It’s a familiar story. In a nutshell, he was pondering God and had a miraculous experience. His background included Jewish and Christian teachings, but there was a “fullness” that wasn’t there. An angel appeared to him and he brought forth additional scripture; even though he was “unlearned” man. His message resonated with others and they formed a small group of faithful followers. As his followers grew in number, the neighbors persecuted them and they were forced to move to another city. He was a merchant and led a militia. He took multiple wives, some younger and some older. He was faithful until the end of his life and in his last words, he addressed God. Since his death, his name has been spoken of for good and evil throughout the earth. Millions of people revere him as a prophet. Millions of people have accepted his message and have wonderful conversion stories. Perhaps you taught this story on a mission or in a class. Perhaps not. In this case, the man is Muhammad. But it could be Joseph Smith.
In the religious search for truth, there are prophets like Joseph Smith or Moses or Mohammed or Siddhārtha Gautama or Ron Hubbard or many others. These are people who approached the divine and brought something back. In relating their experience with the divine, these people have touched those around them and helped thousands and millions also reach towards the divine. Their search for truth starts movements on a macro-level.
But for the rest of us, our religious search for truth is more personal and on a micro-level. We all define our relationship with Deity, even if that is saying that there is no Deity or that we just don’t know. Most people define their relationship with God in the framework of one or another denomination, generally the one into which they were born. However, an increasing number of people are saying they are “spiritual but not religious” and defining their beliefs outside any specific denomination.
So, how do we find religious truth? In our search for the divine, where do we turn? And importantly, how do we determine which religious truths to incorporate into a scientific setting? To do this, there are generally 3 main sources of “religious truth”: ancient writings (or scriptures), current leaders (or prophets), and personal experience, along with advantages/disadvantages of each.
1) Scripture/writings: The main advantage is that they provide a link to the founding doctrine of a faith or denomination. Jewish people find the words of God in the writings of Moses and the Prophets. Muslims find the words of Allah in the Qu’ran. Buddhists read the Dhammapada. Hindus find truth in the Bhagavad Gita. Mormons accept Joseph Smith’s revelations in the Book of Mormon and D&C. Many different denominations accept the Holy Bible, with or without the Apocrypha. These canonized scriptures form the foundation in the search for religious truth.
There are problems, however. These writings were often given in a different time and context (2 Nephi 25). They have potentially had issues with translation and transmission as I talked about in my very first post. And then there is the big problem of interpretation and using scriptures as proof texts as discussed by Stephen Marsh.
Take a simple example: Ezekiel 37:16-19 talks about a stick of Joseph and a stick of Judah. In an LDS context, we use this to teach that the Book of Mormon was prophesied in the Bible, and that they have now come together in one. However, these verses are interpreted much differently by other people. Many people, including the Jewish people, refer to the verses immediately after these, where Ezekiel himself interprets what he meant, referring to the northern Kingdom of Judah and the southern Kingdom of Israel being reunited. Some people talk about Bob Marley being from the Tribe of Joseph and Haile Selassie being from the Tribe of Judah with reference to this scripture. Some people suggest the Anglo-Saxons represent the Tribe of Joseph and will combine with the Jews from the Tribe of Judah to fight off the forces of Edom (Germany) and Ishmael (Muslims). So even with scriptures, people are inclined to see what they want to see.
2) Current leaders/prophets: Because of transmission/translation/interpretation issues, most denominations have more modern leaders. They continue the connection with the divine, helping interpret traditions in modern times. Catholics have the Pope in this role. Many Buddhists accept the Dalai Lama. We have Prophets from Joseph Smith down through Thomas S Monson. Similar people serve in similar roles in various denominations. These people help their followers understand the canonized scriptures. In many cases, there is also the potential for new revelation.
There can be problems with this as well. While these people are great spiritual leaders, they are also still men (generally, but increasingly women) with their own opinions, backgrounds, and understanding. They sometimes say things that are wrong. Someone’s reliance on their teachings depends at least somewhat on that person’s opinion as to the leader. Tom Cruise is likely going to place more weight in the teachings of Ron Hubbard than he is Joseph Smith. Most readers of this site would likely be the opposite.
3) Personal Experience: At the end of the day, this is what is most important. In the LDS Church, we call this a “testimony”. Someone may know quite a bit about the LDS Church, but unless they personally feel that it is “right” for them, they aren’t going to join. There are beautiful conversion experiences in our missionary program, yet there are also also the same experiences in the Catholic faith, the Hindu religion, among Muslims, etc. Billions of people have received some sort of confirmation that the path they are following is “right”.
