Culture

A Model of Interfaith Dialogue: A Southern Baptist at Brigham Young University

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These days, interfaith dialogue is often reduced to a slogan — a Coexist bumper sticker, perhaps, or a vow to embrace diversity. The words “brutal honesty” are perhaps not the first that come to mind when we think of interfaith dialogue because our culture has trained us to avoid offending people at all costs. Disagreeing with others or speaking too forthrightly — particularly about religion — is not considered to be virtuous. Americans in the 21st century are so sensitive and so fragile that they must be shielded from uncomfortable truths, we are told.

And then there is Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who demonstrates how intellectual and spiritual honesty can be noble and even preferable to false unity.

Dr. Mohler recently gave an address at Brigham Young University, showing how we can share an interfaith dialogue that is both respectful and honest. Oftentimes those with substantive theological differences will seek to find common ground while truth is sacrificed in the process. Mohler managed to accomplish both in his address to almost 400 students and faculty at the nearly packed auditorium at BYU.

Mohler expressed that he respected his audience enough to acknowledge their differences:

I come as a Christian theologian to speak explicitly and respectfully as a Christian—a Christian who defines Christianity only within the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian church and who comes as one committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the ancient and eternal Trinitarian faith of the Christian church. I have not come as less, and you know whom you have invited. I come knowing who you are—to an institution that stands as the most powerful intellectual center of the Latter-Day Saints, the most visible academic institution of Mormonism. You know who I am and what I believe. I know who you are and what you believe.

In a world where conflict and disagreement are often seen as the enemies of the common good, Mohler walked to the podium and gave truth its rightful place of honor in his dialogue with those in attendance. While it might have been tempting in that situation to exude a more conciliatory tone, emphasizing only areas of agreement, Mohler made it clear from the start that he recognized the differences and wanted to begin a dialogue coming from a place of truth.

Mohler, who had met earlier in the day with members of the religious studies faculty at BYU, talked about his warm friendship with several leaders of the LDS church, saying the relationships are richer because they are based in truth:

It has been my great privilege to know friendship and share conversation with leaders of the LDS church. … We do not enjoy such friendship and constructive conversation in spite of our theological differences, but in light of them. This does not eliminate the possibility of conversation. To the contrary, this kind of convictional difference at the deepest level makes for the most important kind of conversation. This is why I am so thankful for your gracious invitation.dr-mohler-author-image

Mohler then went on to give a lengthy discourse on the Late Modern Age we’re living in, talking about the lightning-fast revolution we’ve seen in the culture as he chronicled the cultural decline over recent years and warned about the coming clashes between the prevailing culture and those with traditional beliefs. Again, Mohler respectfully drew a theological line so that his listeners would not be confused about his message. While he was asking them to stand with him to defend their religious liberty, he wasn’t also saying that they were fighting to defend the same theological message. It’s an important distinction:

This is what brings me to Brigham Young University today. I am not here because I believe we are going to heaven together. I do not believe that. I believe that salvation comes only to those who believe and trust only in Christ and in his substitutionary atonement for salvation. I believe in justification by faith alone, in Christ alone. I love and respect you as friends, and as friends we would speak only what we believe to be true, especially on matters of eternal significance. We inhabit separate and irreconcilable theological worlds, made clear with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity. And yet here I am, and gladly so. We will speak to one another of what we most sincerely believe to be true, precisely because we love and respect one another.

We don’t often hear such brutal honesty in interfaith dialogue — particularly in such a public venue. But as Mohler said at the outset of his speech, they knew whom they had invited. Mohler, the very public face of the Southern Baptist denomination in recent years, respected his audience enough not to ignore the elephant in the room — their theological differences. Likely he would expect LDS leaders to do the same if their roles were reversed.

Though Mohler doesn’t believe that Mormons have the right theological answers, he is happy to work alongside them on common issues both faiths face in the culture.

I do not believe that we are going to heaven together, but I do believe we may go to jail together. I do not mean to exaggerate, but we are living in the shadow of a great moral revolution that we commonly believe will have grave and devastating human consequences. Your faith has held high the importance of marriage and family. Your theology requires such an affirmation, and it is lovingly lived out by millions of Mormon families. That is why I and my evangelical brothers and sisters are so glad to have Mormon neighbors. We stand together for the natural family, for natural marriage, for the integrity of sexuality within marriage alone, and for the hope of human flourishing.

Mohler vowed to continue the dialogue and to defend the religious liberty of his Mormon friends and neighbors for whom he expressed great respect and affection.

I come in the hope of much further conversation, conversations about urgencies both temporal and eternal. I am unashamed to stand with you in the defense of marriage and family and the defense of human sexual integrity. I am urgently ready to speak and act in your defense, against threats to your religious liberty, even as you have shown equal willingness to speak and act in defense of mine.

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Deseret News said that Mohler’s speech was part of an interfaith outreach at BYU, noting that past speakers have been criticized for “validating Mormonism.” Deseret said that “Mohler clearly stated his doctrinal differences with Mormons, perhaps as an effort to blunt criticism for a man Time.com called ‘the reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.'”

Despite the hard doctrinal lines drawn by Mohler, his speech didn’t seem to upset leaders at BYU, who acknowledged the differences in beliefs between the two groups. “I was impressed with his ability to talk with our university community in such a focused way (without) being distracted by obvious theological differences that exist between our separate faith traditions,” BYU church history professor Richard Neitzel Holzapfel told Deseret News. “Our students and faculty benefited from his review of current and future challenges to religious freedoms in the United States taken for granted only a generation ago.”

There has been a recent trend toward interfaith events where the attitude seems to be “we all believe basically the same thing,” thus minimizing any differences that exist. Glenn Beck has held huge rallies where Christians, Jews, and Muslims all pray together, claiming they are praying to the same God. Considering that represented among these — as well as with the Latter-day Saints — are vastly different views of the nature and character of God, I much prefer Mohler’s intellectually and spiritually honest approach. The fact is that evangelical Christians and Latter-day Saints, while they have a lot in common, part ways theologically on important issues. Mormons believe evangelicals are wrong on those issues and evangelicals believe Mormons are wrong. Both can’t be right and it’s alright to say that. It’s not disrespectful to to point out the differences. Doing so can lead to greater understanding and more authentic friendships.

After all, if you believe — as Mohler does — that your friends will not be going to heaven, it would not be kind or loving to pretend that “we all basically believe the same thing.” The same goes for those of other faiths. When those nice Jehovah’s Witness ladies come to my door, I expect them to give me the hard sell if they really believe my eternal destiny is in peril (actually, they stopped dropping by when they tired of me bringing my Bible to the discussion, but that’s another story). I’m not offended and my faith is not threatened when they tell me they think they’re right (and therefore, I’m wrong) about spiritual matters. I respect them for being willing to tell me what they believe to be true.

Certainly, some people will be offended by the truth. The nature of truth is that it exposes not-truth, and that makes people uncomfortable and sometimes angry. But ultimately, truth and authenticity are far better and more loving than shallow pretensions and friendships based upon falsehood.