Envy and Regret

June 9, 2004 | 34 comments
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Lots of people believe lots of different things. There are many different religions. How do we cope with this issue?

There are a couple of different strategies. One way is to simply retreat from religion all together. The pluralism of belief, so the argument goes, suggests that no one belief can be justified. Much better to simply let the mystery be or deny that there is any mystery at all. Another alternative is to treat all religions as really being about the same thing. Rather than being “religious” we become “spiritual.” Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong are examples of this approach. Closely related to this is a religious holism that suggests that all religions are really leading to the same place and the particular path is not especially important. (This is an approach that Hindus and Buddhist frequently articulate.) Another possibility is simply to declare that all other religions are false, and the issue of pluralism is nothing more than a simple choice between truth and error. I suspect that to one extent or another Mormons have adopted all of these strategies. I have to confess to toying with all of them. At present, however, I am opting for envy and regret.

As it happens, I really get a kick out of being a Mormon. It is a grand spiritual, intellectual, and social adventure for me. However, there are aspects of other religions that I envy, and I can honestly say that there are moments when – despite my delighted Mormonism – I envy other faiths.

I envy Islam their jurists. The usul al-fiqh (Islamic legal theory) is an awesome intellectual achievement. The laborious attention to weight of authority, textual detail, categorization etc. appeals to my lawyer’s brain. I want something like that.

I regret not being Jewish when I am confronted with the endless interpretive imagination of the rabbis. I love the image of the sage jokingly arguing with God. The Talmud and the Mishnah are undeniably cool.

I envy Catholicism its theology. The Summa Theologica is incredible. I confess that I am envious of a pope with multiple doctorates in philosophy, and a magesterium that regularly produces encyclicals with great philosophical and ethical subtlety.

I envy Anglicans their liturgy. The Book of Common prayer is beautiful, and the music and choirs of King’s College or Westminster are truly wonderful. I assume that the choirs in heaven will be mainly Episcopalian.

I envy Evangelicals their preachers. Frankly, I get tired with church “talks” that partake of an easy conversationalism or a teleprompter-induced monotone. A while ago, someone at BCC suggested that it would be cool if they had a sort of seminar format at general conference. No! No! No! I go to church to be preached at. I want someone to deliver a real sermon in which I am called to repentance, dangled over the fires of hell, and invited home to Jesus. I envy congregations that feel comfortable shouting “Amen brother” during the sermon and have sermons – not “talks” – that invoke that kind of response.

None of this envy or regret means that I am going to abandon Mormonism. I find the delights of the Restoration too enticing, and the story of saints and the rolling forth of the kingdom is the plot that I have chosen to live in. Still, I think that there is virtue in envy and regret.

Anyone else with envies or regrets?

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34 Responses to Envy and Regret

  1. Julie in Austin on June 9, 2004 at 9:42 pm

    You left off liberal Protestants. I envy their biblical scholarship and engagement with social issues. I also envy their (and the evangelical’s) dynamic youth programs and curriculum. (But I’ve gotten pretty good at appropriating them for FHE and family scripture study.)

    And, as far as I can tell, everyone, everyone has better music than we do.

  2. Kevin Barney on June 9, 2004 at 10:07 pm

    This reminds me of Krister Stendahl’s notion that we ought to encourage a sense of “sacred envy” for what others believe. His sacred envy of Mormons was their belief in salvation for the dead.

    Since Stendahl was a Lutheran, I’ll return the favor and say I envy Lutherans their music.

    I think a little sacred envy is a very healthy thing.

  3. cooper on June 9, 2004 at 10:11 pm

    Yes, I envy the First Baptists down the streeT. Every Sunday after church they have a big barbeque, no guilt about breaking the Sabbath at all either. There seems to be such grand sociability there. I’ve not witnessed anything like it at church ever.

  4. Daniel Peterson on June 9, 2004 at 10:16 pm

    Julie in Austin: “And, as far as I can tell, everyone, everyone has better music than we do.”