How do we determine which path is “right”? Joseph Smith asked God. We might also ask God, but also listen to our parents, our friends, others. Buddha was quite explicit in how we should search for religious truth: He taught: “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” This can actually be quite hard. When you truly internalize a truth, it is harder to ignore following it than is someone just tells you externally what should be.
So how do we “find” religious truth? It is all very subjective and may be different from person to person. It involves the Holy Ghost confirming truth when we are exposed to it. Many people feel this when they read the Book of Mormon, and it forms the foundation of a testimony. Others feel the same feelings when they read truth in the Qu’ran, or the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita.
So, when we compare scientific truths to religious truths, we need a way to define WHICH religious truths. A few guidelines I’m going to use, since this can be very difficult: 1) Universality, 2) Consistency, 3) Rank System for LDS teachings
1) Universality: A truth that is universal among all systems is more likely to be an eternal principle than one that is unique. The majority of faiths believe in something Divine. Many call the Divine God, or perhaps Allah, or perhaps Krishna. Buddhists may believe in our inner Buddha-nature. So it is very likely that there is something “bigger” than our day-to-day lives. Similarly, honesty, avoiding killing, integrity, etc. are all likely fundamental truths. A belief in Christ is fundamental to many Christian faiths, but even Muslims accept Christ as a prophet and Jews talk about a Messiah.
Some things are not very universal, so are likely NOT eternal truths. The rules about Israelites gathering manna don’t really apply anywhere else. Teaching that 75 million years ago Xenu brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft is also not a universally taught concept.
2) Consistency: An eternal truth ideally shouldn’t change, but always be the same. A belief in God has been the same within any given religion for its entire existence. Killing was prohibited thousands of years ago in most major denominations. It is still prohibited. These are likely eternal principles.
Other things aren’t very consistent, so are likely NOT eternal truths (much like the answers to Einstein’s test, which also changed). The approach of the LDS Church towards wine, for example. Christ drank wine and instituted the sacrament with wine, both in His mortal life as well as among the Nephites and in our modern day. Early Church leaders drank wine, including in the temple. This has been changed to the point where it is prohibited, even to the point of changing the sacrament ordinances and prayers to reflect this.
3) Rank System for LDS Teachings: Many things have been taught. As quoted in post #1 in this series, Joseph Fielding Smith taught that man would NEVER get to the moon; Brigham Young talked about what the inhabitants of the moon would look like when we sent missionaries to them. At the same time, they also taught important eternal religious truths. We recently had reiterated in General Conference (twice) that prophets can talk about any subject they want and they what they say supersedes anything previously said on that subject (kind of like hawkgrrrl). So, how do we determine when they were speaking as men and when they were speaking as Prophets?
1) Official Declaration/Canonized scripture
2) First Presidency statements, officially released as a “special” statement
3) Prophetic statements with support of First Presidency
4) Prophetic statements alone
An example of “Level 1” truth might be a doctrine in the Book of Mormon that children under 8 cannot sin. This is clear and in canonized scripture. A “Level 2” statement might be the “Proclamation on the Family” which is officially released as a special statement under the auspices of the First Presidency (although with the change to BKP recent conference talk, it is not clear if this is a “revelation” or what that means). A “Level 3” teaching might be a letter written to the Church on First Presidency letterhead, clarifying a topic or a question. And a “Level 4” teaching might be something that a prophet said alone.
So, as we go forward in looking at Science and Religion, and as we talk about religious truths, we need to consider our religious texts, the leaders we quote, and also our own feelings on the topics. An isolated statement may or may not mean much in this context, but may provide some insight. Things that carry more weight would be things that are universal and unchanging. When we consider LDS teachings (as this is a Mormon website), I would also consider the “Level” of doctrine, weighing a L1 statement from the Bible that “God created man” higher than a L4 statement that “man will never set foot on the moon”
Hopefully, this will let us at least give some structure to our conversations as we go forward.
- Is there a “universal” religious truth, or are things more relative?
- Necessary ordinances aside (as they can be taken care of post-mortem as needed), is there a single denomination that would be best for everyone in mortality, or might different people be best served in different denominations?
- Does the universality and consistency of religious teachings have any bearing on their likelihood that they are “ultimate” truths?
- How do you choose between all of the “truths” out there: Stick to your own faith, avoiding exposure to other teachings, and taking confirmations of truth as a sign you are on the right path? Or do you look at everything else out there, too, in a quest to find the “ultimate” truth, but at the risk of perhaps going beyond the “faith of your fathers”?
- Are the 4 levels of LDS truth a useful way of approaching LDS leaders’ statements?
(NOTE: This is #3 in a multi-part series which starts here. The next 2 posts talk about the historical approach to science and religion, as well as a proposed way to consider this going forward. We then get into the fun, and likely controversial, topics.