When I was on the Arizona regional board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice), I received a book entitled People written and illustrated by Peter Spier. I have treasured it, for it displays in both words and pictures what I believe is part of the excitement of being human. It ends with these words:
Four billion human beings . . . young and old, sick and well, happy and unhappy, kind and unkind, strong and weak. People everywhere. And all different. It is strange: Some people even hate others because they are unlike themselves. Because they are different. They forget that they too would seem different if they could only see themselves through other people’s eyes. But imagine how dreadfully dull this world of ours would be if everybody would look, think, eat, dress, and act the same! Now, isn’t it wonderful that each and every one of us is unlike any other?1
The world is a marvelously diverse collage of God’s children. They come in all sizes, shapes, colors, cultures, and religions. All seek meaning in life. All seek to explain the common human experiences of life—e.g., birth, death, old age, hunger, sexual urges, marriage, wealth, poverty, and disease. Sometimes those explanations are similar. Sometimes they are different, but each explanation, no matter how different it may seem from our own, gives order, meaning, and purpose to people’s lives. No one believes anything “stupid,” for human beings are rational, logical creatures most of the time.
We look at the disparities of life. Why are some born rich, some poor, some deformed, and some barely take their first breaths before dying? The great Eastern faiths would answer by saying “karma.” People are reaping what they have sown. Some are wealthy, because through their past lives they created the karma that made them wealthy in this life. Others created karma that led to suffering, an early death, or deformity. Another might speak of the providence of God, essentially inscrutable, which explains all differences between peoples, but which in the end is beyond human understanding.
A Latter-day Saint might explain these differences with the words “agency” and “growth opportunities.” Much of what we are or become is a product of the choices we make. Among Latter-day Saints, there is a strong work ethic. We too believe that we reap what we sow, not as a result of previous incarnations, but rather as a result of what we choose to do or not to do. We also believe that God places people in this life, so that they may grow spiritually and become evermore like Christ. Precisely how this is accomplished by the various trials of life is really unknown to us, but it is known to God. We trust that.
“Now, isn’t it wonderful that each and every one of us is unlike any other?”
Answers to Life’s Questions
Is one answer better than another? Each is logical. Each makes sense. Each could be true. Why do we choose one answer over another? For most, the reason is that we were born into the particular faith providing that answer. That is just the way it is. Others search more broadly and choose a particular faith with its answers to life’s questions. The faith may be chosen because it is intellectually satisfying. It may be chosen as a result of a deep spiritual experience. Whatever the reason, the end result is a product of the faith that one has found that which gives meaning to his or her life. It is only within the individual soul that God can speak and draw a person closer to himself. Is one way more complete than another?
Christians and Muslims have always believed that their faiths are the ones toward which all others point. Latter-day Saints hold their faith to be the capstone of all others but other paths may ultimately in this life or the next lead persons to deal finally with the fulness of the gospel. I believe this is what President Spencer W. Kimball had in mind, when he said, “[We] believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation, either in this life or in the life to come.”2
As we seek to understand our brothers and sisters of this world, we begin to discover many common strains that bind us together. We begin to see God’s fingerprints on each human life—no matter how different from our own experiences—because God never leaves His children to wander in the maze of human existence without guidance and direction. The Father who reveals himself through Jesus Christ loves all of His children no matter their race, culture, or religion. We find the following in the Doctrine and Covenants:
[A]ll flesh is mine, and I am no respecter of persons. . . . For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just? (Section 38:16, 26; italics added)
“Often our understanding of God’s workings are the ‘contracted notions of men.’”
Joseph Smith was fully aware of the breadth of God’s love for His children. Joseph was anything but parochial in his outlook on his religiously diverse neighbors. President Howard W. Hunter underlined this fact in a General Conference talk in 1991:
In the gospel view, no man is alien. No one is to be denied. There is no underlying excuse for smugness, arrogance, or pride. Openly scorning the pettiness and intolerance of rival religious groups, the Prophet Joseph Smith said in an editorial:
While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes “His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” He holds the reins of judgment in His hands; He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but, “according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil,” or whether these deeds were done in England, America, Spain, Turkey, or India.3
Often our understanding of God’s workings are the “contracted notions of men.” We see in a glass dimly, while believing that we see all reality clearly. How often God has astounded us in our certainties, adding new dimensions and new vistas to what we thought we understood fully. God is a God of surprises.