    Really? Have you ever attended mass at a typical Catholic parish? Really lackluster music and singing, on the whole. Even Catholics comment on it. And the situation wasn’t improved at all at the special meeting I was invited to attend a few years ago at St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls in Rome, where the pope presided, most if not all of the curial cardinals attended, and leaders of most of the Orthodox and Protestant churches of Europe participated. Alas, not every Catholic service features Vivaldi’s Gloria or Schubert’s Mass in G or Mozart’s Requiem.

    And the Muslims don’t even HAVE hymns.

    That said, there is much that we can admire in (and, I hope, steal from) other faiths.

    Krister Stendahl has spoken, on occasion, of what he calls “holy envy,” where we notice in the praxis or lived experience of other faiths features that we could wish existed in our own. I’m sympathetic to all of Nate’s list, and could easily add many others.

    Although I do not wish to be Amish, I do admire their consistency in living a life that is distinctively, thoroughly Christian and undominated by consumerism.

    I envy the very solemn and deep joy of the Orthodox Jewish shabbat, which the crowded busyness of our own sabbaths makes almost impossible for us to emulate.

    I envy the seriousness with which I have seen some (but far from all) Catholics take the concept of priesthood.

    I envy the Jewish literary tradition.

    I love much Muslim architecture, including the wonderful modern mosques that have been built in places like Pakistan, and I adore some of the Baha’i temples. Meanwhile, the architecture of our own chapels (and some temples) often leaves me utterly cold.

    I’m pleased, though, that Latter-day Saints are neither in the position of some liberal Protestants, who seem to have no beliefs at all and, so, can accept all other faiths without much discrimination, nor in that of our fundamentalist Protestant friends, for whom all religions other than their own are demonic and hell-bound. I like being able to respect and value other religious traditions without being a complete relativist. In that regard, as in very many others, I’m thoroughly delighted with where I am.

  5. Ben Huff on June 9, 2004 at 10:44 pm

    Just to chime in with Dan, I think we have an absolutely wonderful theological position from which to practice sacred envy! How do you beat 2 Nephi 29? If envy and regret of other traditions is inevitable, why not do it really well?

  6. Julie in Austin on June 9, 2004 at 10:46 pm

    Daniel–

    Because everyone from my family of origin is Catholic, I’ve been to my fair share of masses, in a few different states. Still, maybe not a representative sample, but . . . still better.

    As for Muslims not having hymns, what’s that J. Golden line about a meeting having to be *really* good to be better than no meeting at all (grin)?

  7. Jeremy on June 9, 2004 at 11:04 pm

    My wife says she envies Protestants their after-church coffee mingle (the mingle, not the coffee). That way she wouldn’t have to get all her gossiping done during gospel doctrine.

    I envy Jews their comedians.

    I envy the Jehovah’s Witnesses the fellowship of both Michael Jackson AND Prince… :)

    I envy the Jazz Church of St. John Coltrane, for obvious reasons.

  8. Daniel Peterson on June 9, 2004 at 11:06 pm

    Really? Well, maybe my own sample has just been spectacularly unlucky. I’ve found Catholic singing embarrassingly bad. Uniformly so. There was even a choir singing by the high altar in St. Peter’s in the Vatican a couple of weeks ago that was probably less polished than my old high school choir.

    And a substantial part of the problem — I say this as someone deeply enamoured of Catholic culture, etc., on many levels — is that the material they have to work with is so uninteresting.

    I think Latter-day Saints are fortunate to have inherited/stolen a fair amount from the Wesleyan and Lutheran traditions of hymnody, and that we lucked out, to a great degree, when we managed to convert a lot of people from Wales.

    Moreover, some Protestant churches are in the lamentable process of chucking their own hymn tradition out the window in exchange for mediocre pop-style tunes. Fortunately, although there is some of that in our own community (you can recognize it easily, because “eternity” is the omnipresent rhyme for “destiny”), it has, on the whole, not yet managed to seize control of our sacrament meetings.

    But I do pray for Gladys Knight to save us from lackluster, energy-less singing.

  9. Melissa on June 9, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    Count me in for deep green envy of the Talmud and the Mishnah!!

    I am also envious of stained glass and liturgical calendars. I always feel sheepish when I get asked what Mormons do on Easter. The appropriate answer should NOT be buy little girls new dresses and make ourselves sick on chocolate bunnies.

