He That is Not Against Us is For Us—One Mormon’s Perspective on Interfaith Work

Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a child, and set him by him, and said unto them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.

And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us. (Luke 9:46-50.)

jesus-and-the-little-children-medium

Image from LDS.org

In a world fraught with polarization, violence, and distrust of that which is different from us, it is often tempting to focus on the Savior’s phrase “He that is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30), rather than the saying “he that is not against us is for us.” This is very apparent in the field of religion and religious differences, where people argue about which religion is the greatest in the eyes of Deity and often resort to force to make their point. As such, we live in a world where religion causes violence as much as it creates peace. In the United States alone, we’ve seen shootings that targeted Christians, like the one in Oregon last year reportedly did; shootings by a Christian targeting an abortion clinic in Colorado; radicalized Muslims engaging in violent attacks from time to time; and so forth. On the global scene, we see the ongoing conflicts and attacks caused by the ISIS in the Middle East and elsewhere, tensions in Northern Ireland that crystalize over Anglican-Catholic conflicts, and Christian-Muslim conflicts that have exploded into in civil wars in a few African countries.

Divides caused by religion carry over in smaller, less violent ways as well. I remember as a child that I lived near a Catholic school. Since we lived so close, my Mom would take my sister and me over to their playground to play. One day, however, another child who was there wouldn’t play with me. When I asked him why he would not, he simply told me that it was because I was a Mormon and his mom told him that I was going hell. That’s not to say that I was any better as a child—in the fourth grade, when a Hispanic boy told me that he was Catholic, I told him that his religion was “the great and abominable church,” referring to a private interpretation I had heard of a vision in the Book of Mormon. He got very defensive and upset, telling me that his church wasn’t “the great boom-boom church” I was saying it was. While not in any way as serious or devastating as the religious conflicts mentioned above, these events from my childhood were still not very pleasant and reflect some of the same mentality that, when taken to an extreme, results in more serious problems.

All this being said, is it possible to reach across divides and gain a better understanding of people who we don’t see eye to eye with on religious and philosophical ideas? Can we do that because of our religion rather than doing it in spite of religious convictions? I believe we can. In my own life, I’ve come a long way since the fourth grade. I’m currently going to college at Utah State University in Logan, Utah and I’m involved in the USU Interfaith Student Association; I ring in an interfaith handbell choir operated by the Presbyterian Church in downtown Logan; I have friends, relatives, and associates from a variety of religious backgrounds (Christians, Muslims, Jews, and agnostics mostly); while still remaining a devoted and active Mormon. Through many of these groups I’ve had some great opportunities to experience firsthand what happens when people reach across the divide to build understanding and friendship rather than division and distrust. For this reason, the words of one of my religious leaders—Dieter F. Uchtdorf—resonate deeply with me:

The effort to throw off traditions of distrust and pettiness and truly see one another with new eyes—to see each other not as aliens or adversaries but as fellow travelers, brothers and sisters, and children of God—is one of the most challenging while at the same time most rewarding and ennobling experiences of our human existence. . . .

This conviction and resolve to overcome our lower instincts and truly love all mankind regardless of race, religion, political ideology, and socioeconomic circumstances is one of the grand objectives of our human existence.

It is the essence of pure religion.

It may not be an easy thing to do.

But it is worth doing, and we can do it.[1]

Dieter F. Uchtdorf Throw of distrust is rewarding Interfaith

To answer the question, “Can we be inspired by our religion to reach across the religious divides?” I would like take a look into my own religion—Mormonism—to discuss how I am inspired by my religion to engage in interfaith work. As a framework to my remarks, I’d like to refer to a statement by Eboo Patel—an influential leader of the interfaith movement in the United States—about what is necessary for someone to successfully become an interfaith leader: “You need three basic things to be an interfaith leader . . . vision, knowledge base and skill set—all towards the end of creating spaces where people from different faith backgrounds come together to build understanding and to cooperate.”[2]

  1. Vision

In explaining his statement, Eboo Patel said that the vision is “the idea that people from different religions ought to come together to build cooperation. That’s not to be taken for granted. A lot of people who believe in the clash of civilizations believe that different religious identities are inherently opposed to each other. So the first thing you need to be an interfaith leader is a framework that understanding and cooperation is possible.”[3]

Over the years, LDS Church leaders have indicated that they have caught this vision and want members of the Church to carry it out. I’ll highlight a few examples below.

