Mormon Ecumenism

I plead with our people everywhere to live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. We must not be partisans of any doctrine of ethnic superiority. We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree. We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry.
—President Gordon B. Hinckley

Tomorrow is the day that I have been waiting for since being called to teach the High Priests group in my ward earlier this year: Lesson 20: Fellowship with Those Who Are Not of Our Faith. It is something that I have been thinking about for a long time.

I started thinking about it 20 years ago, when I was in the bishopric of my student ward at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There had been a stabbing in the student enclave of Isla Vista, where our Church/Institute building was located, and a number of religious groups got together to demonstrate for better lighting. I went to the organizing meeting with a half a dozen other religious leaders, one of whom said, in the meeting, “I am so glad you are here. The Mormons usually keep to themselves.”

That remark devastated me, not because I resented it, but because I knew that it was true–and, worse, that it was true of me. I had lived in the area for five years and did not realize that there were other religious organizations with student outreaches in the same community. And I knew practically nothing about these other faiths. It was a major wake-up call.

Since that time, I have done a bit better. I spent eight years working as the chief academic officer at a Catholic university, where I attended mass regularly. I currently have the same position at a United Methodist school, and, not only do I frequently attend services, I have been involved in the community interfaith leadership organization. And because I feel so strongly that religious freedom has to be protected in our hearts, and not just our laws, I have spent most Friday afternoons this year at the local mosque, praying shoulder to shoulder with the Muslims of our community.

None of this means that I am not committed to my own faith. I am an active, believing Latter-day Saint who has been touched by God while reading the Book of Mormon and listening to the words of prophets. I love my own religion, and I want other people to understand it the way that I do. More importantly, I want them to understand me in my totality, which means the scholarly me, the administrator me, and the Mormon me. The deepest friendships I have made in my life have always been with people who understand these various aspects of my personality.

This desire carries with it a responsibility to try to understand other people in the same way—not as means to an end in my own religious life (such as helping me be a “member missionary” by listening to the discussions in my home and setting a baptismal date) but as fully formed spiritual people who have a slightly different faith, or a very different faith, or no faith at all but a rational and praiseworthy moral sense that shapes and gives meaning to their lives. I do not believe that I have the responsibility to convert anybody to my belief system. But I do believe that I have a moral and a religious obligation to understand theirs.

For me, this means reading stuff that is important to other people (reading stuff is always my go to option). And this has the added benefit of enriching my personal devotion. I have read the Qur’an twice, and each time it has increased my understanding of and love for God. So have works by Buddhists, Confucians, Catholics, Protestants, and atheist philosophers working out moral positions based on treating other people with dignity and kindness. All of this comes directly from the God in whom I have chosen to believe.

We hear a lot about religious freedom these days, and, more often than not, what we mean is freedom to practice OUR religion. A related, and perhaps more important issue to worry about is the freedom of people who are not us to practice THEIR religions. There are far more issues in the world, and in the United States, involving people who aren’t me and religion than there are involving me and mine. This is what President Hinckley meant when he said, “We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry.”

Ultimately, following the prophetic counsel to live “with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith” requires a positive commitment. It is not enough to simply, and abstractly, be “fine” with whatever somebody else happens to believe. We are called to understand other faiths in exactly the same way that we earnestly desire other people to understand ours—on its own terms, in its own words, through genuine human interaction with actual other people and careful study of other beliefs.

Like every  worthwhile task, understanding other people in this way takes time, energy, and emotional investment. Stereotypes, easy caricatures of other people’s beliefs, and smug satisfaction at our own chosenness are much easier when dealing with beliefs that we don’t understand very well. Just as it is easier for those who do not understand us very well to do the same with us and our beliefs.

But we are called to do better. As President Hinckley said, “We must not be clannish. We must never adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. We must not be self-righteous. We must be magnanimous and open and friendly. . . . I take this occasion to plead for a spirit of tolerance and neighborliness, of friendship and love toward those of other faiths.” And we can do none of these things until we have taken the time, and done the emotional labor, to understand.

Comments

  1. QBCC conscience bgt ghk says:

    I recently started watching the ask a priest on the ocn… He said Orthodox do not go to other people’s churches… Then he went on to bash specifically Mormons…

    Yeah, methinks ecumenism is kind of over rated and I no longer have a reason to learn more about them…

  2. I like to tell LDS friends that I am an 8th Article of Faith member. I grew up LDS in a predominantly Catholic area. I attended public school. The district set it’s school calendar by the local parish calendar. Ash Wednesday was always half day, allowing everyone a chance to attend mass. Fish was served on Fridays, etc. One day while I was out at recess, playing with a Jehovah’s Witness girl, a clutch of my Catholic School Mates came over and tried to tell me I was a Jehovah’s Witness and was unChristian. No matter how desperately I tried to point out the obvious untruths in their statements, things like saluting the flag and celebrating holidays with them, they were set on their opinion of me.

