FID Conference (Day One)

I see that a couple of people have already posted about the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy conference last weekend (see here and here), which reminded me that I’d told a couple of people I’d post some of my thoughts about it. It was really fun to go to the conference; I’ve been kind of obsessed with issues related to pluralism for the past decade or so, but most of my conversation about the subject has been done in a non-LDS context, so I especially enjoyed thinking about them with reference to Mormonism in particular. (Not to mention that I got to hang out with cool people and hide from my dissertation.)

Elder Bruce D. Porter started things off on Friday morning. He said a lot of good stuff about respecting other faiths, and  mentioned some of the cooperative efforts in which the Church has been involved—and just his presence there, I think, sends a positive message about the Church taking interfaith issues seriously. Though he also made it clear that there is no room for doctrinal compromise, that the Church does not seek to build consensus but to proclaim the truth. He said that dialogue and proselytizing were things done at different times, and we should be explicit about what we’re doing—I especially appreciated his point that if I’m doing missionary work, it’s only fair that both of us be aware of that; it was nice to hear something against the Mormon tendency to attempt stealth missionary work.

He also said some things that I wasn’t sure what to make of. He said that there was generally doctrinal unity among LDS (making me think he doesn’t read the Bloggernacle), and  that on basic doctrines, the church hasn’t “moved a millimeter” in its history. (!) A lot of his talk was about the dangers of secularism, and how we need to ally with other faiths in fighting the forces of moral decay. But as is often the case with GA talks, he wasn’t terribly clear about the nature of the threats that had him so concerned (was this code for SSM?). He left right after his presentation, which I thought was too bad; it would have been cool if he’d stuck around and listened to the other presentations.

The first panel was titled “Latter-day Saints and Interreligious Engagement.” Phil Barlow proposed that while religion gets defined in a number of ways, there’s an interweaving thread in that religion is fundamentally about relations. In the Abrahamic traditions this would involve relations between us and God, us and the earth, us and ourselves, and us and others. In a specifically LDS context, he brought up the notion of kin, Joseph’s Smith vision of human beings as kin even before this earth, and salvation not merely being for individuals. Kinship should go beyond marriages and nuclear families to include people and churches. Judgment day is not like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter—either you’re saved or you’re not—but about being in right relation. He also cited the 13th Article of Faith, which says that we seek after all that is virtuous, etc., and said that it would be apostate, even heretical, to assume an LDS monopoly on truth.

Gregory Prince talked about some of the historical basis for tensions between Mormons and other groups, such as Joseph Smith proclaiming that all churches were wrong, and polygamy. He pointed to David O. McKay as a figure who brought the Church into the 20th century and started to focus on bridge-building. In relation to that, he told a story about President McKay getting a blessing from a reverend of another faith, and also the account of how after being approached by a Catholic bishop who was hurt by BRM’s comments about Catholicism in Mormon Doctrine, McKay abandoned all criticism of Catholicism. In turning to the question of what to do now, he said that we need to not just be at the table but to acknowledge that there even is a table, tone down rhetoric that comes across as arrogant, and keep doing humanitarian work.  His presentation was notable in its contrast to Elder Porter, in that he talked about the Church as something which is always changing, even Joseph Smith changing his ideas over time. His best comment was in the Q&A, when someone asked what to do with the First Vision statement about all other creeds being abominations if we no longer believe that. His response was that it’s similar to dealing with the Bible, in that we grapple with ambiguities in the text rather than excising them, and that “religion is like sausage making—it tastes good, but if you get into the details, you find all kinds of things.”

Then Judy and Steve Gilliland, from the Southern California public affairs council, talked about some of the interfaith councils that Mormons have been involved with in that region, and some of the challenges they’d faced, which included prejudice and misunderstanding of Mormons by other faiths, as well as Mormon prejudice about others. Also the suspicion of others that Latter-day Saints were out to convert them; they emphasized that we need to focus on friendship, that we don’t like others trying to convert us. I was struck by the acknowledgment of that in several sessions, especially when it didn’t just come from the Mormon egghead crowd—that our obsession with converting the world can really backfire.

The first session of the afternoon was on Judaism. First to go was Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who was a fun presenter. He suggested that we might look to  Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document which was the beginning of a transformed relationship between Catholic and Jews, and see that process as a possible model for our own situation. He made the point that one piece of interreligious work is a defensive one—the idea that if you see us truly, you won’t hate us. He mentioned what it says in the Book of Mormon about no longer despising the Jews, Orson Hyde’s prayer for the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, and said that Mormons and Jews need to know each other better, to care enough about the relationship to work on it. Someone asked in the Q&A about whether Jews reciprocated the kind of interest that Mormons have in Judaism, and his response was the Jews know almost nothing about Mormons.

