As irresponsibly destroying my own sleep schedule seems to be my favorite talent, many of my adventures in thought occur during the wee hours of 2-3 AM. A few months ago, around this time, I was reading outside on the balcony of my apartment so as not to disturb my roommates who have reasonably-adjusted circadian clocks. The book was The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, a lovely gift from my theologian friend.
Now, I was already aware of the many similarities between the religion I grew up in and religions that were foreign to me. This occurrence was commonly brought up in the Mormon world to support our own claims of a single God working with all of mankind, Christ having “other sheep” (of which Mormons claim the ancient Americans to have been included in) which were “not of this fold” (referring to the Jews among which he was born). Some other Mormons I’ve spoken to regarding this concept suppose that the Ancient Americans were not the only civilization to which God dispensed the Gospel of Christ, and speculate that the similarities between our doctrine and those of radically different faiths are due to the idea that the other religions must have derived these teachings from a purer dispensation of truth at some point in their history (though I guess we were the most correct because we believe that God restored his pure gospel and it continues to be dispensed in its pure form through living oracles).
Anyway, those were the Mormon teachings I was familiar with. As one whose attitude has grown fairly agnostic over the past couple of years, I later adjusted my assumption to speculate that shared and roughly consistent values across cultures would lead to similar ideas of goodness, evilness, and heroism, and thus we have similar stories despite the separation of these religions in their development. While I didn’t really look into it, I was still intrigued by the idea and thus found Campbell’s analyses of mythical archetypes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces particularly appealing.
Recent shifts in perspective have allowed me to view Christianity from the outside, almost like someone who’d never heard the story of Jesus before. This new perspective has proven very valuable to me. Growing up, I used to take for granted much of the rich symbolism in the biblical narrative because such rituals as “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God” through plastic thimble-cups of tap water and little pieces of Wonderbread was a completely normal part of my week. Yes, I was told over and over again what the sacrament was “for” and what it “meant,” but interpreting ordinances and traditions as I would a cryptic work of art was never something that had crossed my mind.
Speaking of art, let’s talk about that.
Many people are surrounded by the same type of art throughout our childhood or even their entire lives, and thus prefer that specific kind of art because it is what they’re familiar with. For example, pretend for a moment that this was the only type of art you were exposed to and taught to appreciate for the first twenty years of your life:
Now pretend that you’re visiting a gallery and come across these:
You might not be a fan of these newly-introduced works. I mean, that’s some pretty weird crap going on, yeah? Gross.
Perhaps these artists were never taught proper technique and they simply didn’t know any better. Maybe they started out knowing the true ways of painting and, over the years, those skills were lost or went unused as they went off the deep end and started doing their own thing. *glares at Picasso, whose art was quite proper and normal before he went crazy in the 1900’s*
Or maybe they’re just sick in the head. (I’m looking at you, Salvador. What’s with that creepy melty mask? That is just downright disturbing, man. Go take some pills or something.)
I used to look at foreign religions this way. Beliefs and ritualistic traditions that were strikingly different from what I was familiar with were easily met with disdain, dismissal and sometimes disgust. At best, I’d look upon them as interesting, but only interesting in the way that a children’s fairy tale is interesting. Never mind that these stories are rich with powerful symbolism, albeit symbolism I wasn’t used to. Never mind that these stories perhaps contained just as many insights into human thought and culture as my own religion’s scriptures.
Basically, rituals and symbolism to which I was partial were more comfortable and sensible to me because they were what I was accustomed to. When I developed the capacity to see Mormonism from the outside looking in, I realized my religion was was just as weird as everyone else’s, and certainly not superior. Mormon Sandi’s perspective on the weirdness of Buddhism was probably very comparable to a Buddhist’s perspective on the weirdness of Mormonism.
Think back to the gallery scenario. This new and different art might make you feel uneasy, disturbed, uncomfortable, or confused. You might scoff at their simplicity, oddness, or unrealistic aspects. (Hate to tell ya, Jacob Lawrence, but humans aren’t actually shaped like that.) Clearly, these emotional reactions are negative and thus undesirable, so why even try to understand, especially when we have plenty of art that already makes sense?