    On that day, all those years ago, I knew the God I had faith in saw it differently. I believe I didn’t even know the 8th Article of Faith, but my heart knew something I couldn’t articulate. Though I am not nearly as widely read as you, I do work to make room for other religions in my life. I attend celebrations, funerals, fundraisers, and engage in discussions with friends of other faiths.

    I also am on the leadership team for a Lutheran run homeless shelter. Other LDS wards volunteer there, too. Over and over again the go to phrase about why interfaith service is important is the line, “They realize we’re Christian, too.” My response back, “In serving next to them, we learn about them. And realize they are just like us.”

    If I had 3 wishes, one of them would be that we as a church would embrace interfaith love and connection. Not just for political or PR reasons, but because the Body of Christ needs to be fulfilled through us loving others, for who they are.

    Great piece. Thanks.

  3. Eric Facer says:

    For me, understanding people of other faiths IS “a means to an end in my own religious life” because I try to approach their faith with the honest expectation that it likely possesses eternal truths and wisdom that we do not. For this reason, though I am great admirer of President Hinckley, I have always felt that there is something missing from his invitation: “bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.” I wish this appeal had included a humble acknowledgment that, just perhaps, those of other religious traditions might have something to add our understanding of the truth.

    Good luck with your lesson tomorrow! Sounds like you’re well prepared.

  4. Very interesting. Thanks. One question. You said “I do not believe that I have the responsibility to convert anybody to my belief system.” Could you elaborate on your thinking here? Genuinely interested. Guess I’ve just grown up with the every member a missionary, and go Ye into all nations approach. So curious about how you think about it. Thanks

  5. Aussie Mormon says:

    I can’t speak for Michael, but I’d assume he’s making the distinction between spreading the gospel (as per his “I love my own religion, and I want other people to understand it the way that I do” comment), and converting people to the gospel, which is the a job for the Holy Ghost, not us.

  6. Thank you for pointing out this lesson! I really enjoyed reading your article, but I enjoyed reading Hinckley’s talks even more. They really feel like a sincere plea for kindness, tolerance, and acceptance of those whose views differ from our own, even when we disagree. I feel like he would appreciate your comments.

  7. Goodness, I remember that stabbing. I was in college then too, elsewhere in CA.

    When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to different services to see what they were like. I’ve tried to do the same with my own kids, but shyness (mostly mine) has been a real problem. I did put my kids in the Episcopalian Vacation Bible School, with the result that many of our ward’s kids have gone to it over the past decade or so.

    Tips on overcoming shyness are welcome.

  8. jlouielucero says:

    Michael,
    I was a missionary in the university ward at UCSB in 1999-2000. Not sure if you were still there but Art Burke was the bishop. I think I may remember you. Thanks for your posts here, they are thought provoking and helpful to me.

  9. jlouielucero, I left in 1997. Norm Rigby was the bishop the whole time I was there.

  10. jlouielucero says:

    Cool. Just missed you. Thanks again

  11. Nunya Bidniss says:

    “I am so glad you are here. The Mormons usually keep to themselves.”

    If I hadn’t been told so many times by Lutherans, Baptists, Evangelicals of a half dozen sorts, and JWs that I was a cultist going to hell, maybe I would have shown up for their “Let’s-agree-to-disagree-but-pass-out-some-soup parties.” I’m not clannish or holier-than-thou; I’m just tired of being told to play nice on the playground while someone else is allowed to kick my shins.

  12. Kristine N says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I’m teaching this lesson next month and I appreciate your take on it.

    It’s interesting–here in Adelaide my stake is involved in quite a few interfaith activities, and we regularly hear about opportunities to volunteer with other denominations. I wonder at which level of the leadership the difference lies. We’ve had the same energetic, outgoing, ambitious woman in charge of public relations, and it’s possible she’s the driving force (I know she feels quite strongly that we need to be involved in the community at large). We also have a lot of converts at all levels of leadership, which I imagine could make it easier for people to reach out to other faiths with which they already have a connection of some sort.

  13. So very well said, Mike.

  14. Not a Cougar says:

    I had the opportunity to teach this lesson yesterday. In my humble opinion, our EQ is probably the liveliest, most interactive quorum I’ve ever been in and so I was a bit disappointed in the conversation. Some of the members seemed a bit perplexed by the topic, and only one person could provide an personal example of interfaith service. All in all, it wasn’t quite as a spiritually fulfilling a lesson as I had anticipated, based on previous classes. Not that everyone didn’t recognize the need to work with other faiths on common goals, but we did seem to agree that Mormons don’t do it very well and we don’t seem to get that much sustained encouragement to engage.

