On Irreconcilable Differences: My Interreligious Dialogue with Mormon Missionaries

Since I’m conducting field research on interfaith dialogue in Rome, I thought it would be an important part of my participant-observation to embark upon a dialogue. I met some Mormon sisters conducting missions in Italy, and we gathered on three different occasions to trade our stories, religious commitments, and to talk about our faith.

I grew up with a handful of wonderful Mormon people in San Diego. They were my childhood and high school peers. But all I knew about Mormons was that they seemed to have very happy families. I visited the local LDS temple for a guest tour before it was closed to non-members, and my lingering impression was that it was all, from floor to ceiling and in the faces of every guest and guide, dazzlingly white. I had a generally positive impression of Mormonism, but my exposure was limited to some songs from The Book of Mormon musical and South Park bits. So my understanding was very cursory and pop-culture-based. I thought it would be delightful to learn more.

What emerged in our dialogues was difference. I’m a doctoral student in religious studies, culturally Jewish, most comfortable in secular or Reform settings, well-educated in Protestant Christian theology and Tibetan Buddhist dharma. I am a person of faith, in the Tillichian sense of being grasped by questions about ultimate reality. After decades of searching and study I am comfortable using the word “God” to mean justice, creativity, resilience, constructive meaning-making, and the life in me that wants to be lived—despite my ego and manifold character defects.

The Mormon girls were much more absolute. For them God is a Heavenly Father, the anthropomorphic model for the humans that are created in His image. They read their sacred text literally as a historically, theological accurate testament of Jesus’ teaching on the American continents. They were well-versed on Church doctrine and had a relatively uncritical, receptive stance toward everything they had been taught. Their faith had been tested out in the world on their mission—mostly by the hoards of Italians who wanted nothing to do with discussions about religious hope—but they were heartened by their bishop’s instruction to pray and ask God if Mormonism was true. They had always received a positive answer and felt steadied by certainty and stubborn devotion. When I pointed out anachronisms or incoherencies in their teachings, they would fall back on the ultimate epistemological trump card: “Only God knows.”

I could tell they didn’t know what to do with me. I can speak their language of grace, God, prayer, destiny—but it’s always couched in cognitive and cultural caveats, and always appended with reflections on socially constructed interpretations of the sacred, and how the diversity of human lifeways negates claims to exclusivity.

My anthropological convictions did not jibe with their depictions of the three Mormon heavens, the two holiest of which are reserved for Mormons who achieve piety at varying stages of existence. The third one, the lowest paradise, is for all of the rest of us, the non-Mormons and the atheists and the assassins alike. I said to them, “But I’m a good solid Jewish person—why do I have to go to the bummer heaven?” One of the missionaries comforted me: “But it’s still a glorious heavenly kingdom!” When I categorized their afterlife schema as exclusivist—as a matter of typology, not as criticism—they bristled. “Mormonism is available to everyone!” But they confirmed that the deepest human flourishing is only available to Mormons. Those who do not embrace Mormon doctrine remain, on some level, forever lost to the real testaments of Heaven.

I clarified, “If I choose to continue to grow, follow God, journey with scripture, and be ethically sound—I still cannot truly flourish unless I become Mormon?” They looked troubled, and nodded yes. They seemed dismayed by my refusal to acknowledge the existence of an anthropomorphic, judging, loving Heavenly Father.

Throughout our three meetings, I kept a steady face on my face, but I felt equally troubled by their selective literalism and the very subjective sources of their religious certainty.

In drawing nearer to the Mormons and deepening my acquaintance with LDS Church doctrine, my heart grew critical. I experienced the inevitable point in interreligious dialogue when each party encounters irreconcilable difference. The Mormon missionaries and I found the line between us, which neither of us could cross. I am relatively confident in my exposure to religious and philosophical thinking, and I remain convicted and steady in my own position. And because of their own constellations of certainties, conditioning, education, and tools of piety, they remain in their own positions.

But deep, deep down I felt myself mystified and irritated by their positions. I left the dialogue feeling tenderness and pity for the Mormon girls but deeper cynicism about Mormonism.

I have to allow for the possibility that they think exactly the same way about me. 

The tensions in my dialogue with the Mormons was soothed by a mutually-upheld covenant of respect, patience, and deep listening. Our dialogue was consummately respectful, at least on the level of discourse and expression. I think that is the baseline of dialogue. At the end of the day, the behavioral covenant is the container of the dialogue. Nonviolence is the only agreement that dialogue can insist upon.

