Transcending Mere Toleration in November’s Friend Magazine?

York Minster, the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe (source: http://tinyurl.com/o3je4gm)

York Minster, the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe (source: http://tinyurl.com/o3je4gm)

November’s Friend Magazine has a remarkable entry that cultivates an attitude transcending mere Toleration in favor of genuinely accepting the religious pluralism that is essential for true religious freedom to exist in democratic societies. That is, the article takes the step from Toleration, or merely tolerating the differences around us (in the case of the Friend essay, religious difference), as the lowest common denominator necessary for a free society to accepting and even appreciating people’s differences on their own terms. Such a perspective strengthens the robust and beneficial pluralism that the Church has argued before the European Court of Human Rights “has been dearly won over the centuries” and is “indissociable from a democratic society.”[1]

View from the south, York Minster (source: http://tinyurl.com/m77fuwl)

View from the south, York Minster (source: http://tinyurl.com/m77fuwl)

By referring to “mere Toleration” I intend no subversion of the time-honored and absolutely essential principle of Lockean Toleration[2] in the fabric of any free and democratic (that is, any decent) society. Not only is Toleration — and its essential companion of some degree of “separation of church and state,”[3] (though historical and cultural context will determine the extent of accommodation or separation that can or must exist in a given society to protect religious liberty and a genuine pluralism[4]) — fundamental to the guarantee of freedom of conscience, but one could also see this Toleration, when applied, as among the signals of true religion, as Locke did: “I esteem that Toleration to be the chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church.”[5] Cultural impulses to devalue or deemphasize this hard won Toleration that is the philosophical and political inheritance in all Western free market societies threaten to weaken our ability to discharge civic duties as responsible citizens and to protect religious freedom, regardless of our preferred political outcomes on specific issues.

The delightful Friend article recounts the story of a little girl, Dani, whose insightful Mormon father brings her to evensong at York Minster while on holiday in the United Kingdom from the United States or Canada. As the girl’s first experience in a cathedral or even, apparently, another church, it becomes an important life lesson for her in her religious development as a faithful Mormon.

Dani is awed by and admires the architecture and the stained glass, the robes worn by the clergy, the candles and the music. “But this cathedral was very different from the church buildings she was used to. Once they were inside, she saw how tall the ceiling was. The windows were made from beautiful colored glass. Then she noticed a small table filled with little candles.” Even though she does not recognize the songs — as she had while visiting Primary in a local York ward — she finds the music beautiful and inspiring. She is impressed with the liturgy (recognizing with excitement the story of the Ten Lepers from the reading) and the prayers. “Then the man in robes said a prayer. He asked God to bless those who were sick and in need. Just like Dani did! He also asked a special blessing on leaders of his church. Dani remembered how her family always asked Heavenly Father to bless President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors.” “A warm feeling came into Dani’s heart” as the service draws to a close, and she feels that “Heavenly Father was telling her He loved all His children and heard all their prayers, even if they went to a different church” through this experience.

After the service, she interacts positively with a boy in the congregation, who offers to light a candle for her and pray for President Monson when Dani finds out from her dad that Sister Monson has just passed away. “She thought it was nice of the boy to say a special prayer for President Monson. She knew Heavenly Father would hear the silent prayer she said in her heart and the prayer the boy said too.”

This story is as much about the father’s attitude as it is about the child’s wonderful learning experience. We can teach our children so much by modeling this kind of appreciative, accepting posture toward the sincere and admirable religious beliefs of others who do not share our exact same faith. This is especially the case among the Christian family of faiths, who, properly understood, are all part of the Body of Christ even if issues might remain about eternally binding priesthood authority to perform ordinances. This is also true of differences or variances of belief(s) among Latter-day Saints, not all of whom view the world the exact same way but who are all nevertheless baptized into the Body of Christ and confirmed as members of the Church, and most of whom are sincerely striving for Zion and unity in Christian discipleship on that basis.

