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Meridian Magazine 24 May 2011

Why Alma Would Have Liked Buddha and Confucius

By Grant Hardy

[Note to readers: Last month I wrote about the basic structure of the book of Ether , which offers a quick way to demonstrate to Sunday school classes, youth, and friends how carefully crafted the Book of Mormon is. I had originally intended to write a follow-up article about some of the other remarkable patterns in Ether, but Ifll put that off for a month since there has been an exciting development in my life—last week my 36-lecture DVD/CD course gGreat Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Traditionh was released by The Teaching Company. 

Christians have long worried about whether God plays favorites. Since salvation only comes through Jesus Christ, what fate awaits the hundreds of millions who lived outside of Christendom, who never had a chance to hear the gospel, or who died without baptism, perhaps even before Jesus was born? From medieval Catholic speculations about Limbo to Rob Bellfs recent evangelical book Love Wins, there has been a great deal of unease about reconciling Godfs love for all his children with the fact that for most of history only a minority of the worldfs population had access to prophets, apostles, or scriptures.

One of the intriguing findings in Robert Putnam and David Campbellfs American Grace

(flagged by the writers at the lds.org Newsroom)  is that Latter-day Saints are unusual in combining a strong belief in the existence of one true religion with a conviction that those outside of their faith, including non-Christians, can gain salvation or go to heaven. The idea of a God who is ethically demanding but also fair is, to me, one of the most attractive features of Mormonism, though it may be a bit puzzling to outsiders. Of course, the way that we balance the two seemingly contradictory beliefs is through our doctrines of missionary work in the spirit world and baptism for the dead. Neither of these concepts is prominent in the Book of Mormon, but even in that early scripture there is evidence of Godfs deep concern for people throughout history and across the globe.

One of the fundamental teachings of the Book of Mormon is that Godfs saving acts were not restricted to Palestine. After his resurrection, Jesus visited the Americas, where he met descendants of the house of Israel who had been given prophetic warnings of coming. So not only were there Christians in the New World before Columbus, there had even been devout Christians before Jesusf birth. But that is not all. Nephi and Jacob had suggested that other offshoots of Israel had been led by God elsewhere in the world (2 Ne. 29:13-14; Jacob 5), and Jesus told the Nephites gathered at the temple in Bountiful that he needed to visit those peoples as well (3 Ne. 16:1-3). There were also non-Israelite groups, such as the Jaredites, to whom Christ had revealed himself (at least to some extent; more on this next month).

Before his own remarkable vision, Nephi expressed his belief that the power of the Holy Ghost was gthe gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men. For he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and the way is prepared for all men [and presumably women] from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him (1 Ne. 10:17-18). And this seems to involve more than just warm feelings or the twinges of conscience, for the Lord later revealed to Nephi that gI command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is writtenh (2 Ne. 29:11). It appears that we should expect the word of God, in some form or other, to be manifest in texts throughout the centuries and around the world. 

The classic exposition of this doctrine of global revelation comes when Alma the Younger, in his gO that I were an angelh speech, wishes that he could preach the gospel in such a way that the entire world would hear. That wasnft possible at the time (what would he have thought of radio, TV and the Internet?), but he takes comfort in the fact that God has already been laying the groundwork: gThe Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should haveh (Alma 29:8). Given this explicit assertion, we should be asking ourselves, gWhere are the promised texts from around the globe that contain a measure of Godfs word?h Perhaps there are some that will be revealed, like the Book of Mormon, at some future date, but in the meantime I would argue that many of the worldfs great religious figures and philosophers received inspiration and taught true principles that are encompassed within the gospel. These individuals, teaching their own people in their own language, helped their followers to live morally and open their hearts to spiritual matters. 

This is not exactly a radical belief. The First Presidency issued a statement on February 15, 1978 which declared that gthe 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.h And in Preach My Gospel (p. 46), Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed are specifically listed as examples of the inspired teachers spoken of by Alma.

So what would Alma have thought of Buddha? Of course, the two would not have agreed on everything—resurrection is not reincarnation, nirvana is not heaven, and Zen meditation is not exactly what Nephi had in mind when he spoke of gpondering in your heartsh—but I believe that Alma would have respected a teacher who focused attention on the problem of suffering and who urged people to follow the Five Precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxicants.

Similarly, I suspect that Alma, who had held both political and ecclesiastical office and was deeply engaged in social reform, would have responded positively to many of Confuciusf ideas, which included  emphasis on education, moral government, ritual, personal morality (especially respect for parents and family), and hierarchy (though in a cooperative rather than a confrontational mode). Confucius once said that the pinnacle of his own ethical development was when, at the age of seventy, he could finally gfollow what my heart desired without transgressing what was right.h Perhaps Alma would have been reminded of the reaction of the people of Lamoni to the preaching of his friend Ammon: gtheir hearts had been changed, that they had no more desire to do evilh (Alma 19:33; cf.Mosiah 5:2)

It may seem strange for Latter-day Saints, who already have the truth, to be interested in other religions or philosophies, but there are at least four good reasons why it makes sense to study other faith traditions:

1.When we recognize common concerns and values, we can work with others and learn from their experiences in implementing those values. Discovering that some of our own truths are also present in other belief systems is evidence that Alma knew what he was talking about. We live in a much more pluralistic world than Alma, and for the civil discourse that our national well-being depends upon, it is good to know something about what others believe, to avoid unfair caricatures, and to show respect for those of other faiths.

