If you’re reading this, then you and I likely have this in common: when we were growing up we were taught that we were among God’s “elect” children because we were born to parents who were members of the only true and living church on Earth. That idea made us feel good because it made us feel special and important.
And if you’re like me, the more you read your scriptures, the more you found statements that seemed at odds with the idea that God plays favorites with his children like that. Scriptures like: “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), and “all are alike unto God” (2 Ne. 26:33), and “he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). These scriptures were difficult to square with the idea that God blesses 0.2% of his children (i.e., the percentage of the world population counted as members of the LDS church) more than the other 99.8% of his children.
In other words, it was difficult for me to reconcile the egalitarian God who “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” with the elitist God who blesses 0.2% of his children more than everyone else.
But when I was seventeen years old, I found a passage in the Book of Mormon that comforted me because it portrayed God as a loving father who “speaks the same words” to “all nations of the earth”. It was a big idea that blew out of the water the idea that God has historically spoken only to one tiny “chosen” group of his children:
“. . . Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also. . . .
“For I 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 behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.”
(2 Ne. 29:8, 11-12)
This expansive and inclusive idea that God speaks the “same words” to “all nations on earth” and that all nations “write the words” God speaks to them presented me with a new question: Where are the books that contain the “same words” that God has spoken to “all nations”? I was familiar with the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but I wondered: where are the books containing the words God has spoken to his children in China? Or in India? Or on the islands of the sea? Etc.
This question sparked in me an intense curiosity to read all the books of scripture I could get my hands on. I wanted to figure out whether there were any common messages found in all the scriptures of the world. Such common messages would be evidence that God has in fact spoken the same words to all nations (or so I reasoned).
While on my mission I read portions of the Koran, and when I returned home I enrolled in a World Religions class at BYU. For the first time, I learned about Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism. Since then, I’ve read every book of scripture that I’ve been able to get my hands on. Some have become personal favorites that I’ve read over and over again: the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, the Tao Te Ching of Taoism, and the Dhammapada of Buddhism.
As I’ve read the scriptures of the world’s religions, I’ve come to the same conclusion that many others reached long before me: there is a striking overlap–what you might call a common core of spiritual ideas–in the scriptures of the world. C.S. Lewis called this common core of spiritual concepts “the Tao” (borrowing that term from the Taoists), Aldous Huxley called it the “Perennial Philosophy”, and others have simply called it “universal truth” or something along those lines.
If you’re a theist, you might see the overlapping messages found in the world’s scriptures as evidence that God has spoken the same words to all nations. Personally, I view the common messages found in the world’s scriptures as evidence that we’re all one human species grappling with the same human condition and learning the same lessons about life on planet Earth.
The common core of ideas found in all the world’s religions has become an anchor to me since losing my faith in Mormonism’s peculiar claims. When I discovered that people living on opposite sides of the globe came to some of the same conclusions about reality, life, and morality, that global consensus was impossible for me to disregard. It seemed wise to take those common ideas to heart, and to use them as guide posts for navigating life.
Below is a summary of the common concepts I’ve drawn from the world’s scriptures over the years:
There is an eternal aspect of reality. (Science agrees: energy cannot be created or destroyed.)
There is more to reality than what we can directly perceive. (Science agrees: as just one example, there are parts of the light spectrum our eyes cannot see.)
Life is precious; life is a wonder; life is a gift. (Whether you think God made man from dust or the human species evolved from life that spontaneously arose from the Earth, either way it’s incredible that life exists at all.)
Our bodies and the bodies of other living things are animated by some unseen power. (Science agrees: we all run on electricity.)
At the deepest, unseen level, everything and everyone is interconnected; we only appear to be separate and independent. (Science agrees: we’re all made of star dust, running on energy that cannot be created or destroyed.)
You are not your body; the real “you” is the consciousness within you.
Nature is both generous and cruel: it sustains our lives but also sickens, hurts, and kills us.
Our circumstances are constantly changing. Therefore, whether our circumstances are fortunate or unfortunate, it is wise not to assume they will always be so.
Nature is full of cycles and patterns (e.g., seasons); if we understand the cycles and patterns we can understand and navigate life better.
In this natural world, death creates and sustains life: we and other animals must eat plants and animals to survive. We should be grateful, respectful, and moderate in our consumption of living things and beings.
