Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believe that there is one God and that He has, through prophets, taught the truth about the creation of our universe and the divine potential of our eternal souls to many people across many civilizations throughout the world’s history. While over the centuries many of these fundamental truths became corrupted or lost, our message to the world is that God has called a prophet in this modern age and has restored these truths to a degree of completeness that has not existed since the time of Christ and his Apostles.
Admittedly, this is a bold claim. It is audacious because it implies two things. First, that while all other religions may possess varying measures of light, only the Mormon church possess the full spectrum. And second, that all those wishing to receive the fullness of blessings associate with that truth, must join the fold. This claim to monopoly on universal truth is a little hard to buy for a lot of people, simply on account of the numbers. Mormons all over the world currently number roughly 14 million, a mere 0.2% of the world’s current population and taking into account all the future and previous inhabitants of the earth, the number gets even smaller. The numbers beg the question, if God is so particular about which church we go to, how could He be so ineffective at getting people to accept the fullness of his Word over the ages?
This is a question I grappled with more in my past year living in India, than I ever had before. Not only was I an overwhelming minority as a Mormon, but also as Christian. I was one of only 5 Mormons in a state of 50 million people, all of which had likely never even heard of the Mormon religion before. Moreover, the religious traditions of my local colleagues demanded consideration. Where the religions of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Persians had long since gone by the wayside, theirs had stood the test of time. Theirs was the world’s most ancient surviving civilization, so they must have been doing something right. Sure there was squalor like I’d never before encountered. But while the slums of the predominantly Christian nations of Latin America are seized with drug-related violence and street crime, those of India, in contrast, seem to operate like virtual utopias.
In order to answer this question, to make sense of this concept of India, I found myself hungering and thirsting for spiritual knowledge like never before. I wearied my colleagues at work with questions about their religious traditions, drilling them on the finer points of Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Muslim doctrine and general Indian history in every idle moment at the office. According to the Bible the Indo-European nations trace their lineage to Noah’s eldest son Japheth, whose descendants God blessed to expand and spread across the Mediterranean and the regions surrounding the Black and Caspian Seas. These were generally righteous people. Many believe the three kings that visited the baby Jesus from the east could have been coming from India. So how did they stray from the truth?
In the Bible and Book of Mormon, we often hear vague references to prophets struggling against their peoples’ tendency toward idolatry. When we think of idolatry, we tend to consider it through a modern, metaphorical lens, comparing it to the worship of wealth and fame and other things that consume our modern attention and ambitions. It is difficult for us to imagine how the worship of a Golden Calf could possibly present any threat to the belief in one true God.
But in earlier eras, idolatrous traditions were indeed formidable opponents to monotheistic religion. This reality became apparent to me from almost my first day in India. I recall riding to my office the first day and being struck by all the cult statues and anthropomorphic effigies I saw lining the streets. Inside the auto-ricksaw I noticed several colorful animal figures lining the dashboard and giant postersized cutouts of Bollywood actors and actresses lining the upholstery of the rickshaw cabin. When I mentioned to my Indian colleague and co-passenger how shocked I was, he smiled and told me that whether Hindu gods or movie stars, Indians have to worship one idol or another.
My point in recounting this story is not to demean the noble, if idiosyncratic piety of my friendly Indian rickshaw drivers. Rather, it is to illustrate how easily humankind can miss the true mark of truth amidst all the glitz and sensationalism of idol worship. The people of the ancient civilization were no less prone to forgoing the fullness of unseen spiritual blessings in favor of something more immediate and tangible than we are today. When considering the fact that many of these eternal truths were passed down orally to a largely illiterate congregations, its no wonder that the quest for truth has always been an uphill battle.