2. Learning about other religions can help us to better share our message. When we recognize not just the commonalities, but also the real differences that exist between religions, we can better articulate what exactly we believe, and what we have to offer the world. It is also helpful to sometimes put ourselves in othersf shoes. The next time you want to share the Book of Mormon, ask yourself how you might feel if someone tried to give you a copy of the Lotus Sutra. What might they say to spark your interest? What does it mean to suddenly be confronted with a new way of looking at life, especially if it involves new names and vocabulary, or perhaps familiar words used in new ways? When was the last time that you actually read someone elsefs scripture, in the same way that you would like your friends to read yours? (The Golden Rule, not by coincidence, shows up in a number of different cultures.)

3. Although Mormonism is true, it does not contain all truths, at least not yet. And there are opportunities for us to be genuine learners when we study other traditions. I have found that in teaching world religions, I have come across many ideas that have enriched my faith and helped me see things in new and better ways. For instance, I quite like the Buddhist principle of mindfulness, and their teachings about the Five Aggregates is a useful way to complicate the rather simplistic notion of mind/body dualism that we often just take for granted. For instance, one of the aggregates is gpsychic dispositions,h which include impulses and habits; itfs hard to say whether they are mental or physical. I am also intrigued by the Confucian notion that individuals are not perfectly free, autonomous entities but rather the product of a network of social relationships. Hence, we find our identity in multiple, overlapping roles—as parents and children, as teachers and learners, as supervisors and subordinates, etc.

4. As a Latter-day Saint, I, like Abraham of old, want to be ga greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledgeh (Abr. 1:3), so I am delighted to discover truths from any source. If the Book of Mormon suggests that God has revealed a portion of his word to good people around the world, then I am eager to seek after those things, along with anything gvirtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.h

If you are similarly inclined, but donft exactly know where to start, here is a somewhat self-serving suggestion. The Teaching Company has been producing college courses for audiovisual media for twenty years, and they recently invited me to put together a course for them on the Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition. As the national leader in the field, they are quite selective and it was an honor to be asked (to my knowledge, I am the first LDS professor on their roster). My course, which was just released last week, is an introduction to the great thinkers and ideas of Asia—primarily India, China, and Japan, but also Tibet and Korea. I define gintellectual traditionh rather broadly, so that it includes politics, history, and science as well as religion and philosophy, with more than seventy great minds in all (and there is an introductory discount of 70%!).

Because I viewed this as an opportunity to learn from other traditions rather than imposing my own belief system, I never talk about Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon, and I didnft attempt to fit Asian religious concepts into Mormon categories. I tried to understand and explain these traditions on their own terms. But at the same time, my LDS background colors nearly everything that I do, including this course. I tell stories from the two years that I was a missionary in Taiwan, my lecture on Korean philosophy was inspired by the Korean family that I home teach, and the lecture on Asian science and technology was the direct result of a conversation I had with a fellow Latter-day Saint at a ward picnic. If the First Presidency taught that Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed were inspired by God (at least to some extent), then I wanted to be sure to include them.

There are legitimate concerns about mixing human philosophies with gospel truths, but seeking for the traces of revelation that Alma talks about can better equip us to comprehend and clarify our own beliefs (which in many cases have been unconsciously combined with Western philosophies). The Doctrine and Covenants urges us to gobtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdomsh (93:53) and to gseek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith (88:118). Even if youfve been out of school for a while, itfs not too late. And those wisdom-infused gbest books,h in my opinion, obviously include spiritual classics like the Daodejing and the Bhagavad Gita.

Here is just one of dozens and dozens of interesting ideas that I encountered in preparing the Teaching Company lectures. In medieval Hinduism, worshippers of Vishnu were divided over the issue of grace, much like Arminians and Calvinists in the Protestant Reformation. In the Southern school, grace was completely and fully a gift from god. In the Northern school, however, grace was thought to be conditional upon the efforts of individuals; that is to say, salvation was a cooperative process between god and the believer.

The two groups explained their positions though competing metaphors. For the Southern school, salvation comes gon the analogy of the cath: as a cat picks up her kittens by the scruff of the neck with her teeth and carries them about, so god saves whomever he will, with no effort on their part whatsoever. In the Northern school, by contrast, salvation could be obtained gon the analogy of the monkeyh: god saves souls just as a mother monkey carries her young to safety, swinging through the trees while her infant holds on for dear life. Some effort, at least faith, is required on the part of the believer. Nephi explained a similar concept in rather abstract terms—gWe know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can doh (2 Ne. 25:23)—but it is the Hindu image that really brings that doctrine home to me. Sometimes it seems like the best I can do is to hold on tightly and trust that God will take me where I need to be.

The Book of Mormon proclaims that there are revealed truths for us to discover among all nations, languages, and peoples.

So what are we waiting for? In an age of books, libraries, the Internet, and easily accessible college lectures, there has never been a better time to put that promise to the test.

Grant Hardy is the editor of The Book of Mormon: A Readerfs Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2003) and the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Readerfs Guide (Oxford University Press, 2010). He is a professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina—Asheville.