Thursday, July 9, 2015

Respect for Others' Beliefs--George's Post

1.    Respect for Others’ Beliefs

The Mormon claim of doctrinal primacy squarely raises the question as to whether Mormons respect, or can find a way to respect, the beliefs, faithfulness and spiritual experiences of non-Mormons.  Or do Mormons, as a matter of doctrinal necessity, regard all other Christian denominations as suspect, devoid of spirituality, contaminated by the wisdom and sophistries of men, and view their members as having spiritual experiences qualitatively different than those experienced by faithful Mormons.   Of course, the institutional distrust between the Mormon Church and other Christian denominations may not spill over to affect how Mormons view the potential spirituality of nonmembers.   Many members of other Christian groups do not know what their churches teach or, to the extent they do, they often embrace views not considered orthodox.  For example, I doubt most Christians have much understanding of, or even accept, the co-substantiality aspect of the Nicene Creed.[1]  Many think of the Godhead as separate beings, much in the same way as Mormons.  Many are comfortable with the notion of eternal families, even though that concept is not generally accepted by other Christian faiths.  And even if they are not consciously aware of it, often they hold beliefs more in line with Mormon doctrines than those of their own churches.  This is part of the reason the message of the restored gospel finds traction with many.
As one considers this question, it is should be noted that the Mormon rhetoric as to non-Mormons, and their churches, has softened and appears to be increasingly less adversarial in recent years.[2]  This may be thought of as the byproduct of the Mormon Church’s becoming more mainstream, enhancing its desire to establish more cordial relationships with other Christian groups and to dampen interfaith hostilities.  With the Mormon Church’s increased visibility, Mormons may be more comfortable with their own beliefs and less likely to be defensive, increasing their openness to understanding the commitments and beliefs of others, however divergent.  But it is also likely that this softening, to the extent it has occurred, grows out of a more mature understanding of Mormon Church doctrine elucidating the relationship between God and all of his children, wherever they may live and whatever they may believe.  The doctrines discussed below are not new, but instead have been fundamental parts of Mormon orthodoxy from the beginning of the Mormon Church in the early 1830s.  If they are now construed in a way striking a more conciliatory or sensitive tone toward the beliefs of others than those expressed in earlier statements on the same issues, it should be understood to be more a matter of relative emphasis than the result of doctrinal changes.  
Without question, and despite the differences in belief, Mormon missionaries should always exercise their proselyting zeal in way respectful of the rights of others to believe and worship as they choose right for themselves.  God wants and expects men everywhere to seek Him,[3] for all things witness of God and His majesty, even if the signs of God’s presence are not often recognized.[4]  Many, now and in the past, have sought to find God, to establish a proper way of worship, and to draw near unto Him, as evidenced by the many faiths present in the world.  Most of the world’s religious worshippers do not believe as do members of the Mormon Church.  Hence, the Church expects, and counsels, its missionaries and members to be respectful of the rights of others to worship as and when they see fits.  This belief is a corollary to the right claimed by Mormons to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience.   
What does it mean to be respectful of the rights of others to worship freely as they wish?  In a narrow sense, it is the right of free worship as clearly set forth in the Church’s 11th Article of Faith, which reads: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”  Although the 11th Article is silent on this point, there is surely an implicit qualification to this right of worship—it is predicated upon the assumption that the manner in which one worships does not impinge upon the lawful rights of others. 