By the end of his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith (1805-1844) indicated that he wanted to engage in positive, interfaith-like ways with other Christian denominations. He taught that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism”[4]—a significant statement, given that he only used the term “fundamental principle of Mormonism” to describe two other things—a belief in Jesus the Christ’s resurrection, and the search for truth. He also made it clear that this friendship was meant to extend to people of many different faiths. For example, in July of 1843, he taught that:

The inquiry is frequently made of me, “Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?” In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.

We believe in the Great Elohim who sits enthroned in yonder heavens. So do the Presbyterians. If a skillful mechanic, in taking a welding heat, uses borax, alum, etc., and succeeds in welding together iron or steel more perfectly than any other mechanic, is he not deserving of praise? And if by the principles of truth I succeed in uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love, shall I not have attained a good object?

If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way. Do you believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation which he revealed? So do I. Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst.[5]

Joseph Smith Drink into one Love Interfaith

With the goal of “uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love,” Joseph Smith was suggesting that Mormonism could not only participate, but also become leaders in interfaith work. His belief that “Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst” is a core idea behind such interfaith efforts, though it is extended beyond the circle of Christianity to all of the world’s religions in today’s global world.

We also see in the Prophet’s statement above an expanded view of the church or kingdom of God on earth that encourages greater cooperation between people of various faiths. He stated that “we could all drink into one principle of love.” The only place in our scriptures that uses the phrase “drink into one” is Paul’s discussion of the “body of Christ”:

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13.)

If Joseph Smith was intending to make a passing reference to Paul’s epistle, he may have been suggesting that Christian churches, uniting together in love, could be viewed collectively as the body of Christ—often understood to be the Church of Christ. This wasn’t a suggestion that all Christian churches should lose all denominational distinctions and blend into one institution—for example, the Prophet maintained that Mormonism had priesthood authority and truths that other Christian denominations did not have. Instead, it seems to be a suggestion that disciples of Christ inside or outside of any individual religion could be considered a part of Christ’s larger following or church.

More recent LDS Church leaders have continued to call upon Church members to practice respect and love with people from different faith traditions. The current president of the Church—Thomas S. Monson—said that “We have a responsibility . . . to work cooperatively with other churches and organizations. My objective there is . . . that we eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute it or the strength of people working together.”[6]

Thomas S. Monson Interfaith

President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008)—one of the longest serving and most-beloved presidents of the Church in recent decades—declared in his inaugural address as president of the Church that:

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.[7]

Gordon B. Hinckley Diversity Interfaith

Many other examples could be given, but these three church leaders give a good sample of what LDS Church members are taught about the vision of interfaith work.

2. Knowledge Base

Eboo Patel had the following to say about having a knowledge base:

The second thing you need is a knowledge base. You need to have an appreciative understanding of other traditions. You need to be able to identify shared values across traditions. How does Islam speak to mercy? How does Christianity speak to mercy? How do Jews speak to mercy? You can do the same with hospitality or service or compassion. These are what the Interfaith Youth Core calls shared values.

Part of a knowledge base, for a religious person at least, is what we call a theology of interfaith cooperation. You ought to be able to tell somebody in your own faith why you, as a Christian or as a Muslim or as a Jew, engage in interfaith cooperation.

