A couple of weeks ago, I wrote up a summary of the first day of the inter-religious diplomacy conference last month at USC. Then I got distracted by other life matters and never got back to the second day. I thought after slacking off this long I should maybe not bother with part two, but Eve told me to do it anyway, and I’ve heard one should listen to one’s older sisters. So here it is. (This is probably less a summary of the talks—which would be very difficult to do justice—than a mention of some of the points I found interesting.)
The first session on Saturday was “The Mormon Voice in a Pluralistic Society.” Since Kristine and Ralph Hancock have already blogged about what they said, here I’ll just mention some of the comments from the other two people on the panel. James Burklo, the associate dean for religious life at USC, talked about the shift in America in which people are less likely to affiliate with a formal organized religion and more likely to talk about spirituality. He noted that increasingly people don’t believe in exclusive truth claims of churches, commenting that “people are starting to register as independents as they pray.” He proposed that this was a trend that Mormons should pay attention to, and concluded with this question—what does interfaith dialogue mean in a country full of people who are having inner-faith monologues?
Frederick Mark Gedicks, a law professor at BYU, discussed conversation with other faiths, within faiths, and in a political context. He argued that in living in a world in which most people think differently, you need to frame your arguments in language that makes sense to them. He emphasized that we should keep in mind that we are a religious minority, and that we don’t have the allies that Protestant denominations do (even if their numbers are smaller). He also talked about the problem of politicizing the gospel, of requiring a political checklist to be culturally accepted in Mormonism. And he brought in a pessimistic note, commenting that at the level of the institutional church we are well on our way to being fundamentalist, that the choices we’ve made over the last fifty years have placed us further and further from the mainstream, and that in a few generations, fundamentalist churches will be small and increasingly disconnected from American society—in twenty or forty or sixty years, will a fundamentalist Mormon church really have much relevance or influence on American life?
The next panel was on Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Father James Masa talked about the hope for a greater understanding between the Catholic church and the LDS one. He proposed that a more positive Catholic assessment of Mormonism could be possible in the framework of Vatican II, looking to Catholic views on Islam as a possible analogy. The Vatican II document Nostra Aetate affirms that Muslims adore the one God, identifies areas of overlap between Islam and Catholicism, and recognizes the particular contribution made by Islam in the history of salvation. He raised the question of whether Catholics saw the relation with LDS as ecumenical or inter-religious—essentially, the question of whether LDS are Christian, and commented on a need to find a way to engage those who seek salvation under Christ even while not accepting other elements of traditional Christianity.
The panel also included a member of an Eastern Orthodox faith, Reverend Alexei Smith, who talked about Eastern Christianity’s approach to interfaith dialogue and ecumenism. He brought up the question of what exactly ecumenism is—is it a heresy? Is it a missionary activity, entering into dialogue in order to communicate the truth of the Orthodox faith? He commented on the need to remove the suspicion between Christian churches that led them to proselytize each other, instead of seeing each other as relatives and part of the household of Christ. He also brought up some of the challenging issues of worship in an ecumenical setting, such as in areas of language or women presiding, where there was disagreement.
Jim Faulconer proposed a different way of thinking about Mormon beliefs. He noted the LDS wariness of creeds, and proposed that our relation to our beliefs is different than Catholic or Orthodox to their beliefs. As the term “creed” was used in the time of Joseph Smith, the Articles of Faith were not a creed, as they don’t go beyond a set of beliefs that anyone could understand without theological training. LDS remain committed to the idea that one only needs a few basic beliefs, and have resisted moving beyond this to official theology. This, combined with the freedom to speculate, means that there is little official theology, and unofficial theology is messy and speculative. He went over D&C 20,and its statement of basic beliefs, and touched a bit on the problem of what divinization means in Mormonism and its doctrinally ambiguous status. How can we live with this sort of theological confusion? Mormonism finds salvation in practices rather than beliefs. Thus it might be helpful to think of basic beliefs as performative, rather than mere descriptions of belief—to utter belief is to take part in witness and worship. Basic beliefs are liturgical acts rather than theological claims.
The next panel was on Protestant Christianity. Spencer Fluhman talked about the intertwined history of Mormons and Protestants, with Mormons existing in a Protestant context and developing in tension with Protestantism. He noted that in the 1830s Mormons saw themselves as distinctive but not necessarily in terms of doctrine, but rather in having new scripture, spiritual gifts, and an Israel identity, and one could see commonalities with Protestant. More difficulties came with the less conventional theology of the 1840s—he noted the problem that there are two religions in Mormonism: the Book of Mormon and early revelations, and the Nauvoo overlay, which leads to problems in interreligious dialogue, and proposed that we need Mormonism to articulate its varying themes. Protestants provide a foil against which Mormons can see themselves more clearly. He commented on the connections we’ve had over the years, and said that the saved by grace vs. saved by works argument has proved to be shabby way to define the distance between us. We need a future “more graceful and weird.”