But the respectfulness required is more than that implied by this narrow legalistic definition.  It requires of Mormons, members and missionaries alike, to treat others, as relates to their right to worship, with the same courtesies that we would like extended to ourselves by those of other religions or persuasions.   This is nothing more than a specific application of the general principle announced by the Savior in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  Matt. 7: 12.  Members, when speaking of others’ beliefs, should not distort those beliefs.  Mormons are puzzled and frequently offended, rightfully so, by the claims that they are not Christian, just because they do not accept the historical description of the nature of the Godhead, emerging out of the several church conferences convened in the fourth century A.D., and as expressed in the several versions of the Nicene Creed.[5]   Under Mormon doctrine, God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are distinct personages—not of “one substance”—but instead are one in that they are unified in purpose and aim.  That the “oneness of the Father and Son” is to be understood symbolically, as oneness of purpose, intent, heart, and mind, and not as a physical oneness—Mormon find supported in various scriptures in the New Testament.  “And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee, Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou has given me, that they may be one, as we are.”  John 17: 11.  “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”  John 17: 21.  Mormons believe their conception of the godhead is canonical and supported by the weight of the scriptures and modern-day prophecy. 
Mormons do not appreciate it when their beliefs, faith and practices are mocked or ridiculed by others, whether in the press, by other forms of public media, or by friends, neighbors and acquaintances.  And, of course, Mormons should not belittle, mock, or speak ill of the beliefs, faith and practices of others.  This does not mean that Mormons cannot point out differences in belief or worship or state the reasons why we hold the beliefs we have or worship as we do, even if those beliefs or practices differ, perhaps radically, from those held by others.  It may, on occasion, be necessary to state that we consider the beliefs or practices of others to be wrong, historically inaccurate, contaminated by worldly influences, indeed, in some cases, even harmful.  The discussion should however been civil, free from the contentiousness so prevalent in modern discourse. 
Mormons want others to respect the strength of their beliefs and commitments, even if they do not share them.  Likewise, Mormons should also be willing to recognize the goodness of others and acknowledge the truths they espouse.  This theme has received repeated emphasis in the recent past, and is consistent with the Mormon doctrine that the restored gospel is special inasmuch as it contains the “fulness” of the gospel, untainted by historical heresies or colored by the wisdom of men, but pure and unadulterated as revealed through modern day revelation.  Mormons should, and usually do, acknowledge that many Christian (and even non-Christian) churches teach much of what we believe and have faithful members striving to do their best, trying to live Christ-centered lives in accordance with the moral principles taught by the Savior.  Many believe in God, consider all to be children of a common creator, accept Christ as the savior, and recognize the atonement as the only path to salvation.  Many others, Christian and non-Christian, accept the centrality of “doing” good to all men, treating each as our neighbor and brother.  We should celebrate the common beliefs we have with others, and praise their good works and faithfulness.[6]  This is not to lose sight of the uniqueness of the Mormon message—Mormons claim to have the “fulness” of the gospel,[7] that builds upon the truths held and understood by other Christian churches and that provides correction to certain doctrines corrupted through passage of time and possibly evil intent.  Through the restoration of priesthood keys has come the power and authority to act in God’s name not previously available; the existence of modern day prophecy; the publication of new scriptures; the power to perform sacred ordinances, including temple sealings, allowing husbands and wives, and parents and their children, to be sealed together in eternal relationships.  Mormons hold to the belief that these truths, if embraced, will bring even greater joy and happiness to good Christians everywhere.  Since Mormons believe the gospel circumscribes all truth, they should be open to embracing truth wherever it may be found, and in whatever guise it may take, even if unfamiliar to them. 
There is yet one more way in which Mormons need to be respectful of other religious people—Christian and non-Christian alike—Mormons need to be ready to acknowledge that others have had, and are entitled to receive in the future, spiritual experiences as genuine and real as their own.   These experiences may be received by both the leaders and members of other faiths.  And just as Mormons may enjoy the blessings of righteous living, feel the promptings of the Spirit, receive answers to prayers, be the recipients of peace and comfort in times of trial, and be blessed with enlightenment, so may others, of different faiths, to the extent that they are faithful, seek God, and act with real intent.  Nonmembers’ experiences are not qualitatively different than those experienced by Mormons, and emanate from the same sources—from the influence of the light of Christ[8] and the promptings of the Holy Ghost[9]--even though the individuals having the experiences hold different beliefs and even if they may have drawn different conclusions from the experiences they have had. 
