“Theology of religions” has been a particularly pressing concern in Christian thought since at least the middle of the twentieth century. The term refers to the effort to make theological sense of other religions. It involves questions like, from the perspective of a Christian, is God involved in other religions, or are they merely human constructions? Is Christianity the only true faith–and if so, why hasn’t God revealed it to everyone? As I’ve posted about before, theologians often speak of three general approaches to the problem: exclusivism (Christianity is the one true faith and there is no way to salvation outside of membership in it), inclusivism (only Christ can save, but explicit belief in or knowledge of Christ is not necessarily required for this to happen), and pluralism (there are multiple true paths and ways to salvation, and Christianity is only one of them.)
I’ve often thought about what an LDS theology of religions might look like. I see two general approaches to other faiths in LDS discourse. The first is the kind you find in the language of the First Vision, when the Lord informs Joseph Smith that “they were all wrong” and “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (JS-H 1:19). In this approach, things are fairly clear-cut: the LDS church is right, and everyone else is wrong. This seemed to be the orientation of many early Church leaders. I wouldn’t say it has entirely disappeared–you still hear the occasional snarky comment or put-down of other faiths at church–but I don’t think it’s terribly common these days.
What is far more common now, I think, is the viewpoint that all religions have truth in them–but only the LDS faith has all the truth. I’ve heard this explained with the analogy of a piano. Other churches have various keys (and are therefore able to make at least some music), but we’re the only ones to possess the complete set. This perspective is reflected in statements encouraging those of other faiths not to abandon the truth they already possess, but to bring it with them and let us add to it.
I definitely think the second viewpoint is an improvement on the first; I doubt that most people who’ve spent any serious time involved with other religious traditions would argue that they lack any kind of value or truth. However, I’m not entirely comfortable even with what I might refer to as the “kinder, gentler exclusivism” reflected in this second approach. These are some of my concerns:
–To truly respect other religions, I think we need to view them on their own terms, rather than understanding them solely in relation to us. I’m wary of the notion that other faiths can be seen as, in essence, less developed versions of ourselves. Catholicism or Buddhism are rich religious traditions in their own right; to view them only as proto-Mormons who possess some but not all of our truths strikes me as a rather impoverished approach.
–I’m not entirely sure what the “only true Church” claim means. However, I suspect that it’s primarily a claim about authority. We believe that we have the exclusive authority to perform necessary ordinances; we assert a kind of monopoly on the rites of salvation. When it comes to eternal truths, on the other hand, I don’t see a clear basis for believing that we currently have all truth; things like the last clause in the Ninth Article of faith (“we believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God”) would suggest otherwise. I think this opens up at least the possibility that we could find truths in other religions which we don’t yet have. But if we cling to the model in which others learn from us (but never vice versa), we might miss seeing them.
From the perspective of LDS teachings, I’m actually not sure that being a member of the LDS church in this life is really all that important, broadly speaking (though obviously it might be tremendously important in the lives of particular individuals). For one thing, we believe that everyone will have the chance at some point to accept the gospel. And if Church membership were a crucial part of our existence here in mortality, it’s hard to believe that the opportunity to join the Church would be limited to such a tiny fraction of all the humans who’ve ever lived. The vast majority of God’s children are apparently getting whatever experiences they need from mortality without membership in the Church–and I believe in a God who speaks to and is involved in the lives of all his children, a view I find supported in such scriptures as “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8).
With this framework in mind, I wonder whether it might be possible to construct an LDS theology of religions which combines exclusivist and pluralist elements. The exclusivism would lie in the claim that certain ordinances are required for salvation, and God has not authorized anyone else to perform them. Yet such an assertion need not translate into exclusivist claims regarding revelation, or possession of truth, or even the notion that one’s religious tradition has been established by God to play a particular role in furthering his purposes.
This is where I’m coming from: I live surrounded by devout people of other faiths, and I find it tremendously difficult to believe that all of them would be better off as Mormons. And so I find myself wondering–what if other faiths aren’t merely inferior glimpses of the truth that Latter-day Saints possess in full splendor, but instead are unique and valuable visions of that truth in their own right? What if God is using other faiths to further his work? And is it possible from an LDS perspective to believe that God does not actually intend for everyone to be a member of the LDS church, that he might call some people to follow other paths in this life?
- 25 February 2007