I’ve read several books and essays in the science versus religion genre, some by secular scientists or philosophers (such as Stephen Jay Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria essay) and some by Christian scientists (such as Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution). I recently found a refreshing new perspective within the genre: The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (Schocken Books, 2011) by Jonathan Sacks, a prominent Jewish scholar and rabbi. It offers a more relaxed, more pragmatic treatment of the topic than other books I have read. A one-sentence summary: Science and religion are complementary: science is about explanation and religion is about meaning, but individuals and societies that push religion aside and fully secularize are almost guaranteed to gradually adopt some form of nihilism and lose their way.
But here’s what I’ll talk about: Chapter 13, “When Religion Goes Wrong.” Sacks is a religious moderate who affirms both science and liberal democracy, and objects to religious fundamentalism. This chapter is his short analysis of what can go wrong with religion when any or all of the following five features become central to a given religion or sect. The reader can decide which, if any, of these features are a danger to Mormonism (or any other particular tradition or denomination).
1. Hard Texts. Sacks defines hard texts as “passages which, if taken literally and applied directly, would lead to results at odds with that religion’s deepest moral standards.” He continues: “Such texts need interpretation. The classic form of fundamentalism is belief in the literal meaning of texts, specifically that we can move from text to application without interpretation. We cannot. Interpretation is as fundamental to any text-based religion as is the original act of revelation itself” (emphasis in original).
2. Dualism. Referring to the two big 20th-century documentary discoveries at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Nag Hammadi (Christian Gnostics), Sacks notes that both communities “saw reality in starkly dualistic terms. There was a sharp separation between good and evil, light and dark, the saved and the damned, the children of the light and the children of darkness, and little if any shading in between. The children of darkness, they believed, were currently in control. Humanity was in the grip of evil.” He continues with the insightful observation that “the greatest danger to monotheism is not polytheism or atheism, but dualism” (emphasis in original). Dualism “explains evil as the work of a mythic counterforce: the devil, the demiurge, Satan, the anti-Christ ….”
3. Messianic Politics. Sacks contrasts exodus politics, “the long, slow journey across the wilderness to redemption an act at a time, a day at a time,” with messianic politics, rooted in more troubled times, when believers “hope for and expect a sudden denouement, a miraculous transformation of history, ‘the world turned upside down.’ This is the logic of the apocalypse ….” For a Jewish commentator, the Jewish War of 66 CE and the Bar Kochba rebellion sixty years later are the defining episodes that condemn messianic politics, but the criticism obviously extends to our own era.
4. The Lure of Power. “Politics and religion do not mix. … Religion seeks salvation, politics seeks power. Religion aims at unity, politics lives with diversity. Religion refuses to compromise, politics depends on compromise.” Christians have come to accept this in the liberal democracies of the West, but Christianity did not willingly cede its temporal power in the early modern era — that came about only when the wars of religion showed how unwilling diverse religious believers were to live together peaceably. Mainstream Christianity has learned “how to survive without power,” but the temptation to further religious aims through the exercise of political power is always present.
5. Single Vision. Sacks extends the danger of a “one and only true answer” view to the new atheists as well as religious fundamentalists. He points out the positive example represented in the Hebrew Bible, which “is constantly setting before us more than one perspective.” That point may be lost on Mormons raised on a carefully correlated curriculum, but the upshot is there is a spectrum of belief and practice represented among the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments. Sacks seems to advocate a broader range of belief within a given tradition as well as more toleration of different beliefs in other traditions.
At times, particular LDS scholars or leaders offer positive critiques of LDS beliefs or perspective that argue against one or another of these five difficulties, what I called wrong turns in the title to this post. Obviously, some are more relevant than others. But Mormonism is at least as vulnerable (perhaps more vulnerable) to misinterpreting texts, adopting a dualistic theology, embracing messianic politics, being tempted by temporal power, and preaching exclusionary salvation as any other faith or denomination.
Remember, self-criticism is almost always a beneficial exercise.