Reaching Out To Those Of Other Faiths

By Robert L. Millet

Robert L. Millet (robert_millet@byu.edu) is publications director of the RSC.

 

In the late 1970s, Professor Truman G. Madsen, the first holder of the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, organized a conference at BYU on Mormonism. Participants included such scholars of other faiths as Robert Bellah, Abraham Kaplan, Jacob Milgrom, David Noel Freedman, W. D. Davies, James Charlesworth, and Krister Stendahl. Stendahl was then serving as dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Over the years that followed, Madsen maintained contact and developed friendships with many of the presenters.

Some years after his departure from the divinity school, Stendahl was appointed as bishop of Sweden. During that same time period, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that a temple would be built in Stockholm, and, as is often the case, there was a great deal of reaction from the public, much of it negative. Bishop Stendahl convened a press conference in one of the LDS chapels. He called upon his people to be more open, more respectful, less critical of the Latter-day Saints, and to ponder upon the implications of a religious group whose care and concern for the spiritual welfare of humankind spanned the veil of death. In regard to the hostile press that the Latter-day Saints had been receiving, he offered three simple but thoughtful bits of advice:

1. If you want to know something about another person’s faith or beliefs, ask an active, participating, and somewhat knowledgeable member of that faith.

2. If you intend to compare the merits of one faith with another, be sure to compare your best with their best.

3. Always leave room for “holy envy.”

 It is not unusual at a university as large as BYU to have young people make comments several times during the semester about other churches, some of which may be inappropriate or inaccurate. “Well, you know how the Baptists are, they believe that once you are saved it doesn’t matter how you live.” I have felt some sense of responsibility, if that person has indeed voiced the Baptist views incorrectly, to say, “Can we talk about that for just a minute? You know they don’t really believe that. They believe this and this and this.” As Latter-day Saints, we don’t want to be misrepresented. Why would we want to misrepresent others? Now that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a pretty good start in terms of trying to straighten out much of the misperception that underlies misunderstanding. In short, what this entire process of interfaith dialogue during the last fifteen years has given to me and my colleagues is a burden of responsibility to love our neighbor enough to be sure that those over whom we have responsibility, namely our students or our fellow faculty members, better understand the beliefs held sacred by those of other faiths. When we love people, we begin to feel a Christian responsibility for them—for their welfare, for their safety, and even for their reputation and good name.

As C. S. Lewis once stated, there are many people even outside the ranks of Christianity who are being led by God’s “secret influence” to focus on those aspects of their religion that are in agreement with Christianity and, as he said, “who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”[1]

Now that requires a stretching of our typical worldview, a broadening of our horizons and a loosening of our categories. But in fact, the older we get, the less prone we are to believe in coincidence. I gladly and eagerly acknowledge God’s hand in all things, including the orchestration of events in our lives and the interlacing of our daily associations. The Lord brings people into our path who can bless and enlighten us, people whose acquaintanceship will, down the road, open doors, dissolve barriers, and to a small extent make strait the way of the Lord. The prayer of Elisha for the young lad seems particularly pertinent to this kind of work: “Lord, I pray thee, open [our] eyes that [we] may see” (2 Kings 6:17).

The following are some principles that Pastor Gregory Johnson and I compiled several years ago, guiding ideals that we have found to be immensely helpful:

1. In spite of what many people have accepted as fact, religion is an area that can be discussed and discussed seriously without dispute or confrontation.

2. One need not compromise their faith conviction in order to have a loving relationship and ongoing conversation with someone of a different religious persuasion.

3. Building relationships takes time. Some things cannot be rushed.

4. Not every doctrinal issue needs to be addressed or resolved in a single conversation.

5. Man’s timetable and God’s timetable may be two different things. Healthy interfaith dialogue defers to God’s agenda rather than to individual or private agendas.

6. We must allow God to do his own work in the hearts of individuals. What we may desire for them to become may be very different than what God desires.

7. A good test for loving relationships is the extent to which the individual with whom we are engaged actually feels loved through the encounter.

8. There must come a point where we take the word of the individual regarding what he or she believes.

9. Building friendship is more worthwhile and fulfilling than winning an argument. Successful interfaith dialogue results not alone in winning an argument but in enhancing a friendship.

10. God is in the business of people, and so must we be. People and people’s feelings matter.

11. Though labels and categories often prove beneficial, they certainly have limitations. Just because an individual belongs to a particular religious denomination does not necessarily mean that we know exactly what they believe.

12. There are risks associated with serious and sincere interfaith dialogue. Despite our best intentions, others may misunderstand what we hope to accomplish.

13. When love and trust have been established, defensiveness is put aside and persons in dialogue can deal with most any issue, even difficult ones.

14. While theological differences exist, it is critical that we understand accurately what those differences are. Thus when we disagree, we disagree properly, over the correct issues.

