My parents, Ralph and Florence Britsch, reared me in a Mormon home. I attended church meetings with near perfect regularity. My parents held responsible positions in the Church and always assumed I would enjoy many of the same experiences they cherished. It was expected that I would serve a full-time mission, and I did. In January 1959, I commenced two years of proselyting in the Hawaiian Islands. The people I met during that period changed my life forever.
It was easy for me to love the peoples of Hawaii. I do not remember ever hearing a racist word in my parent’s home. Indeed, during World War II, while almost everyone was berating the Japanese in the vilest terms, I recall my mother lamenting that we could no longer obtain the wonderful toys that were made by the Japanese. Shortly after World War II an uncle spent three years as a Mormon missionary in Japan. Prior to that he had been part of the Occupation troops there at the end of the war. These positive feelings for a nation that was held in disrepute by many had a salutary effect on me.
While on my mission, I spent a year on the Kona Coast of the Island of Hawaii. From time to time, I dropped in to take a tourist’s eye view of several Buddhist temples in that district. I found the temple implements interesting, but even more than that I wondered why the old Japanese people we met always treated us kindly, while the younger Nisei and Sansei (second and third generation) Japanese who had become Christian were usually abrupt and unkind to us. I wondered, “What is it about the old Buddhists that causes them to be so kind?” This question and other experiences fostered in me an interest in other religions of the world.
Back at Brigham Young University I majored in Asian Studies with a strong emphasis in anthropology. I was also interested in comparative religions. At Claremont Graduate University, where I did my Ph.D., I emphasized Asian religions and thought. I was in academic heaven. My professors and colleagues were wonderful people who loved learning and trusted each other to be as intellectually honest as was possible.
Did my educational interests and pursuits cause me to question my religious foundation and beliefs? Yes, briefly. A rather strong dose of behaviorism actually caused me to question anyone’s ability to escape religious conditioning by parents, leaders, teachers, and friends. I asked myself, do some of my friends (even senior citizens) whom I have always known and respected actually know what they are doing when participating in religious observances? Are they so totally conditioned that they really don’t know what they are doing? Can we really know anything, especially of things religious? Is everything relative to the circumstances and environments in which we find ourselves? These are common questions among scholars and intellectuals. The usual answer leans strongly toward relativism. I was never comfortable with that answer. (Incidentally, I got over behaviorism quite easily when I realized that it is only one of myriad ways that people may be taught and trained. It no longer bothers me that God might use behaviorist methods to get us where he wants us. We still have agency.)
All this leads to a question: Lanny Britsch, where do you stand regarding religious relativity? And how do you view religious truth as held by non-Latter-day Saint religions—Christian and non-Christian? And how do you know your position is right or correct?
I will begin with the second question, How do I view religious truth as held by other faiths? I have long believed that the major religions of the world and some philosophies (such as Confucianism) contain much truth in their teachings. In a way, the question of salvation almost becomes a moot point because religious quests vary so much. For example, the quest for nirvana in Buddhism is so distant and different from salvation as defined by most Christians that trying to say which is better (truer?) is of little or no value. On the other hand, understanding another religion’s point of view is of real value. Understanding does much to lead one to respect another position. I believe most major religions contain many moral and ethical truths and do much to improve the human condition.
Regarding the question of religious truth, I believe religions may be usefully placed in one of three categories: exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist. Exclusivists hold that their religion is the only truth and that no other ideas are needed to answer the questions of human existence. Pluralists, on the other extreme, claim that no religion has claim to the truth and that all religions are true, just as all cultures are acceptable—a relative position. Inclusivists take the middle ground, the position asserting that one religion is correct and true but that other religions do have genuine value. This is the position of the Latter-day Saints. We believe there have been wise and inspired prophets, sages, philosophers, and religious leaders over the centuries who have provided much that is good and true for mankind.
Since the days of the prophet Joseph Smith, the LDS Church has consistently held to its position that the world is filled with truth, although there is also clearly much that is not true. The responsibility of the Latter-day Saint is to “receive truth, let it come from whence it may” (Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979], 313). Further, the prophet Joseph taught: “We don’t ask any people to throw away any good they have got; we only ask them to come and get more” (Ibid., 275).
Obviously, my answer to question two answered question one. I am not a relativist or pluralist. I believe that among the varieties of truths (that is, undeviating physical laws and spiritual laws) available to mankind there are some truths that are absolute and will lead to eternal salvation and exaltation. Perhaps I should explain what I mean when I speak of “varieties of truths.” For example, it is true when we say that something is red, yellow, or blue because there is universal acceptance of these words within the English language. These are also universally recognized as the primary colors. But we also make truth statements about matters that are not so clearly absolute. Often issues of relativism enter at this point. For example, those who say God is God no matter what he/it is called or named in one place in the world or another, would generally be classed as relativists. But the underlying implication is that it is impossible to know or define God; therefore, whatever God is called makes no difference because no one knows who or what God is. The six Hindu blind men touching different parts of an elephant and arriving at various conclusions regarding what an elephant is come to mind. Each blind man perceived but one part of the whole elephant (God). Many scholars and religionists believe that no one can understand what God is or what his/its true qualities and characteristics are. (I have used the term “he/its” because many religions do not wish to ascribe gender to the ultimate being.) While I know that I do not begin to understand God fully, I do believe we can know him with much greater certainty than is often believed.
