I teach philosophy and philosophy of religion at BYU. Since I often use anthologies of philosophy of religion in my classes, I occasionally send away for forthcoming or very recent anthologies by various publishers. The latest of these is The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion, 2nd Edition. Unlike other philosophy of religion anthologies, this one has a section on the philosophical thought of various world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, African religions, Chinese religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. These aren’t just overviews of these religions but comparative engagements with these religions and philosophical (western) thought.
I’ve read through a few of these and was naturally struck (as only a native Mormon would be) by some of the resonances of the philosophies of these various religions with Mormon thought, and will probably post about some of them. I’ve had some classes in world religions both at the undergrad as well as the graduate school level, but of course claim no expertise, not even in Mormon thought. So what follows is not a rigorous comparison of religions. Plus, I’m only referring to the book mentioned above as a reference. Anyone with a more precise knowledge of these religions will be free to correct me (and Routledge, though the articles in the book are written by scholars who are also native practitioners of those religions). Finally, I’m not going to offer overviews of even all the basic beliefs of these religions. I’m simply going highlight those parts I found to be most interesting.
I don’t know if it goes without saying, so I’ll say it here anyway. I’m not posting this as some kind of triumphalist comparison of Mormonism as true religion versus pagan religions that somehow retained scraps of truth and isn’t it interesting when we see light filter down through the haze of apostasy. My own view–as a Mormon, actually–requires me to charitably gather truths from wherever they may be found and to humbly accept and embrace the richness of other faiths and find some joy and satisfaction and even religious resonance in the teachings and practices of other faiths as ends in themselves. It also means that I should have no qualms in continuing to proclaim the truths given to me by Mormonism, even in ways that appear somewhat exclusivistic, simply because these are the truths that have made me and called to me. But I do believe one of these truths is to see and consider the world in such a way that I see truths everywhere.
Hindu Thought and Mormon Thought
Existence of God
First, a broader religious point that might compare with Christianity in general and not just Mormonism: in philosophical Hinduism acceptance of scriptural authority counts for more than acceptance of the existence of God. Here Hinduism would depart dramatically from Thomistic thought (Thomas Aquinas) in particular, who argued for an important place for natural theology, or the concept that we can deduce through reason that the natural world provides evidence for God’s existence (though revelation, or scripture, is needed to fill in the gaps that natural theology alone could not provide). But in certain schools of Hindu thought (though not all of them) Reason could never show that God exists because Reason is always open to counter-arguments. God’s existence can only be established on the basis of scriptural authority. This makes sense in a way, since it seemed nonsensical to Hindu thinkers to prove the existence of God to other Hindus who already accepted the existence of a divine reality or realities in the first place, and who further already accepted scripture as scripture. Once scriptural authority is established it becomes superfluous to argue over God’s existence.
More directly appealing to Mormon intuitions is the importance of verbal testimony in Hinduism. This is distinguished from the principal ways of knowing in western thought and religion: perception and reason, or inference. Christian philosopher William Alston, for example, famously tried to show that knowledge of the divine is not reducible to some mystical supersense outside our usual ways of knowing, but that believers can correctly be said to “perceive” God much in the same ways that we perceive our sensible world, therefore resulting in faith being as rational a process as any other. Hindu thought accepts these ways of knowing but includes four others, including verbal testimony. Hinduism asserts that there is a kind of knowledge that can be had only through verbal testimony, a knowledge that cannot be had through other means (like perception and reason). I don’t know if Hindu practitioners have anything like testimony meetings, but it is significant that verbal testimony is not simply seen as another means of gaining knowledge and understanding that could also be had through sense perception or reasoning. When someone gives testimony of something, it is not necessary to look to other more familiar ways of verifying its truthfulness; the testimony itself is the source of its truthfulness.