Dialogue is not meant for convincing or agreement, and commonalities can be identified alongside differences. The peace can be kept. But I have to admit it was disappointing to me—a person who has forged an empathic connection with so many religious spheres—that I could not find my place within the literal, exclusivist realm of LDS doctrine (as these girls delivered it). The anxiety I felt in encountering our differences sparked a dismissive skepticism in my heart about Mormonism. And my anxiety sparked more anxiety: how sincere, exactly, is my radically inclusive pluralism? I don’t seem to be able to take their theology seriously. How far can dialogue’s imperative of “mutual respect” feasibly stretch?

I learned from my dialogue with the Mormon girls that I am a fundamentalist progressive Tillichian mystical naturalist. And the more I am exposed to interfaith dialogue, the more I find that the product of dialogue is not answers or agreement—it is the dialogue itself, and all of the questions it asks us to live into together. As long as participants behave nonviolently, the questioning can continue.

Socrates claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and I think he would have appreciated the deeply principled arguments of a sincere interfaith dialogue. This labor of coming to know ourselves and our principles—including the limits to our understanding and the boundaried absoluteness of our values—brings meaning and virtue to our lives. But it’s profoundly uncomfortable to encounter irreconcilable difference. Dialogue’s other labor, therefore, is practice in holding tension and staking own your claim with gentle firmness. 

Image By Barbaricino (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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16 thoughts on “On Irreconcilable Differences: My Interreligious Dialogue with Mormon Missionaries

  1. I wonder if there isn’t something fundamentally fraudulent at the heart of interfaith dialogue; I am not referring to interfaith cooperation. To borrow from Socrates, I would say that the unexamined faith is not worth following, and if something is true, it can stand up to scrutiny, in fact, would welcome testing and challenge, while we know that just the opposite is true. While matters of belief can neither be proven or disproven, issues of scientific and historical claims certainly can.

    I was listening to music from the Book of Mormon when accidentally I came across a series called, “Mormon Stories,” which interview persons who left or were kicked out of the Mormon Church, and this belies the well-honed image. I also discovered an evangelical apologetics debating group which must have accidentally left their page public. They discussed how they were planning a debate of the evangelical Jesus vs. the Mormon Jesus. One member added, “But we must remember that we need to pray for them,” and another added sympathetically, “they are in darkness.” If I could have commented, I might have questioned, “Have you thought that they think of you in the same way?”

    You probably realize that fundamentalist groups offer something quite valuable to their adherents, such as love, acceptance, practical help and support and a prepackaged worldview and lifestyle that includes a belief in superiority and chosenness – things I would assume might be lacking in Tillach’s world. I am sure you have counted the cost and realized that it is too high.

    Something else I find difficult about the interfaith world is that I would never make a very good ambassador, as it seems lies and their acceptance is required all around to grease the wheels that keep dialogue open. If I had to pretend I liked my husband’s family and he had to pretend he liked my cooking and we both had to pretend we didn’t mind the mess the kids left everywhere, that would be challenging to maintain. Maybe we could become Mormons? 🙂

  2. Hi Chaya! I’m pleased to hear from you. I’m intrigued by your first sentence: “I wonder if there isn’t something fundamentally fraudulent at the heart of interfaith dialogue.” But I don’t feel like you really unpacked the thought and I’d like to know more about what you mean. Can you clarify?

    On a gut level, I’d say yes. I felt like I had to behave so impeccably with my dialogue partners–out of respect for the circle of dialogue and out of the fact that I really liked these young girls and felt sort of sisterly/teacherly with them–that I spoke in very generous and metaphorical terms about the holes I saw in their testimonies. And when I talked to other people about what I heard from them about LDS doctrine I’ve been more authentic–and more derisive.

    So was my dialogue fraudulent? Or is it a display of skillful means, to connect and learn and then go my own way, confident as ever that I am not now and will never become Mormon?

    I’d like to know what you think…….

  3. I have to laugh a little about the sister missionaries. When I was a missionary in Brazil, I think I was much like them – much more absolute in my thinking, much more literal. With age, I remain a committed, believing Mormon, but much more universalist and far less certain of anything.

    It can be hard to pin down Mormon doctrine, first because it’s dynamic (I think I’m being euphemistic there, but I’m not sure), and second because we tend to use words like “grace” and “salvation” and “knowledge” in ways that are almost, but not quite like the meanings used in other Christian faiths. As a result, interfaith dialogue with a Mormon can be a series of aha! moments followed by confusion and then disappointment that there was no aha! at all.

    Mormon missionaries are often filled with zeal and sincerity, and some of them stay that way into their old age. Others make the transition from grape juice (which has its charms) to wine (which has even greater charms which, as a committed Mormon, I’m afraid are lost on me), and learn that sharing is a two-way street that demands hearing and understanding. And real understanding has a way of erasing most absolutes. You might find it interesting to talk to those sisters in 20 years.

