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“New Frontiers”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 18, 2013

The preview for the 1945 young adult Sunday School lesson series reads:

“The Latter-day Saint youth stand on a ‘new frontier.’ Although the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has withstood battles on five frontiers: (1) New York state, (2) “the wilderness” (Kirtland, Ohio), (3) Missouri (Zion), (4) Illinois (Nauvoo), and (5) Utah, the most severe test is here today. For the first time in the history of the Church, its youth lives in an irreligious age.”

I don’t know which intrigues me more: Wondering what teachers of 1945 would think about attitudes toward religion in 2013, or wondering how Church members of 2013 would react to the notion that 1945 – which many of us dream of as an idyllic age of family life, community cooperation, and religious idealism – was really a modern age of irreligion?

One of the lessons from that 1945 manual identifies the sources of criticism of a faithful life. How do they compare and contrast with those we could identify today?

Problem: Who are the Critics of Religion and How Valid Are Their Criticisms?

Note: This lesson begins a series of ten lessons dealing with the religious problems of the Latter-day Saint youth. An attempt has been made to locate your religious problems. Other problems overlooked should be brought to the attention of your teacher and class. Some time each Sunday may be spent in discussing problems related to the topic for that day.

Critics of Religion

As every intelligent person sooner or later discovers there are numerous critics of religion. At the outset, it is the better part of wisdom to anticipate and to prepare to evaluate their criticisms. Accordingly we quote at great length from a Tabernacle Address delivered November 4, 1934, by Dr. John T. Wahlquist of the General Board:

“It will be my purpose, in this brief talk, to identify some of the critics of religion, to refute, if possible, some of the arguments, and to reveal the bases for their disbelief and, possibly, in this field where one can neither prove nor disprove, to present the religious state of mind as being as respectable, if not more so, than the mind-set of disbelief.

“Let us first consider the critics of religious life. These we may classify under several headings:

The Incompetent.

“First and foremost are those we may characterize as being the incompetent persons who criticize religion although they have not experienced religion, nor have they had religious training. We would hesitate to make art critics out of the color-blind. We would hesitate to make music critics out of the tone-deaf. It occurs to me that a person should not pose as a religious critic until he has experienced religion in the truest sense. I think a good many people who talk against religion have never experienced it. I think we might well ask this type of critic if he has ever tried religion.

The Disappointed.

“The second group of critics are the disappointed persons who, through misunderstanding, possibly, have felt that the Church has failed them in their hour of need, or who feel that they have caught a church official in an unethical act. The fallacy in this sort of reaction is probably best illustrated by an analogy. Unquestionably some bankers are thieves. Does that mean that we shall close the banks? A few bankers unquestionably are of inferior stamina in certain ethical situations. Does that mean that we shall discredit all bankers? Of course the church in some of its daily manifestations is a human institution, and “to err is human.” Even though the church is divine, it must manifest itself through the works of men, and we should not expect these men at all times to act in a manner above the human level.

The Fearful.

A third type of critics, which seems to be growing in numbers year by year, is a group whom we may characterize as rationalizers, who fear that religion is an abnormal expression. The members of this group do not wish to be caught with anything which is questionable in the minds of the individuals of their time. Now, there can be no question that some religious practices of some cults and some sects, at different periods of history, have been on the fringe of normality. There can be no question that some adherents to religious denominations are religious fanatics. However, again, would we condemn the group because of the activities of a few?

“I think we may well ask the critic who thinks that religion is an abnormal manifestation, to compare the contras this associates who may fall under the two categories, the religious and the non-religious. Now, I do not imply, of course, that all religious persons are attached to churches, but I am inclined to think that is likely to be the case. At any rate, the man who associates himself with the church finds strength in the association. He finds there a constant reminder of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, which is possibly the fundamental religious proposition, whereas the non-religious individual, who cuts himself from the church, thereby disassociates himself from the fellowship of believers. I think most of us who know these two types of individuals have noted that the non-religious individual tends to be a very selfish, self-centered, egotistical sort of a person. We probably know that when such individuals do become associated with churches they tend to mellow, they tend to improve, to become more sympathetic with others, to be more careful in their actions, and the like.

The Students of Science.

“The fourth group of critics are the students of science, who note that there is a conflict between the statements of modern-day science and the statements of science contained in the Scriptures – and admittedly there are many such conflicts. They are individuals who would rather be guided by their experience than by authority. They are persons who would rather be free than circumscribed by definite codes. I have deep sympathy for this group of critics. However, this particular conflict does not disturb me personally, and I am going to relate my point of view whether it meets with general approval or not.