Theodicy and Karma
In Hindu thought, karma, or the doctrine that the sum of actions in this and previous states of existence determine one’s fate in future states of existence, means that God is more or less immune to having to answer for all the evil and suffering in the world. If you suffer unjustly (whether by the hands of another or through natural causes) it is because you merited this state from wrongs committed in a previous existence. Fortunately, you can act justly in this present state and therefore hope for a better, less burdensome existence in the future. Consequently, God isn’t an accessory before or after the fact of evil because we live in a just universe that doles out punishment and reward according to what was merited from previous lives.
We can see the Mormon notion of preexistence to have some resonance here. There is likely not another Mormon doctrine that is so heavily speculated upon, but one strand of speculation (perhaps mostly derived from the Book of Abraham) is that what we did or didn’t do in the preexistence had real consequences for our present lives. There are many ways to interpret this as well of course, but this is somewhat what karma looks like, except in Mormon thought there is a beginning (pre-morality) and an ending (kingdoms of glory; though we do talk about eternal lives in a state of exaltation), not an endless cycle of birth and re-birth. If the notion of karma has any negative connotations for you, it’s possible that the notion of a preexistence should as well. For example, it might be unsatisfying or downright unsettling (not to mention unfair) to consider that so many people suffer seemingly unjustly, but then to insist that injustice is actually justice because their suffering is a natural consequence from a previous life.
Anyone familiar with the interpretation of scripture provided over many years and in many publications by James Faulconer, professor of philosophy at BYU, will probably resonate with this passage by scholar K. Satchidanada Murty on Hindu scripture, which I quote from in full (and which, in a philosophical vein, is quite Wittgensteinian):
A religious scripture is not meant for giving us knowledge of perceptible, or inferable things. This would mean that in a religious scripture it is vain to seek science or history, and that (as Sankara says clearly) where a scriptural passage contradicts an evident truth of perception, or inference, it is not really a scriptural passage but an arthavada, to be discarded. Had European theologians followed this principle, much of the conflict between science and religion could have been avoided. Centuries ago Pseudo-Dionysius said that scriptures are intelligible only to those who can free themselves from ‘puerile myths.’ Kumarila and Sankara recognized this and put it into practice. This, again, does not mean that there can be no history, or science at all in a scripture; but that is not what is important in a scripture; though it may, for instance, tell how at a particular time in the past certain people reacted to certain historical events, and saw in them a more direct disclosure of God’s activity than in other events; or, in other words, a scripture may provide us with an evaluation of history, based on faith, but not objective history (for that cannot be saving history).
There is a sense in which, because the historical origins of Mormon scripture are so hard to empirically and conclusively verify, that this actually frees Mormons to read their scriptures in truly religious “non-objectifying” and saving ways, much as the origins of Hindu scripture are not seen by most Hindus as needing empirical, historiographic verification in order to be scripture (as many Christians say is necessary in order for the Bible to be true). I’m not saying that there is no evidence (or possible evidence) for the Book of Mormon’s ancient origins, merely that the real religious work of appropriating the book for religious reasons lies outside that necessity.
Theory and Practice
Hindu thinkers often accuse western philosophers and theologians of being too concerned with theory, of making sure beliefs are rational and cohere with other beliefs. Thus there is a perceived disconnect between these theoretical complexities and the practical aspects of religious life. For Hindu thinkers, religion is the response of the whole life to the whole of reality, and theory is very consciously welded to practice.
The resonance here with Mormonism should be more or less apparent. Mormon thinkers for many years have insisted that Mormonism is more concerned with praxis than in theorizing Mormonism, more concerned with ritual and practice (sacrament, temple worship, service to neighbor, blessings–even typical priesthood/Relief Society/Sunday School instruction seems more ritualistic and practice oriented through dogmatic questions and answers) though ironically that itself is a theory that is likely only possible because of the lack of a strict theological magisterium in the church. In any case, the lack of an official theology that has been laid down in creeds and officially binding prophetic interpretations allows practice to be particularly significant in Mormonism, though there has been much done in the way of theory over the last several years.