  4. Very thoughtful and helpful post. You would be interested in the work we are doing today to develop The Way of Openness that asks participants in conversation to be as fully open with their motives and purposes as possible. And to be open to the influence of the Other.

    We acknowledge that all human communication has some persuasive motive within (like me, help me, don’t hurt me, just move, don’t move, etc.). A heart and mind conversation includes both co-resistance and collaboration between rival views of superlatives–what is best, truest, most beautiful. Until the Finale (presumably), the goal needs to be engaging intentionally in mutual persuasion of hearts and minds in respectful, honest contests over ‘the best way.’

    Pluralist fundamentalists (your wonderful wording) need also to acknowledge they are missionaries (without badges). By the way the differences are unresolvable and that tension needs to be normalized in our pluralistic societies. The new normal is continual enjoyment of free co-resistance and collaboration. Living with an unending contest with invigoration not exhaustion. (Like a long term successful marriage!)

    Thanks for your post.

    Randall Paul, Ph.D.
    Foundation for Religious Diplomacy

    1. Dear Randall, I love your notion of normalizing tension. I think people tend to be so conflict avoidant and harmony-anxious during dialogues that they lose opportunities for real reflection or the fascinating line-toeing that arises with deep difference. I think dialoguers will have more meaningful and transformative experiences if they develop a few skills: the courage to be offended, the courage to not be liked, the capacity to express dissent and skepticism in respectful ways, and perhaps above all the ability to discern the nature of a given threat. If the threat is only tension then it can be “normalized” instead of skirted. Thanks again for your helpful references.

      1. Very late follow up. You are right to note that some threats can be or at least appear to be so great, that no honest conversation can occur. There is a time to walk away or even fight. However, these are fewer than we imagine. Our rivals and critics more often than not desire to persuade us, not threaten or coerce us. To wisely engage in a trust and verify conversation should be the default method.


        1. Hello Randall! Thank you for your additional thoughts. I like the notion of wise trust and verification. This article, and the meetings that sparked it, has inspired a lot of thoughtful conversion that I’m very grateful for. I’m still in touch with one of the sisters and with other Mormon friends and I’ve enjoyed learning about other interpretations of the afterlife doctrine and Mormon theology. The convictions I express about ethically encountering irreconcilable difference have persevered as this conversion has unfolded. The encounter does indeed demand trust, but verification–if I’m interpreting you correctly, which I may not be–is something I believe to be very elusive and spontaneous between two subjects. The point I’m making here is about an impasse of verification, of two souls peering at each other over an abyss where mutual verification cannot pass. As Rilke said, even the most infinite of lovers have infinite distances between them, but they are appointed as guardians of each other’s solitude. I see the ethical structures of an encounter with radical difference as providing this guardianship, so that the solitude of faith can be protected in its mystery, and it can also be protected from harming others in its own defense. In order to respect this irreconcilable difference and not defensively attack the other side, trust of oneself and the other is required. I believe this trust is held aloft not by verification but by its opposite–devout agnosticism about the contents of the other person’s faith, and willingness to let that faith thrive in its own sphere.

          1. Thanks for that careful response. I think I agree with your statement. Allow me to refine my use of verify. I was speaking of verifying over time that the person with whom you engage desires (1) that you both thrive and (2) that you share an honest and respectful relationship of mutual influence. If someone desires to hurt you, or does not desire your influence, then that person, by my definition, is not trustworthy.

            I was not talking about verifying the content of truth claims, etc.

            Best wishes,

  5. Speaking of Mormon and missionaries, I came across a Youtube page, “Mormon Stories,” by accident. It appeared that the participants attempted to create a space within Mormonism for those who doubted its central tenets, yet saw enough that was good and meaningful to them within the community that they sought a way to remain. The structure of Mormonism didn’t allow that.

    I believe that is an interesting area of study; religious communities that have built in methods of allowing flexibility and responding to change, and those that don’t, and why.

  6. to argue or dialogue with you I would lose as you would have a counter argument for anything I would say because you way to “God” is through intellectualism/wisdom/study. You know the literature, the various traditions, and the surface of each way. BUT the way of wisdom is only one of the ways to “God.” There are two other ways from the intellectual perspective may appear to have no merit. Those are through unquestioning faith, which your Mormon friends exhibited, and the way of devotion. All three paths lead to the experience of “God” as long as their is depth to the path taken. The hardest way of all may be the way of intellectualism because there is a tendency not to get past the questioning phase, which may not end I this lifetime. Maybe the wrong questions are being asked. Many of the questions may be comparing your thoughts to others, which is or can be ego based. I would suggest asking different questions based on the results of any path taken. Are they at peace with themselves and others? Are they joyful with a childlike quality? Are they compassionate? Are the loving and caring? Are they nonjudgmental? Do they seek answers to problems from a calm center (some might call it prayer) and know that ultimately they are in charge of their thoughts and feelings and have the power to change things?

