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Speaking to a capacity crowd in BYU’s Marriott Center at Education Week, Aug. 16, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said that the word “religion” comes from the Latin word religare meaning to “tie,” or more literally to “re-tie.”
“In that root syllable of ligare you can hear the echo of a word like ligature, which is what a doctor uses to sew us up if we have a wound,” he said. “So, for our purpose today, ‘religion’ is that which unites what was separated or holds together that which might be torn apart, an obvious need for us, individually and collectively, given trials and tribulations we all experience here in mortality.”
“What is equally obvious is that the great conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, the moral and the immoral—conflict which the world’s great faiths and devoted religious believers have historically tried to address—is being intensified in our time and is affecting an ever-wider segment of our culture. And let there be no doubt that the outcome of this conflict truly matters, not only in eternity but in everyday life as well. Will and Ariel Durrant put the issue squarely as they reflected on what they called the “lessons of history.” ‘There is no significant example in history,’ they said, ‘of [any] society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.’[i]
“If that is true—and surely we feel it is—then we should be genuinely concerned over the assertion that the single most distinguishing feature of modern life is the rise of secularism with its attendant dismissal of, cynicism toward, or marked disenchantment with religion.”
He quoted a speech given 40 years ago by Elder Neal A. Maxwell, calling it “wonderfully prophetic.”
Elder Maxwell said: “We shall see in our time a maximum . . . effort . . . to establish irreligion as the state religion. [These secularists will] use the carefully preserved . . . freedoms of Western civilization to shrink freedom even as [they reject] the value . . . of our rich Judeo-Christian heritage.” Continuing on he said, “Your discipleship may see the time come when religious convictions are heavily discounted. . . . This new irreligious imperialism [will] seek to disallow certain . . . opinions simply because those opinions grow out of religious convictions.”[ii]
“My goodness!” exclaimed Elder Holland. “That forecast of turbulent religious weather issued nearly 40 years ago is steadily being fulfilled virtually every day somewhere in the world in the minimization of (or open hostility toward) religious practice, religious expression, and even in some cases the very idea of religious belief itself. “
Elder Holland continued, “I am stressing such points this morning because I have my eye on that future condition about which Elder Maxwell warned, a time when if we are not careful we may find religion at the margins of society rather than the center of it, where religious beliefs and all the good works those beliefs have generated may be tolerated privately but not admitted (or at least certainly not encouraged) publicly. The cloud the Prophet Elijah saw in the distance “no larger than a man’s hand”[iii] is that kind of cloud on the political horizon today, so we speak of it by way of warning, remembering the storm into which Elijah’s small cloud developed.[iv]
“But whatever the trouble along the way I am absolutely certain how this all turns out. I know the prophecies and the promises given to the faithful, and I know our collective religious heritage—the Western world’s traditional religious beliefs varied as they are—are remarkably strong and resilient.”
Elder Holland said, “If we speak of religious faith as among the highest and most noble impulses within us, then to say so and so is a ‘religious person’ or that such and such a family ‘lives their religion’ is intended as a compliment. Such an observation would, as a rule, imply that these people try to be an influence for good, try to live to a higher level of morality than they might otherwise have done, and have tried to help hold the socio-political fabric of their community together.
“Well, thank heaven for that,” he said, “because the socio-political fabric of a community wears a little thin from time to time—locally, nationally or internationally—and a glance at the evening news tells us this is one of those times. My concern is that when it comes to binding up that fabric in our day, the “ligatures” of religion are not being looked to in quite the way they once were. My boyhood friend and distinguished legal scholar Elder Bruce C. Hafen frames it even more seriously than that:
‘Democracy’s core values of civilized religion . . . are now under siege—partly because of violent criminals who claim to have religious motives, partly because the wellsprings of stable social norms once transmitted naturally by religion and marriage-based family life are being polluted[,] . . . and partly because the advocates of some causes today have marshaled enough political and financial capital to impose, by intimidation rather than by reason, their anti-religion strategy of might makes right.’[v]
Elder Holland said that part of this “shift away from respect for traditional religious beliefs—and even the right to express those beliefs” has come because of the “greater preoccupation with the existential circumstances” of this world.
What this new focus away from religion cannot give us is meaning. Elder Holland quoted Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who said, “What the secularists forget is that Homo sapiens [are] meaning-seeking [people] and if there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning.”[vi]
“We are so fortunate—and grateful—that modern technology gives us unprecedented personal freedom, access to virtually unlimited knowledge, and communication capability beyond anything ever known in this world’s history, but neither technology nor its worthy parent science can give us much moral guidance as to how to use that freedom, where to benefit from that knowledge, or what the best purpose of our communication should be.
“It has been principally the world’s great faiths—religion, those ligatures to the Divine we have been speaking of—that do that, that speak to the collective good of society, offer us a code of conduct and moral compass for living, help us exult in profound human love and strengthen us against profound human loss. If we lose consideration of these deeper elements of our mortal existence—divine elements, if you will—we lose much (some would say most) of that which has value in life.”
He said, “The legendary German sociologist Max Weber once described such a loss of religious principle in society as being stuck in an ‘iron cage of disbelief.’[vii] Noting even in his day the shift toward a more luxurious but less value-laden society, a society that was giving away its priceless spiritual and religious roots, he wrote, ‘not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness.”[viii] And that was in 1904!”
Elder Holland said, “We are grateful that a large segment of the human population does have some form of religious belief, and in that sense we have not yet seen a “polar night of icy darkness”[ix] envelope us. But no one can say we are not seeing some glaciers on the move.
