Are Mormons exclusivists or universalists? I think the answer is pretty clearly a refutation of the dichotomy—we’re somewhere in between or perhaps a new animal altogether. (2 Nephi 33:12 would be a good slogan.) But when it comes to our discussions of dispensations and the legitimacy of other movements, I think we often emphasize our exclusivist scriptures and doctrine (e.g., D&C 1:30) over the more universalist. After taking a quick look at one of our more exclusivist approaches, I want to highlight another uniquely Mormon approach that is more universalist.
Our exclusivist rhetoric is paradigmatically captured within what I will call the Nibley Approach to analyzing similarities between Us and Them—specifically as concerns dispensations of the gospel. While Nibley is by no means unique in employing this approach, I first started thinking about it on my mission while listening to his lecture tapes. Nibley employed his approach primarily when looking at ancient civilizations, but the approach gets used just as often when we look at our contemporaries. Nibley had an amazing talent for uncovering new or previously unrecognized similarities between aspects of ancient religions and the Restoration, or else reinterpreting well-known elements of ancient religions within the light of the Restoration in order to make similarities and dissimilarities appear (his essays in Temple and the Cosmos are a good example). The framework for understanding these similarities—what I’m calling the Nibley Approach—is typically the Dispensation-to-Apostasy framework, the descent from true to false priesthoods. Similarities between ancient Mediterranean and contemporary LDS temples, for example, appear within the Nibley Approach to be evidence for a full-fledged dispensation (known or unknown) that once flourished in the region at some point and then subsequently fell into apostasy. The observed similarities are thus “echoes” or remnants of true religion that survived the transition from a true dispensation or legitimate, authorized religion into a time of general apostasy.
I think that this approach is firmly rooted in our Mormon outlook; we all seem to make use of it. For example, while touring Luxor with a group of BYU students in 2004 almost all of us expressed a significant relation between Egyptian and Mormon ritual, though there was a wide spectrum concerning how much significance individuals wanted to read into what as we gazed at the depictions on ancient temple walls. Some went so far as to speculate whether Abraham might have inspired or set up a minor dispensation in Egypt, the remnants of which can be viewed on the walls of the ancient temple today. Unfortunately for Mormon enthusiasts, archeology and other ancient studies are uncannily skilled at uncovering the apostate periods that contain the “echoes” of true dispensations, and lousy at uncovering and bringing to light ancient groups and religions wherein full-fledged dispensations flourished.
I should state upfront that the Nibley Approach is not the only approach that Nibley used. Nor do I think it an illegitimate approach (at least not always). But we certainly have other means within our Mormon toolkit for looking at the past (and present). We can juxtapose the Nibley Approach with what I will call Grassroots-Style Dispensations. God has certainly inspired full-fledged dispensations (complete with divine investitures of authority and sanctioned ritual worship), and ancient and modern prophets have all spoken about these dispensations falling into various degrees of apostasy. But these same prophets have also taught us that God will reveal “line upon line, precept upon precept” to his children (see here and here), without a clause restricting such piecemeal inspiration to full dispensations. “God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” In addition to our “spoken” languages (English, Arabic, Swahili…) this surely includes our cultural languages. Remembering that we’re all of us—whether living in “apostate” or “covenant” times—children of God, and remembering Christ’s teaching that our Father knows how to give good gifts to his children, it’s easy for us to replace or supplement our Nibley Approach with a Grassroots Approach. Instead of only revealing truth in a top down manner within full-fledged dispensations, God also inspires individuals, families, nations, and civilizations from the bottom up. He answers the yearning for truth with light for the understanding—whether this yearning comes from a prophet, a Canaanite pagan, or an atheist. Consequently, it’s just as likely that a prophet like Abraham was inspired by the Grassroots Dispensation in ancient Egypt and so learned important truths (astronomy, temple worship, etc.), as it is that he inspired changes to Egyptian religion. We know that this is what often happened with Joseph Smith.
Our modern leaders have made explicit statements that support the idea of Grassroots Dispensations. In their 15 February 1978 Statement, the First Presidency said,
The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucious, 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. . . . Consistent with these truths, we believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation.
We could multiply scriptural references and prophetic statements to continue making the point: God isn’t merely content with a trickle-down dissemination of light and truth to his children who live without the benefit of authorized temple covenants. He also reveals light to any of his children seeking light, and speaks the truth to them in their own language. Thus, when looking in ancient history (or contemporary societies) we don’t just see remnants of truth, which at one time were had in full; we also see light and truth that God has revealed without the umbrella of what we typically call a dispensation. And as stated by the first Presidency, this includes divine “callings” to those without priesthood (e.g., Bridget Jack Meyers).
This Grassroots Approach has many implications for how we see and understand the world around us, and especially how we see other religions and claims to divine guidance. I’m going to hold back and only mention two of them.
First, I wonder how good we are at recognizing the voice of God in other languages. It’s surely easiest and perhaps safest for us to take refuge in the obvious sources: those canonized in Mormonism and the revelation we receive in our own lives. Sorting out the truth from the interpolations of men in the Apocrypha and other good sources is much more difficult. Serving a mission in the Bible Belt I often came across the gift of tongues used in Charismatic churches. At first it was very difficult to be comfortable focusing on the prayer I was saying while an investigator we’d just taught mumbled unintelligibly all the way through it. A friend of mine once ran out of a church when the “holy rolling” began because she could “feel the devil in it.” Maybe the devil was in it. But maybe God was in it—speaking according to those Christians’ language. I often wonder how many of us would likewise run out of a Nephite Sacrament service; I’m convinced that their services would appear even more exotic to us than those of our contemporary Charismatic cousins (it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to read Mormon 6:9, conducted in an ancient setting, as a little terrifying).
Second, the Grassroots Approach suggests that other (non-Mormon) groups can have light and understanding that we don’t have. Since we’re commanded to search for additional truths, to study and learn, to seek out everything that is “lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy, or of good report,” we have an obligation to keep our eyes open for these truths. God certainly reveals truth to his prophets, truth we need to know and live. But, as Joseph Smith’s experiences make clear, God often does so as the prophets are looking out at the world and what is available in other groups. And God tells us in our revelations that if we search other sources with the aid of the Spirit, we “shall obtain benefit therefrom.” As Brigham put it,
[Mormonism] embraces all truth in heaven and on earth, in the earth, under the earth, and in hell, if there be any truth there. There is not truth outside of it; there is no virtue outside of it; there is nothing holy and honorable outside of it; for, wherever these principles are found among all the creations of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his order and Priesthood, embrace them. (JD 11:213)
There are other ways of interpreting this quote than the one that I am urging. Someone I am very close to is very uncomfortable with my family’s practice of incorporating Jewish elements into our Sabbath observance. She cites quotes like this one in claiming that if these “other elements” were really a good thing, God would tell his prophet this and all Mormons would then know and follow suit. I’m much more of a we-must-be-anxiously-engaged-in-good-causes-and-do-many-things-of-our-own-free-will kind of guy. And I think it’s clear that Brigham is telling us that wherever we “find” truth, we need to embrace it and recognize it as genuinely part of our religion.
Consequently, I think we ought to be excited about studying other groups of our Father’s children, their doctrines and practices. I believe that if we faithfully make as much use of the Grassroots Approach as we do the Nibley Approach, we will be open and led to the discovery of many of the truths of Mormonism that we don’t currently possess.