At the core of religious experiences are “feelings,” strong, tender, passionate, heartfelt, some kept private, others shared.  They are feelings about our place in the universe: whether we are important or of worth; whether there is purpose to life; the terror and fear of death and the yawning unknown; emptiness, loneliness or despair that may be felt if life is thought to be without purpose; --feelings about reaching out to God: whether God is mindful of us; whether prayers are answers; whether we feel comforted or inspired; concerns about being alone or at the mercy of others, living without hope or comfort;--feelings about family and loved ones: the ache of loss, pain of separation, tenderness towards a mother; guilt or shame about how we have treated family or those close to us; feelings of anger, bitterness, and hostility towards parents due to abusiveness, mistreatment, neglect; --the heavy burdens we carry about our mistakes, sins, shortcomings: the paralyzing feelings of guilt, shame, remorse; the desire to be cleansed and to make redress, to put behind us the burdens of the past and move on.  If we are to communicate with others about our religious experiences, we must be able to share those innermost, tender feelings with them or at least have the confidence that they are sensitive to our feelings, and recognize them for what they are—our innermost urgings and efforts, feeble though they may be, to connect with God.    No communication is possible, if those feelings, impressions and beliefs are treated as though they were counterfeit, false, suspect.
Accepting the validity of others’ spiritual blessings and experiences may, at first blush, appear difficult for some Mormons to accept—since it appears to undercut the Mormon Church’s core claim of being the one and only true Church upon the earth.  Does not God’s revelation and spiritual blessing flow through His ordained leaders on the earth—is not that the purpose of placing special priesthood keys in the hands of men specially called of God.  God is not a god of confusion, so how may such experiences be received by those with such different beliefs.  Does this not invalidate or, at least, bring into question the origin of the experiences? 
First of all, before addressing that salient question, it is imperative to make two critical distinctions.  We are not talking about spiritual experiences that are claimed as the basis for pronouncing “doctrine” for the body of the church, nor are we positing that all who claim to have spiritual experiences have in fact been touched by the Spirit.  There are those who lie, are misled, have weak minds and are easily deceived, may intentionally seek to take advantage of others or to get gain by claiming for themselves experiences that they have not had.  There are even those who may have been corrupted or possessed by what the scriptures call “evil spirits.”  I am not speaking of those.   Instead, I am talking of those individuals, irrespective of faith, who are of sound mind, act with sincerity, seek to do good as they understand the “good to be,” exercise faith in whatever being they worship, and ask or seek the blessings of the God to protect themselves and their families (in short, those who act with “real intent” for righteous purposes).  Is it easy to ascertain whether individuals fall within these perimeters?  Not necessarily.  It no doubt requires the ability to discern spirits, a spiritual gift recognized in the scriptures, but not one bestowed upon all.[10] 
There are probably few instances (or at least fewer than we might imagine),[11] where it is necessary for us (those not having the experiences) to pass judgment as to whether the experiences claimed by others are “genuine”—real, believable, inspired of God, have been perceived or understood accurately.  Mormons should be open to the spiritual experiences of others whenever they testify of Christ, lead to “good” behavior, and are personal in nature—not espoused as grounds for making doctrinal pronouncements.  It is generally sufficient that we acknowledge the presence of those experiences and they have had a powerful influence for good upon those touched.  Absent compelling reasons to the contrary, we should generally give them the benefit of the doubt in the same way we expect them to do the same for us. 
The scriptures give guidance for “testing” the validity of spiritual experiences.  There are three primary keys for testing whether a spiritual experience is genuine, reliable, and may be counted upon--meaning it comes from God.  First, the Spirit testifies that Jesus is the Christ.  All that persuades men to believe in Christ is “sent forth by the power and gift of Christ.”[12]  In contrast, anything that leads men to “believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God” is of the devil.[13]  The second test is whether the spiritual experience “inviteth to do good” or “to do evil.”  “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ,; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.”  Moroni 7: 16.  Of course, there has been much confusion about what is good.  The Apostle Paul gives concrete examples, when comparing the differences between the “fruits of the spirit” and the “works of the flesh,”[14] and constitutes a guide for judging whether the influences one is subject to are from God or other sources.  Third, Mormons believe that “doctrinal” statements--applicable to the Mormon Church at large—only come through those holding proper priesthood keys.[15]  The absence of such priesthood keys has been the source of the doctrinal confusion plaguing Christendom. 

