Interfaith Relations

Interview with Robert Millet

Interview by Stanley J. Thayne

Robert L. Millet ( is Abraham O. Smoot University Professor and a professor of ancient scripture at BYU.

Stanley J. Thayne( is a master’s student of history at BYU.

Thayne: What in your personal life and background has led to your interest in interfaith relations, and why do you feel that interfaith relations are important?

Millet: My mother was raised a Methodist, and my father was raised a Latter-day Saint, both from Louisiana. My cousins were either Baptist or Pentecostal. There were very few Latter-day Saints where I went to school. During a three-year period we lived in a community that was about 95 percent Roman Catholic. So I was definitely in the minority. As an undergraduate student at Louisiana State University I had many long conversations on religion. All of that contributed to a fascination, an interest, and, maybe more than that—a desire—to communicate with people of other faiths. For that reason, I can relate to those who live on the Wasatch Front and are not of our faith. People don’t have to persecute you for you to feel excluded. You just feel excluded because there are so few of “you” and so many of “them.” I think my background has definitely contributed to my interest in interfaith work.

I’m engaged in interfaith work now because I think it’s an important part of the larger kingdom-building process, even beyond The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are so many issues that we now face in our world and that we will face in the future on which many of us of varying faiths agree. But too often we are hesitant to work together because of doctrinal differences. So we need to cultivate the ability to sit down and talk about doctrine—not just about social issues, but to talk about the doctrine—to talk about what makes you believe in this and what makes me believe in that. It would be a tragedy for us to allow theological differences to keep us from laboring together on matters of such importance. To some extent we’re working together already. We could just do it much more.

Thayne: When you refer to people of other faiths, are you mainly thinking of Christian faiths?

Millet: I think it’s critical that we dialogue with people of non-Christian faiths as well. Latter-day Saints, it seems, have always had a fascination with Judaism, which is good, but I think we also need to have more people interacting with Islam. Professor Roger Keller has done a great deal of interaction with persons of Eastern religions.

Thayne: Did graduate school promote your interest in interfaith dialogue?

Millet: It did. When I started at Florida State, there were about eight or nine of us beginning our doctoral studies at the same time, and our beliefs were across the spectrum. We had a Roman Catholic, three or four Southern Baptists, a Nazarene, a secular Jew, and a Latter-day Saint. And they were fascinated with Mormonism. There were a number of things that happened during those five years that, as I look back on it, were—as my Evangelical friends would say—“God things.” We would say they were inspired occurrences that God orchestrated, causing me to realize the Lord’s hand was in this. Something important was happening. For example, I went early to class one day so I could get some reading in and a group of young people from the seminar came in. One of them said, “We came to study a little bit too, but, Bob, let me ask you something. We’ve been talking about Mormonism. Would you take a minute to draw on the board what you people believe about God’s plan?” That’s like a huge softball being served up to a batter, and I had enough of those occasions and interaction with people of all sorts that I think it prepped me when the time was right to want to be engaged in interfaith relations.

Thayne: You mentioned “God things.” I’m not familiar with that term. Does engaging in interfaith dialogue require learning, in a sense, a new language?

Millet: No question. For graduate school, I had to learn an entirely new vocabulary for the academic study of religion. Now, in my interaction with Evangelicals, I’ve had to learn a new vocabulary to know where they’re coming from, so that if they should ask me, “Are you a saved Christian?” I know what they’re asking. They’re asking, “Have you received Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” My answer to that is yes. Or if they want to know if I’ve been born again, I know what they’re asking. So yes, I’ve done a great deal of reading and had hundreds of hours of conversation to gain that sort of clarity.

Thayne: Would you say that communication barriers can sometime present opportunities to actually get closer to someone than you otherwise could, by overcoming such boundaries?

Millet: Yes, let me give you an illustration. There is a word we use almost every day in our faith that is a bit off-putting for many other Christians. It’s the word worthy. They think by the word worthy that we mean I have made myself worthy and Christ didn’t have a thing to do with it. I’ve tried to explain that our equivalent to being worthy is their equivalent to being saved. In other words, if I’m worthy, I’m on a course for salvation.

Thayne: It seems like this form of communication requires a form of charity.

Millet: I like the way that one writer put it. He said, “You cannot understand another person’s point of view”—and this is threatening to some—“You cannot understand another person’s point of view unless you are willing to reach the point where you can ask, ‘Is it conceivable that what this person is believing and teaching could be true?’” When you can reach that point, then you can seriously understand where they’re coming from. Many people are not willing to go that far.

Thayne: Who are some of your colleagues that are involved in this dialogue?

Millet: This takes two forms. There is a dialogue that Pastor Gregory Johnson and I participate in quite often, entitled “A mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation.” Then there is the larger dialogue that takes place between a group of Latter-day Saint thinkers and a group of Evangelicals. Professor Camille Fronk Olson and myself in Ancient Scripture, David Paulsen from Philosophy, Grant Underwood from History, and Richard Bennett, Spencer Fluhman, and Reid Neilson from Church History and Doctrine. Roger Keller and Stephen Robinson were also involved with us in the past. So there are usually about seven or eight of us on each side in our Evangelical-LDS dialogue team, as we call it we meet together a couple of times a year to consider a different matter of doctrine. We will read in advance an Evangelical document on the topic, whether it’s a book or articles, and we’ll read some Latter-day Saint material on it. And then we’ll have an exchange back and forth on ideas, asking, “What do you see in this?” Not too long ago, for example, we studied the doctrine of human deification or theosis. It was deeply rewarding because we read not only Latter-day Saint material, but also Eastern Orthodox material, and we had one of the leading authorities on the Lutheran faith, a Finnish Lutheran, come and talk about his beliefs concerning deification. We all read his book before we came, so we had a very productive two days. I think that several of the Evangelical Christians went away saying, “This is something we need to spend a little more time with.”