    As some have expressed above, there’s a healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to interaction with other faiths, not least because many denominations have refused us membership to the “Christian club” for nearly two centuries. I also can’t discount the sore feeling many churches have towards us because, throughout our existence as a church, we’ve made our converts largely off “poaching” people from other Christian denominations.

    Tim, I know Michael can and will speak for himself, but if his thoughts are anything like mine, I’d respond that, no, I am not responsible for anyone else’s conversion but my own. My duty lies in inviting others to listen and be converted themselves. I wish we taught this to our full-time missionaries and stopped making them think that their personal “righteousness” can short circuit someone’s agency to choose to join the Church (sorry, but waking up an hour earlier than required and fasting four days a week doesn’t make you more righteous and it doesn’t make someone else magically want to be baptized; it just makes your companion tired and angry).

  15. Not a Cougar. Elder Oaks addressed success in sharing the gospel in October 2016 General Conference. It may have been too subtle for some missionaries and mission presidents, but here’s Elder Oaks’ measure: “success in sharing the gospel is inviting people with love and genuine intent to help them, no matter what their response.” It seems you and he are in agreement.

  16. Michael Austin, how did it go?

  17. Not a Cougar says:

    Thanks JR. I read/listen to Conference talks, but they rarely seem to stick in my mind anymore like they once did. Kinda nice to hear my opinion in Elder Oaks’ voice.

  18. This lesson hit a little too close to home for me.

    “I also can’t discount the sore feeling many churches have towards us because, throughout our existence as a church, we’ve made our converts largely off “poaching” people from other Christian denominations.”

    Yes
    As well as us members sometimes “putting down” other churches in our need to make the point of being the “one true” church. Sometimes I cringe when listening to talks and lessons, wondering what visitors/investigators from other churches think about what was just said.

    The question is: should the goal of the lesson(s) be to make us all feel we are doing a good job or make us aware that we need to do better?

    If I were teaching the lesson, I wouldn’t just confine it to people of other faiths. I would add people of “no faith” to the list. There are many people in the “world,” that exceed us in terms of goodness and Christ-like qualities.

    This lesson in our RS ended up where we were “patting ourselves on our back” with how other people have noticed how great we are or how great our kids are. I think it should go deeper than that. I think the teacher should perhaps open it up and ask if they know of instances where people have been turned off, excluded, marginalized etc. by the actions/words of members.

    My own family has been deeply hurt by the rigidity-uniformity, and, yes, pride, within the church. One example: while in college (in a liberal area), one son brought a non-member girlfriend to a ward social at a ice cream shop. He was informed there they would not be paying for her ice cream. (He hadn’t been aware they were even going to pay for his ice cream). At a minimum, it was handled very poorly. The last straw was when he became engaged and was called in for a “meeting” where the leader spelled out in harsh terms what a big mistake he was making etc. Needless to say, that ended my son’s relationship with the church. We love our new daughter-in-law. She is one of the most Christ-like people we’ve ever met–always looking out for others. Our family has been enriched by our association with her.

  19. briansthoughtmirror,

    It went well. I started with the same anecdote that the blog post starts with, and then we talked a little bit about Mormon “clannishness” before reading President Hinckley’s specific request that we not be clannish. We read passages from both Jonah and Acts 10 about not shying away from being with people of other faiths and cultures. And then we had a long discussion about the difference between “being a good friend and naturally talking about things that are important to us, like religion” and “trying to convert people.” The conclusion that everybody seemed to accept was that, if one tries honestly to be a genuine friend, religious discussions will often follow, but if one tries to adopt a friendly posture to have religious discussions, friendship will rarely result.

  20. Sounds like an excellent lesson Michael! I shared our family’s experience and then contrasted it to another experience in a different ward where an LDS woman’s non-member Jewish husband often attended church with her–for years and years–and was warmly accepted and not pressured. He eventually joined the church (long after we moved away). I think first and foremost we need to simply meet people where they are–offering open hearts and minds and not always (or ever?) make people a “project.”

  21. Thanks for the reply, and glad to hear it went well! In a lesson like that, I’d love it the teacher would also emphasize that members can have great associations with non-members, even when there is little to no hope of conversion possible. I liked your emphasis on the idea that we should try to understand people of other faiths on their own terms, rather than understand them just enough to “find common ground” and “build relationships of trust”, to use old mission terms. I think it’s a position of humility to assume we can probably learn something positive from everyone.

  22. Rich Stoutenborough says:

    I am fortunate to be a member of the HP group Michael teaches. His insights, understanding of gospel principles, and ability to involve others in the conversation makes him a fabulous instructor. He is a joy.

  23. Can we also add respecting those of our faith whose beliefs do not mirror our own?

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