You also need to know the history of interfaith cooperation. You hear people say all the time, “Well, Muslims and Jews are fighting now because they’ve always fought,” and that’s just false. But if you don’t know about the history of cooperation between Muslims and Jews, in Andalucía or the Ottoman Empire, then that lie of Muslims and Jews always fighting stands.[8]

LDS Church members have been encouraged to gain an appreciative knowledge of other religions from a very early time. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that if the “Presbyterians [have] any truth embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world. [and you will] come out a pure Mormon.”[9] President Brigham Young likewise told a son who asked if it was okay to attend a Protestant Christian service while he was living in the eastern United States that, “With regard to your attending Protestant Episcopal service, I have no objection whatever. On the contrary, I would like to have you attend, and see what they can teach you about God and Godliness more than you have already been taught.”[10]

Brigham Young Attend Episcopal Interfaith Meme

We are also taught to respect the good found in other religions and their teachings. In 1978, the First Presidency—the highest quorum of Church leadership—issued a statement that affirmed that “the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” They went on to say that, “Consistent with these truths, 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.”[11] President Brigham Young likewise taught that:

So far as mortality is concerned, millions of the inhabitants of the earth live according to the best light they have—according to the best knowledge they possess. I have told you frequently that they will receive according to their works; and all, who live according to the best principles in their possession, or that they can understand, will receive peace, glory, comfort, joy and a crown that will be far beyond what they are anticipating. They will not be lost.[12]

Brigham Young All who follow their religions receive glory Interfaith

Inspired by these ideas, I have been making the effort to spend at least part of my devotional study time each day learning about other religions. I’ve been alternating reading books that talk about the other religion (basics of belief and practice, etc.) and books that people in that religion would study in their devotional studies (the Qur’an, the words of the current Dalai Lama, etc.). It has been a fascinating, enlightening, and enjoyable journey to learn what they believe, what is similar to my own beliefs, and what is different. I have gained greater respect for many of those religions, particularly ones that I knew little about beforehand, such as the Sikh religion and Buddhism. I have also gained a deeper appreciation of aspects of my own religion that are viewed from a different light or emphasized differently in these other religions.

In addition, my wife and I have decided to celebrate one holiday from a different religion each year, and to take time to learn about the religion that celebrates that holiday as we do so. This is not done for the sake of cultural appropriation, but for the sake of gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of different religions. In addition, as part of the discussion, we intend to bring up our own, Mormon theology of interfaith cooperation. It is our hope that as we have children and raise them with this tradition, they will gain a knowledge base that lends itself to an appreciative understanding of other traditions, a knowledge of shared values across traditions, an understanding of our own theology of interfaith cooperation, and that they will learn a bit of history that will help them to participate in interfaith cooperation in their own lives.

3. Skill Set

Eboo Patel went on to state that: “The third thing you need is a skill set. Are you able to tell your story of interfaith enrichment compellingly? Are you able to speak with people from different religions in a way that they can trust you? Are you able to organize activities that bring them together?” [13]

Admittedly, developing the skill set necessary to engage in interfaith cooperation has been, at times, a slow process for the LDS Church as a whole. Our commitment to missionary work has often take priority at the expense of meaningful interfaith outreach, and a siege mentality developed during the traumatic experiences that Mormons underwent in the United States during the mid-19th Century that still influences Mormon culture to this day. In addition, even when Church leadership has been working on interfaith outreach, the individual practicing Mormon may not catch on to the vision.

That being said, great stride have been and are being made by the LDS Church. The general authorities running the Church lead the way—President Henry B. Eyring, Elder L. Tom Perry, and Bishop Gérald Caussé attended an interfaith Vatican Summit on the family in November 2014; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has received the Torch of Liberty Award from the Anti-Defamation League for work in improving understanding between Christians and Jews; and Elder Quentin L. Cook has spoken occasionally of his friendship with prominent Jew by the name of Robert Abrams to cite a few examples. More recently, the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Elder L. Whitney Clayton participated in the opening ceremonies and later on, Temple Square hosted an interfaith musical performance that featured such diverse groups as Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, Quakers, Sikhs, and many other religious traditions. On a less official level, Mormons participated in the Parliament as local volunteers, and several workshops on Mormon topics were held over the course of the conference. I personally had the chance to attend the Parliament as a volunteer and while I was there, I was told by a Sikh girl from Southern California that she was very impressed with Mormons in her area because so many of them made the effort to be involved in interfaith activities.[14] Many other examples of Mormons being involved in interfaith activism might be given as well.