David McAllister-Wilson, an elder in the United Methodist Church, gave his perspective on the LDS church as a mainline Protestant. He explained that historically, he sees us in the family line of Protestants in America, emerging out of the Second Great Awakening, and noted that the desire to get back to Christianity is very Protestant. Intellectually, he sees LDS as at the beginning of the attempt to engage the challenge of modernity; he paralleled that to Protestant struggles in the last century with the rise of the historical-critical method and the questioning sources of scripture, Darwin, urbanization and diversity, and ideas of relativity, and noted that we were beginning to grapple with these kinds of issues. He pointed to two things LDS have going for us—a well-educated lay leadership, and that Joseph Smith was dealing with issues of relativization and contextualization as he revised his own understanding of revelation, which gives us a warrant for looking intellectually and with faith at the tradition. And theologically, he sees us as Methodist and Arminian, with our theological optimism and progressivism: “Mormons are Methodists on steroids.” He also noted parallels between his place on the spectrum of Protestants which emphasizes building up the kingdom of God on earth, and the LDS emphasis on that.
Deidre Green talked about the need to engage the religious other, and the tension between searching and certainty. The advantage of not being circumscribed by creedal commitments is that we can embrace all truth, wherever it is found, which requires openness to genuinely learning from others. She brought in a feminist ethics of risk—risk is entailed in any action, but is worth taking because we cannot be moral alone; the discernment of norms and strategies requires interaction of different communities. She proposed ways in which we might learn from others without theological capitulations, and noted that as people of faith, we all have insights to offer one another with regard to faithful and ethical living. She also suggested that we break away from the either/or of dialogue vs. proselytizing, and instead adopt a teleological agnosticism—we do not know what the results of our dialogue will be.
Terry Muck, from Asbury Theological Seminary, talked about wanting to have more people involved in dialogue, and said that the problem with dialogue groups is that they often cater to experts. Dialogue doesn’t mean that you have to know about the other religion or your own; it is for people who want to learn. He also saw a false dichotomy between mission and dialogue. What do we do about the problem of mission creating inter-religious conflict? We can give up on mission, or we can say that we don’t care because eventually everyone will be converted. But he proposed that instead, we need to develop better mission practices. He also commented in that in the future, theology done without people of other religions will be meaningless. And he talked about the challenge of religion finding a public voice, and observed that we’ve end up creating our own heterodox religions which reduce religion to being something to do with personal choice.
The final panel was on Islam, and unfortunately by this late in the day, I was somewhat on intellectual overload, so I only have notes on the first two presentations. Bradley Cook went over some of the similarities between Mormonism and Islam, such as faith in an omnipotent, just and merciful God; obedience to God’s will as leading to peace and prosperity in this life and life with God in the next; observance of religious rituals such as prayer, fasting, acts of charitable giving; an emphasis on strong families; values of chastity, fidelity, and modest; a long history of misunderstanding and persecution; and the idea of prophecy and a line of prophets. Though he was also careful to mention the real differences in aspects of these. He commented that while the LDS tradition is almost unknown in the Islamic world, he’s found that when Mormons and Muslims talk, there is a kinship because of these things. He also mentioned an interesting comment from Howard W. Hunter, that if a bridge is ever built between Christianity and Islam, it must be built by the Mormon church.
Maher Hathout talked about issues of pluralism from a Muslim perspective. He said that in posing certain basic questions we go wrong because we don’t see the obvious—we begin with God and often create a God that suits us, which leads to a strange kind of discourse in which we refer to “my God” or “their God”—but once we contain God, it is not God. Since God does not have needs, the only way to express devotion and love to God is to offer to those who have the needs—he mentioned Mormon humanitarian efforts in this context. He brought up the question of right and wrong, and said that organized religion, including Islam, had generally failed to do it justice. A religious person frequently assumes that there is only one truth coming from God, but that goes against the Quran, which speaks of several manifestations of truth; God communicates in different ways. Thus instead of trying to prove to me that you’re right and I’m wrong, God is telling you do goodness, and let us see who will do more good—and then we’ll come back, and God will tell the rest of the story. It is not tolerance that we should be calling for, but submission to the will of God—and the will of God is that we are different. Our failure to respect each other arises from ignoring our understanding of God and an emergence of religious tribalism in which religion is no longer a message of mercy from God to the whole world, but the property of my tribe.
So—there’s my rather limited attempt to highlight some of what was said. It was a very thought-provoking conference; it left me with a lot of ideas which I’d like to pursue further.