For example, Israel, despite her stubbornness and disobedience, was chosen by God in the Old Testament to be a “Often our understanding of God’s workings are the ‘contracted notions of men.’” blessing to all the nations of the earth, so that she could make known to human beings everywhere the one God of the universe. We also discover there that God does not do things the way human beings expect. In virtually all cultures, the eldest son or daughter inherits the birthrights of property and position. In Israelite culture, the birthright was that of the firstborn male. Thus, it should have been Ishmael, not Isaac, Esau not Jacob, and Mannasah not Ephraim who received their fathers’ blessings. But in the mystery of “divine election” it was precisely the opposite in each case. Jehovah did not operate by the rules of common law, for He was and is free from human constraints.
As the incarnate Jehovah, Jesus continued to scandalize people. He taught Samaritans, touched lepers, and conversed with women. The Samaritans were descendants of peoples imported by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. They were considered apostates from Judaism, even though they claimed the faith. Antagonism between Jews and Samaritans was intense. Jesus, traveling north from Jerusalem to the Galilee stopped at Jacob’s well where he encountered a Samaritan woman. He requested from her a drink of water, a drink which would have been ritually impure, because she was a Samaritan (John 4:7). He used a Samaritan as the hero of a parable, contrasted this man’s compassion for a Jew who was robbed and beaten as he traveled down from Jerusalem to Jericho, with the lack of compassion of the most respected of Jews, a priest and a Levite (Luke 10:25–37).
Similarly, lepers constituted the dregs of society, because people feared that they could contract the disease through contact with them. Thus, lepers were shunned, segregated from society, and when they did appear, they had to shout that they were unclean, so that others could avoid them. Their existence was truly living death. Yet, Jesus without hesitation touched a leper to heal him, instantly making himself unclean by the act (Matthew 8:2–3). Women were also on the fringe of male society. In public, men and women of Jesus’ day existed in relatively separate realms. Yet, Jesus taught women, had close female friends like Mary and Martha, and women followed in his retinue. These socially unexpected acts were of particular interest to Luke, a Gentile, who affirmed that the gospel was not for the Jews only, but for the unexpected of the world—Samaritans, lepers, women, and even Gentiles.
Some early Christians even left the Church when God commanded that the gospel be preached to the Gentiles—persons previously held to be unclean by Jewish people and beyond the pale of God’s love. We see this tension as Peter is summoned to Cornelius’ home. Before he could understand that it would be appropriate for him to obey the summons, God gave him a vision of numerous unclean animals, all of which he was commanded to kill and eat. He objected that he had never eaten anything unclean, but God responded with words that still echo across the centuries: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:15). In other words, God sees things differently than do humans, whose eyes may not yet be opened to God’s broader purposes. Perhaps, then, God sees His other children and the religious insights He has given them differently than many of us may as Latter-day Saints. We certainly have the fulness of the gospel, but we may not yet “know all things.”
God’s surprises did not cease with the biblical era but continue today, for God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Such surprises make life interesting and exciting for some, but sadly for others, God’s occasional unpredictability makes life uncertain, because “sacred” presuppositions are called into question. On the front of the Old Testament syllabus that we used at Duke University Divinity School, there was a cartoon. It showed a young man lying on the floor thumbing through his Bible with his wife standing over him. The caption read, “Go away. Leave me alone. I’m looking for a biblical text to support my preconceived notion.” I wonder if all of us, regardless of our particular religious affiliations, may not have preconceived notions about our religiously diverse neighbors that prevent us from seeing them in all their beauty, goodness, and power? I wonder if we may not sometimes feel that we have God in our own religious corral, and He cannot reach beyond our preconceived notions about Him?
Obviously, these are rhetorical questions, for I believe that we often see God as limited in His capacities and abilities rather than recognizing Him in all his glory, power, and magnificence—all of which reach far beyond ourselves. President Hunter once again put things in perspective when he said:
Elder Orson F. Whitney, in a conference address, explained that many great religious leaders were inspired. He said:
[God] is using not only his covenant people, but other peoples as well, to consummate a work, stupendous, magnificent, and altogether too arduous for this little handful of Saints to accomplish by and of themselves. . . .
