Reflections on 30 Years of Living with Latter-Day Saints

Gathered on the campus of Brigham Young University, we were engaged in a day-long dialogue. Through the large windows inside the alumni and visitor center, a lofty view of the Wasatch Range lifted our minds and spirits toward the day’s topic: God—God as being both three and one.

At one point in the interfaith interaction, one participant began to recount her life experiences in coming to know God. She talked fondly of relating to God as her Father in Heaven, a key influence coming through her biological father’s calling his family to prayer each morning. She spoke of a grace-filled relationship with Jesus, much as she has done in previous dialogues. And she became most intense when describing her feelings of the Holy Spirit’s presence within her at baptism.

That God is three was obvious to her. But his oneness was equally evident. The Holy Spirit’s primary role has been a pointing her to Jesus; she noted how, in John 15, Jesus said it would be that way. Jesus, in turn, had opened the way for her to trust and adore the Father. In meaningful meditation, she said, her distinct images of three became mostly “meshed” in one—a “lived trinitarianism.” Though humbly aware of her limits—“so much about God I do not know”—she heartily affirmed: “But I do know him and know he knows me.”

A Disjuncture

Testimony-type accounts like this provide a unique dimension and dilemma for Mormon-Evangelical dialogue. In the case above, we had spent most of the day discussing doctrinal developments of the fourth century, much of it focused on theology expressed in the Nicene Creed, which has become a standard of trinitarian faith for most Christian traditions, but for Latter-day Saints an unacceptable statement of who God is. In fact, in exploring some of the classical philosophical views that undergird our differences on this, one participant noted it’s “like comparison of apples and oranges.”

Yet when it comes to hearing one another describe our lived experiences of knowing the God who has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the contrast quickly shrinks. I dare say that all of us, several Evangelicals and several Mormons, resonated with or at least embraced this lady’s experience of God. Change a few idioms, leave out certain details about her baptism, limit Scripture quotes to the Bible, and it would be difficult to discern her identity as Mormon or Evangelical.

Dealing with this disjuncture is what for me has made dialoguing with Latter-day Saints both fascinating and challenging. What am I to say when doctrines diverge, but experiences appear to converge? How am I to relate when shared testimonies cultivate closeness, but shared theologies indicate distance? How am I to think when the praxis that should be informed by theory, seems to contradict it?

Attempted Explanations

I have heard (and given) various explanations attempting to resolve this tension. The following are given from an Evangelical viewpoint, but Mormon counterparts are surely available. I have witnessed a similar explanation-demanding bewilderment among them when from my testimony they sense I have had “promptings of the Spirit” that I am not supposed to have apart from believing their teaching and receiving their ordinances.