When I read Jenn Lindsay’s recent State of Formation blog post entitled “On Irreconcilable Differences: My Interreligious Dialogue with Mormon Missionaries” I was immediately intrigued for a number of reasons. Primary among these is that I, although no longer believing or practicing, used to be a devout Mormon. I even served a two year proselytizing mission for the LDS church (officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). I know exactly what the young Mormon women shared with Jenn and I can approximate exactly how they felt during the conversations. Another reason for my interest in the subject is that I have recently, for personal as well as academic reasons, been seeking to understand how to best carry out religious dialogue with those who belong to exclusivistic, literalistic religions (i.e. fundamentalist religions). As someone who used to wholeheartedly believe in one such religion but who is now, to simplify greatly, a secular pluralist, I feel that I might have some insight into the process.
As Jenn discovered in the course of her conversations with the young Mormon women, Mormonism allows very little wiggle room when it comes to requirements for salvation. Only those who accept and live the tenets of the religion, either in this life or the next, will be able to enter the highest of the three Mormon heavens in the afterlife. (Note: Some of the details that the Mormon missionaries shared with Jenn regarding the three Mormon heavens are incorrect. See here for an official explanation.) The beliefs of the faith are constantly reinforced in the lives of true believers, and once a month the entire church meeting is dedicated to allowing individual members of the congregation rise to the pulpit and declare that they know the LDS church is true.
As one might imagine, conversations about religion with my Mormon family and friends are not easy, especially because they now consider me to be an apostate from the only true religion on the face of the earth. As a way to maintain the exclusivism of the faith, those who reject, doubt or leave the faith receive numerous stigmas. It is commonly stated that such individuals cannot be happy, no matter how much they may think they are. In the case of members like myself who doubt the faith largely for intellectual reasons, the derision is even more intense. I have been told that I have been deceived by the devil, that I am “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7) and that I have been “blinded by the craftiness of men” (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 76:75). I do not take these statements personally because I understand the mindset and worldview that produces them. I know that when my family says these things they do so out of genuine love and a desire to bring me back to the path that they know is right. As a brash 19-year-old missionary I said all of these things to various people, probably in even harsher and more condescending ways. At one point in her piece Jenn expressed pity for the Mormon missionaries but allowed that they might feel the same way about her. I can assure you that they do.
So, given the presence of certain irreconcilable differences, how can one go about having productive conversations with people from fundamentalist religions? I recently had an in-depth conversation with a friend of mine who would identify himself as an evangelical Christian. We spent several hours in dialogue. He explained his theological system to me and I explained both my current and former belief systems to him. As the conversation progressed I learned that neither of those systems was palatable to him. At one point he bluntly told me that those who fail to accept Jesus into their hearts and live a Christian, Bible-centered life will not be counted among the children of God and will not experience a pleasant afterlife. This included me, he said. My initial reaction was shock and dismay that he would immediately discount the experiences, beliefs, and cultures of billions of non-Christians around the world. But then I took a mental step back and tried to put myself in his shoes. I asked: what cultural, familial and educational factors led him to his current beliefs? What personal experiences has he had? I began to ask these questions in a gentle, non-judgmental way and discovered that the circumstances and experiences of his life led to him finding great comfort and peace in his current theological system. Ultimately it is what works best for him.
My friend and I left that dialogue without either of us having changed our minds in any way. The same goes for conversations with my family. However, through these interactions I have gained a greater understanding of the purpose of interfaith dialogue, especially with people who espouse fundamentalist beliefs. Although I don’t convince people of anything in these dialogues, I am at least able to explain to them my ways of thinking. I am true to myself because I don’t pretend that I agree with them or accept their worldview. I often say something like, “That doesn’t resonate with my personally, but I can see why it is valuable to you.” Most importantly, though, I always gain insight into why people think the way they do and why their lifestyles and worldviews are precious to them. In the process I am able to sharpen my own thinking on various epistemological and metaphysical questions.
Although I could easily take offense from my conversations with family and friends, I instead leave them uplifted and satisfied, having learned much about myself and others. For me, this is the sweetest fruit of interfaith dialogue.
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