To read more from Daniel, visit his blog: Sic Et Non

To believe in something is, generally, not to believe in something that differs from it or that contradicts it.  That seems fairly straightforward and uncontroversial.  If I believe that I’ve reached the correct sum for a column of numbers, I necessarily disagree with someone who has reached a different sum.

Clearly, believers in the Restoration are convinced that its teachings are correct, and that teachings that contradict it are incorrect.  Moreover, if something needed to be restored, that entails that it had previously been lost or, at least, substantially damaged.  Thus, Latter-day Saints cannot help but disagree with those who don’t accept Latter-day Saint doctrines, precisely as they disagree with us.  But how we disagree—whether, say, it’s with arrogant pride or with humbly grateful friendliness—makes a potentially enormous difference.  For the Restoration is a gift to us, not something that we have earned.  By means of it, we drink from wells that we didn’t dig and enjoy the fruit of vineyards and trees that we didn’t plant.  (See Deuteronomy 6:10-12.)

Here is sound advice from the Qur’an to people who believe that, in it, they have received a revelation from God.  How should they behave with regard to others?

And we have sent the Book down to you with the truth, confirming what you already have of the Book and making it sure.  So judge between them according to what God has sent down and do not follow their whims away from the truth that has come to you.  We have made a code of conduct and a path for each of you.  And if God had willed, he could have made you a single community, except in order to test you on what has come to you.  So vie with one another in good works.  To God will be your return, all of you, and he will then inform you concerning the matters on which you disagreed.  (Qur’an 5:48, my translation)

I start with a story that will be familiar to many readers but that is always worth repeating, about the prominent New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl (1921-2008), a former dean of Harvard Divinity School and a longtime participant in Jewish/Christian dialogue.  While Dr. Stendahl was serving as Lutheran bishop of his native Stockholm, Sweden, in the early 1980s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced plans to construct a temple just outside of the city to the south, in Västerhaninge.

As commonly happens when Latter-day Saints build a temple, there was some complaining, puzzlement, and even concern among the local people.  However, Bishop Stendahl, who had Latter-day Saint friends and had spoken at Brigham Young University, reacted dramatically and quite unexpectedly.

When the news media and others sought to know his position (and that of the Swedish national church) regarding the proposed temple, he called a press conference, and he held it in a Latter-day Saint stake center—which surely hinted at how he intended to come down on the question.  He told those assembled that neither he nor the Swedish Lutheran church had any objection to the temple, and that outsiders should not interfere with its construction.  More importantly for my specific purposes here, though, he outlined to the Swedish media three principles that, in his judgment, should govern our discussions of the religious beliefs of other people and our attitudes toward them.  Here, I paraphrase what he said:

(1) If you want to know what others believe, ask them.  Don’t ask their critics or their enemies.

(2) When looking at the religious faith of others, compare your best with their best, not their worst with your best.

(3)  Always leave room for “holy envy.”

Some explanation and examples will make these three principles clearer.

The first should be fairly obvious.  Enemies of a religious faith or, more broadly, of a worldview are unlikely to present it as its believers would.  They are, in fact, quite likely to distort it and to caricature it—unwittingly if they are honest, but deliberately if (as all too often happens) they are unscrupulous and seek only a cheap and easy victory.  This doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that there is no place for critics, or for listening to them.  But if we really want to understand another religion, critics should not be our first resource.

The second principle is “When looking at the religious faith of others, compare your best with their best, not their worst with your best.”   We commonly hear Christians contrast the loving ethics taught by Jesus in the New Testament with the acts of self-proclaimed Islamic terrorists.  But it isn’t at all fair to compare the seldom-achieved Christian moral ideal with horrid crimes that are, despite their prominence in the newspapers and on television, still relatively rare among the world’s roughly two billion Muslims.  The butchery of the “Christian” crusades would be a more appropriate comparison to Islamic terrorism.  And the death decree against Salman Rushdie should not be compared to St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Calcutta or St. Maximilian Kolbe, but to the Inquisition and the burnings of heretics that punctuated the history of the West and that, strikingly, lack any real parallel in the Islamic East.

Stendahl reminded his Swedish audience of the human element that unavoidably affects even the purest beliefs.  Even if a religion is revealed, it is nonetheless revealed through fallible mortals.  Alluding to the explanation on the title page of the Book of Mormon that “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men,” this eminent Lutheran theologian commented that such frankness increased his confidence in the book, rather than decreasing it.

Brigham Young would have agreed: “I do not even believe,” he told the Saints in 1855, “that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities.”