The Mormon Society of St. James, for example, seeks to promote an attitude of respect and appreciation for all that is “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy” in all other religious belief and practice. The guiding principle is Krister Stendahl’s framework for “religious understanding” and especially his third “rule of religious understanding,” the concept of “Holy Envy.”[6] Bishop Stendahl practiced what he preached, exemplifying this Holy Envy in his own admiration for and appreciation of Mormon temples, even though he was the Bishop of Stockholm for the Protestant Church of Sweden. In 1985 he intervened on behalf of the Church in its efforts, against relatively intense opposition, to build the Stockholm temple, and he continued extolling the wonders of Mormon temple practice more than twenty years later in a Mormon Messages video:

Bishop Krister Stendahl speaks on “Holy Envy” for Mormon temples (starting at 0:19); Truman Madsen discusses Bishop Stendahl’s “three rules of religious understanding” starting at 1:08

Bishop Stendahl taught that seeking information about a faith from opponents of that group or from another religious group, or even from well informed outsiders will often result in those interlocutors violating the commandment not to bear false witness. He also maintained that when people discuss, describe, or even think about their own religious beliefs or practices, they tend to focus on the best that their faith and practices have to offer, whereas when they speak of other people’s differing faiths or practices, they resort to caricature (another unchristian act).

I can attest that both of these are just as true in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when we decide to speak about other religions as it is in the case of other religious groups seeking to provide information about the Church. I have been appalled many times and embarrassed for us as a people when listening to how some of our members (and leaders) describe (or rather, misrepresent) the religious beliefs and practices of others in lessons, talks, or casual conversations. We unfortunately exhibit a lack of respect and appreciation that parallels or surpasses that displayed by others when talking about us. And I have been very guilty of that myself, many times, both before deciding to incorporate Bishop Stendahl’s vision of Holy Envy into my own worldview and even, sadly, still after doing so helped me to develop a deep and abiding love for the sincere religious devotion of other faiths, including perhaps especially high church liturgy and music. And, of course, I have seen the same thing many, many times as adherents of other faiths attempt to discuss or explain our beliefs and practices as Latter-day Saints. More often than not, they do not focus on our best but rather on our worst, and their descriptions rely heavily on caricature.

Berlin's neo-classical Protestant Cathedral, as renovated in 1820-22 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (and as restored after devastating bombing in 1944) (source: http://tinyurl.com/mosxa5d)

Berlin’s neo-classical Protestant Cathedral, as renovated in 1820-22 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (and as restored after devastating bombing in 1944) (source: http://tinyurl.com/mosxa5d)

Bishop Stendahl’s concept of Holy Envy has brought me closer to Christ. Though always impressed by other cultures and their monuments in my youth and as a missionary, I remember being somewhat dismissive of the awe-inspiring faith exhibited in the building of Europe’s great cathedrals and churches in that period of my life. With my mind closed in such a manner, I did not receive the benefit that God wanted for me in visits to those places at that time. Only by the end of my mission had I begun to attempt to value other faiths on their own terms (which, by the way, became very conducive to my efforts to teach the Gospel because people could sense genuine appreciation for them and their heartfelt beliefs and desires).

Once I had crossed that threshold, I began having vibrant spiritual experiences in the houses of other faiths. One such experience near the end of my mission in Berlin’s Protestant Cathedral, Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s famous Berliner Dom, has remained with me as a lifelong spiritual inspiration about the broader Christian family of faith, which I, as a Mormon, have long strongly felt a part of — perhaps beginning that day as my mission neared its end. Looking up during a performance of Handel’s Messiah, I focused on the statues at the column heads in the nave, at the base of the massive dome high above us. “The octagonal space is framed by sandstone pillars fitted with pilasters. Crowning the pillars are figures of the four great reformers, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Calvin.” The Spirit quickened my mind and I saw those four major Reformers literally as apostles of a new age. I realized that failing to respect them and their work would be a shame. It would take many more years, however, until I truly began to respect their beliefs on their own terms, rather than filtered through the caricatures of them and their beliefs I’d developed in my Latter-day Saint worldview.