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Elder L. Whitney Clayton at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

There have also been efforts to tell a story of interfaith enrichment in compelling ways.  Many of the Church leaders—Jeffrey R. Holland,[15] Quentin L. Cook,[16] L. Tom Perry,[17] and Dieter F. Uchtdorf[18] being notable examples—have given address to Latter-day Saints and others that speak of their experiences in interfaith enrichment and encourage everyone else to have similar experiences. In addition, the Ensign—the official magazine of the Church for adult Mormons—has published articles from time to time that speak of interfaith enrichment and outline ways that Mormons can develop the skills that Eboo Patel listed as being necessary, most notably an article called “Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement” in December 2013.[19]

In my own life, I have not had a lot of experience in leading interfaith movements—I’ve mostly been a follower who tries to stay involved where I can. Still, I have taken the time to learn and practice skills in talking to people with different beliefs in ways that do not cause discomfort or to make them feel like I have alternative agendas from simply gaining understanding. I have found that most people are happy to talk about their own beliefs and to build bridges of friendship and understanding and that learning about other religions does not undermine my own beliefs as a Mormon. Developing that skill set further is something that will take time and effort on my part, as it does for anyone else.

 

Conclusion

My hope is that what I have written, simple though it might be, is an example of how one religion—Mormonism—has teachings and beliefs that lend themselves to interfaith cooperation. I know that my religion is not alone in having a theology of interfaith cooperation—my experiences have taken place with Christians of many denominations, as well as individuals from many other religions. It is very possible to reach across divides and gain a better understanding of people who we don’t see eye to eye with on religious and philosophical ideas because of our religion rather than in spite of religious convictions. It is also very necessary to do so if we are to have hope for a better future in a fractured world. As we do so, we can join with Jesus of Nazareth in saying: “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9:50.)

Joseph Smith_Father

[1] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God,” John A. Widtsoe Symposium, University of Southern California, 24 April 2015. https://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/fellow-travelers-brothers-and-sisters-children-of-god?lang=eng

[2] Eboo Patel, “Look to young people for leadership in interfaith cooperation,” Faith & Leadership 10/10/2011, https://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/eboo-patel-look-young-people-for-leadership-interfaith-cooperation. Accessed 4/1/2016.

[3] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[4] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[5] Joseph Smith Jr. and Joseph Fielding Smith (ed.), Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 313-314. Compare with sermon, 9 July 1843 in Ehat and Cook, Words, 229.

[6] Thomas, S. Monson, in “The Mormon Ethic of Civility,” Oct. 16, 2009, mormonnewsroom.org

[7] Gordon B. Hinckley, “This Work is the Work of the Master,” CR, April 1995.

[8] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[9] Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon, 9 July 1843, and Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon 23 July 1843, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, Kindle Locations 4599-4600 and 4718-4719.

[10] Brigham Young to Willard Young, 25 July 1871. Cited in Leonard J. Arrington, “Willard Young: The Prophet’s Son at West Point,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, V.4, No. 4 (Winter 1969), 42.

[11] Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, Marion G. Romney, Statement of the First Presidency Regarding God’s Love for All Mankind, February 15, 1978.

[12] Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 287.

[13] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[14] For more examples of Mormon interfaith involvement see the Mormon Newsroom article on Interfaith Relations found at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/interfaith.

[15] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Standing Together in the Cause of Christ,” Ensign August 2012. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/08/standing-together-for-the-cause-of-christ?lang=eng

[16] Quentin L. Cook, “Partnering with our Friends from Other Faiths,” August 9, 2010. http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Partnering-with-Our-Friends-from-Other-Faiths

[17] L. Tom Perry, “Why Marriage and Family Matter—Everywhere in the World,” CR April 2015. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/04/why-marriage-and-family-matter-everywhere-in-the-world?lang=eng

[18] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God,” John A. Widtsoe Symposium, University of Southern California, 24 April 2015. https://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/fellow-travelers-brothers-and-sisters-children-of-god?lang=eng

[19] Betsy VanDenBerghe, “Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement,” Ensign December 2013. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/12/becoming-better-saints-through-interfaith-involvement?lang=eng

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