Rituals, offerings and supplications on behalf of the dead are hallmarks of many faiths. Followers of the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster chant prayers for the deceased in their funeral ceremonies, beseeching God to forgive their transgressions. The Catholic Church—until the Reformation quashed the practice—offered intercessory prayers and elaborate masses for the departed.
The Old Testament, on the other hand, expressly enjoins all offerings to the dead. Further, the general thrust of the New Testament and early Christian writings is that all such practices are futile since “death is a boundary beyond which salvation may not be procured.” There are exceptions, however, such as this cryptic passage from 1 Corinthians: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”
The year is 1648 and most of Europe is in tatters. The Dutch War of Independence between Spain and the provinces—what are today the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg—has raged for 80 years, while The Thirty Years War within the Holy Roman Empire has laid waste to much of the continent. The population of Germany alone has fallen from 21 million to approximately 13 million.
What caused these interminable conflicts? Most historians believe religion played a central role. The publication by Martin Luther in 1517 of his Disputation on the Power of Indulgences planted the seeds for the Protestant Reformation. This, in turn, led to the Counter-Reformation—also known as the Catholic Reformation—and the Inquisition. As Protestantism continued to expand into areas previously dominated by the Roman Church, imperial authority was destabilized, as were the boundaries of kingdoms. And war came.
While en route to Jerusalem for the last time in his life, Jesus is approached by a rich young man who asks him the following question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The Savior’s response is both clear and concise. “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
In Washington, there is a sage piece of advice given to constituents who ask their Senator for a favor: If he says ‘yes,’ the only thing else you should say is, “Thank you, Senator; we really appreciate your help; goodbye.” You don’t linger or say anything more lest you cause him to reconsider or qualify his promise.
The Past is a Foreign Country: They do things differently there.
L. P. Hartley
Ever wonder why there were no economists before Adam Smith, the great British philosopher and pioneer of political economy? As odd as this may seem, prior to the 18th century no one had ever conceived of organizing a system around the notion of personal gain. Historically, all commercial and industrial activity—that of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and the people of the Middle Ages—was organized in just one of two ways.
The first was tradition, where occupations were passed from one generation to the next according to the accident of birth. You were born to your social task and you were expected to accept it. Religion was frequently invoked to justify this approach. If your lot in life was one of poverty and disease, remember: this brutish and brief mortality is simply a prelude to the sweetness of eternal life.
Human beings and virtually all animals possess exceptional navigation skills. Monarch butterflies, for example, fly south to Mexico for the winter and then return north in the spring, traversing some 2,500 miles. The travel time is so great it eclipses multiple lifespans. It is the great-grandchildren of these fragile, winged creatures who complete the journey. But how do the newborn know where they’re going? This is a mystery science has yet to unravel.
In 1783, Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay called, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North-America,” in which he chronicles an exchange of views about religion between a Swedish minister and the chiefs of the Susquehanna Indians. The man of the cloth began the conversation by reciting the biblical creation story and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. When he was done, a spokesman for the tribes stood and thanked him, and then proceeded to share his tribe’s origin story.
“In the Beginning our Fathers had only Flesh of Animals to subsist on,” he said, but relying on a single source for food was precarious for the tribe. One day, two young hunters, having slain a deer, were roasting the meat over an open fire in the woods. Just as they were about to begin their repast, a beautiful woman descended from the clouds and sat upon a nearby hill. This spirit, the warriors concluded, must have smelled the venison, so they offered her some.
In November 1972, I arrived in Chile to commence my two-year stint as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My first posting was to Linares, a small town of around 38,000 people about 200 miles south of Santiago.
To say that I was not in Kansas anymore would be an understatement. At least the Munchkins spoke English. I, on the other hand, struggled mightily with the local Spanish dialect, Castellano, notwithstanding the intensive language training I had received during the previous eight weeks. While my mouth was grappling with a foreign tongue, my stomach was trying to come to grips with an unfamiliar cuisine. And sometimes it lost its grip.
Around 1:00 am on Monday, June 20, 1987, I awoke with severe chest and abdominal pains. When they failed to subside, I asked Margaret to call an ambulance. By the time we arrived at the hospital in suburban Maryland, I was nauseous, running a high fever, and experiencing chills.
Later that morning my personal physician arrived. After reviewing the results of my blood work and other tests and conducting a physical examination, he ruled out a bleeding ulcer or any problem with my other body organs. But he still could not identify the source of the problem. All the while, the pain began to worsen, and I was given nothing to alleviate it for fear that the medication would mask my symptoms, thereby making it more difficult to diagnosis my condition.
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that organized religion has not been fairing well lately. According to a recent Gallup survey, church membership in the United States last year fell below 50% for the first time since the company began gathering data over 80 years ago. Religious affiliation held firm at 70-75 percent until 2000, at which time a steady decline began. Similar trends can be found in Europe and other western nations.
The LDS Church, while not experiencing a net loss in members, has witnessed a steady decrease in its growth rate over the past eight years, to the point that it is virtually flat. And there is no reason to believe this will change anytime soon.
Several years ago Martin Marty, a prominent scholar of American Religion, in response to a question posed by the church’s Public Affairs department, said “The most important issue facing Mormons in the next ten years is maintaining the posture that you are the only true church, to the exclusion of all others, and then trying to get along with those you exclude.” For those who believe he has a point—and I do—there is a solution to this problem, but it will require us to rethink two of our foundational truth claims: