Featured Article: The Years Ahead

My Dreams for Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue

In 1992, Greg Johnson, then the president of the Denver Seminary student council, and an ex-Mormon, introduced me to the writings of Stephen Robinson, professor of New Testament at Brigham Young University, whom I met that fall at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL). We struck up a friendship, which led to the idea of a writing project that finally saw the light of day in 1997 as How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation.1

About the same time, Johnson, now in ministry in Utah, was developing a friendship and having similar conversations with Robert Millet, also a prominent scholar on the BYU Religious Studies faculty. Independently of each other, we two pairs of friends were talking about how to extend such dialogues to involve a wider swath of scholars from both communities.

Those musings came to fruition when Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, met Millet, and they contacted various friends and colleagues with interest in such a venture. The first gathering of what we have come to refer to as the Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue involved about a dozen scholars meeting in Provo, Utah, in the spring of 2000. Skipping only one year, a similar group has met at least annually in May or June for an average of two full days of meetings ever since. Fuller and BYU have taken turns hosting the gatherings, except for the years that we have met on site at locations important for the histories of our respective movements, specifically, Nauvoo, Illinois; Palmyra, New York; and Wheaton, Illinois. Most years we have also had a block of two or three hours together during the AAR/SBL meetings in November. Various participants have come and gone; occasionally the numbers have swelled to more than twenty at a gathering, but usually the group has been somewhere in the ’teens. But there has been a solid core of seven or eight, including me, who have participated in almost all of the sessions and at least as large a number who have been involved in over half. Attendance has been at the invitation of the two facilitators, Mouw and Millet.

Many collateral events have been spawned, directly or indirectly related to our dialogue group. These include separate, public conferences at both Fuller and BYU and dozens of public presentations by Millet and Johnson around the country and occasionally overseas, modeling the “convicted civility”2 that characterizes our gatherings.Well-known Christian pastors and leaders, not in academic positions, have had a chance to meet with some of the Mormon participants in our conversations in various more informal gatherings, and several Church authorities among the LDS leadership have met with some of us academics and some of those same pastors and leaders. In a historic gathering in March of 2011, Elder Jeffrey Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve addressed the board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and fielded questions from them afterwards at a reception hosted by the governor of the State of Utah in his mansion in Salt Lake City.4

By next spring, it will be fair to say that the dialogue group will have discussed in detail every major theological issue of interest to our respective communities and probably the most important historical ones as well. We have come to far better mutual understanding, and we have grasped much more than before where we agree and where we disagree and where there is diversity in perspective among our communities. We have recognized where language usage appears to divide us but we are really saying much the same thing in different ways. We have also understood that sometimes we appear to be saying the same thing when we are not because of different definitions given to key terms.

We have never proposed to draft a document like “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,”5 only between “Evangelicals and Mormons.” We have never sought any kind of joint ministry venture, for that matter, other than that some of us have published essays with each other in edited anthologies, coauthored books together in a “point- counterpoint” format, or participated in conferences together where a diversity of religious opinions are discussed.6 We have recognized that the most effective forum for mutual understanding comes when we agree that none of us in our joint gatherings will try to proselytize the other, though what two of us might decide to do in some entirely private conversation elsewhere is entirely up to us. At the same time, we have all expected that our communities would continue to proselytize each other actively, but understood that they need to do so with much greater awareness of each other’s beliefs, misunderstandings, stereotypes, “red-flag” issues, and the like.

We have hoped (and indeed seen occur sporadically) that in local contexts Mormon bishops and Evangelical pastors might model similar dialogues, that select members of wards and parishes would gather for friendly interchange, and that other ecclesiastical and academic leaders could practice and teach about similar interfaith dialogue in college, university, and seminary settings. En route, even without explicit evangelism, we have left no topics off limits and have shared from our hearts our deepest personal convictions about our respective faiths.7 In this respect our dialogue is very unlike the vast majority of conversations at AAR/SBL where the unwritten rule is never to risk offending anyone by discussing personal theological convictions, except perhaps very much in passing.

As I write these words, barring something utterly unforeseen, we will have a Mormon candidate for the presidency of the United States for the first time in history for this fall’s elections. It is probably fair to say that there is unprecedented public awareness and understanding of who Mormons are, in the same way that Evangelicals have had unprecedented notoriety in the public square since Time dubbed 1976 the “year of the Evangelical,”when Jimmy Carter was elected president.9 What then is left for us to accomplish? Have our dialogues served their purpose and run their course? Should they be disbanded or at least radically reconfigured, lest we run the risk of ossifying ourselves as so often has happened in the history of religion where an ad hoc gathering of people institutionalized itself into something that never needed to be perpetuated in the first place? What are my personal dreams for the future in this arena?

My biggest hope is that we can produce a publication of some sort reflecting the past twelve years of conversations and some of the most important lessons and concepts we have learned, both about each others’ beliefs and about methods for healthy interreligious dialogue. Too much useful information has been shared and insights gleaned that have not appeared in print anywhere to let it all disappear now.10 An edited anthology of articles might make the most sense, with various individuals tackling different topics that we have discussed. We have broached this issue several times in the last few years, but to date no one has picked up on it and actually taken the lead to organize it and make it happen. As an alternative, we could commission one or two individuals to write a short book surveying the landscape we have covered over the last decade and a bit, and have it vetted for accuracy by several of the most active and long-time participants.

My second hope is that we can pass the torch to the next generation. It is one thing to produce publications, but friendships and trust develop best in the context of extended, live, face-to-face conversations and give-and-take. Several of our participants are retired or of retirement age; one has passed away. Most of the rest of us are less than a decade from retirement age. Our longest-time participants are incredibly busy and could easily delegate their leadership to others. Personally, I would like to see them hand the reins over to Cory Willson, editor of this journal, and Spencer Fluhman, professor of history at Brigham Young. Both have been involved for the last several years, and both are young, enthusiastic, outgoing, bright, and committed to the process. Willson and Fluhman could bring good leadership for years to come.

A third hope would be that many more people throughout Evangelicalism would hear about what we have done in a context that would spur them on to similar conversations. It is time, for example, for Evangelicals to learn why it would be best to lay the “cult” label for Mormonism to rest once and for all. Evangelicals seldom stop to think that we have an idiosyncratic use of the term that refers to new religious movements that are offshoots of larger parent religions but with heterodox beliefs at various points. To the rest of the world, however, “cult” conjures up the notion of a tiny cluster of individuals following a charismatic leader into bizarre behavior, including possibly violent or destructive actions. These are people who are virtually brainwashed and antisocial, such as Jim Jones and his poison-Kool-Aid-drinking followers in Guyana, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, or Heaven’s Gate in Southern California.11

It is also time for people to stop learning only secondhand about people whose religious views at times differ from theirs. In a global village, there is no reason not to engage members of other religions or denominations directly.12 So much Evangelical literature on these topics is overly simplified, historically dated, not representative of the entire movements depicted, and/or downright inaccurate. Short introductions to complex belief systems almost inevitably distort, especially when the author has a particular dislike for a given movement. The biases may be semi-conscious, but they affect the results nevertheless. I have been recently reading for the first time a collection of fifty of the most important or famous sermons of John Wesley and realize how skewed my own theological education was in mostly Lutheran and Calvinist contexts as to what I was taught about Wesley’s theology!

Mormons likewise need to engage Evangelicals in far less confrontational settings than the classic door-to-door evangelism they are known for. They should invite Evangelical friends and leaders to fireside chats and similar forums, as I have occasionally experienced. They need to get to know the “silent majority” of us who are not nearly as “mean-spirited” (to use their preferred term for the most combative or polemical of us) as the anti-Mormons they are more used to encountering. They need to learn the breadth of Evangelicalism, so that we are not all tarnished with the same two brushes of “easy believism” and rigid Calvinism. Many LDS think they are rejecting Evangelical theology when in fact they are objecting only to the famous Calvinist “TULIP” of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. They too need to read the works of Wesley. Or they find fault with the notion that one can accept Christ as Savior but not as Lord and therefore not begin living a transformed life.13 This latter view is common in certain dispensationalist circles but actually characterizes only a small percentage of Evangelicalism overall. And many of us would reject it as thoroughly unbiblical!

Finally, at some point we will need at least an unofficial “imprimatur” of some kind from the most influential and important leaders in our movements. Identifying those people is straightforward in Mormonism, because it is hierarchically structured. It is much more difficult in Evangelicalism, but it would not be hard to develop a list of names of people whose endorsements would give us great credibility in the eyes of a majority of people in our midst. To date, the responses of individuals among those two groups of leaders have been very much a mixed bag and have left some of us feeling very precarious about our involvement in the dialogue, at least over a certain stretch of time. So many people in our world imagine and even report on things happening in our midst that are simply untrue and impute motives to participants that they cannot possibly know.14 This needs to be labeled explicitly for what it is—sinful, to be repented of, and replaced with trust and good will.

If not a single one of my dreams comes true, the good that has been accomplished in our dialogue thus far will still have surpassed my wildest dreams and probably those of all of the initial participants. But because so much of what some of us dared to dream for has come true, often with an amazing working of God’s Spirit after a period of time when it appeared that doors had been closed to us for good, perhaps it is not too audacious to keep dreaming for an even greater future for the dialogue for whatever period of time God is pleased to find it useful, constructive, and furthering his purposes for his world.

Endnotes

1Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997).

2The term is one championed and modeled by Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 11–20.

3The proceedings of one such conference are published as Salvation in Christ: Comparative Christian Views, ed. Roger R. Keller and Robert L. Millet (Provo: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 2005). A sample of the Millet-Johnson dialogue has been published as Robert L. Millet and Gregory C. V. Johnson, Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation between a Mormon and an Evangelical (Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish, 2007).

4The NAE was already meeting at an Evangelical Free Church in Park City, UT, for their regular board meetings. I was privileged to be invited to participate in this event as well. Elder Holland’s address is now published as “Standing Together for the Cause of Christ,” Religious Educator 13 (2012): 11–19.

5“Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” First Things, May 1994, 15–22.

6In addition to the works cited in nn. 1–2, see Robert L. Millet and Gerald R. McDermott, Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries (Vancouver: Regent College Press, 2010); and several of the additional articles in Religious Educator 13 (2012). Some of us have also written forewords or commendatory blurbs for each other’s works.

7Very much in the spirit of Catherine Cornille, The (Im)-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue (New York: Crossroad, 2008), which we have read and discussed together.

8Quoting pollster George Gallup Jr., in the article “Religion: Counting Souls,” October 4, 1976, at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,918414,00.html.

9Media attention, of course, hardly equates with accurate understanding, especially in matters theological. The cynic among us might even muse that at times such attention guarantees theological misrepresentation!

10The closest approximation is the excellent little book by Richard J. Mouw, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). But there is still more to share.

11Far preferable, therefore, is the language of the title of and the approach adopted in Ronald Enroth, ed., A Guide to New Religious Movements (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

12Or at least read introductions to those movements written by their own adherents, and the more recent and up-to-date the sources, the better. In the case of the LDS, see esp. Robert L. Millet, The Vision of Mormonism: Pressing the Boundaries of Christianity (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2007).

13For both of these errors, see, e.g., Richard Hopkins, Biblical Mormonism: Responding to Evangelical Criticism of LDS Theology (Bountiful, UT: Horizon, 2005).

14For just one illustration, see the varied responses to Blomberg and Robinson, How Wide the Divide? discussed in “Sizing Up the Divide: Reviews and Replies,” BYU Studies 38 (1999): 163–90.