Reading Scriptures with New Eyes: A Baptist and Mormon Converse
On Friday, April 25, 2008, I took the occasion to travel to Tempe, Arizona. I had received information from a friend that Greg Johnson and Robert Millet would hold ”A public conversation of a Mormon and Evangelical” at the newly constructed LDS Institute of Religion on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe. The event was sponsored by the Greater Phoenix LDS Interfaith Council & The Arizona Ecumenical Council.
Given my interests, I’ve read books and articles by Rev. Greg Johnson and Dr. Robert L. Millet and I am aware of much of the content of such public dialogues. However, I was hoping to have the opportunity to see first hand this kind of engagement and to see the reaction of those in the audience. I arrived somewhat early and there was quite a large public turn out. I noticed several ministers and pastors in the audience.
The Arizona Ecumenical Council Executive Director, Rev. Jan Flaaten offered the opening words. Rev. Flaaten began serving as director in 2002 after 30 years of ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He remarked that years ago he never had thought he would be in a Catholic church but then later he found himself with such an opportunity. Likewise, he remarked that he never thought he would be in a LDS chapel, but remarked that here he was, speaking in an LDS chapel. He offered the invocation.
I had originally planned to take copious notes, but as the event began I found myself realizing the futility of trying to describe an event such like this. It really is something that needs to be experienced. Before the meeting began, I noticed Greg Johnson setting up a couple of seats up on the stage so that he and Millet could sit down together. This wasn’t going to be a typical meeting where one speaker talks, sits down and then another one gets up and speaks. This was to be a conversation.
This meeting was perhaps one of the best meetings I’ve ever experienced. Johnson and Millet’s interaction was entertaining and humorous at times, yet it was extremely moving at others. I was deeply touched by Greg Johnson’s personal story of being saved by Jesus at a bible camp he attended as a youth. I felt in many places that I was extremely glad that Mormons and Evangelicals were hearing their message. I felt that everyone needed to hear what they had to say.
Reading Scriptures with New Eyes
Millet explained that we should be curious about one another and for him he has been curious to know what makes Evangelicals tick. He remarked, “You cannot study another person’s religion without it impacting your own.” One of the interesting things he pointed out was that as a result of his engagement with Evangelicals he has been able to ”Read my own scriptures with new eyes.” This turned phrase was particular interesting to me.
He read a statement from the Doctrine and Covenants Section 45.
3 Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—
4 Saying: “Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;
5 Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.”
Millet remarked to the audience that this indeed was a strange defense. He said, imagine being in a court room and your attorney says to the judge, “Your honor, my client should win because I’m a great lawyer, and I’ve never lost a case and I never will lose a case.” In other words, the defense isn’t “Father, look at what a great person this person was, look at all the great things this person did with his life.”
What makes this exchange powerful is that Millet isn’t saying these things to try to prove to the Evangelicals in the audience that Mormons are Christian so much as he is trying to help Latter-day Saints understand this important teaching. So many times in our discussions with those of other faiths, doctrine is tossed around not for what the doctrine can do in a persons life, but it is used as a sword and shield to attack or defend against those who seek to infringe on our identity. As a result, we inadvertently reject much truth simply because it is coming from a person outside our faith. Doctrine, on the other hand, should heal. This was a message that people needed to hear and it was wonderful that both Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals were hearing it together.
The Role of Healing
One of the things I realized was that there is a lot of healing that is taking place as a result of these conversations. I feel this point is largely overlooked because the ‘doctrinal debate’ aspect is more readily highlighted. Often critics are so focused on the theological aspects of the Mormon-Evangelical dialogue that they fail to appreciate the human aspects. Those who have read How Wide the Divide have heard Stephen Robinson’s account of attending a meeting of Christian leaders in Utah who were discussing efforts to deal with the spread of pornography. Robinson explained that he and his colleagues were asked to leave. Robinson explained to the group that Mormons were also against pornography. He was told that Mormons were not Christian and that if they didn’t leave they would have to disband the meeting. Greg related this story to the audience and noted that Stephen Robinson said that he learned that day that Evangelicals hated Mormons more than pornography, no doubt a lesson which was not lost on Robinson.
Greg Johnson explained a time when he and Robert Millet were ready to give their event at an LDS Chapel when the bishop unexpectedly cancelled the event. Greg went to speak with the bishop to ask why he cancelled the event. The bishop began to explain that he served a mission almost 30 year ago and, as Greg explained, he wasn’t treated very well by the Evangelical Christians he had met. The experience had such an effect that he simply didn’t want to expose his congregation, comprised of the youth, to this same experience. Greg told the bishop that this would not be the same experience. The bishop then agreed. Greg noted that after the event, the bishop came up to him and thanked him. Greg remarked that there was healing that was taking place at that moment.
Upon hearing this story my mind turned to a close friend of mine. As I’ve shared with him my passion for interfaith dialogue with Evangelicals and others, he has never quite responded with too much enthusiasm. At first, I wasn’t really sure why this was so. I thought he was too defensive and perhaps simply unable to be open to these things. After many conversations with him, I’ve come to realize that he was deeply hurt by his encounters with Evangelicals as a missionary, perhaps in ways I have never been. Often he would tell me that he really just wanted to avoid them because of the way he was treated. Greg and Bob’s conversation has helped me understand my friend’s reaction, to be less judgmental towards him but also realize the lasting effects that unfortunate circumstances can have on our perceptions of others.