In response to my own learning curve in admiring and appreciating other faiths on their own terms, I have been interested in exposing my children to the best of other faiths from an early age. When we have the chance to visit ancient, historic cathedrals or other shrines or holy spaces, we make it a priority to do so. We also create opportunities locally to have those experiences, which is all the more important when living in an area as part of the dominant religious culture. So, since moving to Utah, we have tried to find ways to facilitate making our children actively aware of the sincere beliefs of others and empowering them to truly admire the faith of others and appreciate it on its own terms. I believe that this perspective — incorporating Bishop Stendahl’s framework for religious understanding into our own lives and beliefs — could move society past mere Toleration to genuine acceptance and even celebration of others (or at least with others) in their own sincere beliefs, a development that would further solidify, for generations to come, the robust pluralism that the Church acknowledges “has been dearly won over the centuries” and views as “indissociable from a democratic society.”

I applaud this Friend article for presenting a perspective consistent with such admiration and appreciation of the beliefs of others on their own terms. Both parents and children can learn a lot from the simple story provided there about a Mormon family’s visit to York Minster.

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[1] The Church’s Brief in Obst v. Federal Republic of Germany (Application No. 425/03), “Application for Third-Party Intervention,” filed by Prof. Dr. iur. Gerhard Robbers on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dated June 13, 2008, para. 113.

[2] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), pg. 11: “The Toleration of those that differ from others in Matters of Religion, is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine Reason of Mankind, that it seems monstrous for Men to be so blind, as not to perceive the Necessity and Advantage of it, in so clear a Light.”

[3] Or, to use Locke’s 1689 language, “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the Business of Civil Government from that of Religion, and to settle the just Bounds that lie between the one and the other.”

[4] In contemplating the example of Turkey, I previously wrote that

Turkey’s secular state is patterned after the French principle of laïcité, which translates simply as “secularism”. In practice, it means the separation of church and state. This model is rigorously enforced in France itself. . . .

The laïcité principle is not appropriate in the United States or in the United Kingdom (or perhaps in many other countries), but that does not mean that a rigorously secular public sphere (that nevertheless does not infringe on citizens’ private religious beliefs) is inappropriate in some situations, such as in Turkey — and perhaps elsewhere throughout the Middle East it could be a guiding principle to help those countries become more just to their citizenry. But in the United States, religion and politics/public life are related in a different and more accommodating way such that the extreme of laïcité is not called for. This is thanks in large part to our intellectual inheritance of the moral philosophy of the English Enlightenment (worked out by Hobbes, Hume, Locke and their seventeenth century peers) in our founding institutions. The thinkers involved in this movement broadly sought to outline a system of moral philosophy that did not derive strictly from religion but rather that tied in to more general principles and could therefore be more widely applicable than in the narrow contours of specific creedal frameworks.

The American founders were shaped by this English intellectual inheritance in crafting the institutions of government that would best fit in the context of American liberty and beliefs. An accommodating toleration, stemming straight from Locke and transmitted via continual waves of emigration, was central to this project. As de Tocqueville noted in his observations in the 1830s, the unique co-existence of religion and liberty in the American system was a defining characteristic of the young American republican democracy. (Of course, at the same time during the 1830s that de Tocqueville was collecting his notes from his 1831 visit to America to write his landmark book about Democracy in America, Mormons were being driven about the country, from state to state, experiencing a very real deprivation of their liberty because of their religious beliefs — Mormons should be in a unique position to recognize and value the protections offered by a robust institutional separation of church and state, as is now theoretically found in the American system with the incorporation of the First Amendment against the states).

Given this foundation of American republican democracy in a moral system that subtly unites the possibility of religion with real liberty, laïcité is neither necessary nor appropriate in the American polity. But this does not mean that it is not appropriate in other contexts. Context really matters. Societies that do not benefit from the same conflux of Enlightenment-era moral philosophy and Lockean religious toleration will perhaps find themselves needing to shore up the line against elements seeking to establish or impose theocratic political institutions, subjecting citizens of other religions or of no religion to the religious doctrines of a specific group. This is injurious to real liberty.

In the United States, however, relevant protestations are not out of place in cases where perhaps too much emphasis is put on getting religion out of the public eye — a symptom of laïcité. Getting religion out of the public eye was never meant to be part of the American project. But neither was subjecting American citizens of one religion or of no religion to the religious doctrines of a religion to which they do not subscribe, as is done in many Middle Eastern states that do not employ Turkey’s secular model. So, for instance, school prayer in public schools can be properly restricted in the United States because inevitably the Evangelical creedalist majority in a Texas town will prevent the Mormon child from praying or participating in the prayer (or, in another location, the Mormon majority will in some way negatively impact a Baptist child’s prayer or ability to participate in the prayer). But a politician or the President can and should be perfectly comfortable talking about religious experience or perspectives as he or she goes about the daily work of negotiating legislation or speaking with constituencies (this would be prohibited by laïcité). The individual’s religious principles will guide him or her in every action, which includes legislation. American democracy accommodates this obvious point. The Lockean liberty, and the moral philosophy of the English Enlightenment more broadly, that animated the Founders — which were both concepts thoroughly infused with principles of (Lockean) religious toleration — were themselves an outgrowth of the unique co-existence of religion and liberty identified by de Tocqueville in American democracy.

[5] On this point, Locke revealed much needed Truth to the societies of his day, contributing to the flood of “knowledge of the glory of the Lord” that was prophesied to fill the earth “as the waters cover the sea” in the last days (Habakkuk 2:14):

The Magistrate ought not to forbid the Preaching or Professing of any Speculative Opinions in any Church; because they have no manner of relation to the Civil Rights of the Subjects. If a Roman Catholick believe that to be really the Body of Christ, which another man calls Bread, he does no injury thereby to his Neighbour. If a Jew do not believe the New Testament to be the Word of God, he does not thereby alter any thing in mens Civil Rights. If a Heathen doubt of both Testaments, he is not therefore to be punished as a pernicious Citizen. The Power of the Magistrate, and the Estates of the People, may be equally secure, whether any man believe these things or no. I readily grant, that these Opinions are false and absurd. But the business of Laws is not to provide for the Truth of Opinions, but for the Safety and Security of the Commonwealth, and of every particular mans Goods and Person. And so it ought to be. For Truth certainly would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for her Self. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much Assistance from the Power of Great men; to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome. She is not taught by Laws, nor has she any need of Force to procure her entrance into the minds of men. Errors indeed prevail by the assistance of forreign and borrowed Succours. But if Truth makes not her way into the Understanding by her own Light, she will be but the weaker for any borrowed force Violence can add to her. (A Letter Concerning Toleration, pp. 44-45, emphasis added.)

[6] As summarized on Wikipedia (and discussed by both Bishop Stendahl and Truman Madsen on the Mormon Messages video, beginning at 1:08), Bishop Stendahl’s three Rules of Religious Understanding are as follows:

1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies. [1:08 in the video]

2. Don’t compare your best to their worst. [1:29 in the video]

3. Leave room for “holy envy.” [1:50 in the video] (By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

Mitt Romney referred to Bishop Stendahl’s three rules of religious understanding in his BYU Forum address last week in the Marriott Center. It was wonderful to see him bringing Bishop Stendahl’s counsel to the attention of tens of thousands of BYU students! (But I believe that “religious jealousy,” as used by Romney to describe Stendahl’s concept of “Holy Envy,” does not do the idea justice, so that was an unfortunate fumble of the issue.)

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, John. Not only am I glad for the celebration of this marvelous Friend article, but I also welcome your testimony of holy envy–as well as your confessions of those times when failing to practice this true principle blunted your spiritual life.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Both lovely and of good report. Thanks, John.

  3. Thanks so much for drawing my attention to this!

  4. Love this, especially as a convert. This New Era article from August sets the same tone: https://www.lds.org/new-era/2014/08/dos-and-donts-of-defending-your-beliefs?lang=eng

    “Contend against no church” (D&C 18:20).

    “There is no need to criticize other churches. Positive statements of your beliefs rather than negative statements about others will be most effective. As the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “We don’t ask any people to throw away any good they have got; we only ask them to come and get more” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 155).”

  5. “blunted your spiritual life”

    Jason, “I got better!”

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    The Friend article was both great and very encouraging. And I appreciate your use of Stendahl’s three rules here; I’m speaking in church this Sunday and planning on using that to frame my remarks.

  7. Hilarious, John. Let me add, too, that the extensive endnotes to this post are one of the huge things I love about you.

    Kevin: I bet your sermon will be awesome. I can’t wait to hear the report.