Jana Reiss described three different snapshots of Mormon-Jewish relations—the story of the Jewish convert Harry Howard, the controversy about proxy baptisms, and the Mormon character in Chaim Potok’s The Book of Lights. (I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with the Harry Howard story, but I googled it afterward and found this interesting tidbit in Time Magazine from 1959.) I really liked the way she used stories to bring out different aspects of the relationship between the two faiths. And I thought her analysis of the proxy baptisms was particularly helpful; she pointed to misunderstandings on both sides—Mormons who couldn’t see why this was such a big deal, and  Jews who had the idea that the baptized deceased are counted as Mormon converts.

Mark Paredes talked about some of the interaction between Jews and Mormons in southern California, and had a lot to say about the Mormon love for Jews. He noted that Reform Jews were more open to dialogue but more likely to disagree with LDS on social issues, while the reverse was the case with Orthodox Jews. He emphasized the similarities between Mormons and Jews, such as that we both believe in engaging the world, and proposed that dialogue was more successful when there were only those two groups involved, rather than a wide number of traditions. I thought he had some good stuff to say, but for some reason the tone of his presentation made me uneasy—maybe because of the way he was framing the relationship, or maybe just because I have a hard time with this notion of the “Mormon love for Jews,” which I think we need to talk about in a more complex way. However, to be fair, he’s clearly involved in some positive interfaith things.

Joe Cannon went last, and he was clearly struggling with the challenge of feeling like his points had pretty much already been made by Elder Porter; he said that he had similar concerns about militant secularism. He talked a bit about his own history, and basically ended by saying that those who believe in God need to stick together. Someone asked him in the Q&A about the relation between the Church and the Deseret News; I think he could have given an interesting talk if that had been his subject.

My panel was the last one of the afternoon, on the theological question of religious diversity. I was presenting with Brian Birch and Randall Paul, which was great because I always like hearing what they have to say. Brian started out by setting out general questions of pluralism—he mentioned the Dalai Lama’s recent NYT piece, “Many Faiths, One Truth,”  emphasizing the things we have in common, which is in contrast to Stephen Prothero’s recent book God Is Not One about why differences matter. He proposed that we look for theological resources within Mormonism to think about these questions—he mentioned the proliferation of revelation, the unity of the human family, and universalism. He asked, as he did at SMPT last year, is God’s plan for mortality failing? and made the point that we need to think about the plan in a broader sense if we don’t want to answer in the affirmative. But the most fabulous part of his talk was when he showed a clip from the final episode of Lost and tied it to questions of religious pluralism.

Randy suggested the possibility that God wants there to be contradiction in our lives, and commented, “what God has torn asunder let no one put together.” This is designed to bring you not to a point of certainty, but where the desire of your heart is known. He cited Alma 29:8, which often comes up in discussions of pluralism, about the Lord granting to all nations to teach his word—but he did it in the context of Alma wanting to proclaim repentance to every people and then saying that he sinned in that wish. Because there’s an economy of God that’s bigger than Alma knew, something bigger that’s what’s revealed in our texts. Randy also proposed that friendship is the grand fundamental principle, noting Joseph Smith’s emphasis on it, and also Jesus’ statement about no longer being servants, but friends. And he suggested that a pluralistic world is a great test of love.

Okay, this is way too long already, so I’m going to stop here, and come back later to Day Two.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Lynnette!

    He said that there was generally doctrinal unity among LDS (making me think he doesn’t read the Bloggernacle), and that on basic doctrines, the church hasn’t “moved a millimeter” in its history. (!)

    Amen to your (!)! I don’t see how anyone can seriously take this position unless they take it as an axiom. The evidence seems to point to some change, as you note.

    Judgment day is not like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter—either you’re saved or you’re not—but about being in right relation.

    Ha! I love this comparison. I’m afraid the sorting hat will declare me a thoroughgoing heretic if it comes down to this, so I hope he’s right.

  2. Lynnette modestly neglected to summerize her own excellent paper. I will not do it justice from my rough notes, and I hope that she will provide her own synopsis. Here are a few points that I found compelling.

    Lynnette began with a discussion of pre-mortality. In our pre-mortal state, although we all existed as beings in relation as children of God, there were differences among us. The war in heaven reveals that there was tension between our similarities and differences even before mortality. Thus, pluralism seems to be a natural state for God’s children, and it should be embraced rather than feared.

    Lynnette then turned to mortality. She argued that some of the purposes of mortality are to learn through experience and develop the proper use of agency. Both of these purposes demand that we engage with pluralism. Developing relationships with differing people and ideas is a fundamental part of mortal experience. Such relationships allow us to exercise and demonstrate faith. Lynnette defined faith as an appreciation of the limits of our knowledge, an openness to possibility, and a willingness to make commitments in face of ambiguity.