15. One of the unanticipated blessings of interfaith dialogue is that one not only learns a great deal about the other person’s faith but in the process also learns a great deal about their own.

16. We must not become impatient or results driven as we engage in interfaith dialogue. It is God’s job to change a human heart, not ours.

17. Interfaith dialogue can be helped along by a good dose of curiosity; because we live in a world of immense diversity, we simply ought to be interested in what other people believe.

18. Each person should be prepared to provide, as the Apostle Peter taught, a reason for the hope within them. This is to be done, however, with gentleness and respect (see NIV, 1 Peter 3:15).

19. Being prideful or judgmental rob the participants of what they might otherwise experience.

20. A healthy friendship begins to broaden well beyond religious conversation and allows for outside interaction and even social enjoyment between the parties.

21. It is more natural to want to argue and debate than to make the effort to engage in thoughtful, polite, and meaningful conversation. Loving dialogue is much more difficult to achieve than debate and argument.

22. As trust, respect, and love for another human being grows through the process of dialogue, the participants begin to feel a sense of responsibility for each other. Because one would never want to be misrepresented, he or she does all in their power to ensure that the other party’s point of view is properly stated and represented.

23. As interfaith dialogues continue, a heightened sense of loyalty begins to develop, such that neither party would state privately anything that they would not make known publicly. There must be consistency and integrity between interpersonal and private expressions.

24. We need not fear healthy interreligious conversation because there is great richness in such a pursuit. The process proves to be both emotionally and spiritually rewarding, and one’s life experiences are enhanced because of it.

25. God’s ways are not our ways; we cannot always see what he is bringing to pass.

President Gordon B. Hinckley on Religious Outreach

I have been very much inspired and motivated by the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley concerning our collective responsibilities to reach out to people of other faiths. The following are excerpts given by President Hinckley.

“Let us be good citizens of the nations in which we live. Let us be good neighbors in our communities. Let us acknowledge the diversity of our society, recognizing the good in all people. We need not make any surrender of our theology. But we can set aside any element of suspicion, of provincialism, of parochialism” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, April 1997, 116.).

“We can respect other religions and must do so. We must recognize the great good they accomplish. We must teach our children to be tolerant and friendly toward those not of our faith. We can and do work with those of other religions in the defense of those values which have made our civilization great and our society distinctive” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, April 1998, 3.).

“Now, brethren and sisters, let us return to our homes with resolution in our hearts to do a little better than we have done in the past. We can all be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more thoughtful of one another. We can be a little more tolerant and friendly to those not of our faith, going out of our way to show our respect for them. We cannot afford to be arrogant or self-righteous. It is our obligation to reach out in helpfulness, not only to our own but to all others as well. Their interest in and respect for this Church will increase as we do so” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, April 1999, 116; see also April 2000, 110; April 2001, 4.).

“Our membership has grown. I believe it has grown in faithfulness. . . . Those who observe us say that we are moving into the mainstream of religion. We are not changing. The world’s perception of us is changing. We teach the same doctrine. We have the same organization. We labor to perform the same good works. But the old hatred is disappearing; the old persecution is dying. People are better informed. They are coming to realize what we stand for and what we do (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, October 2001, 3-4.).

“Do we really comprehend, do we understand the tremendous significance of that which we have? This is the summation of the generations of man, the concluding chapter in the entire panorama of the human experience. But this does not put us in a position of superiority. Rather, it should humble us. It places upon us an unforgiving responsibility to reach out with concern for all others in the Spirit of the Master, who taught, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matthew 19:19). We must cast out self-righteousness and rise above petty self-interest.

“We must do all that is required in moving forward the work of the Lord in building His kingdom in the earth. We can never compromise the doctrine which has come through revelation, but we can live and work with others, respecting their beliefs and admiring their virtues, joining hands in opposition to the sophistries, the quarrels, the hatred—those perils which have been with man from the beginning.

“Without surrendering any element of our doctrine, we can be neighborly, we can be helpful, we can be kind and generous.

“We of this generation are the end harvest of all that has gone before. It is not enough to simply be known as a member of this Church. A solemn obligation rests upon us. Let us face it and work at it.

“We must live as true followers of the Christ, with charity toward all, returning good for evil, teaching by example the ways of the Lord, and accomplishing the vast service He has outlined for us (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, April 2004, 85.).

“Now, what of the future? What of the years that lie ahead? It looks promising indeed. People are beginning to see us for what we are and for the values we espouse. The media generally treat us well. We enjoy a good reputation, for which we are grateful.

“If we will go forward, never losing sight of our goal, speaking ill of no one, living the great principles we know to be true, this cause will roll on in majesty and power to fill the earth. Doors now closed to the preaching of the gospel will be opened. The Almighty, if necessary, may have to shake the nations to humble them and cause them to listen to the servants of the living God. Whatever is needed will come to pass (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, October 1997, 92.).

Notes

[1] Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 178.