This is a question that has occupied my mind for many years. I majored in Asian History at BYU and later at UC Berkeley, and have had much contact with non-Christian philosophical systems. I spent much of my adult life in Japan (although now in Oregon USA), married a Japanese woman (who is a convert to LDS) and raised three children in both Western and Eastern cultures. We participate in her family religious traditions, which is Nichiren Buddhism, and I have had occasion to read and translate some of the works of Nichiren, the 13th century founder of that Buddhist sect.
In so doing, I have become convinced that Nichiren was a prophet, or at the very least, a man of God. He lived in a time of great crisis in Japan, and went about preaching repentance and a return to the True Path. (Reminds me of Jeremiah and, like Jeremiah, this did not sit well with the authorities, in that he was constantly persecuted and in danger of his life.) Around 1260 he wrote a famous treatise in which he asserted that if Japan did not soon turn from its wrong path it would come under attack from a foreign army that would devastate the nation. Imagine the shock when, just 14 years later, the Mongols arrived with a vast fleet on the shores of Kyushu. (The Japanese barely beat them off that year, and again in 1281 before the Mongols gave up. Famously, the Kamikaze (Divine Wind, or in other words, a typhoon) blew away the Mongol fleet both times. And this was the only time in recorded history that Japan was invaded by foreign armies before the arrival of the Americans in 1945.) Nichiren lived long enough to see this, and to see a chastened Japanese elite turn their allegiance to him. His teachings underpinned the Japanese samurai ethic of later centuries.
When my wife and I are visiting in Japan, we always make a point of touring the great religious sites of Buddhism and also Shinto, the original nativist religion. These are holy places where we can be near to God.
In the same way, when I visit Europe, I make a point of visiting the great cathedrals of Christendom, and smaller churches as well. And I love the Christmas Eve midnight mass as a way of honoring the Savior’s birth.
In other words, I have no objection to other religious traditions that bring people closer to God. But then, you may ask, why do we bother telling people We Have The Truth?
What exactly do we have that is unique?
First, it seems to me that all people everywhere on Earth intuitively believe in eternal marriage. All look forward to eternities with their beloved spouses. Yet no one but LDS explicitly include it in their doctrine, and tell us how it is accomplished. In the General Conference last weekend, this theme of the Family was repeated constantly. No other subject (save the Atonement, about which I will get to in a minute) received so much attention. It is a promise that should attract people no matter what their cultural background.
Second, all people everywhere wonder how persons can return to God. Buddhism (and Hinduism, from which it is derived) thinks about this a lot, and has developed a rich philosophy based on the idea of self-enlightenment, right thinking, denial of material desires, and so on, all of which we as LDS would have no quibbles with. Once a person has done all these things, he has become perfect, and achieves Nirvana. But this is impossibly difficult, as even the most fervent Buddhists realize, and so they call on Buddhas (of various stripes) and Bodhisattvas (persons already enlightened) for assistance in reaching this goal. This is really not so far removed from the concept of the Atonement, where Jesus plays the role of arbiter between ourselves and God. In other words, the Atonement is a universal message, for all people, and persons of non-Christian cultures can recognize this, through the spirit.
Third (and this links to the First and Second points), we have Temples to tie people together with all their ancestors back into God’s family. No other religion can offer this gift. Your ancestors do not have to be consigned to the nether regions just because they were born in the wrong century and the wrong culture. All will come right in the end.
Fourth, a claim of priesthood authority. All of the above three points are performed by men authorized by God, with a priesthood geneology that all can trace back to Joseph Smith, and then to Peter, James, and John, to Jesus, and finally to God. Where men like Nichiren could (and in my opinion, DID) receive guidance from God on the issues facing their people, they did not have priesthood authority to continue. (And like all religious movements, Nichiren’s splintered in later centuries into various schools, each of which claim descent from Nichiren, with a famous modern version being Soka Gakkai, founded about 60 years ago.)
So, in summary, our LDS church has a legitimate basis to laying claim to being a truly universal religion.
Indeed, I am reminded of a statement by Gordon B. Hinckley to “bring all the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it”.
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