  8. Big ups to the Friend editor in charge of adding “…AND DIDN’T HAVE THE FULNESS OF THE GOSPEL!” to articles like these.

    Okay that’s mean. I liked the article and the post very much.

  9. Fantastic. A salient reminder that “Holy Envy” is not just something we want other people to have for us. We need it as well.

  10. I suppose I’m a member of the choir here, but preach on, john f.!

    Also, I couldn’t help but note that the father in the story waited until after the service to check his phone. All kinds of good examples here.

  11. John: well done. I wish I’d spent more time studying the cathedrals and religions when I served my lds mission in Europe.

  12. I recently gave a devotional talk at BYU-Hawaii about the virtues of religious pluralism that attempted to expand the conversation to include non-Christian faiths. It seems to have been well-received, particularly since so many of the students in Laie come from international backgrounds. (BYU-Hawaii is an amazing component of the modern Church, where the “I’m a Mormon” ads really do reflect the population.)
    http://devotional.byuh.edu/media141111

  13. I like to think that as a former Catholic, I helped my companions appreciate some of the good things about Catholicism while we were up to our eyebrows in it in Sicily. I probably didn’t do nearly as well as I should have, however. I’ve come to appreciate my own religious heritage a lot more as I’ve aged.

  14. Grant Hardy – I read and listened to your address – I loved it. I sent it out to friends and family. If people haven’t heard it, please do. It is The Gospel as I see it. Thank you Brother Hardy.

  15. John – Thank you. I have copied and bookmarked this. It is a devotional and lesson that I desire of my life. It is a Holy Envy of mine and for my family. Great piece.

  16. I love this. I’ve done my best to help my kids show appreciation for other faiths as we’ve traveled the world. I have been put off at times by other Mormons’ dismissive or even denigrating remarks about these unfamiliar worship services. One friend referred to Notre Dame Cathedral as “dark” and “devilish.” Another was eager to skip out on sight seeing in the Buddhist temples as a waste of time to avoid. In Vietnam, we visited a CaoDai service, and it was fascinating for several reasons: 1) it’s roughly the same number of adherents as Mormonism, but started in 1926, 2) their temple worship had many striking parallels to ours, and 3) it’s an amalgam of several other faiths rolled into one, taking the best of each, pluralism at its best.

  17. The best book on Religious Pluralism I’ve read is called the Fifth Dimension by John Hicks. It’s well worth a read. I would like to add though that religious pluralism is in my experience far easier to do if someone has never been LDS. I was confirmed an Anglican in the same York Minster that is mentioned in the article exactly a year ago. I left the LDS church in January 2012. Not one of my LDS family would attend the confirmation. I can totally understand why this was the case. From their point of view they are part of the one and only true church and I won’t get to the celestial kingdom now because I am no longer part of it. That is tough for them to come to terms with. And they truly believe it. Added to that, they are not comfortable in other churches and struggle to be in them. When a story changes it takes a long time for the new message to get through. A long time. That been said, I hope this is a sign of good things ahead. Would make my life a lot easier as an Anglican Post Mormon.

  18. Rose, have you seen the Facebook group “From Salt Lake to Canterbury.” Seems tailor-made for you.

  19. RJH – Just had a look and it’s a closed group. I don’t do Facebook either although my husband does. I would describe myself as a metaphoric Christian, which is quite safe to be within the Anglican church. The reason I am there. It creates a safe places for a variety of belief and as a trained musician, the choir’s of the Anglican Minsters provide me with worship that does bring me closer to the ‘ALL’ as I now like to describe God. I do miss the LDS community 38 years is a long time. I hope things will become more tolerant towards the ‘leavers’ as they describe myself and others that have left. Sounds a bit better than ‘apostate’. So that’s progress. I think the UK LDS community tends to be more fundamentalist than the US LDS. Simply because it is such a minority religion.

  20. Thank you for this, John. It is beautiful – both the article and your thoughts.

  21. it's a series of tubes says:

    Wonderful post and a wonderful place. The Five Sisters are sublime.

  22. Wonderful post about a splendid article. I’m thrilled this was in the Friend. Thanks for calling it to my attention.