I was up until four last night finishing homework for my Sociology 390 course, all about the sociology of India's religions. It was a really nice combination of academic thought and laid-back attitude - expectations of logos with a healthy dose of pathos mixed in. I emailed it to my professor, who wrote back to tell me he'd gotten it. Then he wrote back again:
Nephi: Thank you for your write-ups, they were a pleasure to read. I especially wish to thank you for your final paper. A teacher can only hope that what he/she teaches falls on those who wish to be taught. An author once said that all learning requires to revelation of ignorance. It is such a life-altering experience to see that God loves everyone, really. One is compelled to reinterpret what were once seen as exclusive statements and doctrines from their own religious tradition and suddenly see in them universality. Again, it was exciting for me as a teacher to see that one was taught. May I use your paper (either with or without your name, up to you) for future students to learn from as well?
I guess I did all right in the course. So here's what I wrote. If you have any thoughts about it, let me know.
My crisis this summer: Is my God in India? Was my idea of God an exclusive, ethnocentric view, blind to whatever truths might be around me just because I wasn't in a place where my American God wasn't immediately available? In a lot of ways, the answer to that question was yes: I couldn't find much of anything in India that I could easily call God. I had learned to call God a Being I could contact and get in touch with when I was alone with my thoughts, in a quiet or remote place. In India that type of situation seemed impossible to find. God for me had been a Father, in some very literal sense of the word, and I was to be like Him. Nothing around me indicated that possibility at all. It had me distressed - until, that is, my final night in India. That night, almost exactly a month ago as I write this now, I came to understand that God understands and appreciates cultures, and reveals truth within cultural contexts to allow humans to live moral, beautiful lives full of light.
One of the main concerns fueling my crisis was the idea - my conviction, really - that Jesus as the Christ performed an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. The concern stems from that last point - that every person, throughout the world, has been given the gift of the Atonement. If that is true, what of the cultural differences between those who already know about the Atonement and those who know nothing to speak of about it? I stood on a rooftop overlooking Varanasi one morning and wondered how God saw all the people who lived there in that town, those who had perhaps never understood what Christians believe about Jesus, or had never even heard His name. In the case of these people, would Christian belief require the abandonment of cultural values and beliefs? Giving up such a large part of a person's identity sounds like an awful challenge. Does God expect that of them?
That last night in India, in the mosque, I found myself again (as I had before) in the comfortable company of Muslims, this time watching through one-way mirrors from a soundbooth looking over Sunday night's prayers. I'd been invited by a generous bearded man who'd introduced himself as a retired police officer and bought me a Coke; his friend, who ran the mosque's sound, translated the night's Hadith lecture for me, and I found myself feeling there many of the same religious feelings I'd experienced back home - feeling I'd come to identify with the experience of 'feeling the Spirit', learning that something was true by the presence of the Holy Ghost. Something was true there, it occurred to me. And yet how could it be, if Islamic revelation (and Hindu, and Sikh, and, Buddhist and Jain) seemed to contradict Mormonism's apparent monopoly on revelation?
There's where I found a place to resolve my crisis: at the question of ownership. We must not have been the only people on the earth to have acquired revelation from God. An overwhelmingly large percentage of the world's religions contain quite common rules concerning moral and ethical conduct, as well as advice on how to interact respectfully with other people. And yet the sheer number of cultures present among the world's peoples doesn't lend itself toward such striking similarities: one would expect that the gamut of cultures would also result in countless shockingly different moral and ethical codes. In this light, the idea becomes more likely that truths have been given from one Source to peoples willing to live a 'good life' and not developed independently as ideas that merely give us the illusion of universal truth. Smaller discrepancies between behavioral codes, given that God allows cultures to differ, would themselves be allowed to grow and develop naturally, adding variety and interest to the world.
In Bodh Gaya, a couple weeks before my experience at the mosque, I had discussed my crisis with Kem Ramirez, a Peruvian student who had traveled before to Thailand and was one of the group's most familiar with Eastern religions and thought. He said he had been thinking about the same thing, and that something he had learned in previous courses and then traveling was that "it isn't about this life". Having given it some thought, I've come to understand that statement in the following way: that God is an infinite Being who, while indeed working with and for us in the short-term, sees the end from the beginning and maintains a perfect understanding of who we are individually, who we can and will be, and what that will take. Given His understanding of who we are right now, it must be said that He therefore understands us not only as human beings but also as cultural beings working under rather specific paradigms. If that's the case, then the smaller, less important, more 'cultural' precepts that make up specific peoples' codes will be able to be correctetd as we go through the eternities. Some people are working those things out in their own lives now, of course, which will be a benefit to them and others as they go on after this life. But for everyone, this will be a very long process, and in God's eyes that must be all right.
It has been a struggle to return to Provo with these new discoveries. God, working with cultures, has seen fit to restore His Gospel in a country where Puritan piety reigns among the faithful, a certain perfectionism that has wielded some great influence in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You get what you deserve. You work harder and you'll get more. Those who don't have, haven't worked hard enough. Somehow less wealthy, less popular, less beautiful indicates less blessed. My struggle in returning has been, How could God let the Truth be restored in such an environment as this, where our cultural values lead us to a place where we are so prone to judge one another - and thereby keep each other down instead of doing anything to understand and build each other up? Why in the world would He do such a thing? Is it possible that these tenets I've held to so dearly are in fact not Truth?
Actually, there's the value of listening to what the actual scriptures and the Church's highest leaders are teaching us instead of following the practices that have become culturally acceptable. Rather than preaching a religion of judgment, these sources try to convey the importance of patience, of being slow to speak and quick to reflect on a situation, of recognizing the hand of the Divine in people's eternal (and not just terrestrial) lives. The blind man that Jesus healed wasn't afflicted because of anything he or anyone else had done, as some of the more prominent Jews evidently thought; he was just blind, and that was that. Jesus had compassion on the man and healed him, whereas those placing themselves among society's most righteous despised the man for his affliction. There is no reason to do follow along blindly while people make the same mistakes of judgement today; rather, looking for what God teaches will benefit both us and those around us.
What's more, it's here that we find the value of learning from other religious traditions: along with the religion comes a culture that can shed additional, beautiful light on a worldview that we probably thought was already fully illuminated. My experience with Muslims taught me a new reverence for the holiness of God. My time with Sikhs taught me to always be thinking of how to be more honorable my way of greater service to other people around me. From Jainism I understood how little I needed in life. With Hindus it was a respect for others, as they are right now and as they will surely be in the future. Buddhists taught me the power I had within myself to be holy. And Baha'i taught me to find the good in all of these religious traditions. It has been a rather hard road for me these past five months - I can even perhaps say that my foundations have been shaken or that I've had to face what an old roommate used to call the abyss. But learning what I have about God and how He works with men and women in the world, I think I've come to a greater appreciation of all the beauty there is to be had here, and how much learning I still have to do. I expect the answers I've found to these questions will become still more refined, more satisfying, and that that too will present me with some scary times. But I welcome those times and am glad I've already had to wrestle with these questions this summer in India.