Overall, religious thought which differed from what I regarded to be the purest truth, I’d perceive as either inferior or downright evil. Non-Mormon religions never “felt right” to me. What I didn’t realize was that these uncomfortable emotions and general disinterest were not indicators that these different beliefs were necessarily wrong or evil, and that I was being “warned” away from even touching that filth. The reason behind my discomfort after glancing tentatively at other ideologies was most likely the same reason one would shy away from an unfamiliar art style after years of sticking to the same genre.
In the art world, we use these concepts which we call elements and principles. The elements of art are line, shape/form, color, value, space/perspective, and texture. The principles of art are pattern, rhythm/movement, proportion/scale, balance, unity, and emphasis. Artists across all styles, genres, and periods compose these elements and utilize these principles to bring their inner desires, emotions, thoughts, and devotion into the outside world for further self-reflection and/or reaction from others. Whether you’re looking at Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks or Vardanega’s Constelación Fantasia Cromática, both of these pieces are using these artistic elements and principles. They may seem like they’re nothing alike, but the basic building blocks of design are present in both pieces.
What if we looked at religion in the same way?
I’m not saying that you have to convert to every religion you come across or take every mythological story literally. (That would be exhausting. Please don’t do that.) Nor am I saying that you should appreciate all religions equally. All I’m asking here is that instead of immediately sorting all religious beliefs into two slots (true or false) and leaving it at that, we allow ourselves to set aside any contempt, disgust, or unease we initially react with (while not ignoring those emotions outright), and really ponder what the believer might be thinking, why they’re behaving in that manner, and what that might symbolize. It’s also important for us to exercise some introspection as to why we reacted the way we did (which is why we don’t ignore emotions). What is it, exactly, that is causing us to feel uneasy about this practice/belief? Why might our values and thought processes differ from theirs?
I believe we would find that, just like the elements and principles which are the building-blocks of art, religions around the world share basic principles, archetypes, symbols, and morals which may be applied differently, but the unique combinations of these elements which are grouped into pieces which we call “religion” must be explored, appreciated, and analyzed to understand human thought and behavior.
Religion, like art, can be a beautiful and powerful expression of human thought, emotion, and experience. Art and religion are my two favorite subjects because they both make me think, and they make me feel. They allow for expression and connection. They are a lens through which, with skill and great care, we can view the world a way that before, we would never have been able to fathom. Art and religion are stepping stones into the minds of humanity.
I’m not asking you to delve deeply into studying every religion you hear about. If theology isn’t your thing, please don’t feel obligated to spend excessive amounts of time reading about something that doesn’t interest you. What I am asking is that you, before criticizing a belief system you know little to nothing about, make a sincere attempt to understand where people are coming from and what they truly believe.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: Partake in the level of research you would ask of someone who ignorantly dismisses your religion as ridiculous, confusing, or evil. If you identify as a Mormon and hear someone ignorantly mocking your faith because they haven’t bothered to educate themselves on what Mormons really believe, how much and what kind of searching would you request on their part? How much courtesy and thoughtfulness would you expect from a decent investigator of Mormonism? Before criticizing someone else’s faith, do the kind of research in their religion which you would want them to do in your religion.
Remember that we don’t have to take myths and spiritual accounts literally in order to appreciate the beauty and complexity of them. We do not need to agree in order to understand. The point of learning to appreciate religion is all about empathy and connection. If you think taking the time and effort to “appreciate something” is wasteful and useless, there is much more to this than having a lovely time at an art gallery. Developing empathy and connection is not just a personal benefit so you can “like more things.” If we can all develop the ability to set our emotional biases aside, turn off that tendency to mentally polarize everyone into protagonists and antagonists, we can understand people and, through that understanding, analyze what causes people to behave the way they do. With that understanding, a knowledgeable and objective approach can be taken in order to effectively reach solutions on the ideological battlefield. Understanding is key to peaceful acceptance, agreements, and compromise.