Editor's note: This commentary by writer Samuel B. Hislop is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. The author’s views are his own.
As a nation, we took time last month to remember Martin Luther King Jr. One of Dr. King’s most striking teachings is worth repeating in our own fractured times: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
As I ponder the importance of broadening one’s knowledge and experience, I’m reminded of something I witnessed several years ago in Sunday School. I watched as the teacher wrote a dozen words and phrases on the chalkboard and asked for a volunteer to erase any concepts not revealed exclusively through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A 30-something man eagerly agreed, walked to the front of the classroom, briefly considered the various terms on the board and said he didn’t see anything to take away.
"That's right," the teacher exclaimed. "It was a trick question."
But as I looked closer at the board, I was certain the teacher had made a mistake. Alongside several phrases with which devout Latter-day Saints would undoubtedly be familiar (for example, "Melchizedek Priesthood" and "eternal marriage”), two concepts caught my eye: “Our creation in God's image" and "resurrection.” These teachings are recognized and embraced by many Bible and Quran readers the world over — important ideas certainly explicated and expanded in significant ways by Latter-day revelations but not necessarily revealed exclusively to Latter-day Saints.
The teacher moved on to give an important and otherwise thoughtful lesson about Joseph Smith’s foundational role in organizing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the oversight stuck with me — and it continues to make me think years later. It’s a small thing, really, but when unchecked, letting the wisdom and truth held by others go unacknowledged can grow into a larger problem. Though Latter-day Saints are a religiously literate group — some studies show we score higher than others on questions about the Bible and Christianity — we may be susceptible to believing that we are the world’s only unique conduit for all truth. This alluring intellectual trap is of course not unique to Latter-day Saints; but, of all people, church members are under special admonishment to recognize and gather great truths from many founts of wisdom.
If we already know it all, what need do we really have to follow Dr. King’s counsel to expand one’s horizons through an ecumenical life?
To be clear, I believe the Latter-day revelation which states that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” But conviction in this divine declaration does not mean we are God's only people. And, as Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, our wealth of reveled truth should not become a reason for supposing “that we know everything.” Rather, it should imbue us with a sense of humility and gratitude. President Hugh B. Brown, then a member of the First Presidency, told BYU students in 1969 that even with the church’s many important truths, “there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers — that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not."
A thoughtless elitism — among Latter-day Saints or anyone — can lead to hotheaded arrogance and its ugly brother, ignorance. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose years in Soviet Gulag taught him something of the importance of truth and humility, provides a description of prison guards in “The Gulag Archipelago” that is an apt reminder of how easy it is to be infected by a sense of superiority: "Out of the fact that no one is capable of resisting them, (the camp guards) draw the conclusion that they rule very wisely, that this is their talent. … Stupidity always follows on the heels of smugness. Deified alive, each knows everything inside out, doesn't need to read or learn, and no one can tell him anything worth pausing over."
The evil twins of arrogance and ignorance appear in a variety of circumstances and are by no means the progeny of only the powerful. They also find a home in our souls when we assume, almost always incorrectly, that we have all the answers and thus, that “all is well.” We should never shy away from our own unique truth claims, but when we close our mind, we can fool ourselves into believing nobody outside our circle could possibly teach us anything. I’m still learning to keep my intellect open. Over the past several years, I have enjoyed exchanging book suggestions with a friend from high school who was recently catechized into the Catholic Church. He has encouraged me to read such Catholic authors as St. Augustine and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus. In return, I've pointed him to books I've enjoyed — including some in the Latter-day Saint genre.
My friend’s reading suggestions have proved delightful, even life-changing, strengthening my conviction that God can speak to everyone. An insight from St. Augustine’s “Confessions” about the importance of truth’s accessibility has been especially impactful.
St. Augustine writes that truth “does not belong to me nor to anyone else,” but is our “public possession.” He then says that “anyone who claims for his own property what (God offers) for all to enjoy, and wishes to have exclusive rights to what belongs to everyone, is driven from the common truth to his own private ideas, that is from truth to a lie.”
To be sure, Augustine himself struggled over how best to treat those with differing theological views, and, sadly, at times supported the imposition of troubling punishments on those deemed “heretics.” But, nonetheless, the sentiments of his message should be for every Latter-day Saint, including the wonderful Sunday School teacher I referenced earlier. Indeed, it’s a message for all people of faith.
The balance of modesty and certainty is difficult when our truth claims are absolute and our experiences with the divine seem to render our convictions immovable, as they should. But like the blind men and the elephant, we all have pieces of truth and should strive to unite to better grasp the whole. As that parable says:
"So oft in theologic wars, / The disputants, I ween, / Rail on in utter ignorance / Of what each other mean, / And prate about an Elephant / Not one of them has seen!"13 comments on this story
Anyone serious about progressing on the pilgrimage toward truth must be open to learning from everyone, no matter their education level, ethnicity, nationality, political party or religion (or lack thereof). The search for truth is a quest — a long, arduous and hopefully satisfying pursuit — but not a competition to see who ends up with more or a race won only by those who cross the finish line first.
In the words of Joseph Smith, “receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Joseph further admonished: “Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst.”
A world with such sturdy truth-seeking souls is surely one Dr. King would welcome.