Last week I had the privilege of attending the 2010 inaugural conference sponsored by the Mormon Chapter of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy titled "Mormon Engagement with the World Religions: Perspectives and Possibilities with the Abrahamic Traditions." The event was held June 11-12 on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, an appropriate place for a conference on interreligious dialogue in that this location is the most religiously diverse area of the world as documented by Diana Eck of Harvard University in her Pluralism Project research.
When I first received the invitation to attend in May I was unsure if I would be able to participate. The recession has impacted my non-profit organization to the extent that no travel funds are available this year. If I was going to attend something dramatic would have to happen, and fairly quickly from the time of the invitation to the time of the event. After making my invitation known a few people came forward to assist. One colleague provided the airfare, and two individuals affiliated with the event donated my hotel room. My heartfelt thanks goes to these individuals who made my attendance and participation possible.
To provide context for the conference some background information is needed related to the founding organization, and the chapter that sponsored the conference. The Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy (FID) was founded by Charles Randall Paul. The organization's website describes it as follows:
The Foundation is organized to promote and facilitate communication between people experiencing conflicts inspired by religious differences. It seeks to enroll and train religiously bi-lingual “interreligious diplomats” who can engage in deep dialogue encounters to decrease ill will and build trust even while in the midst of difficult conflicts.
Foundation membership affiliation is open to all persons who are willing to engage in respectful interreligious diplomatic exchanges and receive training from the Foundation. Members of the same religious or ideological persuasion are encouraged to inquire about forming chapters of the Foundation, guided by FID principles and methods but directed by local members working to achieve their goals for interreligious communication.
The Mormon Chapter was one of the first to be formed by FID, brought together under the leadership of Brian Birch who teaches at Utah Valley University. This inaugural conference by the Mormon Chapter was, as the conference invitation stated, "designed to explore various perspectives and methods for thinking about Latter-day Saints among the great traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It's aim will be to connect theology with practice in allowing space for Mormons to think more carefully about the activity of interreligious exchange and the possibility of mutual transformation."
The conference involved eight sessions over the course of two days. On Friday this included "The Latter-day Saint Approach to Interreligious Relations" with a presentation by Elder Bruce D. Porter of the First Quorum of the Seventy, "Latter-day Saints and Interreligious Engagement," a session on "Judaism," and concluding the day's events with "The Grand Fundamental Principle: The Theological Question of Religious Diversity." Saturday's presentations included "The Mormon Voice in a Pluralistic Society," "Catholic and Orthodox Christianity," "Protestant Christianity," and a session on "Islam." Each session involved a panel of presenters including representatives of the religious tradition under consideration, and LDS respondents. Each presenter spoke for twenty minutes, and ten minutes were provided for audience questions and answers with the panel.
Given that I am part of the Protestant Christianity tradition I was most interested in this panel where my colleague and WIIS affiliated scholar Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary was speaking. David McAllister-Wilson of Wesley Theological Seminary was another representative of this tradition, with Deidre Green from Claremont Graduate University and J. Spencer Fluhman of Brigham Young University responding. Unfortunately, the previous session went long and pushed the lunch hour back, and when this was coupled with my departure flight time I was unable to hear much of this session beyond a few minutes of Fluhman's opening remarks. Since the event's proceedings were videotaped I look forward to them being made available in the near future on the FID Mormon Chapter's website.
As to my thoughts on the conference, I believe that interreligious dialogue is an important task for representatives of all religious traditions to be able to engage in faithfully in regards to their own traditions, and effectively in terms of appropriate means of communication. In my view FID sets forth the right approach which they describe as respectful contestation. This approach avoids the two problematic extremes of liberalism and some forms of ecumenism on the one hand that dismiss the importance of truth claims (person over truth), and the other extreme of disrespectful forms of proclamation and dialogue (truth over person).
A few observations:
I was surprised and pleased to learn of Latter-day Saint efforts and successes in developing relationships and dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions that have been going on for several years. The work with Judaism and Roman Catholicism were especially interesting.
Elder Porter made a few statements that struck me as curious. At one point in the question and answer period he stated that dialogue and proselytizing were two different hats that were worn at different times. This can surely be the case, but not necessarily so, as the position of FID makes clear. Elder Porter also spoke of a uniformity of beliefs among LDS, and while the LDS Church has done a good job at providing teachings to be used throughout the Church with the aim toward this uniformity, what little scientific research I have come across in this area indicates some level of diversity, which is to be expected in a diverse population, even if there is an official and popular "center of gravity" for beliefs.At several points during the conference I felt like a fly on the wall, and an uncomfortable one at that, as I watched and listened to another religious tradition wrestle with issues both intra- and inter- in regards to other religions. I found it refreshing that a group of Latter-day Saints was active in moving beyond its own religious community to understand and relate in the public square. Such interests compliment a faith very much interested in the process of proselytization.
If I were to offer a critique of the conference, I would like to have seen fewer people on the panel, and/or less time given to presentations so as to allow greater time with panel participants interacting with each other and the audience. In addition, I would like to have seen some incorporation of "practical" and grassroots examples of dialogue that moves beyond the institutional and academic levels to our neighborhoods.
One of the benefits of attending a conference like this is not only the event itself, but the ability to meet people, network, and develop relationships. As one example, Terry Muck and I were able to spend some time together, and we will be working with an initial group of charter members to form the Evangelical Chapter of FID. This chapter will put together an inaugural conference in the near future, and will work to equip Evangelicals to become effective participants in respectful contestation, and in the training of bi-lingual diplomats fluent in multiple religions who can engage in interreligious dialogue.
In a separate but related item, the Spring 2010 issue of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue is available for download. This issue focuses on theologies of religions, and it features an article on the subject by Matti Kärkkäinen of Fuller Theological Seminary with a number of respondents including myself in a piece simply titled "Supplemental Reflections." Readers may enjoy this discussion of a timely theological and cultural issue as it relates to interreligious dialogue.