This isn’t something limited to any one faith group. In many cases, it only takes one bad experience with either a Mormon or an Evangelical to sour our whole perception of all of them. In fact, I would venture to say that in many cases where Evangelicals and Mormons are communicating online, at least from what I’ve seen, if you look behind all of the elaborate arguments and even sophisticated statements you find someone who is saying, “You hurt me” or “I was mistreated by your people.” I’ve sometimes interacted with Mormons online who have been so hurt by their interactions with Evangelicals, I can’t even reach them. My suggestions for them to be kind to Evangelicals, or to read their statements charitably come across like those of a ”traitor” or at best highly misguided. Relationships with those of other faiths simply cannot go forward until we deal with that hurt. This isn’t something trivial.
As I sat there, I recalled the remarks of someone who asked what might have happened had Joseph Smith not encountered a clergyman who was quick to dismiss the possibilities of visions and gifts of the spirit, and dismiss out of hand the possibilities of angelic visitations. What would have happened instead had Joseph met someone who lovingly listened to his story?
Interfaith Dialogue is not about Conversion?
One last point. Often I notice that people online are uncomfortable when Millet says that his interfaith dialogues are not about making converts. One of the stories that Millet has offered to explain this is where an Evangelical moves into a neighborhood next door to a Latter-day Saint. The Latter-day Saint invites this new neighbor to church and the neighbor says, “Thank you, but I already have a church and I am happy in it.” If this is only about conversion, then the Latter-day Saint might think, “Okay, I guess they aren’t interested” and never speak with them again. However, at this point if someone suggests actually trying to develop a relationship and become friends with the neighbor, it seems like a radical and novel idea! Or the misconception critics have is that somehow being friends would compromise one’s faith, but this isn’t the case. The other challenge is that there is a suspicion (and perhaps justified) that the friendship is conditional on conversion, in other words, behind the façade of friendship is a conversion agenda where ultimately friendship is merely a means to an end, and all the efforts at being “friends” will “pay off” with a convert. The implication is that if conversion doesn’t happen that this friendship was all for nothing; just a total waste of time.
At one point Greg Johnson explained that he met a professor at BYU who asked him if he thought he was going to convert Millet to Evangelicalism, and Greg said he didn’t think so. “You do understand that he is the dean of our religion faculty?” Greg said, “Yes, I know that” to which he was asked “Well, then are you considering joining the Church?” Greg replied ”No, I’m not.” To this his conversant exclaimed, “Well, I don’t get it, what’s the point?”
Millet didn’t bring up this scripture but I later recalled the account of Joseph Smith during the time he was trying to sort out which church was true:
JSH 1:6 For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued-priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.
Millet says that his conversations with Greg Johnson are not about conversion. This doesn’t mean that Millet and Johnson do not have desires for conversion. It only means that their friendship is not conditional on conversion, and it also means that success and failure is not measured by conversion but rather it is measured by how hard you are willing to try to understand your neighbor. It is important for people to realize that people can’t simply accept that friendship is not contingent on conversion because two people say the words to each other. I don’t believe this was the case with Johnson and Millet. This understanding developed over time and after building trust.
Allowing God to Play a Role
I agree with Millet that:
“Reaching out to others in the form of interfaith relations is hard work. It is much easier to resort to fight or flight.”
I think it is important to realize that God has a role in all of this. Millet and Johnson relate an occasion where they asked themselves where their relationship was going. The question was if either side won’t convert to the other, should they continue the friendship? They decided to continue their discussions and allow God to have a role in the matter. God is the great mover, Greg explained, and if God wants to move Millet, God will do so. If God wants to move Johnson, then God will do so. The early Christians were characterized by the phrase, “Oh how they loved one another.” True love is unconditional.
The audience sang “How Great Thou Art” a favorite Lutheran hymn at the end of the event.
I don’t think I can adequately describe what took place at that meetinghouse in Tempe on that night. I’d venture to say that most people who came did not know what they were going to experience. There are many moments I’m deliberately leaving out because of their intimate nature. I am convinced that God was pleased and that the Spirit of the Lord was there in that room. Indeed, I believe God was glorified that night. I left that meeting with so much love for my fellow man and with the conviction that interfaith relationships are friendships. There is no more noble virtue than friendship.
I am keenly aware of the concerns that some have about these exchanges, as if friendship was less important than salvation, or somehow that the greatest love a true Christian can give is to tell a Mormon to repent and deny Mormonism, so that they can be saved. However, as I’ve listened to scores of unfortunate stories of people who have been hurt by those of other faiths, I am convinced that salvation doesn’t come through going up to someone, telling them to repent and walking away. Anyone can do that. It only pushes people away, and it drives gaps between faiths, even generational gaps that spawn generational feuds. One generation passes on their problems to the next.
I continuously see Mormons and Evangelicals online who argue back and forth, each side claiming the other’s faith is defective and illegitimate. Perhaps it is a phase of those who wish to test out their analytic skills and practice their debating techniques, and it will pass, but perhaps people really live that way. (Granted it is possible a group of friends could get together and engage in respectful and rigorous debate about their respective faiths, but I haven’t seen it.)
With each keystroke they push people further and farther away, giving others ammunition to support their suspicion that the world is attacking them, perpetuating a victimology, supplying twisted interpretations of scripture and disfigured depictions of the faith. How God would ever be pleased with that, and how this ever “glorifies God” I do not know. All is not lost however, for there is a better way to “offer the reason for the hope that is within, with gentleness and respect.”