Personal Online Journal

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Convicted and Civil

Last night I attended "A Conversation Between a Mormon & an Evangelical" a public lecture with Dr. Robert L. Millet and Rev. Gregory C. V. Johnson at the Tempe Institute of Religion at ASU.

I cannot express how much I enjoyed it. They spoke of "convicted civility" a phrase they got from Richard J. Mouw. It means that I can retain the convictions of my beliefs and allow a close friend of mine to keep his and yet we can have a rich and rewarding relationship. Where the goal is not conversion but understanding. Not score keeping but increased curiosity. It reminds me of a phrase from Jeffrey R. Holland's recent talk “My Words . . . Never Cease” where he stated the LDS claim that we are Christians "respectfully but resolutely". I would have no problem with an evangelical sharing his beliefs with me. Done respectfully yet passionately.

How is this possible? I saw in this 2 hour presentation good-natured joking and teasing between the two of them. They said that their relationship was based on many lunches. Bro Millet said you can say that our relationship is founded on a lot of salad. Rev Johnson then said "and a little bit of pasta in the case of Bob".

By their own description, this was not a Rodney King "Can't we just all get along" kind of relationship. They asked each other hard questions. Bro Millet related a story of another time they shared this presentation. A person asked Bro Millet, "Don't Mormons believe in a different Jesus than we do?" Bro Millet had just finished writing a book on this theme. He was so full of ideas yet his tongue didn't move. In the pause his friend Rev. Johnson said, "Can I take this?" Bro Millet happily conceded. "I wonder if you might change how you ask that question. What if you asked instead 'What do you believe about Jesus?'" He went on to say how the first question is a conversation stopper. Then second a conversation starter.

When they passed out 4x5 cards I was so excited. I thought, "what can I ask these guys?" I wrote. "Rev. Johnson, would you introduce me to someone (an evangelical) in the northwest Phoenix Valley who would like to have lunch with me?" I grew up in the Phoenix area. In high school I had some very good evangelical friends. I was very saddened when I felt my relationship with them had to stop because we could not bridge the gap in our theology. They were very good people. I would expect they still are.

Bro Millet shared a story at the end where he read Just As I Am, Billy Graham's autobiography. At the end he was emotionally moved. He expressed to his wife his conviction that God had used Rev Graham to move His work forward on earth. He quoted Elder Orson F. Whitney of the quorum of the twelve apostles who spoke in the April 1928 General Conference, "God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people. … They are our partners in a certain sense."

This reminded me of my good evangelical friends in high school. There is no doubt for me that God moved in their lives. They were completely committed to moral chastity among many in the school who would have persuaded them otherwise. They were kind. They looked for ways to uplift others. Their works are the fruit. They demonstrated to me the Grace of God they had received.

Here is a YouTube video, "Standing Together: Is Anybody Listening?" with both Reverend Johnson and Brother Millet. I recommend it. Here is a summary about what is different about the "Faith Dialogue" Greg Johnson wants to foster. Here is an article written by Robert L. Millet. He tells a story that I think is helpful.
On this particular night, the first question asked by someone in the audience was on DNA and the Book of Mormon. I made a brief comment and indicated that a more detailed (and informed) response would be forthcoming in a journal article from a BYU biologist. There were many hands in the air at this point. I called on a woman close to the front of the church. Her question was, "How do you deal with the Adam-God doctrine?"

I responded, "Thank you for that question. It gives me an opportunity to explain a principle early in our exchange that will lay the foundation for other things to be said." I took a few moments to address the questions, "What is our doctrine? What do we teach today?" I indicated that if some teaching or idea was not in the standard works, not among official declarations or proclamations, was not taught currently by living apostles or prophets in general conference or other official gatherings, or was not in the general handbooks or official curriculum of the Church, it is probably not a part of the doctrine or teachings of the Church.

I was surprised when my pastor friend then said to the group: "Are you listening to Bob? Do you hear what he is saying? This is important! It's time for us to stop criticizing Latter-day Saints on matters they don't even teach today." At this point in the meeting, two things happened: first, the number of hands went down, and second, the tone of the meeting changed quite dramatically. The questions were not baiting or challenging ones but rather were efforts to clarify. For example, the last question asked was by a middle-aged man: "I for one would like to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for what you have done here tonight. This thrills my soul. I think this is what Jesus would do. I have lived in Utah for many years, and I have many LDS friends. We get along okay; we don't fight and quarrel over religious matters. But we really don't talk with one another about the things that matter most to us—that is, our faith. I don't plan to become a Latter-day Saint, and I'm certain my Mormon friends don't plan to become Evangelical, but I would like to find more effective ways to talk heart to heart. Could you two make a few suggestions on how we can deepen and sweeten our relationships with our LDS neighbors?"

At that point, I sensed that we had somehow gotten through to some of the audience. Richard Mouw, one of my Evangelical friends,has suggested the need for "convicted civility," the challenge to be true to our own faith and not compromise one whit of our doctrine and way of life, and at the same time strive to better understand and respect our neighbors who are of another religious persuasion.
I remember a neighbor of mine. One who just a few weeks ago politely said they are not interested in learning more about the LDS church. I think I will print out a copy of this and give it to him. What a radical idea! Friends who only try to understand, to be neighborly. Who leave the converting to God.

Now a final note to the friend of Greg Johnson. The one who he said he would introduce me to. I am looking forward to lunch :)

Update Sep 2014

Here is an example of one of their conversations from June 13th, 2012. "Talking Past Each Other"


Clean Cut said...

Thank you for posting this! I wish I could have attended the lecture myself, but this was the next best thing. More of these conversations need to take place!

Papa D said...

Wonderful post - and I would have loved to have been there with you to hear it in person.