I took the two-hour drive to Idaho Falls last night to hear Greg Johnson and Robert Millet present their friendly conversation on Mormons and Evangelicals to an audience of six or seven hundred. Johnson is an Evangelical pastor who runs the Standing Together ministry in Utah; Millet is a Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU. Together they coauthored Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical back in 2007. Their live presentation covers some of the same ground as the book, but also takes questions from the audience.
The Setting. The stage is arranged to make the exchange a friendly conversation. The speakers do not stand at lecterns, they sit in easy chairs with bookshelves stationed behind for effect. They show a 15-minute introductory video that relates how the two got started with this project and what their goals are, basically to promote friendly dialogue and understanding across two religious communities that often misunderstand each other. The hour-long discussion that follows has Millet and Johnson posing the usual LDS/Evangelical questions to each other and responding. I outline all of this to emphasize how hard they work to model open, friendly conversation on what can be very touchy issues of religious difference. It’s a very effective method.
The Discussion. I’ll summarize a couple of the exchanges, which the two men are are obviously quite comfortable with at this point as they have been doing these presentations for several years now. Millet asks Johnson why he and other Evangelicals might think Latter-day Saints are not Christian. In his answer, Johnson makes the helpful point that it wasn’t simply that other Christians went out of their way to marginalize 19th-century Mormonism: Mormons worked hard to set themselves apart from other Christian denominations by labeling traditional Christian creeds as “abominations,” adding new scripture, and practicing polygamy. In his response, Millet noted that the “you are not Christian” charge was simply not made in the 19th century. He traces that tactic and the use of the “cult” label to Walter Martin’s 1965 book Kingdom of the Cults.
Johnson asks Millet about the LDS rejection of the one God (ontologically) of the Trinity and LDS affirmation of the ideas that God developed over time and that humans can become gods. Millet answered that Mormon texts do see God as a man — a glorified and exalted man, not an impersonal force or a congeries of natural laws. Contra the idea that God developed over time, Millet cites the Book of Mormon’s reference to God as “the Eternal Father” and Jesus Christ as “the Eternal God.” As for the idea that humans can become gods, Millet cited New Testament scriptures such as Romans 8:17 (we can be joint-heirs with Christ), then suggested a better way to phrase the LDS view is that we believe men and women should and can become more Christ-like. Johnson responded that Evangelicals read these New Testament passages in essentially that way — that we can become more Christ-like — and quoted a member of the LDS Quorum of the Seventy who once rephrased the Lorenzo Snow couplet in this less objectionable way: As man is, Christ once was; as Christ is, man may become.
Questions From the Audience. They took five questions from those submitted in advance via email to event organizers. My question made the cut, of course — hey, ten years of blogging has taught me how ask a good question! It was: I know you are sometimes criticized by members of your own denominations for participating in these interfaith events, which some see as legitimizing rival religious views or somehow compromising one’s own beliefs or faith commitments. How do you respond to these criticisms from fellow-believers? [And I'll just note in passing that LDS bloggers are sometimes criticized on similar grounds.]
Johnson responded by discussing Acts 17, which relates Paul’s several months of “dialogging” in Athens, culminating in his eventually being invited to talk about his Christian beliefs to the local philosophy club (my term). So Paul took dialogue seriously. Millet responded by relating his experience reading the autobiography of Billy Graham. God used this simple preacher to accomplish so much. If we have any humility, we should acknowledge that God works through people of many different faiths.
Todd Wood, pastor of the Berean Baptist Church in Idaho Falls (known to the Bloggernacle as the author of the Heart Issues blog) also attended the event last night. He added an extension to my question: How did early Christian apostles and pastors deal with exchanging religious views? Johnson’s comments on Paul and Acts 17 responded in part to that question, but my own general sense is that early Christians really didn’t handle dialogue very well. Over time, differences of religious opinion gave rise charges of heresy, mutual excommunications, and eventually violent persecution of religious dissenters. I think Christians are doing better in the 21st century.
Reflections. It was gratifying to see such a large turnout for this event. Johnson and Millet have worked long and hard promoting this kinder and gentler approach to interfaith relations based on mutual respect and “convicted civility” (a term they borrowed from Richard Mouw) and they certainly deserve credit for providing a model that others can learn from. I think experienced bloggers and commenters learn some of the same skills and lessons about exchanging religious views without descending into a series of mutual attacks or personal insults. It’s tougher than it looks!
FYI, Seth at Nine Moon posted reflections on a similar Johnson-Millet event held in Denver in 2008.