  10. Arwyn on June 9, 2004 at 11:41 pm

    I envy the Orthodox religions their pagentry — I know it would be terribly incongruous of us to preach thrift and then outfit our bishops in ornate cassocks or decorate our chapels with gilded images of holy figures, but I still think they’re neat.

    More than anything else, though, I envy those religions that have a sincere element of worship — whether it be the Southern Baptist cries of ‘Hallelujah!’ or the Islamic affirmation ‘Allah akbar!’ or what have you in between. We give a lot of thanks, but we don’t often openly worship, and that’s an element that I honestly would love to cultivate in our religious activities.

  11. Mark Butler on June 10, 2004 at 1:52 am

    I could hardly agree with you more, Nate. The day will come, the day will come.

  12. Jim F. on June 10, 2004 at 2:47 am

    Right now I don’t envy other religions as much as I envy those who got to post their envies before me!

    I was raised a Protestant and I miss their discussions of grace and, with Nate, their preaching. I find Catholic theology and liturgy enviable. (And I envy Catholic theology even though I don’t think we should have a theology!) I envy Jews their ability to argue with one another without thinking that someone has just cut him or herself off from the rest. I envy Buddhists the ease with which they live in the world. I think I envy Muslim’s their self-confidence, but I’m not sure. I’m still recovering from a recent e-mail exchange with a Muslim acquaintance.

  13. Keith Lane on June 10, 2004 at 5:16 am

    I envy Quakers their ability to find meaning and joy in shared public silences.

    I envy those in Lutheran and Reformed traditions for two great thinkers: Karl Barth and Soren Kierkegaard. I have some envy of Protestant preaching, though here I have to say that I’ve come to appreciate talks given by the Spirit but also under the mantle of authority–from apostolic to the authority of a bishop.

    I envy the colors and senses of Hindu puja or devotion.

    Whenever I teach Buddhism in my World Religions course, I envy Buddhist ‘psychology’. While I do not think the Four Noble Truths are the best cosmology/theology, I do find them to be better psychology than most I see in Western Traditons, especially in coping with the world around us and living with equanimity.

    I envy Jews for their cantors and Muslims for those who call to prayer. The trained, melodic voices here are tremendously beautiful.

    I envy/admire Muslim thinkers who refuse to bow to the enlightenment and modernism at the sake of giving up religion, though I think Islamic society as a whole is having a rough time of coping with modernity. And considering a society which has pervasive fashion of bare midriffs and sloppy dress, I envy Muslims their striving for modesty and decorum (which is not to praise burkahs).

    I envy Jews their preparation for and entrance into the Sabbath. I think the deliberate marking of moving into sacred time makes them much more aware and brings more holy joy.

    Finally, I envy Orthodox Christians their kindly grandmothers who faithfully attend their public places of worship (standing three hours and more) and who will not hesitate to give you a proper and deserved dressing down if you are being irreverant.

    I could say more, but this will do for now.

  14. Grasshopper on June 10, 2004 at 11:46 am

    How many of these things that we envy can we bring into our own practice of Mormonism? How do we best do so?

  15. Ryan Bell on June 10, 2004 at 11:56 am

    Daniel, it’s surprising to me that you envy the (some) Catholics’ their seriousness about the Priesthood. In my mind, Mormons’ seriousness and thoughtfulness about the priesthood, and the vital role it plays in our faith, is one of our most important distinguishing characteristics.

    Also, President Hinckley has often urged the rest of the world to bring what good and truth they already have, and come to us, to see if we can add to it. Is it possible that this statement is to be taken literally? That perhaps we as a church can be augmented and improved by the addition of new members that bring their own traditions and perspectives, on more than just a one-on-one, personal level?

  16. Ryan Bell on June 10, 2004 at 11:56 am

    Daniel, it’s surprising to me that you envy the (some) Catholics’ their seriousness about the Priesthood. In my mind, Mormons’ seriousness and thoughtfulness about the priesthood, and the vital role it plays in our faith, is one of our most important distinguishing characteristics.