Finally, Stendahl counseled his audience to leave room for what he termed “holy envy.”  We can learn greatly, he said, from faithful practitioners and believers of other faiths.  I offer my own examples:  The loving, joyous reverence of Orthodox Jews for the Sabbath—far from the cold, mechanical legalism of the stereotype of rabbinic Judaism that I accepted as a youth—challenges those of us whose observance of the Lord’s day is often routine and perfunctory.  Likewise, we can profit by reflecting upon the Jewish passion for religious learning, the reverence of Muslims for their sacred text and the regular prayers that punctuate their everyday lives, the simplicity and service of the Mennonites, the heroic service of Protestant missionaries under terribly difficult conditions, the committed bravery of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1983 television film “The Scarlet and the Black,” and even the social idealism of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement.

Regarding Latter-day Saints and their temples, Stendahl suggested vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead as an object of “holy envy.”  We Lutherans do nothing for our dead, he said.  It is as if we have forgotten them.  In contrast, he observed, the Latter-day Saints seek to bring the blessings of Christ’s atonement even to the dead.

At a minimum, it seems to me, observing Krister Stendahl’s three principles would eliminate much of the religious strife in a world that is growing ever smaller and more interdependent and that can no longer afford such conflict.  He suggests that we move beyond mere “tolerance,” where we hold our noses but permit others to co-exist with us, toward mutual appreciation, where we can benefit from the examples of others different from ourselves.

Just a few years after his statement regarding the temple in Sweden, Stendahl found opportunities to extend his comment about baptism for the dead in ways that, among other things, illustrated his concept of “holy envy.”

From time to time, the Latter-day Saint practice of vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead has been a focus of controversy, not only among some other Christians but also, and usually for quite distinct reasons, even among secularists.  I’ve seen it portrayed in the news media and on the web as unbiblical, ghoulish, bizarre, shameful, vicious, anti-Semitic, immoral, hateful, an exercise in “black magic,” and (by some extremists) possibly even illegal. At one point, I watched as one national television commentator—now, mercifully, no longer opining on the airwaves during primetime—termed then-President Thomas S. Monson one of “the worst people in the world” for presiding over a church that practices baptism for the dead.  (Here’s a thought-exercise:  Think of, say, twenty-five of the worst people on Earth.  Would President Monson or President Russell M. Nelson make your list?  Would vicarious temple baptisms make any plausible list of the worst things done on our planet?)

But that’s certainly not how Krister Stendahl viewed the matter.

Around 1990, on behalf of his fellow editors for the then-forthcoming “Encyclopedia of Mormonism,” the late Truman Madsen contacted Bishop Stendahl, who had long been a personal friend of his.  The plan for the encyclopedia included two proposed articles regarding the topic of vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead.  One article would treat the practice among Latter-day Saints, but Professor Madsen invited Dr. Stendahl to contribute a brief piece on baptism for the dead in early Christianity.

Stendahl declined, pleading the demands of a heavy schedule. But Madsen persisted and, already knowing his friend’s general position on the matter, offered to draft something himself and to send it to Stendahl for revision; once the article was found satisfactory, it could appear under Krister Stendahl’s own name.  Eventually, realizing that Professor Madsen badly wanted a contribution from him, Stendahl agreed to the proposal.

When the draft arrived, though, Stendahl wasn’t at all happy with it.  Madsen’s proposed article, he said, was too noncommittal; the Latter-day Saint position is much stronger than the draft had suggested.  So, Stendahl wrote an entirely new article, after all.  And this is the entry that now appears in the “Encyclopedia of Mormonism.”

Referring to 1 Corinthians 15:29, Stendahl briefly alludes to a number of conflicting explanations of the passage that commentators have given over many generations.  However, he writes, “the text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary critical exegetes.” And, he concludes, such a position is “quite reasonable.”

On at least one other occasion, though, Professor Stendahl spoke much more personally about the practice of vicarious baptism for the dead. His remarks were captured on film and are easily accessible online in a now slightly dated but still wonderful little “Mormon Messages” video titled “Why Mormons Build Temples”.  In it, he refers to the practice of baptism for the dead with extraordinary warmth and appreciation:

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he remarks. “I could think of myself as taking part in such an act, extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ. That’s a beautiful way of letting the eternal mix into the temporal—which, in a way, is what Christianity is about.”

A useful resource on vicarious baptism for the dead is a series of articles that appeared in volumes 19 and 20 of the “Journal of the Book of Mormon Studies”: 1) “Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity,” by Roger D. Cook, David L. Paulsen and Kendel J. Christensen; 2) “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” by David L. Paulsen and Brock M. Mason; 3) “Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority,” by David L. Paulsen, Kendel J. Christensen and Martin Pulido; and 4) “Redemption of the Dead: Continuing Revelation after Joseph Smith,” by David L. Paulsen, Judson Burton, Kendel J. Christensen and Martin Pulido. (See