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.