“Charles Taylor, in his book with the descriptive title, A Secular Age, describes the cold dimming of socio-religious light this way. The shift of our time, he says, has been ‘from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is [only] one human possibility among [many] others.’ In the 21st century, he writes, ‘Belief in God is no longer axiomatic.’[x] Indeed in some quarters it is not even a convenient option, it is ‘an embattled option.’[xi]
“But faith has almost always been an ‘embattled option,’ has almost always been won—and kept—at a price. Indeed, many who have walked away from faith have found the price higher than they intended to pay, like the man who tore down the fence surrounding his new property only to learn that his next-door neighbor kept a pack of particularly vicious Rottweilers.”
He continued, “In fact religion has been the principle influence—not the only one, but the principle one—that has kept Western social, political and cultural life moral to the extent these have been moral. And I shudder at how immoral life might have been—then and now—without that influence.“
Elder Holland said, Brothers and sisters, my testimony this morning, as one observer recently wrote is that, ‘over the long haul, religious faith has proven itself the most powerful and enduring force in human history.’[xii] Roman Catholic scholar Robert Royal made the same point, reaffirming that for many ‘religion remains deep, widespread, and persistent, to the surprise and irritation of those who claimed to have cast aside [religious] illusion’[xiii]—those who underestimated the indisputable power of faith. “
“The indisputable power of faith. The most powerful and enduring force in human history. The influence for good in the world. The link between the highest in us and our highest hopes for others. That is why religion matters. Voices of religious faith have elevated our vision, deepened our human conversation, and strengthened both our personal and collective aspiration since time began.”
He said, “The core landscape of history has been sketched by the pen and brush and words of those who invoke a Divine Creator’s involvement in our lives and who count on the ligatures of religion to bind up our wounds and help us hold things together.”
Elder Holland said, “May I conclude with my heartfelt apostolic witness of truths I do know regarding the ultimate gift true religion provides us. I have been focusing on the social, political, and cultural contributions that religion has provided us for centuries, but I testify that true religion—the gospel of Jesus Christ—gives us infinitely more than that; it gives us ‘peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come,’[xiv] as the scripture phrases it.
True religion brings understanding of and loyalty to our Father in Heaven and his uncompromised love for every one of His spirit children past, present and future. True religion engenders in us faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and hope in His resurrection. It encourages love, forbearance and forgiveness in our interactions with one another as he so magnanimously demonstrated them in His. True religion, the tie that binds us to God and each other, not only seals our family relationships in eternity but also heightens our delight in those family experiences while in mortality.
“Well beyond all the civic, social and cultural gifts religion gives us is the mercy of a loving Father and Son who conceived and carried out the atoning mission of that Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, suturing up that which was torn, bonding together that which was broken, healing that which was ill or imperfect, ‘proclaiming liberty to the captives and opening the prison to them that are bound.’[xv]
“Because my faith, my family, my beliefs, my covenants—in short, my religion—means everything to me, I thank my Father in Heaven for it and pray for the continued privilege to speak of it so long as I shall live.
“May we think upon the religious heritage that has been handed down to us, at an incalculable price in many instances, and in so remembering not only cherish that heritage more fervently but live the religious principles we say we want to preserve.
“Only in the living of our religion will the preservation of it have true meaning. It is in that spirit that we seek the good of our fellow men and women and work toward the earthly kingdom of God rolling forth, that the heavenly kingdom of God may come. May our religious privileges be cherished, preserved, and lived, binding us to God and each other until that blessed millennial day comes.”
[i] Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 51.
[ii] Neal A. Maxwell. “Meeting the Challenges of Today.” Speech, BYU Devotional, Provo, Utah, October 10, 1978. Accessed August 4, 2016. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/neal-a-maxwell_meeting-challenges-today/.
[iii] 1 Kings 18:44.
[iv] See 1 Kings 18:44–45.
[v] Bruce C. Hafen, “Religious Freedom and the Habits of the Heart,” 2015 Oxford Conference: Magna Carta and Freedom of Religion, speech, June 21, 2015, 10, accessed July 15, 2016 https://www.iclrs.org/content/blurb/files/Elder Bruce Hafen Oxford 2015.pdf.
[vi] Jonathan Sacks, “How to Defeat Religious Violence [from his book Not in God’s Name], Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2015, accessed May 13, 2016 https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-defeat-religious-violence-1443798275.
[vii] See H. H. Gerth, C. Wright Mills, editors, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Routledge, p. 128.
[viii] John Dreijmanis. Max Weber’s Complete Writings on Academic and Political Vocations (New York: Algora Publishing, 2007), 206, accessed July 15, 2016, ProQuest ebrary.
[ix] John Dreijmanis, Max Weber’s Complete Writings on Academic and Political Vocations (New York: Algora Publishing, 2007), 206, accessed July 15, 2016, ProQuest ebrary. Quoted in Bruce C. Hafen, “Religious Freedom and the Habits of the Heart,” 2015 Oxford Conference: Magna Carta and Freedom of Religion, speech, June 21, 2015, 10, accessed July 15, 2016 https://www.iclrs.org/content/blurb/files/Elder Bruce Hafen Oxford 2015.pdf.
[x] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3, accessed July 15, 2016.
[xi] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3, accessed July 15, 2016.
[xii] R. R. Reno, “Religion and Public Life in America in the 21st Century” Journal of Faith and War, Apr. 30, 2014, accessed July 19, 2016 https://faithandwar.org/index.php/component/content/article/42-god-and-human-nature/181-religion-and-public-life-in-america-in-the-21st-century, emphasis added.
[xiii] Robert Royal, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West (New York: Encounter Books, 2006), x.
[xiv] Doctrine and Covenants 59:23.
[xv] See Isaiah 61:1.