“From my own standpoint, religion is not a science. Religions should not refute science. I think people should not worry about harmonizing science and religion. The premise for this statement is the fact that science is human, consequently it is always influx. The science of today will not be the science of tomorrow, if we may judge the future by the past. Consequently, I think that the person who sets out to harmonize religion and science is not making contributions to either religion or science. I don’t think that you will strengthen the cause of religion by tying it to science, which will likely change. Religion is more than science. Religion is an over-view of the whole universe and its life.

The Would-Be Scientists.

“The fifth group of critics of the religious life is composed of persons we may characterize as “would-be-scientists,” people who make philosophies and religions out of their sciences. It was this type of group which Professor Berman had in mind when he entitled his book: “This Religion Called Behaviorism.” In other words, this group tends to postulate that all experience which can be demonstrated and described in physical terms, falls within the realm of science, and that no religious experience can be stated in physical terms,consequently, religion is an illusion. There are many such individuals. I should like to remind them that mathematics, which is the key to all sciences and the basis of claims in all sciences, is in itself non-spacial and non-temporal. Mathematical concepts exist only in the mind of man. They have no external being. As a matter of fact, time, of which a good many in the audience may be cognizant at this moment, exists nowhere except in our minds. That is to say, an hour, by which we measure time, is something entirely of our own creation, and yet no doubt the clock which stands before me, measuring this non-spacial and non-temporal entity, is just as real to me and to you as anything in this room.

“A pertinent query is this, whether there may not be aspects and realities in question not touched by the particular scientific method concerned, and whether the conclusions reached by it should not be supplemented by results reached by other paths. Bergson, a philosopher, tells us that bacteriology gives just a picture of a fragment of the universe. Other sciences, likewise, present but isolated and fragmentary pictures. If one is to get an over-view or a comprehension of the universe, these pictures must be set in motion. That is to say, the individual must search for the underlying principle which takes him into philosophy or religion.

The Intelligentsia.

“Then we have a group which I may characterize as the intelligentsia, a group of person who are overwhelmed with their own erudition, persons who know so much that they can’t be religious. Lest it be inferred that I am especially hard on this particular group, I am going to read to you from Professor Counts. He describes the liberal-minded upper middle class as follows:

“‘Persons who are fairly well-off, who have abandoned the faith of their fathers, who assume an agnostic attitude towards all important questions, who pride themselves on their open-mindedness and tolerance, who favor in a mild sort of way, fairly liberal progress of social reconstruction, who are full of good will and humane sentiments, who have vague aspirations for world peace and human brotherhood, who can be counted upon to respond moderately to any appeal made in the name of charity, who are genuinely distressed at the sight of unwonted forms of cruelty, misery and suffering, and who perhaps serve to soften somewhat the bitter clashes of those real forces that govern the world, but who, in spite of all their good qualities, have no deep and abiding loyalties, possess no convictions for which they would sacrifice over-much, would find it hard to live without their customary material comforts, are rather insensitive to the accepted forms of social injustice, are content to play the roles of interested spectators in the drama of human history, refuse to see reality in its harsher, and more disagreeable forms, rarely move outside the pleasant circles of the class to which they belong, and in the day of severe trial will follow the lead of the most powerful and respectable forces in society, and at the same time find good reason for so doing. These people have shown themselves entirely incapable of dealing with any of the great crises of our time – war, prosperity, or depression. At bottom they are romantic sentimentalists, but with a sharp eye on the main chance.’

The Thinkers.

“Another group of critics are the thinkers who do not wish to be tied to the dead past, a group who feel that the church is a carry-over from an age which is dead and buried, a group who are cognizant of the gap between the institutional ritual and the expression of the religion in the life of men. I have great sympathy with this group of critics. I think churches have eliminated many good men because they insisted upon the right to think. Historically speaking, churches have been intolerant. The pages of history record many such instances. I think churches in general have put too much stress on the insistence of belief, rather than upon the development of faith in a particular denomination and its creed. Probably credulity and submissiveness have been over-emphasized; and achievement and attainment have been minimized by certain churches.

The Position of the L.D.S. Church.

“However, I stand before you today representing a church which in its Articles of Faith makes two proposals, which remove this particular conflict from my mind. I read from the Article of Faith No. 9:

“‘We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.’

