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.