Studying other people’s religions

So, last post I thought for a bit about the injunction to learn by study and by faith, particularly with its relevance to my own current studies on the Book of Mormon, but my thoughts on the matter seem to have some deeper conclusions. If there’s a need to ground particular presuppositions on the gospel, and this leads to a different approach and possibly modified methods to conventional religious studies, does this continue to apply when studying other people’s religions? I believe so. I do not believe it is coherent to turn away from from particular approaches because its grounding presuppositions are wrong, and yet fall back on those approaches merely because we’re studying someone else’s religion.

In particular, I believe an approach grounded on gospel-based presuppositions actually offers greater reasons for the study of other religions, and some guidance for how we should approach this matter. I haven’t seen too many LDS-centred approaches to this matter, the few I’ve seen mostly just quoting Krister Stendahl. While I believe his advice is mostly good, I do believe we can go further. So without further ado:

Why study other religions?

I certainly believe this is worth doing (or I wouldn’t have done the batchelors & masters I did), but why? I think the following reasons are valid:

  1. Curiosity – Best to get this out the way first. Simplest reason for wanting to know a thing is because you want to know it. This, like many of the things I’m going to mention, isn’t LDS-specific of course, but the Doctrine & Covenants in particular emphasises the importance and value of knowledge. Knowledge enlarges the soul (D&C 121:42), no man can be saved in ignorance (131:6) and whoever gains knowledge will have “advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19), and while there’s certainly a prioritisation in terms of different kinds of knowledge, with particular importance in gaining wisdom (2 Nephi 9:28), and with certain types of knowledge accessible only through revelation (Jacob 4:8). Yet at the same time while some knowledge may be better or best, others are at least good and if we are not neglecting the weightier things are worth learning, especially as revelation emphasises the importance of learning about “history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man” (D&C 93:53). When we add in the simple fact that religion is one of the most powerful motivations known to man, simple curiosity about the subject cannot be considered ignoble.
  2. To gather truth – God sends his “word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth” (2 Nephi 29:7) and grants “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). A First Presidency statement in 1978 goes on to state: “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.” Thus while the Church has authority and truth that other religions do not, and which people need, it does not possess a monopoly of truth. People in other religions have access to a portion of truth to, sometimes a great portion. If we are interested in truth, especially truth about God, studying other religions can help us gain more of it. Now I do not believe this is by means of assembling a pot-pourri of collected ideas from everywhere and nowhere, governed only by personal preference. Here what has been revealed to the Church, particularly in the Standard works (hence the name!) can help act as a standard to help test truth. But what studying other religions certainly can do is prompt us to study more and seek the guidance of the spirit, and thus find authentication, and even elaboration of the truth when we find it. It can also prompt us to reflect better on truth we already know, and strive to live it better – this perhaps akin to Stendahl’s concept of holy envy. I personally found from my time living in Jerusalem that even the physical way the different groups out there treated the scriptures with reverence made a deep impression on my mind.
  3. To serve in the kingdom and prepare for missionary work – There’s an important caveat about this that I’ll get in to below, but part of the reason for articulated for gaining knowledge “of countries and of kingdoms” is “That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you”, which includes being sent out to “testify and warn the people” (D&C 88:78-81). Particularly in Missionary work, knowing where people are coming from and what they know is important. As a missionary (and I know I’m not alone in this) I taught people from a tremendous variety of backgrounds, and learned first had that when teaching Chinese Buddhists, for example, I had to spend quite a bit more time on the whole God business that I did when teaching Kurdish Muslims or Scottish Christians. Likewise, I found that Muslims tended to get the whole dispensation concept far quicker than Christians because that’s how they saw history (and amongst well-informed Christians the word dispensation could get very misleading because it is used very differently).

Principles in studying other religions

So having justified to myself at least why it’s worth studying other religions, what principles could be of possible use in doing this? I’m not going to attempt to provide an exhaustive list here, or provide the fully reworked methodologies I suggested would be necessary last post, mainly because I haven’t got that far yet. But there’s a few points that occur to mind.

