Building pluralistic religious communities: My experience at an inter-faith devotional

This past week, I attended an inter-faith devotional for the first time. From my personal experience as a Latter-Day Saint, such ecumenical efforts have seen minimal, and I am so proud of my stake for making an effort at participating in the broader faith community. I also don’t know how such efforts have faired in other religious groups; have inter-faith efforts increased significantly in recent years?

The event itself included a beautiful lantern ceremony, in which a representative from each faith carried a lantern to the front of the chapel and introduced themselves– something like “I am so-and-so, and I represent the Catholic faith tradition. I bring that candle as a symbol of our gratitude, and our desire to serve in our community.” By the end of the ceremony, we had a whole row of individuals from different faiths– Catholics, Unitarians, Presbytarians, Jews, Buddhists, Bahais, Sufis, and Muslims, and Latter-Day Saints. We had a dear little boy from our ward representing the Latter-Day Saints, which I thought a fitting symbol of our strong commitment to families. He stumbled on the words, but a few of the other representatives whispered his lines to him to help him to the end. Again, I thought it a beautiful symbol that we can help strengthen and work together with others outside our faith.

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The devotional got me thinking: why do we have such a hard time interacting with others of different faiths in a positive way? I can’t speak for members of other faiths, but I had a few ideas within my own faith community. First, Latter-Day Saints have some very strong truth claims. We teach that mainstream Christianity is in a state of general apostasy, and are not authorized to act in God’s name. We teach that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is “the only true and living church” on the earth. That definitely and understandably rubs others the wrong way, and I would suspect can easily lead to hubris and condescension when talking to others outside of our faith. We have a superficial understanding of others’ doctrines, and we don’t spend a lot of time truly trying to understand the core doctrines of other faiths, instead lumping them together into that one jumble of “false doctrine.” I really think this is a shame, because not only do we not learn to respect the faith of others, but we also can’t truly recognize what makes our own faith unique.

Second, Latter-Day Saints are a proselytizing people. In most priesthood meetings or ward councils, there is usually time set aside for “missionary moments.” Male members have a priesthood duty to serve two-year missions right out of high school, and female members can serve as well. Each congregation is assigned a pair of missionaries, who encourage ward members to refer their friends and family members to meet with the missionaries. The slogan “every member a missionary” is well-known and taught in Sunday School lessons. While I think it is great to encourage members to talk to others about their faith, I think it also causes a very false paradigm that every interaction with others outside of our faith needs to have a missionary bent to it. It changes to motive from trying to understand and learn more about the faith of others to trying to preach our own faith to them. I don’t seek to argue that missionary efforts are wrong; no Church without some form of proselyting is going to last very long. But it severely limits our ability to understand others, to respect them, and to empathize and love them. I think it is essential that we as Latter-Day Saints learn how to learn from others of different faiths. I truly believe that this in no way diminishes or dilutes our own faith, and can only be positive. I believe it is vital that we learn to live and interact in a pluralistic religious society. I think we need to be able to bring faith into the public square again, not to squabble over minute difference in doctrine, but to learn from one another. Maintaining doctrinal truths and respecting the faith of others are not mutually exclusive.

The origin story of the Latter-Day Saints begins with a young boy, Joseph Smith, seeking to find which Church was true. One of the things that he describes in his story as he sought after the truth was a great religious commotion in his area: “there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion… the whole district of the country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!”…

“In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?

Joseph Smith eventually enters a grove of trees to pray, where he reports being visited by God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. He is eventually called as a modern-day prophet with the task of restoring Christ’s ancient Church as described in the Bible. But what has always nagged me about this story was those verses about a that “tumult of opinions.” Did Joseph Smith found a new Church, only to be yet another contender in this “war of words”? I don’t think so. I believe Joseph Smith brought a different model, and taught a different way. Joseph Smith taught that we can and should live in and interact with others of different beliefs– without constantly condemning their differing doctrines.

I was recently listening to a the LDS Perspectives podcast on the Council of Fifty. The Council of Fifty is a lesser-known organization in the beginnings of the Church; it was a secular organization begun by Joseph Smith that included others outside of the Mormon fold. From what I understand, he viewed it as the Kingdom of God on the earth, the group that would govern the temporal affairs of the land. The interviewee describes how religious plurality played a role in the Council of Fifty and what we can learn from it:

You know, I think that’s one of the really compelling parts about the Council of Fifty minutes; Joseph Smith expressing his vision of religious liberty. It’s really an open vision. It’s of a pluralistic religious society and it reinforces what historians already knew about the way that Smith and city leaders established Nauvoo as an open city for people of all faiths. They even include Muslims in their list of religious faiths that are welcome to worship in Nauvoo.

So in the Council minutes, for Joseph Smith, his despair over the Constitution’s failure to protect religious liberty seems to be at the forefront of his thinking, and he is simply saying, “We’re going to establish a kingdom where we set the rules. Religious liberty will be foundational to any kind of society that we establish.” He’s saying that it’s not enough to just tolerate religion, but you have to establish notions of religious freedom free from bigotry — and this extends to people of all faiths.

It’s really quite compelling for the 1840s in America. For me personally, I see it as really something that should inform 21st-century notions of religious liberty and religious freedom, especially in the United States as we’re grappling with notions of Muslim travel bans; when anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish animosity is rearing its ugly head. I think Joseph Smith is establishing really foundational principles or religious freedom and liberty as he expresses them in the Council of Fifty, and it comes out of not receiving religious freedom for himself and a desire, then, to use that to stand in a place of empathy for people of all faiths to ensure that all believers (and people who are not of any faith) are protected.

I hope that we can carry on this legacy of religious plurality in our own communities. I want to continue that expanding vision that Joseph Smith had of inclusion, respect, and love.

A beautiful example of someone outside the LDS tradition who had a similar vision, Krister Stendahl, a Swedish theologian and bishop in the Church of Sweden. Back in the 1980s, there was a massive amount of vocal opposition to the Latter-Day Saints building a temple in Stockholm. In response, Stendahl held a press conference where he outlined three rules for religious understanding. They are (as quoted from Wikipedia haha):

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask members of that religion, not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy” (seek after things you admire and respect in their faith tradition that you which were better reflected in your own.)

When I first read these, it was paradigm-shifting for me. I suddenly realized that understanding the faith of others doesn’t somehow compromise my own. I also realized by limiting my interactions to “missionary moments” was severely limiting my ability to learning from others, and I was able to diagnose some of the uneasiness in some encounters– a kind of religious hubris.

Let’s be better disciples of Christ by truly learning to love our neighbor as ourselves and engaging with them in service to others!

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