    Lynnette suggested that analogical language is a form of communication that is particularly apt for building relationships among diverse participants. The process of developing an analogy demands complex engagement with differing properties to reveal fundamental similarity. Lynnette also suggested that stories, narratives of experience rather than propositional truth claims, are another powerful vehicle for communicating diversity. Encountering narratives of others can profoundly transform us because they call us to new possibilities of experience and change our own horizons.

    Lynnette concluded by addressing the risk of interfaith dialague as being similar to the risk we all made when we chose mortality and the risk we make when we choose to love. Pluralism is a basic aspect of Mormon cosmology. We must recognize that we only have a partially realized epistemology of doctrine and a partially realized concept of eschatology. Engaging in interfaith dialogue has salfivic potential.

    It was a fantastic conference. Lynnette, thank you for providing summaries of the presentations.

  3. “someone asked what to do with the First Vision statement about all other creeds being abominations if we no longer believe that”

    Joseph Smith’s claim was that this was spoken by the Lord. I am rather hesitant to dismiss this concept even if it is no longer socially correct or makes people uncomfortable. I think if we are LDS we are supposed to take the Lord’s words at least somewhat seriously.

    I recognize that this comment will likely brand me as intolerant or ignorant to a majority of those who frequent the “Bloggernacle”. Oh well.

  4. Thanks for the write up Lynnette.

    A lot of his talk was about the dangers of secularism, and how we need to ally with other faiths in fighting the forces of moral decay,

    IMO, for inter-religious dialogue to be more meaningful in an LDS context we need do away with (or at least relegate to the background) the paradigm of “all these enemies are out there trying to get us, so we must come together to form an alliance”. There may or may not be common causes that certain religions can come together on; but why do we need some kind of common enemy for the interaction to take place? I can’t help but read these kinds of comments as, “In the past we took other religions as the enemy; but, as it turns out, there is a more pernicious and common enemy that we need to fight together”. It’s like the X-Men teaming up with Magneto to fight some super enemy. Once the enemy is conquered, it’s back to business the way it was before.

    It seems better, IMO, to simply say that there’s lots of good things we can learn from others out there, so we should take them seriously.

  5. Thanks, Ziff and Eve. It’s only too bad I couldn’t drag along some ZDs.

    The narrator, ah, that makes sense. That’s too bad; I’m sorry to hear it.

    Kevin, I do seem to have a tendency to skip over my own presentations when I blog about conferences. I feel self-conscious or something. Which is a bit strange when I think about it, given that this is my blog and I quite frequently go on and on about my ideas, so maybe I should write up something.

    But Fideline did a nice job of hitting some of my major points. (Thanks! And it was great to see you, as always.)

  6. Michael Towns, I think it’s an interesting and valid question–scriptural texts in the voice of the Lord do pose some particular challenges. But your final paragraph suggests to me that you aren’t actually interested in conversation. Allow me to quote our resident Bouncer: just replace “be mean” with “label me as intolerant”:

    Friendly request: the tactic of framing comments along the lines of, “I’m going to say this even though I know everyone is going to be mean to me as a result” is something we’d like to avoid here, as it loads the situation such that anyone who then does disagree can be immediately dismissed as “mean.” Those who continue to use it run the risk of having those parts of their comments replaced by random Star Wars quotes. You have been warned.

    Hey smallaxe! I had a similar concern; I don’t want to frame interfaith dialogue as a way of uniting against a common enemy. It’s just replicating our (I think problematic) discourse of the church vs. the bad world out there, except with an expansion of who we’re including in our camp.

  7. “It’s like the X-Men teaming up with Magneto to fight some super enemy. Once the enemy is conquered, it’s back to business the way it was before.”


    I love you, man.

  8. Sometimes I find it more useful to become partners in community organizing and service and then the conversations will follow. I thought I was the only Mormon at the last few local Interfaith activities I went to. But just tonight I found out that one of my community heroes who was at the same activities just joined the church a month ago. I can’t wait to talk with her!

  9. Lynette, thank you for the friendly reminder. I will endeavor to avoid being snarky.

    Could you elaborate on the nature of the challenge that the scriptures entail when framed as the words of Deity?

    In terms of asserted vs. doctrinal unity of active LDS, I would have to say that we have never been more divided. Does that constitute a correlation fail?

  10. .

    Although I’m also disappointed that Porter didn’t stay through the end, I suspect that you are, at least a little, moderately relieved?

    I would love to see a more indepth analysis of the every-Mormon-wants-to-be-a-Jew phenomenon. Really, I think that should be someone’s dissertation. How did it start? How does it manifest? How widespread is it? Where is it going? Is it good for us/them?

    Ah, the things that keep me up at night . . . . .


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