How do I know (or believe I know) that the Mormon way to salvation and exaltation is the supreme path? Let me emphasize an important point regarding my testimony. I am not a Mormon because I have studied many of the world’s religions and found them wanting. That would be a negative path. And in my case it would be untrue. I have not arrived at Mormonism because there is something wrong with any other religion. I am a Mormon because of two positive blessings in my life: Firstly, the Mormon way of life works wonderfully well for me. Living in the Mormon way makes me happy. It makes me healthy. It has brought me love in my family and among my colleagues and friends. And it brings clarity to my life that I adore. Secondly, and most importantly, I am a Mormon because of my experiences with the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost.
In the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, the life history of a man named Alma, son of Alma, is given. As a wayward youth, Alma the younger, as he is known, went about among the people seeking to destroy the Church of Christ and all that it stood for. This was especially heinous because his father was the head of the church. In an experience not so different from that of Saul on the road to Damascus, Alma the younger was struck blind as an angel from God called him and his companions to repentance. The result was much like Saul, who, as Paul, became the great apologist-apostle of Jesus Christ. Alma saw an angel and he also had many other spiritual manifestations from God. His repentance was complete. Eventually he became the high priest and leader of the church. In an effort to persuade his people to repent and return to their God, he testified that he knew the things he was saying to them were true. He said, “I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. . . . I know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit.” (Alma 5: 45-46.)
I find it important that Alma, who had seen an angel and received other important heavenly manifestations, did not say, “Yea, verily, I saw an angel and he told me these things are true.” What he said was far more important. He said he knew by the power of the “Holy Spirit of God.” Here lies the key to my testimony. My testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as taught and administered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come from the same source. I have not only been taught to believe as I believe, but also I have lived with the blessing of feeling the Spirit, the Holy Ghost, in my life. This has been true since I was a boy. Now, in my old age, I still enjoy the blessing of having the Spirit in my life on frequent occasions.
What do I mean when I say, “I have had the Spirit, the Holy Ghost, in my life”? This is not an easy question to answer. Indeed, to share this feeling is almost impossible if one has not had the experience himself or herself. Religious believers sometimes speak of ineffable experiences. Perhaps having the Spirit is such an experience. Those who have fallen in love know what it feels like, but it is very difficult to speak of the feelings love brings without experiencing it oneself. Regarding the personal testimony that is born of the Holy Spirit, this much I can say: I feel a warmth, a certitude, a peace, and surety that vital questions have been answered in the affirmative or that sacred knowledge has been given to me from an unseen source. I believe these positive feelings come to me from the Holy Spirit. I often feel the same way when I hear another person testify that something is true. Having the Spirit in one’s life can also be manifest while performing ordinances or giving blessings. Inspired words come into the mind of the person who is performing the ordinance, words that were not planned or expected. As a Latter-day Saint I believe such words or promptings come from the Holy Spirit. I know when I have spoken my own words and when I have been guided to speak by the Spirit.
I am not a prophet, as was Alma, but I know by the same feelings and inner knowledge as witnessed to me by the Holy Spirit that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. The Church that Joseph Smith established through many encounters with heavenly beings is true. The Book of Mormon is true. It is the word of God. I believe in the three personages of the Holy Trinity, God the Father—our Heavenly Father—his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. Jesus Christ is our Savior. He is literally the Son of God. He atoned for the sins, sufferings, sorrows, and problems of all mankind. He was the first fruits of the resurrection—the gift he freely gave to all mankind. Jesus Christ is the center of our religion. He is the ground and basis for all we believe. I know these things through the power of the Holy Spirit and so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
R. Lanier Britsch is an emeritus professor of history at Brigham Young University, where, for a time, he directed the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies. He also served as the academic vice president of Brigham Young University-Hawaii from 1986 to 1990. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from BYU, and earned his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University. Among his publications are Unto the Islands of the Sea: A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Pacific (1986); Moramona: The Mormons in Hawai’i (1991); From the East: The History of the Latter-day Saints in Asia, 1851-1996 (1998); Nothing More Heroic: The Compelling Story of the First Latter-day Saint Missionaries in India (1999); with Donald Q. Cannon, Richard O. Cowan, David F. Boone, and Fred E. Woods, Unto Every Nation: Gospel Light Reaches Every Land; and, with Terrance D. Olson, Counseling: A Guide to Helping Others (1983).
Dr. Britsch has served in many capacities in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including two missions in the Hawaiian islands (the first as a young man, the second as a senior missionary assigned to help document the history of the Polynesian Cultural Center) and numerous assignments in bishoprics of BYU student wards and in the presidencies of both a BYU student stake and the Orem Utah Sharon Stake. He is currently a stake patriarch in Orem, Utah. He and his previous wife, JoAnn Murphy Britsch, are the parents of six children; she died in 2005. Dr. Britsch married Shirley McKay in 2006.
Posted July 2010