[1] See the discussion below under “___________.”
[2] Historically, the Mormon Church has not been nearly as “defensive” about its doctrines and practices as one might expect.  It has not fought “fire with fire,” has no anti-defamation league to protect the Mormon Church, and has often ignored criticisms directed at the Mormon Church and its leaders.  The thought is often expressed that the critics of the Mormon Church will just wear themselves out, and the Mormon Church, ordained as it is by God, will go forth in the face of the opposition and rancor of others.
[3] “But if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.”   Deut. 4: 29.  See, e.g., Psalms 8; 1 Ne. 10: 17.
[4] “But Alma said unto him:  Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God?  Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets?  The scriptures are laid before thee, year, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of the it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the plant which move in their regular form do witness that there is a a Supreme Creator.”  Alma 30: 44.
[5] While Mormons have little difficulty accepting most statements in the Nicene Creed, Mormons do not believe in the co-substantiality of God the Father and the Son.  The objectionable phrase is the italised phrase in the following text from the Nicene Creed as set forth in the First Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.): “…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of Son before all worlds (aeons), Light of Light, very God of very God, not made, being of one substance with the Father….”  The first formulation of the Nicene Creed (321 A.D.) includes identical language as it relates to the co-substantiality between Father and Son:  “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
[6] The 13th Article of Faith reads: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things and hope to be able to endure all things.  If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
[7] “And now, the thing which our father meaneth concerning the grafting in of the natural branches through the fulness of the Gentiles, is, that in the latter days, when our seed shall have dwindled in unbelief, yea, for the space of many years, and many generations after the Messiah shall be manifested in body unto the children of men, then shall the fulness of the gospel of the Messiah come unto the Gentiles, and from the Gentiles unto the remnant of our seed.”  1 Ne. 15: 13.  See also 3 Ne. 16: 4; D&C 27: 5.
[8] The light of Christ is a gift to all men, without distinction, and enables men to distinguish between good and evil. See, e.g., John 1: 9; John 8: 12; D&C 84: 46.
[9] Men may also be touched by the promptings of the Holy Ghost, the third personage in the Godhead.  The Holy Ghost reveals truth, gives comfort, prompts men to do good, gives assurance that what men have done is pleasing to God.  Mormon missionaries frequently point us to nonmembers the iconic promise extended in the Book of Mormon, assuring them that they may learn from themselves the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon by petitioning God.  “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.  And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”  Mor. 10: 4-5.  Mormon also distinguish between the promptings of the Holy Ghost, which may be felt by all men, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, conferred only after one has been baptized as a Mormon by a duly-authorized priesthood bearer.  The gift of the Holy Ghost entitles one to the presence of the Holy as long as one is living worthily.  However, even though noting this distinction, Mormons do not attempt to define with precision the different channels through which spiritual promptings come—whether the feelings received are attributable to the workings of the light of Christ, the Holy Ghost (but not pursuant to the gift of the Holy Ghost), or pursuant to the gift of the Holy Ghost.  Such matters are beyond our abilities of discernment. 
[10] See, e.g., 1 Cor. 12: 4-11.
[11] Certainly there are occasions when Mormon Church leaders must judge whether individuals have had the experiences they claim for the purpose of protecting Church doctrines. 
[12] See, e.g., Moroni 7: 16.
[13] See, e.g., Moroni 7: 17.
[14] See, for example, Gal. 5: 16-26.
[15] See, for example, D&C 132: 7.  “… and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred.”