    Also, President Hinckley has often urged the rest of the world to bring what good and truth they already have, and come to us, to see if we can add to it. Is it possible that this statement is to be taken literally? That perhaps we as a church can be augmented and improved by the addition of new members that bring their own traditions and perspectives, on more than just a one-on-one, personal level?

  17. greenfrog on June 10, 2004 at 12:12 pm

    Envy: The ability and willingness of Hindu tradition to acknowledge, accept, and embrace the diversity of religious and spiritual experience present in the world. I think that our tradition imbues us with a skepticism of others’ experiences that do not fit easily within standardized LDS patterns.

    Buddhism for its revelatory exploration and depiction of mind and consciousness.

    Regret: That we have not yet fulfilled the measure of a lay clergy’s potential to prepare and deliver life-based, meaningful and elevating sermons. In some regard, perhaps this is a function of a current LDS focus on authoritarian structure combined with the advent of Net-available statements by LDS leaders. I abhor the LDS Quote-O-Matic style sermons that are composed of loosely strung together and out-of-context statements by others.

  18. danithew on June 10, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Both Judaism and Islam have given so much attention to their sacred texts. I’m not merely referring to commentary and discussion of the meaning of the texts but the way the scriptures are manufactured, written, scripted, decorated, etc. There’s many wonderful Christian illuminated texts as well… so I shouldn’t leave them out.

    I still feel we’re developing our approach to making the scriptures/sacred books themselves beautiful.

  19. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 12:54 pm

    Ryan Bell: While I agree with you that our “seriousness and thoughtfulness about the priesthood, and the vital role it plays in our faith, is one of our most important distinguishing characteristics,” I sometimes wish we approached it with the kind of wonder, awe, fear & trembling exemplified, for example, in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Greene’s whiskey priest really sharply exemplifies the utter humility that a priesthood holder should have when contemplating (& wielding) his authority, & while I realize it is a romantic artistic portrayal by a romantic artist (at least when it came to his faith), I get the same vibe when I read magazines like Prof. Linker’s.

  20. Gary Cooper on June 10, 2004 at 1:06 pm

    I have to envy the Catholic concept of “The Church Militant”. It ties back to medievel times and the Age of Chilvary. To this day, there are still elements of Catholic practice and teaching that hearkens back to knighthood.

    The closest thing we come to on that is the LDS Church fraternity, Sigma Gamma Chi, of which I am a proud alumnus, which does incorporate direct references and procedures from Chivalry. There’s a romantic part of me that longs for the idea of the Prophet calling a solemn assembly of the Priesthood, on some pressing social or religious or political issue, and saying, “Brethren, the danger is great. This evil must not stand. I call on the Church Militant to stand and fight this!” Okay, I have a vivid imagination, and I’m a hopeless romantic, but Catholicism has an appeal to folks like me, and it would be nice if we could do the same.

  21. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    And the lord of the vineyard said unto one of his servants: Go and gather together the residue of my servants, and take all the strength of mine house, which are my warriors, my young men, and they that are of middle age also among all my servants, who are the strength of mine house …

    D&C 101:55

  22. Davis Bell on June 10, 2004 at 2:44 pm

    Envy: the rollicking good times of new-agey protestant churches, accompanied by guitars and drums

    Envy: cathedrals and other beautiful architecture (perhaps the biggest obstacle to my testimony is the fact that the Church designed the buildings of BYU in the faux-Ancient-America-Speaks-Meets-the-60′s style)

    Envy: The historical richness of the Catholic Church

    Envy: The certainty of the faithful of Islam

    Envy: The Catholic preoccupation with social justice

    Envy: The incredible network of nuns and priests doing the Lord’s work in the poorest countries of th world.

    Envy: The illustrations in Jehova’s Witness tracts depicting joyous scenes of people of every culture garbed in ethnic culture cavorting with parrots and lions

  23. Daniel Peterson on June 10, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    Ryan Bell: “Daniel, it’s surprising to me that you envy the (some) Catholics’ their seriousness about the Priesthood. In my mind, Mormons’ seriousness and thoughtfulness about the priesthood, and the vital role it plays in our faith, is one of our most important distinguishing characteristics.”