All down the ages men bearing the authority of the Holy Priesthood—patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and others, have officiated in the name of the Lord, doing the things that he required of them; and outside the pale of their activities other good and great men, not bearing the Priesthood, but possessing profundity of thought, great wisdom, and a desire to uplift their fellows, have been sent by the Almighty into many nations, to give them, not the fulness of the Gospel, but that portion of truth that they were able to receive and wisely use.4
Note that Elder Whitney was not merely asserting that great religious leaders like Muhammad or the Buddha were teaching the highest of human wisdom. They were persons actually sent by God to teach His children in the situations in which they lived. The teachings were for their growth, just as surely as the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are for the growth of its members. The purpose of earthly life is that all God’s children may grow to be like Jesus Christ. But there are many paths to Him, all of which Latter-day Saints believe—except their faith—are preparatory to the fulness of the gospel. Thus, Latter-day Saints clearly believe that there is a more to their faith. But it is not a more that separates us from our brothers and sisters. Rather, it draws us closer to them out of God’s love and our love for them.
How Wide is His Love?
There is a rather surprising text in the Book of Mormon, which, when read from the standpoint of Latter-day Saint relationships to persons of other faith traditions, is almost astounding. It is found in 2 Nephi 28:30; 29:11–12 and reads:
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. . . . For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written. For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.
As Latter-day Saints, we all know that we learn a little bit at a time within the spiritual realm, but do we realize that all our brothers and sisters, regardless of their religious tradition, learn in exactly the same way? Do we give sufficient attention to the fact that God will add to the wisdom that any of His children has, if they are open to truth? Remember that all people are on their own growth paths. Yours differs from mine and mine from yours, even if we are Latter-day Saints, because we are different, unique, eternal beings, just as are our brothers and sisters of other faiths. Sometimes we are open and ready for more truth; other times we are not. In other words, we are just like every one of God’s children—sometimes open and sometimes closed.
Given that very real human situation, God still has not left us alone. Thankfully, He meets us precisely where we are, not only geographically but, more importantly, spiritually. Thus, all persons, no matter where they may live, are commanded by God to write the words He speaks to them, for it is against those words that they will be judged—the words recorded in their sacred books. No one will be judged against what he or she does not know, but rather against that which God has commanded them. And what are those scriptures? Those given to the Jews is the Bible—both the Old and New Testaments—and to the Nephites is obviously the Book of Mormon. The other tribes of Israel have writings similar to the Book of Mormon that are yet to be given to us.
Most importantly for our purposes, however, is the last line, which I italicized. All nations of the world will be given the words of God, which will be recorded in sacred texts, such as the Qur’an of Muslims, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas of Hindus, the Tripitaka of Buddhists, the Analects of Confucianism, the Tao Te Ching of Taoists, the Siddhanta of Jains, the Holy Writings of Baha’is, and the Guru Granth Sahib or Sikhs. God’s words know no bounds—they cut across national, racial, and cultural boundaries. No people or civilization is without some direction from God. The excesses in the name of religion are not religious at all. They are products of sinful human beings of all religions polluting the sacred words of the divine and twisting them to selfish ends never intended by God.
“There is no question asked by human beings to which we do not have sensible answers.”
Discussant or Missionary
In July 2004, I had the opportunity to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain. The beauty of the Parliament was that people were not there to change one another but rather to understand each other. They were there to support each other in the righteous endeavors of the various faiths represented.
I find this concept of understanding another without the desire to change someone somewhat hard for some Latter-day Saints to understand. Is not every member a missionary? Did I not go to this Parliament and the one in Cape Town, South Africa, five years ago to convince people that the fulness of the gospel was the only correct faith on the face of the earth? Did I not go to show the inadequacies of all other faiths except that of the Latter-day Saints? Did I not go to demonstrate how God favors the Latter-day Saints over other faiths? The answer to these questions is an emphatic, “No!”
There is a distinct difference between interfaith relations and missionary work. In the first instance, understanding is sought. I want to walk in the shoes of my brothers or sisters of other faiths. I want to feel as much as possible the power they find in their faith traditions. In true interfaith dialogue, they will be seeking the same thing from me. They seek to understand what I have found in my own tradition. They want to know why I can or cannot do certain things, such as not drinking alcohol, smoking, or using coffee or tea. We are exploring one another’s religious experiences, and as we do, each of us discovers elements in our own faiths that we would never have seen had we not put on the spectacles of our religiously diverse neighbor.
I continue to be amazed at the richness of my own tradition, and the questions to which we have answers that I would have never realized without the study of the world’s great religions. There is no question asked by human beings to which we do not have sensible answers. Sometimes that answer is “I do not know,” but it is not only good to know what we do know, but it is just as important to know what we do not.