    To me a dialogue with those of different faiths should be centered on the commonalities as all paths are striving for some type of union with a “God” in whatever form you might visualize that. It is man, ego, need to control others, and need for power, and a desperate need to feel your way is the right way is the problem.

    On Mormons- you forgot to add that you can’t get into that top special heaven as a woman unless you marry a man in the brotherhood, i.e., a Mormon man.

    1. Thank you for your reply! I wouldn’t agree with you that my way to “God” is through intellectualism/wisdom/study. I would say it is ONE of my ways. I would say it is my way into the academic study of religion and dialogue, by necessity, but not my way into my experience of faith. Long ago I realized that my spiritual questioning at some point dissolves into a larger statement of “devout agnosticism,” and I have to cultivate the discipline to focus on experience and ethics, and not merely intellectual domination of a topic. More often than not I think “faith through understanding” is an exercise in control and denial.

      I would say these Mormon girls are happy and self-satisfied. But I would also continue to question the ways in which the church they represent continues to oppress and deny the rights and realities of LGBT people and anybody who doesn’t subscribe to their doctrine. Sure, they’re nice people, and that’s as far as I can go with them. I do believe at this point their happiness is completely predicated on ignorance and ignoring. When they are older and have a more mature faith I’m sure the dialogue would be more rewarding.

      In my research I find that dialogue that only focuses on commonalities is probably the most pleasant but it is also the most banal, and also sometimes the most disingenuous, as human differences are real and sometimes very important to people. Sometimes the ethical bottom line is all that can be reasonably asked for.

      Perhaps the notion of commonality is one of those beautifully paradoxical examples of a simple truth that is very, very complex for people to arrive at–a simplicity on the other side of complexity. I believe it’s more rewarding to arrive at simple commonality after honestly facing the complex quagmire of irreconcilable difference..

  7. The reference to “Mormon Heavens” and only Mormons being allowed in them isn’t even based on Mormon doctrine. Anyone who says otherwise is giving views based on opinion, not fact. That or you have misinterpreted the Mormon churches use of proxy baptisms for the dead. A major difference from many Christians who believe that if you lived in a place like China and never were baptized you are screwed

    1. As you might guess from my article, I would confidently argue that anything based on Mormon doctrine is also based on opinion, not fact. But you seem to take issue more with how the Mormon sisters were teaching about Mormon understandings of afterlife, and not my narrative of finding myself in total opposition to the majority of their faith claims, despite enjoying their social company. If there is a way to regulate the understandings and instructions of Mormon missionaries so they are closer to LDS doctrine I encourage you to pursue your interest. I suspect, given my appraisal of the sisters’ more accurate teachings, that I might still find the corrected afterlife teaching to be as anachronistic, speculative, and infeasible as I found their other teachings to be. But I respect their right to a claim and I recognize that we are divided by an irreconcilable epistemological gulf that allows nevertheless for a mutually respectful learning experience. Hopefully as the girls grow in their mission they will be able to reflect doctrine more faithfully. They were very very sincere above all.

  8. Opinion vs fact, the same argument applies to every other religion. And yet you quote as fact things that two young missionaries told you as a factual basis for your views of Mormon beliefs in spite of it not being fact, but opinion. Not exactly a good basis for your views in Mormonism considering you say you grew up around Mormons in San Diego and being a PhD candidate. Not that your opinions have any impact on me other than the annoyance someone who focuses on religion and is obviously educated wrote a article based on little actual substance. It’s the equivalent on writing about racial hate groups and writing something only based on the KKK and ignoring every other hate group across the rest of the spectrum

    1. The only substance of the article is my own experience, and I think the sisters had a similar source for their faith. You might note this is not an academic article but rather a narrative reflection on the specific incidence of three sessions of dialogue with two specific missionaries. I’m not one to generalize and extrapolate, and the article itself specifies that my exposure to Mormonism is limited to the version delivered by these well-intentioned young girls. I don’t see anywhere in the article where I claim expert knowledge of the LDS Church or presume to be educated about Mormonism, as it is not my field. I’ve merely reflected on my encounter with radical difference; insofar as the article is a reflection on ethical norms prevailing in the face of difference, I believe your concern about doctrinal precision is (albeit important to you personally) misplaced as a relevant response to the actual point of the article. As you’ve resorted to passive ad hominem attacks it seems you’re feeling defensive or offended, and I’m sorry about that. Incidentally I’m pleased that several other readers have taken the time to inform me that the sisters were confused about their teachings, and I wish them well just as I wish you well too.

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