“For behold, 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; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.” – Alma 29:8
I have come to believe that a very key aspect of the “condescension of God” is not embodied only in the coming of the Divine into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
When it comes to bringing hope into the world, when it comes to teaching humanity about who we are, and what our relationship is to each other, when it comes to helping us progress in our journey to achieve that fullness of Joy that God desires humanity to achieve, I find it hard to believe that the form of the message is equal in importance in the here and now to the substance of the teaching and learning process.
Non-exclusivity of Spiritual Experience
People ask all the time, knowing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ unique claims concerning Truth and Authority, what one makes of sacred spiritual experiences and progression that occur in the context of other faiths.
My answer, clear and simple, is that I see no reason why those experiences would not be extremely valid, or even edifying and beneficial. Even if at that time they reinforce a dedication to a different faith than that which I have recognized as “True”.
As we began to look around, we were informed that a Mass was about to begin. Instead of leaving, we decided to stick around, and participate in the Mass – something neither of us had taken the opportunity to do before.
The service progressed, beautiful hymns were sung, the Eucharist was presented, a thoughtful homily was given, and prayers were offered. As it came to a close, my wife and I sat there, stunned. We looked at each other. My wife spoke first, voicing that what has just ended had been an amazing and very spiritual experience.
Her words expressed exactly my thoughts on the matter.
Now, that acknowledgement didn’t mean we thought that Catholicism somehow trumped the truth-claims of our own faith, or had any impact on how we understood the significance of spiritual experience from elements of our own religious tradition.
In fact, at that moment, there wasn’t an iota of comparison in our thoughts. It was simply an acknowledgement that in that Mass, connected with the way our minds and thoughts were directed and our intentions, God was present with us. He was making himself manifest in the symbols and words and lives of those around us.
The service was directed at helping us as individuals to become better, to give hope, to strive for something greater, all the while recognizing our weaknesses, and need for assistance – and the fact that that this essential assistance is made manifest to us in so many forms by God – specifically and most often by God working through the lives of others.
And I am convinced that the Catholics worshipping there in heart and mind, were able to feel something equivalent to the same spiritual edification I had felt in their place of worship.
Loyal Servants of the Unknown God
I believe strongly that if individuals are working towards humility, seeking to learn, and seeking to better the lives of others, God will use them, and use their surroundings, context, and understanding to help guide them.
God will not be found in individuals who are seeking to use their culture or religious tradition as an excuse to raise oneself up above another, or to tear another down.
He can be found in those who are sacrificing and serving to make life better for others. As much as they would resist the concept, I see God at work with many extremely humble and good Atheists/Secular Humanists.
As popularized most recently among Latter-day Saints in Elder Dallin Oaks’ General Conference Address, I too acknowledge degrees of Good, Better, and Best when it comes to one’s choice of and activity in religions and faith traditions.
However, I don’t assume that for everyone, at every moment of time, that the Church I associate myself with is always the Best for that individual in that particular stage of their life.
I am convinced that I learned valuable lessons, and had important life-building experiences that I personally needed growing up that would not have happened if I had been born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I am extraordinarily grateful I am where I am now. I have grown in numerous and powerful ways as a direct result of embracing and living the mission and practical teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am taught and am caused to grow daily by reflection on the additional scriptures, and participation in the rituals, culture, and structure that it has brought to my life. It has truly served to bind my family together in more than one sacred way. It has brought me joy.
It is my responsibility to invite all to learn and experience the Gospel of Christ as expressed through this living Church, to offer the opportunity to experience the growth, joy, and peace that I have experienced.
Yet I recognize that not all are there. Not all would progress or be taught at the level they need to by immediately jumping into the LDS Baptismal font.
I want to make very, very clear that this doesn’t mean that I view those of other philosophies or religious traditions who don’t immediately accept the teachings of my Church as somehow underdeveloped in their spirituality or personal progress.
There are so many individuals of other faiths and philosophies whose ethic, drive, humility and charity I desire to emulate, and raise myself up to. It’s what Krister Stendahl called “Holy Envy” – the ability to recognize good and desirable elements resulting from other traditions without needing to denigrate, depreciate, or disparage one’s own.
My job isn’t to judge, my job is to invite, and to help find those whose lives are at the point where they would most benefit from what the Church offers.
That doesn’t make those who reject the invitation Bad People.
It doesn’t mean they are selfish.
It doesn’t mean they are rejecting God.
It doesn’t mean they are part of the “Church of the Devil”.
While there are indeed individuals who may accurately fall into each of those categories, they are, for the most part, the exceptions that prove the rule.
I do believe that there will be a time where “Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess” the Lordship and Salvation that comes through Christ. But I also believe there is a very good chance that many who are kneeling and confessing will have come to know Him and serve Him in a different way than we are generally accustomed to thinking.
The Emeth Principle
I love the powerful – and I believe true – insight in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, when the character of Emeth, who had spent his life in service to Tash – a distorted counterfeit Lord, who in many aspects was in opposition to Aslan, the True Lord – appears at last before Aslan, and recognizes the real nature of him as the true Lord.
At that moment, Tash becomes afraid. In his words, “I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. “
But instead of being Angry, Aslan approaches with love.
“[T]he Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead… and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”
While Aslan made very clear that he was not equating himself with Tash, who advocated many practices that were decidedly not in accordance with his will, the Lion lovingly explained, ”I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if a man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.”
This rings powerfully true to me.
Based on my experience and understanding of Scripture, I do not believe that God is nearly as interested in what information we know as He is in what we are becoming.
It is well known among Latter-day Saints how President Kimball changed the lyrics on I Am A Child of God from an exhortation of “teach me all that I must know” to “teach me all that I must do” in order to experience the Joy of Eternal Life.
It’s not a matter of a checklist – it’s a matter of tempering our habits, behaviors, and desires – and seeking and relying on assistance from the Almighty to turn our weaknesses into sacred, practical strengths.
I do believe that in course of time, the information and errors we may hold to – even fervently – will be sorted out, and any and all of the many erroneous conceptions we hold will be burned away.
But what I am conviced will remain is who we are, and who we have become.
And I believe He will be there for all with “real intent” – as Aslan was for Emeth – to continue to lovingly provide all that we need to become New Creations, and to participate in the Joy that is in that Eternal Life of which we are all invited to partake.