    I agree that we’re light years apart from our Protestant friends on this point. But I still don’t think that we sufficiently treasure the gift of priesthood. (Kingsley’s comments about Graham Greene’s novel remind me very much of my own reaction to it.)

    Many years ago, in Cairo, I studied Islamic philosophical texts every week for six months, one on one, with a Dominican priest and monk by the name of Georges Anawati. (He died just a few years ago, but was a very famous scholar of the subject, as well as a widely beloved figure.) Quite often, when I emerged from the Dominican Institute, there would be crowds of people at the door seeking blessings from the priests. Many times, they thought that I was one of the Dominicans. I was always moved by their simple faith and their desire for benediction, and I always corrected their misimpression and got a real priest to come out and minister to them. One day, though — I’m a bit slow on the uptake — it occurred to me with some ironic force that, although I told them I was not a priest, I actually was. And that Father Anawati and his colleagues, from a Latter-day Saint theological perspective, were not. And it shocked me that I had not really thought about that earlier, that I took my own priesthood so casually. I still did not and would not impose upon their simple faith, but I wondered at my own ease in saying that I was not a priest. I think — and maybe this makes no sense to anybody else — that the fact that I am indeed a “priest” ought to be constantly before my mind, informing my behavior and choices. That it is so often not so troubles me. And I suspect that I’m not alone. I’m not demanding 24/7 solemnity. I reject that idea. But I know I could do better. It’s analogous to the reason for which I envy the Amish: the consistency of their lifestyle with their beliefs.

    Ryan Bell: “Also, President Hinckley has often urged the rest of the world to bring what good and truth they already have, and come to us, to see if we can add to it. Is it possible that this statement is to be taken literally? That perhaps we as a church can be augmented and improved by the addition of new members that bring their own traditions and perspectives, on more than just a one-on-one, personal level?”

    That’s very much what I believe. I hope that every convert from Buddhism and Catholicism and Islam and Judaism and Quakerism will bring the best of his or her background into the culture of Mormondom, and that, ultimately, perhaps in the millennium, something unprecedentedly rich will emerge from it.

    At bottom, you see, I’m a romantic utopian.

  24. Erin Tarbuck on June 10, 2004 at 2:54 pm

    The grass is always greener….

    Coming from the other side of the fence as an ex-Mormon, I too felt many of the envies above (especially the music & preaching). What I miss most now is the geographic-centeredness of the church. The assignment of members to a specific geographic congregation is a unique practise of the LDS church, and it makes a significant difference in helping build communities of faith. Most Christians in cities “shop around” to find a congregation that works for them – a very accepted, but ultimately consumeristic approach to worship. In determining congregational membership by virtue of geography, the church helps foster community building in a remarkably powerful way – especially so in the anonymity of urban environments. It is difficult not to care about your neighbours and community when you worship with them.

  25. Gary Lee on June 10, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    I second Daniel’s envy of the Amish for the consistency of their lifestyle with their beliefs. This really struck a chord with me. The life we are called to live by our own doctrine often seems far removed from the kind of life that we actually live. How many of us really take seriously the law of consecration, for example?

  26. Philocrites on June 10, 2004 at 5:34 pm

    Like Erin, I’m a post-Mormon who envies the way geographical wards can bring people together who would otherwise gravitate to more socioeconomically and culturally segregated congregations. (Well, maybe not so much in Orem, but the farther one gets from Zion, the larger the wards, the broader the range of people, right?) I also envy the distribution of volunteer assignments in a Mormon ward — Sunday School teacher, clerks, visiting teachers, etc. — because trying to persuade someone to join the Building & Grounds Committee seems rather more difficult than calling them to the position. And almost every other organized religion envies Mormonism’s programs for young adults: Institute, missionary work, singles’ wards. Your retention rate is astonishing: the majority of Unitarian Universalist teenagers drift elsewhere in adulthood.