Each generation sacrifices itself (i.e., gives its time, energy, resources, and sometimes even life) so that the next generation may live. We owe a debt of gratitude to our ancestors and elders because we would not exist without them.
There is cause and effect; we should choose actions most likely to bring favorable consequences.
Unity and balance lead to peace and stability, disunity and imbalance lead to conflict and instability. Therefore, we should seek unity and balance.
In life, moderation is key.
We have animal instincts that we need to moderate in order to create stable, healthy, peaceful societies. (Human history agrees.)
We should treat others as we would like others to treat us.
Love, charity, compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, humility, gratitude, generosity, non-violence, and honesty are virtues we should cultivate as individuals and societies because they maximize individual and collective happiness and well-being. Their opposites should be avoided because they bring misery.
Ego-centrism is a barrier to seeing, thinking, speaking, and acting virtuously, and it leads to misery for ourselves and others. We should strive to let go of (sacrifice) our egos.
Life inevitably involves suffering, much of which is self-inflicted because we set our hearts on things we will never obtain or will inevitably lose. The cessation of suffering comes from identifying with that which transcends the temporary.
Material wealth is insufficient to produce lasting happiness.
Striving to fulfill our greatest potential is a worthy endeavor.
Creating and maintaining loving relationships is a worthy endeavor.
Getting married and having children is a worthy endeavor.
Perseverance can keep us alive and enable us to overcome our challenges.
Do what you sincerely believe is right; don’t violate your conscience.
Thank you for so beautifully and logically presenting these truisms about universal spirituality. As a young missionary in Brazil, in the 70’s, I received a witness that all of God’s children are equal. Growing up as young Mormon kid, in a rural Utah town, the Church was everything. It informed all aspects of life and community. I remember growing up hearing and thinking that we were “chosen”, “special”, “apart from the world”, and “chosen to be the light of the world”. And yes, within our culture we grew up thinking that we were special. What I now look back on, is that we “otherized” others. It is embarrassing and regretful because you would also close out options that these folks had something to offer you.
The experience that changed me, was in Brazil. As a 21 year old kid, I found myself sitting in a profoundly humble shanty of a young black single mother. We were in one of the poorest slum areas, visiting her. She was a member of the church, single and raising four children in a shack that had no windows, and a piece of fabric flapping in the breeze at her front door. The shack was made of tin and wood that she had scrounged to built her home. The woman was 38 years old, with no front teeth, ragged clothes and flip flops.
As we sat in her home on old fruit crates, the warped floor boards wobbled in the sewer water and muck beneath. The smell was overwhelming. Through all of this, the woman, while uneducated, was cheerful and sweet. We were there to pick up her 16 year old son who was paraplegic. We would take him on our bikes, about 5 miles into town, so he could be part of a mutual roadshow.
At that time ( in the 1970’s) the policy and treatment of blacks was deferential and discriminatory. We were not allowed to actively tract blacks. We were given a single typewritten sheet of paper with 20 points that you could look for to determine if someone had the blood of Cain. It was crazy.
That day, as I sat in this woman’s shack and looked up at her radiant face, a voice clearly came to me that what we were doing as a church was wrong. The logic that God would hold this woman responsible for the sins of her ancestors 4000 years earlier, and yet not hold my race to the same standard of accountability was ludicrous. As my young mind start wrapping around the concept of individual accountability and the love of a divine Creator. I realized that no one needed to give me permission to believe this; least of all my religious institution that supposedly taught the love and inclusion of Christ’s gospel. The idea of being “special” rubbed me wrongly. Being in this setting humbled me and made me see a bigger picture of God’s world, universe and His love.
Years later, this doctrine rankled me greatly. I felt lied to and felt that my culture was very white-bread elitist. I felt this especially as I started attending university in Los Angeles, with all of it’s delightful diversity. I worked and studied with people of all races, faiths, and cultures. It was a wondrous thing, really. Each day I was fascinated by what the day held, meeting new people and getting to know people who were different. Most were always gracious and accepting of me. I look back now and realize that they were very tolerant of me and my cultural beliefs, as well. Some were more gracious than they needed to be.