  • Bearing true witness – I word it like that (rather than just “tell the truth” or “be accurate”) because it struck me recently how in the Ten Commandments the commandment is not thou shalt not lie, but “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). That’s not to say that lying is acceptable (after all, unrepentant liars find themselves in an unpleasant location), but that it particularly condemns lies about other people. This is of particular concern where talking about other peoples religions, and Latter-day Saints, who have been particularly subject to both accidental and deliberate misrepresentation should probably be sensitive about doing the same to other people. When talking about other religions, we should strive to accurately reflect their beliefs and practices. As part of this, Stendahl’s first rule of religious understanding (“When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies”) can be helpful, and I’m certainly sympathetic to the suggestion discussed (but not universally embraced) within secular religious studies that a description of a religion should be recognisable to its adherents. Above all, we must avoid misrepresentation. This can go the other way too – the BYU Religions of the World manual contains a number of flaws (I had the opportunity to double-check a number of things, particularly the references on Zoroastrianism), which I suspect emerge from a well-intentioned desire to find similarities but which ended up finding them when they weren’t really there. When speaking or writing about another religion, we have to let them disagree with us.
  • The aim is not to disprove any religion – This is the caveat I mentioned earlier in regards to missionary work. Personally it’s a very poor approach that I don’t feel works anyway, and which I believe causes us to look at another’s beliefs with entirely the wrong feelings. We can disagree without being disagreeable – and we can especially avoid being a jerk rather than a responsible student (the aim here is to learn, after all). Moreover, Latter-day Saints are “contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil” (D&C 18:20) and if we needed any further ideas on where that sort of thing leads, we learn from the Saviour that “contention is not of me, but is of the devil” (3 Nephi 11:29).
  • Spiritual experiences are real and universal – Here I feel is a particular point that LDS doctrine can specifically bring to bear on this subject, and that has a number of implications on the presuppositions we bring and on methodology. Religious experiences have not gone unstudied within religious studies, with a particular approach of phenomenology being quite interested in them. But other parts of religious studies have been quite sceptical about these things (wanting to reduce such things to psychology or economics), while phenomenology generally seems to have issues with really probing what such experiences actually are, or accounting for different sorts. There’s limitations whenever looking at an experience felt individually, of course, but LDS doctrine teaches us (hopefully from experience!) that spiritual experiences are real things, doing with an objective God and not just some subjective internal experience. Moreover, while full access to such experiences and a proper understanding of them might be limited to the restored gospel, we also know that “the Spirit of Christ is given to every man” (Moroni 7:16), that people can feel the Holy Ghost outside of the Church and, per the First Presidency statement quoted earlier, a number of religious leaders “received a portion of God’s light”. While there are false or ungodly spiritual experiences around (D&C 46:7), there are a number outside of the Church that are both genuine and godly. Lest it be forgotten, Joseph Smith received the first vision prior to the restoration of the Church. Such accounts should not be accepted uncritically, of course, but what LDS doctrine offers is a way of comprehending that many (including a number of crucial historical figures) did experience something genuine that changed their lives, and possibly the course of human history, and latter-day revelation offers us the opportunity to test the accounts of these. This offers enormous potential in understanding other religions. In particular, this offers us the prospect of being able to understand the true motivations of particular historical individuals, without reducing them to frauds, or sincere but somehow not quite there individuals, or just trying to ignore the subject of what made them change things in the first place. Having so much, from the standard works and our own experiences, allows us to truly try and understand these individuals where the only alternative is to remain in complete ignorance. And if we can only get so far, we can hope for and expect further revelation that can shed further light.

As I said, not an attempt at a comprehensive set a suggestion but rather a few random thoughts. But if the Gospel is true, then surely using what we know to be true from it to both guide  and inform our study of other religions can only offer the prospect of greater understanding and knowledge.

By Study and also by Faith

What with the shakedown at the Maxwell Institute last year, and its apparent move in the direction of a secular religious studies approach I’ve been thinking somewhat about this phrase and its relevance to my own studies. I’m doing a PhD on the Book of Mormon, a book I hold as scripture. While my particular approach for my thesis does not rely on any particular view of the Book of Mormon – so my arguments should hold regardless of what one thinks about origin – yet doing this means I do have to think about what it means for me personally, and where I’m going in the future, and broader ideas about how to study scripture and religion.


And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D&C 88:118)

There are several things that strike me about this instruction:

  • “As all have not faith” – Part of the reason for this teaching, reading the “best books” (which surely includes the scriptures) and learning is because we need more faith. Knowledge is not antithetical to faith, but can support it. And promoting faith should be a goal of our studies.
  • “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” – Faith is not just a goal, it is a means by which we seek learning, coupled with study.

It seems clear what to seek learning “by study” means, but what does it mean to seek learning “by faith”? What I don’t believe it is, is simply an effort to seek learning by study by those who incidentally happen to have faith. In other words, secular religious studies would not fulfil this instruction simply because it happens to be done by people who happen to be church members, whatever their faith or standing. That’s really no different from such an approach by anyone else. To seek learning by study and also by faith must differ from study alone, and that difference must be greater that whoever happens to be doing it. Faith cannot be a mere incidental factor here.

No, just as zeal without knowledge only illuminates part of the picture (Romans 10:2), so too is study without faith, particularly when studying something like the scriptures. The two must be coupled together. How then to seek learning by faith? I’m still trying to work out what that entails. Obedience (D&C 130:20)? Inspiration (2 Ne. 25:4)? These may be supremely helpful on a personal basis, but are a little different when if one is speaking or writing to others.

I do believe though, that one aspect may rest on the presuppositions we bring to our studies. Virtually every discipline and methodology rests on particular presuppositions, many of them unstated. In my personal experience weaving my way through religious studies, it is even possible for many scholars to be unaware or unthinking about the assumptions that lie behind their methods. Many of these assumptions are in my mind highly questionable and need to be tested – and some of those rest on assumptions that are antithetical to faith. Others are tied to modern western culture, and are just very different from those of the restored gospel, something I became very aware of even back in my first year. To embrace those methods, and thus those assumptions (even if unconsciously), is hardly coupling faith with study. Rather, to seek learning by study and by faith requires us to test presuppositions (by study) and ground them in the restored gospel (by faith). Such an approach, however, means that methods cannot simply be imported from wider academia – not without proper examination of their presuppositions and necessary modification. This leads inevitably to something quite different from secular religious studies. That’s not to say that things cannot be learned from the field – but they cannot be accepted uncritically.