.  It is their choice whether to accept it at all.  Thirdly, If we didn’t have this kind of thing in place, just imagine how much more unjust would our theology be?   We would make God a monster or a tyrant, who capriciously shares his plan with a very privileged few of his children and casts off the rest, simply because of their culture.
     I prefer to think that in the next life, we may see past labels that currently divide us.  That cultural constructs that we now fight over incessantly will have the truest parts of them openned up, and the less true discarded.  Every religion and tradition, Mormonism included, provides only an incomplete picture of the nature of God and meaning of existence.  We cannot comprehend every mystery yet.  We will have ideas we will all have to get rid of in order to move along toward truth.  In Mormonism, Mormons won’t exist (it is really a nickname given to us by others anyway), Baptists, Methodists, Shia, Sunnis, Sufis, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus, none of these will exist in the exact form they are practiced here.  Instead we will just be children of God, the human family.  All of these have changed somewhat over their history, and will continue to change in the future if they are to remain vibrant.  I believe that in the next life, all will retain their truest, most sublime parts, with the mistakes or folklore cast off but the principles remaining.