A Catholic looks at the Mormons, and finds serenity lies in common ground
The Sage of Concord and the intellectual center of the American Renaissance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said about religious conviction: "In the matter of religion, people eagerly fasten their eyes on the difference between their own creed and yours; whilst the charm of the study is in finding the agreements and identities in all the religions of humanity."
Words from the wise.
I was born and raised Catholic in predominantly Hindu India. My family has been Catholic for generations. I am an active practitioner of the Catholic faith, which essentially means that I fulfill my Sunday obligation and participate in all other required church activity. I pray the Rosary -- a plea to the Virgin Mother -- devoutly every day. I am an acquiescent student of the faith. In the eyes of most people, I am a "good Catholic."
The Catholic minority in India is a somewhat close-knit group that fights shy of controversy, preferring obedience and pacifism to outright conflict. Dissent is discouraged. One seldom questions the decisions of the church hierarchy. The catechism of the church is indubitable and is not up for discussion. "Good Catholics" do not probe Catholic theology. We simply believe all that we have been taught and follow church traditions without protest.
This works very well as long as our faith is not put under the microscope. When people from other Christian belief systems come knocking however, we find ourselves ill at ease. Most of us do not really have a handle on scripture so as to be able to defend our beliefs, and those of us that are reasonably well informed often take the fundamentalist road turning otherwise polite argument into acrimonious debate.
I moved to the United States in 1999 to attend Utah State University. I knew very little about Utah before I got here. I had heard from friends that Utah was a Mormon bastion -- the citadel of one of the fastest-growing religions on the planet. Mormonism seemed intimidating to me at the time. It was an unfamiliar belief system that I regarded with a great deal of suspicion. I had been warned about aggressive Mormon missionaries who preyed upon unsuspecting foreigners, brainwashing them into accepting a purportedly bizarre religious doctrine.
My parents and relatives were especially concerned that these fanatically committed "cultists" -- as Mormons are usually made out to be -- would cause me to change my religious affiliation by means of elaborate spiritual seduction. So I arrived in Utah feeling very apprehensive about spending the next four years of my life in the company of "evil" Mormons. I lived in Mountain View Tower on campus during my first year. This was a fear-provoking time. The door to my room was always locked. I did not want to interact with anyone out of fear that they would begin preaching to me. It took me quite a while to loosen up.
It was not until my second semester at USU that I began to have conversations with others on my floor. Up until that time, I had reflected on how dissimilar our two belief systems were. I mulled over intense theological arguments that portrayed Mormonism as a pseudo-Christian sect. "How can these people claim to be Christian when they do not accept the Trinitarian nature of God, the very basis of most Christian beliefs?" I asked myself. I read up on arguments against Mormonism and equipped myself with theological ammo. I was always primed for a debate with the neighbors. I became obsessed with debunking what I then believed were the many myths of Mormonism.
Then one day, I chanced upon the quote from Emerson that appears at the beginning of this essay, and I stopped my campaign of vilification. The reality of the situation became apparent. I was the architect of my unhappiness. My fears had wrested control of my psyche. In truth, I was unsure of my faith and myself. I was trying feverishly to prove a point I did not have to prove. I realized then that the key to fostering greater understanding between religions that are, in essence, different, lies in identifying inter-religious similarities and avoiding strictly fundamentalist interpretation of rudiments.
There were no more debates after this. I went back to my research. This time, I concentrated on the similarities between Catholicism and Mormonism and came up with quite a few. For instance, the primary source of theology in both faiths is the Bible. Salvation in both belief systems can be attained through faith, grace, baptism, and good works, and the claim of authority in both religions is made on the basis of apostolic succession. Similarly, I began to mentally reframe concepts that were not ordinarily compatible. Eventually, most of my fears seemed irrelevant, as I had developed a more flexible and accommodating perspective. I tackled difference by thinking differently.
Religious differences can be daunting as these strike at the core of our beings. When traditions and beliefs that we have taken for granted over the years are suddenly called into question, we become defensive, sometimes at the expense of logical reasoning. This is especially true if, like me, you have never really questioned or endeavored to understand the precepts of your faith. There is a tendency to immediately perceive anything that is not familiar as being wide off the mark.
My first hurdle in discovering Mormonism was to overcome the fear that unfamiliarity with the religion had instilled in me. It is vitally important for us to go beyond this wall of fear, for if we do not, we might actually deprive ourselves of information that could enrich our thinking and fine-tune our perceptions.
In the words of Willa Cather, "The miracles of the church rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."