“Symposium Examines ‘Literature of Belief’” Ensign, Dec. 1979, 70–72
“It’s like … ,” said one speaker, straggling for a comparison that would mean the very best, “like tasting a really fine blend of tea.” His audience laughed. “Or champagne?” They laughed harder.
Since the audience was a Brigham Young University audience, their laughter at his comparison was understanding and affectionate. And since he was Wing-tsit Chan, a famous scholar-lecturer on Chinese philosophy in the United States, they needed an analogy to help them understand the meaning of Tao.
Tao, tea, and BYU? Yes. It was part of an enormous effort to communicate across cultural and religious gulfs in the symposium on “The Literature of Belief” sponsored by the Center for International and Area Studies and the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University, with one session jointly sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters.
Nine speakers spoke on a range of topics that included Kundalini yoga, Hindu folklore, Qu’ran, Buddhism, Taoism, the Old and New Testaments, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and the Articles of Faith. Some of the topics were as familiar as Sunday School class to the audience; others were so far removed from daily experience that most of the audience did not even know that the scholar addressing them stood at the summit of his profession. Academic Vice President Robert K. Thomas had predicted that the symposium would be a “honing and focusing experience” that “comparison and contrast alone can provide.” His prediction was amply fulfilled.
Keynote speaker Joseph Campbell, retired professor of literature and comparative folklore at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, introduced his audience, through an illustrated lecture, to the symbols and stages of Kundalini yoga, “India’s gift to us” dating from about the fourth or fifth century B.C. “Try to hold one thought in your mind continuously, even for a couple of seconds,” said Dr. Campbell. “It takes tremendous concentration to make the mind stand still.”
Four of the presentations were on scriptures very familiar to Latter-day Saints: the Old and New Testament, the First Vision, and the Articles of Faith.
Dr. Herbert N. Schneidau, professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, combined his fascination with both modern literature and Old Testament studies to assert, “The processes of the mind that lie behind a people’s thinking will also be seen in its literature. … Style in key ways creates content, and Biblical thinking produced our literature.”
BYU’s Richard L. Anderson, professor of religion and history, challenged New Testament critics who see the New Testament as a record of successive changes, from Christ’s original unwritten gospel through the recordings of the Gospels, and the theology that Paul created.
Instead, Paul’s own letters, usually accepted as among the earliest of New Testament documents, reinforce and retell the great stories of the Gospels, constituting, in fact, “raw gospels.”
He compared the pattern of revelation in Paul’s letters to that of New Testament revelation in particular. The New Testament records seven of Paul’s visions, including his conversion, his vision in the temple at Jerusalem, his vision of things “unlawful” to speak of, the dream that sent him to Macedonia, reassurance after he was driven from three cities, the revelation that he would go to Rome, and the angel he saw before the shipwreck.
All of these revelations, said Professor Anderson, pointed back to the greatest revelation of all—the appearance of the resurrected Lord to eyewitnesses, which Paul continually cites in his letters as the ultimate proof.
The story of the First Vision—not only what happened there but the fact that it happened—was the subject explored by Adele B. McCollum, who teaches philosophy and religion at Montclair State College in New Jersey. “To believe in the vision of Joseph Smith is to believe that one may have to look on God and yet live. And that risk is great because one will never again live in the same way.”
She discussed in greater detail one of the most threatening aspects of that vision: the multiplicity of Gods. Part of what Joseph Smith found out is that God and man do not belong to two completely different species, that man cannot only experience God but also “experience himself as god, that is, to experience Godness. In Mormonism, man, though finite, is not completely separated from God.”
P. Lal, professor of English and Sanskrit at the University of Calcutta and publisher of more than eighty English translations of Indian texts, gave his audience an experience with Hindu folklore as part of his explanation of it.
One parable involved children who discovered the wishing tree with its “roots in the sky and its fruits on the ground.” Like all children, they wished for candy. The tree gave them candy, but it also gave them stomachaches. They wanted toys; they also got boredom. As adults, they wanted fame, money, and power. “The tragedy of life,” commented Professor Lal, “is that you get exactly what you want. With every gift comes its opposite.”
In the parable a crippled boy, pushed aside by his comrades, waits his turn under the wishing tree “and in one dazzling illuminating spectacle, he marvels at the cosmic swindle of life. In a gush of compassion for his companions, he forgot to wish—and the tree couldn’t touch him. He was free.”
Fazlur Rahman, originally of West Pakistan, and professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Chicago, shared his deep knowledge of the Qu’ran (Koran), the holy book of Islam.
“Because the Qu’ran’s message is also one of social justice, some western scholars see it primarily as a socio-political teaching, religious only by accident. Mohammed felt—and felt it in his inmost being—that he had been called by God, the one and unique, the only bring who is infinite.”
Taoism, “the path, the way of existence, the way of ancient wisdom,” is ascribed to Lao-tzu, who supposedly lived in the sixth century B.C., explained Professor Wing-Tsit Chan, professor of philosophy at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lao-Tzu and Confucius “have determined the direction of Chinese philosophy and religion ever since.”
Taoism consists of Several parts. The Tao (pronounced dow) is a “luminous, transcendental” state, “a process of being, not a subject-object relationship. The Way is in things, not through them.”
After this overview of one of the world’s most important religious philosophies, the audience heard a microanalysis of one element of another major religion, Buddhism, from Richard B. Mather, a professor of Chinese at the University of Minnesota, currently on leave at Berkeley.
Steven P. Sondrup, assistant professor of humanities and comparative literature at BYU, contrasted the Articles of Faith with the creeds of other religions, examined Several different meanings that “believe” can have and how these meanings operate in the Articles of Faith, and then compared the “we believe” of the Articles of Faith to the “I know” of the testimony meeting.
King Benjamin, in concluding his address, gave his people a simple challenge: “Believe in God”; and then specified: “If you believe all these things see that ye do them” (Mosiah 4:9–10).
Professor Sondrop pointed out: “Far from being just a passive inward attitude, ‘believing in’ is a mode of being and a course of action that can lead to ‘knowing.’ The private ‘I know’ must be so ordered that it ultimately contributes to the common ‘we believe’; and conversely, the community to a personal ‘I know.’”