On the other hand, if I want to be a missionary, I will put on the “badge,” so that no one is in doubt about my purposes. As a missionary, my goal is to bless lives—all lives. I believe that the greatest blessing I can give people is baptism into the fulness of the gospel. But many are not ready for that, so I seek to move them a bit further along the spiritual path than they were the day I met them. I may make them better Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, or Presbyterians than they were when we met, because we began to talk about the spiritual things of life that had become peripheral to them. If I do this, I have been a successful missionary, for conversion to the fulness of the gospel is a process; not a moment. It is a process guided by the Holy Ghost. It may be a process of a few hours, a few months, or as in my own case, a few years. Because conversion is guided by the Holy Ghost, there is never any necessity to denigrate the faith of another person.
After all, as we have seen, God will hold all persons accountable for what He has given them. If there are errors in a faith, the Spirit will make them known to a person who is seeking greater truth. Those who attack persons of other faiths have very little belief in the Holy Ghost and His work. They feel that they can argue a person into faith, when in fact the only agent of conversion is the Spirit. This means that I can relax with my religiously diverse neighbor, share what I believe as I would with any real friend, and then depend upon the Spirit to guide that person in the uniquely tailored path that God has for that person.
Consequently, given my commission and role at any given moment, I must decide whether I seek dialogue and understanding, or whether I wish overtly to invite a person to consider an alternative to his or her current faith. As the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding, sometimes I have simply built friendships, at other times I engaged in a dialogue, while in other instances I have invited a person to consider joining my faith. Each is a facet through which God blesses the human family. None is exclusive of the others.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions
Running throughout the Parliament of the World’s Religions, regardless of the religion of the speaker, was an emphasis on globalization. Virtually all persons present came with an awareness that today whatever happens on one side of the globe affects the other side. We live in a small village, albeit one that covers the earth. Isolationism and colonialism are no longer options in our tiny world. To survive, to have the human race continue as a species, we as citizens of this global village must learn to live together, to work together, and perhaps most importantly, to talk together.
Speaker after speaker condemned violence, no matter what its excuse, especially if that excuse was religious. Some of the most impassioned pleas against violence came from Muslims. As a matter of fact, I found the Muslim speakers to be some of the most spiritually motivated speakers at the Parliament. I remember one Imam beginning his comments with the statement, “There can be no interfaith dialogue if the persons involved do not bring their faith to the table.” Yes, I found persons of deep and profound faith at the Parliament. I found persons who clearly knew the same God that I did. They might have called him by a different name or worshiped him in a different way, but their lives mirrored their faith, and in their lives I saw my God.
Compassion for people in the extremities of need permeated the Parliament’s atmosphere. As noted, this was a conference that stressed globalization. The suffering of our brothers and sisters across the world could not be ignored. We cannot worship God and watch our neighbor starve. We cannot offer a message of gospel hope when the most immediate need is food, potable water, or the healing of a disease like AIDS. Many times there is no access to the soul of a person until the temple in which the soul dwells has been strengthened and cleansed. King Benjamin was right when he said, “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).
“All of us, no matter what our religious traditions, know good when we see it.”
And service was very apparent in Barcelona, particularly as it was rendered by the Sikhs, who came from all parts of Europe, specifically England, simply to provide at no cost approximately 3,000 meals each day to anyone who wished to participate in the community meal known as “Langar.” Sikhs believe that there are three ways to get closer to God: 1) service; 2) meditation; and 3) the community of enlightened beings. We certainly saw the community out in force. We saw their spiritual commitment as we spoke with them and visited the Gurdwara (temple) that they had constructed and listened to readings from their sacred texts and watched the devotion of those in attendance.
Service was most clearly rendered through the preparation and service of noon meals each day of the conference. Participants sat in long lines while workers moved amongst them serving food. Upon entering the area, people were required to remove their shoes. Upon leaving, they would put them back on, but I wonder how many noticed an elderly gentleman quietly moving between the rows of shoe racks carefully cleaning each pair of shoes with a cloth as an act of personal service to others.
