My own experience of the Mormon-Evangelical dialogue is very similar to that expressed by Robert Millet and Spencer Fluhman, but from the other side of the table, as it were. The early mutual suspicion turning gradually to trust and abiding friendships; the serious study of Mormon doctrine, wonderfully enhanced and made infinitely more fascinating by the guidance of Mormon experts in the field; the new insights that emerged concerning one’s own faith while learning the faith of others; the challenge of navigating the question of which side will change and how much change is desired (or required) for real Christian fellowship—all of these realities made for a remarkable and exhilarating experience over the past twelve years. Like Bob Millet, I have a vivid memory of the second dialogue at Fuller Seminary in the fall of 2000 when Stephen Robinson opened to us the Book of Mormon and displayed in text after text the emphatic stress on the unmerited grace of God found uniquely in the cross and atoning work of Christ. What was very familiar to Stephen, Bob, and the other Latter-day Saints who were present seemed utterly new and almost shocking to me and the Evangelicals there, not just because of what we found in the Book of Mormon, but what was obviously a personal statement of faith and hope in the finished work of Christ by our new Mormon friends.
I wish to comment briefly on two remarks made in the essays by Bob and Spencer. Bob mentioned the dialogue held at Nauvoo, Illinois, and its powerful and positive impact on our relationships “across the table.” For the Evangelicals (and Mormons), Nauvoo was hardly “neutral” territory in that it is the site where Joseph Smith’s teachings turned far more radical and where, in nearby Carthage, Joseph and his older brother Hyrum were murdered in 1844. But Nauvoo is truly noteworthy for revealing the “peoplehood” and sufferings of the Latter-day Saints. As we stood together on the banks of the Mississippi River (which is about two miles wide at Nauvoo), Richard Bennett regaled us with the remarkable narrative of a persecuted people who courageously turned their faces westward, aiming ultimately for the Great Salt Lake and Utah. Quite apart from whether one believes the stories told in the Book of Mormon, here is a story that leads one to appreciate the common memories and corporate meanings of Mormonism in a fresh way. Latter-day Saints are a “people group,” and their unique history means that the Mormon faith cannot be easily separated from that story. The question that this experience posed anew for me (and in a way, the question that it poses for all Evangelicals) is, must a Mormon deny his or her own peoplehood in order to be a Christian? The question is particularly difficult because the Nauvoo period (the period that gives Mormons part of their identity) reveals Mormon teachings that are impossible to reconcile with traditional Christianity. Evangelicals in the dialogue have come to appreciate the orthodox convictions of our Mormon dialogue partners on the unique nature of Christ’s divine person and work. Can these doctrines be sustained over the long haul, along with the other distinctive (and from an Evangelical perspective, distinctively heterodox) teachings of the faith?
Second, Spencer observed the importance of an academic, scholarly setting for the dialogue, and I would like to briefly expand on his point. The context of relative detachment in the dialogue and the commitment scholars have (when at their best) to fairness, patient research, and careful expression have been essential for our mutual understanding. But for the Christian scholar, as Spencer notes, detachment does not entail the absence of religious conviction, and our convictions are closely related to our individual consciences and what we personally hold as sacred. When the Protestant Reformation first championed the necessity that individuals interpret Scripture for themselves, the Reformers established the right of private judgment and thereby laid the foundation for religious toleration in the Western world. Sadly, in the long history of Protestantism, this respect for others’ consciences has not always been honored, and in the case of Mormonism, Protestant Evangelicals have failed miserably. In the dialogue we have learned afresh the importance of respecting others’ consciences and convictions. But this respect has not meant that we stop making our own convictions known, and we have advanced them with the best arguments we can possibly marshal, recalling that St. Paul reasoned with the Athenian philosophers, and he reasoned with the Jews at Rome. The dialogue has not contributed to a relativistic indifference to doctrine on either side, and we have all been newly impressed with the importance of “owning” our faith. I believe that the combination of an open, tolerant, and more-or-less objective atmosphere with a recognition of serious differences of conviction is what has given the dialogue its integrity. In a sense then, the dialogue illustrates one way that convicted Christian scholars can help lead and influence the church in an era that desperately needs both more interreligious understanding and, at the same time, true Christian conviction.