Thayne: Have you seen any positive results you’ve seen from this dialogue?

Millet: We have. I’ll give you an example. I received a long-distance phone call not long ago from a student. She said: “I’m a doctoral student at Columbia University, and my dissertation topic is such-and-such in American religious history. I also deal with some LDS beliefs. My adviser is Professor Randall Ballmer, and he said he could help with me this, but he really thinks I should work closely with you on the topic.” Well, it’s a new day. Because I have a good relationship with Randy Ballmer at Columbia, the first thing he thought of was, “Well, you need to call Bob.” You know, I would hope I would do the same if somebody were doing a serious dissertation on an Evangelical topic that was a little “above my pay grade.” “You know who you need to call? You need to call Richard Mouw at Fuller Theological Seminary or Craig Blomberg at Denver Seminary.” That’s the way it ought to be. And so I think there’s been enough water under the bridge now as far as clearing the passageway. I anticipate additional publications will come of that. People are thinking about our beliefs. As a very current illustration, in the newest edition of Christianity Today there is an article entitled “Keeping the End in View,” and the subtitle is “How the Strange yet Familiar Doctrine of Theosis Can Invigorate the Christian Life.” Now, I don’t think that came out of nowhere. Why? Because the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today is David Nith, one of our dialogue partners and a very dear friend.

So in the long run what I mean is this: it’s a kingdom project. I remember explaining this to a member of the Twelve some years ago when he said, “Tell me about what you’re doing.” After I explained it to him, he sat back and he became very sober and said, “Whew, this is big.” And I said, “Well, it is.” He says, “No, I mean kingdom big.” And I knew he meant larger than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I believe that. I think God has his hand in it. It hasn’t come without some criticism and it hasn’t come without some difficulties—you always expect that. It hasn’t come without risk, but frankly, no progress is made if you don’t risk something. I would have to say that of my twenty-five years at BYU, the last twelve have been the most personally and professionally rewarding work I’ve ever done.

Thayne: What are some challenges you have faced in your interfaith dialogue?

Millet: We’ve had to specify very carefully that what we are doing is not purely ecumenical. When people think of ecumenical things, they get very nervous because they think of swapping doctrines. You get rid of the Trinity, and I’ll get rid of baptism for the dead. That is not at all what any of us want. They don’t want that, and we don’t want that. It’s deeper understanding. It’s greater clarity. It’s greater appreciation. It’s friendship. it’s colleagues in the battle against ethical relativism.

Thayne: I want to shift gears and talk about some of your other projects. What other projects are you working on?

Millet: Oddly enough, I’m currently doing a good bit of reading on atheism. Not to become one, of course, but I am concerned with how our people are responding to atheism. There is currently an upsurge in interest in the new atheism, as it’s called, and they’re proselyting!

Thayne: So you’re reading Christopher Hitchens?

Millet: Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris. And I’ve read about ten or twelve responses to atheism. It’s a project I started on my own. Then, out of the blue, I discovered a group of faculty members in other colleges who were doing the same. We are planning a major conference on the subject.

Thayne: So do you find this kind of serendipity occurring frequently?

Millet: Yes, I do. It’s surprising how often that happens. I find my mind going in a certain direction, and all of a sudden someone asks if I’d be willing to do something on that topic. I’ll respond, “I’ve just been thinking a lot about that” or “I just finished that—interesting you should ask.”

Thayne: Where do you come up with your book ideas?

Millet: Often it is in bookstores. As I walk through a bookstore, I ask myself, “What’s missing? What’s a topic that no one seems to be addressing? What is a problem area that no one is talking about?” For example, I’ve noticed that a number of books published in the last several years have been written to the women of the Church—women writing to women. I didn’t see too many men writing to men. I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t anybody write to me?” I knew the prophets did, and I knew they spoke to me, but I thought it would be worthwhile to write something to those who hold the priesthood. And so I was thumbing through the hymnbook one day and came across the hymn, “Rise Up, O Men of God.” As I read it through I thought, “This is a potent hymn.” So I used many of the elements of that hymn for different chapters in my recent book Men of Valor. I’ve been asked to do a sequel called Men of Influence. I then went back to the hymnbook again to find another hymn, “Ye Who Are Called to Labor.” It addresses several questions for the men of the Church: What is our shared responsibility as elders of the priesthood, and what does it mean to really have power in the priesthood? What’s the difference between having the authority of the priesthood and the power of the priesthood?

Thayne: So in addition to your writings on interfaith dialogue, you are still doing in-house writing?

Millet: I am. I always want to try to communicate with the members of the Church. I want to be speaking to people outside the faith, but I always feel like my primary responsibility is to teach and testify to Latter-day Saints.