“The particular church of which I am a member is a dynamic church. It is a church which will change. That is probably something new. The reason behind this is very apparent. The Church is founded upon a promise of continued revelation, and not only do the adherents of this particular church believe in the mind of God, as revealed through the officials of the Church, but they also are open-minded to the contributions of man, the scientist in his laboratory, the artist in the studio, and all creative minds. As witness the last Article of Faith, the last sentence of which I quote:

“‘If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.’

The Irresponsible.

“There is probably one other set of critics of the church, and probably these are in the great majority. These I may characterize as their responsible, the lazy and the indolent, persons who will not make the effort to determine the role of religion in their own lives, or in the lives of humanity at large, persons who live largely at the animal level who are not aware of the fact that they are rational beings, and who consequently do not concern themselves with their duties or responsibilities, who hope there is nothing to religion, because it might interfere with their pleasures. This group is probably entitled to an opinion, but I doubt whether they are entitled to a reply in this particularly discourse. …

“Now, I think it would be unfair to close without saying something about the contributions of religion to life. It was Plutarch, you will recall, who said: ‘If you search the world you may find cities without laws, without letters, without kings, without money, but no one ever saw a city without a deity, without a temple, or without prayers.’

“It was the great William James who said that ‘civilization has come down through the centuries on two legs, the economic and religious,’ or the material and the spiritual. Certainly any sane man will agree that ideals and sympathies are far more important than stocks and bonds or lands and cattle. And the question for this generation is whether they will continue to walk on two legs, or try the impossible and walk on one. We have been worshiping materialism now for a long time and when we look about us I think we are all convinced that the most outstanding lack is that of ideals, sympathies, values.”

Personal Problems.

1. How many of these critics have I met?

2. Am I prepared to evaluate their criticisms?

3. How can I prepare myself?

4. Who is the happier, the religious or the non-religious man? (Make some observations in your neighborhood.)

5. Do I have a right to be religious?



6 Comments »

  1. How many of these critics have I met? Are you kidding me?!

    Little did they know all they had to do was coast to the idyllic 50′s. (Now I’m the kidder.)

    And this is one of the reasons why I remain committed to the church:

    “The particular church of which I am a member is a dynamic church. It is a church which will change. That is probably something new. The reason behind this is very apparent. The Church is founded upon a promise of continued revelation, and not only do the adherents of this particular church believe in the mind of God, as revealed through the officials of the Church, but they also are open-minded to the contributions of man, the scientist in his laboratory, the artist in the studio, and all creative minds. As witness the last Article of Faith, the last sentence of which I quote:

    “‘If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.’

    Comment by Grant — December 18, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  2. “I think that the person who sets out to harmonize religion and science is not making contributions to either religion or science.” Ouch. It’s funny how very little things have changed in 60 years, of course the version of this lesson now would probably condense it to the three critics of religion, since we just don’t have that kind of attention span anymore.

    Comment by Seth — December 18, 2013 @ 11:25 am

  3. THe more things change, the more they stay the same. Not much of this is different, other than the vocabulary, and not all of it is necessarily valid. However, it is the first time I have seen the church’s time in Kirtland referred to as “The Wilderness.”

    Comment by kevinf — December 18, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  4. Interesting that all of these personality types reveal themselves on LDS themed blogs. Sometimes Sister Parshall posts these kinds of lessons from 40, 50 even 60 years ago, and it’s as if leaders are speaking to us today. People – including members – really have not changed much since the beginning of recorded history.

    Comment by IDIAT — December 18, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

  5. The first thing that caught my eye was that this lesson’s reference to a “new frontier” preceded JFK’s “New Frontier” by 15 years.

    As to that reference to Kirtland as the “wilderness,” I wonder if that’s an allusion to that term’s use in a political context. Churchill’s years out of the cabinet in the 1930s are called his “wilderness years”–but I don’t know if that term was current in 1945 in the U.S.

    Finally, I’m not sure if “don’t try to harmonize science and religion” really deserves an “Ouch.” Isn’t there greater safety for religion if we don’t attempt to read the Bible as a textbook on scientific matters, and for science if we don’t seek to find answers there for questions that are not susceptible to rational and experimental proof?

    Comment by Mark B. — December 18, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

  6. I’m a little out of it today and can’t really pull my head together, but I do appreciate the thoughtful discussion here. This is one of those things I respond to when I sort through the old records, because of its similarity to, yet differences from, our modern experiences.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 18, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

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