    I envy Anglican liturgy, its pace and complex emotions — but my wife is Episcopalian, preparing for the priesthood, and so I can scratch that itch a lot. I envy Jewish intellectual life; I think I subscribed to Sunstone when I was younger because I hoped it would somehow give me access to a world like the one in Chaim Potok’s novels. (In a way, it did!) I envy Catholicism’s monastic traditions, and I marveled at the teaching style of my Jesuit professors when I was in divinity school. And I envy the Eastern Orthodox for a spirituality of the incarnation that is dazzling to see in its icons, and that treats the resurrection more as the recreation of the world than as a body restored to life. I’d make a terrible Orthodox Christian, but they have some extraordinary ideas.

    I envy Buddhists for self-discipline, Muslims for calligraphy, India for having a huge civilization that I haven’t been able to even begin to understand, and the First Baptist Church in Salt Lake City for the only instance of “liturgical dance” I’ve ever seen that moved me deeply. I also envy people with season tickets to the Red Sox, but that may or may not be a religious thing.

  27. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 5:41 pm

    Prof. Peterson: I had a (sort of) similar experience when, as a missionary, I was “called upon” to use my ministerial certificate after hospital visiting hours in order to administer to a sick Saint. As we showed the nurse our credentials & walked through the silent halls all black-suited & solemn I felt for the first time–”Hey: I’m one of them, those priest fellows.”

  28. Ben Huff on June 10, 2004 at 8:35 pm

    I’ve been excited to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing beautiful, magical songs from the Pacific Isles or from Africa. I hope to see our musical tradition (and other aspects of our tradition in like manner) enriched, if slowly, as the Church becomes more a worldwide phenomenon.

  29. Kristine on June 10, 2004 at 10:58 pm

    Philocrates–of course having season tickets to the Red Sox is religious! Red Sox fandom entails a great deal of suffering and an ever-receding hope of redemption, made bearable by occasional flashes of grace and glory :)

  30. VeritasLiberat on June 11, 2004 at 1:14 am

    I envy the Eastern Orthodox for their icons as well, esp. the entire icon-painting tradition where prayer and painting become one.

    I also envy their music. Orthodox churches don’t use instruments, only the human voice, in worship. Their liturgy is moving, even when it’s in a language (like Old Church Slavonic) that I don’t completely understand.

  31. Arwyn on June 11, 2004 at 2:34 am

    Grasshopper asks: “How many of these things that we envy can we bring into our own practice of Mormonism? How do we best do so?”

    There’s a number of these envies that I don’t think we really can bring into our own practice. The icons, for example, or the drums and guitars, or the liturgies of other religions (especially those in, say, Church Slavonic or Latin that so few would understand) wouldn’t jive so well with Mormon doctrine and philosophy (though one could surely argue for drums and guitars).

    On the other hand, what about the Jewish tradition of marking the opening of the Sabbath? That’s something we could implement as individuals — and something that might lead us to a greater appreciation for the holiness of that day.

    Or how about Buddhist ‘psychology’ — the acceptance that suffering is a part of life and the calm and acceptance of life’s billows that leads to a peaceful sort of happiness isn’t at all at odds with Mormon theology, I don’t think, especially not in its more philosophical and practical (as opposed to its religious) incarnations.

    These aren’t things that we can make ‘official religious doctrine’, and maybe because of that they don’t attain the same level of significance for us that they do for those who practice them as an integral part of religion, but they can certainly enrich our own.

  32. Arwyn on June 11, 2004 at 2:48 am

    Thinking a little more on it, I bet we could find plenty of sweet old grandmothers in the Mormon church who are just waiting to be told that they don’t have to be sweet anymore and can dress down anyone they like any time they like…

    …and I know we can find some who already do.

  33. VeritasLiberat on June 12, 2004 at 2:57 am

    Sure, we couldn’t use icons in the way that the Orthodox do, but we could certainly be open to using a wider variety of past and present artistic styles in our depictions of Scripture stories. Right now, it seems that the only widely accepted Mormon art is that of Greg Olsen and his imitators–I think of this as “socialist-realism-Mormon-Style.”

    I’d like to see “The Tree of Life” depicted with the visual/symbolic “vocabulary” of an icon, for example.

  34. Daniel Peterson on June 12, 2004 at 1:49 pm

    I had long imagined that I was the only person who thought of the dominant LDS pictorial style as “socialist realism.”

    Amateur Mormon art critics of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our boredom.