A high point for me was the opportunity to hear Jane Goodall, best known for her work with chimpanzees, speak passionately about the need to preserve the ecological integrity of this fragile globe we call home. In her lifetime, she has seen this ecosystem, of which we are a part, deteriorate badly. Thousands upon thousands of species of life, all of them created by God, have disappeared forever from this earth, largely because of the greed and violence perpetrated by earth’s inhabitants who are supposed to be the most intelligent of its life forms. Fields are plowed under to build mansions. Rain forests are destroyed to produce short-term crops. Whole rivers are destroyed in the frantic search for gold. Beaches are fouled by oil spills—the list is endless. The self-centeredness of many of this world was summed up by a professor from a major American university who quoted a student’s response to the information that almost 2,000 species of life vanish from this 10 earth yearly. He said, “What difference does that make to me? I will go to Wall Street and make my millions and be on easy street.” This seems all too characteristic of the “me generation” which does not even project their thoughts ahead to the environment they are leaving their own children and grandchildren.
One final person should be mentioned. In April 2004, Sulak Sivaraksa came to BYU’s campus to share his thoughts on engaged Buddhism. He spoke in public forum at the Kennedy Center, but some of us in Religious Education had the opportunity to meet in a small, casual group setting with him. The first thing I noticed about him was something about which much of this article speaks. He wanted first to know something about us as Latter-day Saints. We had come to sit at the feet of a world-renown Buddhist scholar and to learn from him. He, on the other hand, asked to know about us. Once he knew something of our thoughts on issues, then he could address us on things important to him in a language that touched our hearts and souls. He sought dialogue, not merely the one-way street of lecture. When he did speak, he helped us understand that religion must be engaged in the issues of the world. His particular tradition is Buddhism, a tradition of profound spiritual dimensions, but one that he feels is sometimes not sufficiently engaged with the issues of human life. As he presented that message as part of a panel at the Parliament, it was clear that not all Buddhists were as ready to be engaged in today’s political, economic, and social issues as was Sulak.
At the Parliament, religious people came together for ten days from all parts of the world to celebrate both their unity and their diversity. We discovered so many things we shared in common. We shared so many hopes for an equitable, violence-free world. We each returned committed to make our own communities a more vibrant part of the global village. We recommitted ourselves to working together, even with our differences, for a better world that would reflect the God who made it and us. We also rejoiced in our diversity. The things that were different were just as important as those that were held in common. It is the differences that make us who we are. The differences make me a Latter-day Saint, and my friends Baha’is, Muslims, Quakers, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. How terribly uninteresting the world would be without such beautiful diversity.
Religion and Life
Where, then, do religion and life meet in our global village? They meet on our streets, in our backyards, in our houses of worship, in our prisons, in our hospitals and mental institutions, at our borders, amongst our “illegal” aliens, in our schools, in the military, in the houses of Parliament, in the voting booths, in the halls of justice, and wherever else human beings live and work. Most religions, when lived as they were originally taught, are tolerant, open, compassionate, and humble. But human beings have all too often superimposed cultural biases on what God has given, thereby diluting and adulterating what was good and beautiful. It is imperative in our global village that we seek to return to our roots, our true roots, reflecting the truths which God has given to our various founders. Mormon said it well in Moroni 7:12–13:
Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually. But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.
All of us, no matter what our religious traditions, know good when we see it. There was so much good present in Barcelona at the Parliament that the Spirit was palpably present. It could be felt everywhere as Baha’is, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, Jains, Jews, Confucianists, Shintoists, and numerous less well known faiths met together in moments of common celebration before the One they understood to be Ultimate. Perhaps a bit more of that global spirit can permeate each day on this campus of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so that the “world may truly be our campus.”
In conclusion, let me quote the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley:
I plead with our people everywhere to live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. We must not be partisans of any doctrine of ethnic superiority. We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree. We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry.
I call attention to these striking words of Joseph Smith spoken in 1843:
If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a ‘Mormon,’ I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination (History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 498).5
1. Spier, Peter. People, Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1980, last six pages.
2. Kimball, Spencer W. First Presidency Statement, 15 February 1978, quoted in Asay, Carlos E. “God’s Love for Mankind,” Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer, Religious Studies Monograph Series, no. 8, Provo, UT, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1983, p. 208.
3. Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., 1949, reprint, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1970, vol. 4, pp. 595–96; quoted in Hunter, Howard W. “The Gospel— A Global Faith,” Ensign, November 1991, p. 18.
4. Ibid. Hunter. Elder Whitney’s remarks first appeared in Conference Report, Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1921, pp. 32–33. Italics added.
5. Hinckley, Gordon B. Conference Report, Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1995, pp. 94–95.