Two Kinds of Religion
That is one kind of religion, but not the only kind. However much a person agrees with Nietzsche's critique, it doesn't apply to another kind of religion.
Many of us are not particularly concerned about the afterlife. I hope there is an afterlife, but I'm not trying to live a Christian life because of that hope. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that I have hope for eternal life because I am trying to live a Christian life. I doubt much would change for me were someone to convince me that there is no immortality. I'm quite sure that for many Christians religion is like that.
I'm a Mormon Christian because of an encounter with the Divine that became an ongoing encounter. Though there have been and I hope will again be moments of supreme spiritual bliss, most of my encounter doesn't have that quality. Instead it manifests itself in the way the mundane world and those in it show themselves to me, and the way I find myself in the world and with others. The experience of religion is an experience in this world and of this world. It is an experience of the extraordinary character of the ordinary.
That obligation may be most obvious in my relationships with others: like anyone, in the presence of other persons I find myself obligated. I owe them at least a modicum of respect. That is the broadest way to describe what is probably the most important aspect of my ongoing experience of God.
But my obligation is a specific one, an obligation that is shaped and nurtured by being part of a specific, Mormon community. It could not exist as simply a general feeling of obligation. It must have specific content. That content is filled by my prayers for those I find myself among, by my scripture reading and my participation in worship. It is a content defined in a thousand ways that began with my baptism into the LDS Church as a teenager.
The result is not a life in which this world is given its value by another, transcendent world. Instead it is a life in which this world is of value, already and as it is.
Speaking through Joseph Smith, God said "All things are unto me spiritual" (D&C 29:34). As I read that it means that this temporal world is not a pale imitation of some other spiritual one, but that it too is spiritual. The meaning of life comes from lived life, not from something else. Ultimately there is no essential division between earthly and celestial life. They are both aspects of the same thing, namely the present existence of the world and my present existence in it.
It does not follow that this world is perfect or, especially, that there are no issues to be resolved within my life, religion, or religious community. Far from it. What follows is that I must live in the present world differently than I would if there were nothing divine or if the value of this world were determined by some transcendent one—differently, that is, than if atheism or the first kind of religion were true.
For Mormons, the obligations of religion come down to covenant. And James 1:27 gives a fundamental description of what that covenant requires: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their afflictions, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."
Broadened, ritually pure religion demands covenant life with God and my sisters and brothers. That is not life spent waiting for something else. It is life with them here and now, a life of work creating, maintaining, and expanding the bonds of that covenant and its obligations.
Nietzsche may have been right about the first kind of religion, but his criticisms don't apply to the second.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.