When the “doctrine” of discrimination was abandoned in 1978 (‘revelation’ caused by new federal regulations on equality at public institutions of education where the church was losing properties due to their doctrine), I went out into a dark warehouse storeroom at our office, and knelt down and prayed and thanked God. I saw actual faces in my mind, who would be affected by this. I was further angered when a couple of years ago, the LDS Church quietly announced on their website, that no historical reference could be found for the ‘revelation’ on the blacks and their fore it was merely a policy not a revelation. No official apology was ever offered to the hundreds of thousands of people who were affected and/or hurt by the policy. Today I think about Dallin Oaks recent pronouncement where he said, “we do not apologize” for our beliefs. Stunning, really.
Our consciousness is really who we are universally, regardless of the wrapping of bones and skin that our souls have. People of all cultures love their children, have need of food an shelter, have a need for peace and want to be productive and do good. I believe this. I’ve seen it.
I regret that many of us who were raised LDS culturally, are continually trying to shed some of the traditional beliefs with which we were raised, about being different than others; chosen and special. At times it gives rise to anger, and other times it causes a humor. Finding meaning in a new life outside the church, is a fun new challenge. It’s been rewarding and peaceful.
I am a gay man, so there is a more complicated twist to some of this for me. Some of the practices and policies recently demonstrated by the LDS church have been demeaning and have caused a few old wounds to be opened again. The institutional schizophrenia is appalling. One year you’re being welcomed back, and the next you’re relegated to a second class. Here again, the need by the Church to marginalize, otherize and mistreat a newly defined class of people is apparent. On the flip side, I have had so many intelligent, thinking and feeling active LDS friends saying, “enough!” Their love and view of a more universal world and God has been uplifting and healing. Some of these people are leaving the Faith, as their faith has seemed to outgrow the institution and it’s practices. I admit I have, as well.
I appreciate that Mormon Transitions offers constructive thought and practice alternatives. I appreciate the thoughts you’ve presented here Andrew. Your thoughts have uplifted and inspired me. They all have also reaffirmed with me that many of the the views about universal spirituality that I’ve quietly held, are real and truthful. Thanks again.
Hi Doug, thank you for sharing your transformative journey and for your kind words. I’m glad these thoughts resonated with you. Best regards.
Doug -thank you for sharing your experience. This was the same question that I asked of my Sunday School teacher and other church leaders. If my Caucasian father was not punished for Adam’s sin -how is it right to punish another man for Cain’s sin?
I was scolded for not having faith in the divinity of the church leaders. Many years later thru differing levels of activity yet always struggling with unbelief-I finally made peace with myself and embrace my own worth because I no longer listen to contradictory messages.
My best wishes to you for a life filled with JOY!!!
This is great….the first three paragraphs are exactly what I have often thought. Would it be possible to list the books of scriptures that correspond to the thoughts and ideas you listed.
Hi Glen, I think you’ll find these concepts in all books of scripture, including the Bible. If you’re less familiar with Eastern scripture, I highly recommend starting with the Upanishads (Hinduism), the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism), the Tao Te Ching (Taoism), and the Dhammapada (Buddhism).
As a seeker of truth wherever it may be found (and one who has recently made a spiritual transition out of the church), I have also found much light in the writings of Djwahl Khul through Alice A. Bailey and JJ Dewey (freeread.com). I have found them to be worthy of my time and attention in my search for greater light and truth. I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I believe we are all reflections of God and that truth is to be found in all cultures, faiths, religious traditions, etc. and that they were meant to work cohesively in moving humanity forward, not in opposition to each other. As I have learned to open my mind and heart to the reflection of God in each person, I have been so uplifted by what they have to teach me, not just what I think they need in their lives. I believe love, unity, kindness and compassion are what help us see through the outer vehicles of a person (ego) and recognize the divine within each person. Thanks for sharing this well-written post!
GP, thanks for the kind words and the recommendation. I’ll have to check out Djwahl Khul, Alice Bailey, and JJ Dewey. If you haven’t already read him, I think you would love Swami Vivekananda. What you’ve stated is a summary of his main teachings. He didn’t write much, but he spoke extensively throughout the United States, England, and France in the 1890s, and his lectures were transcribed. The book entitled “Vedanta: Voice of Freedom” is an excellent collection of excerpts from his lectures, arranged by topic. You can find it on Amazon. That book is among the few that have had the biggest impact on me in the last five years.
Andrew, this is just beautiful. Well done!
Thank you Andrew! I loved your point of view. Let us all be kind to another….Mindy