May 23, 2009

2009 SMPT Conference: Upon All Nations – Religious Pluralism

21-23 May 2009

Location: Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California

Presented by the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology in cooperation with the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association(SMPT)

Here are the presenters and their topics (click on their names to go directly to the abstract of their presentations which are also found below):

Abstracts of presentations

Sharon Adams – Looking at Mormonism and Shambhala Buddhism Through the Lens of Religious Pluralism

One way to approach the topic of religious pluralism from an LDS perspective is to focus on a comparative study between Mormonism and the teachings, sacred histories/texts and means of divine revelation from a different religious tradition. In this paper I will demonstrate how Shambhala Buddhism may offer, not only in its developmental historical trajectory but also in its core teachings, a clarifying and in some ways complementary reflection of certain aspects of Mormonism. In providing a comparison of how Mormonism and Shambhala Buddhism fits within their respective “western” and “eastern” traditions, I will focus on how each provides a type of “restoration” of Christ’s and the Buddha’s original and most sacred teachings. Implicit in this comparison is the role that Joseph Smith and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche played as prophet, seer, revelator, and tertön (treasure discoverer) in restoring the authoritative power and teachings in their respective traditions. Through my comparative analysis I attempt to bring forward aspects of both lineages that emphasize the need to move toward a more inclusive and ecumenical approach to the study of religion. I argue that efforts in exploring religious pluralism in such a manner will lead not only to greater understanding from the standpoint of each tradition, but it may also encourage greater opportunities for inter-religious dialogue.

Jacob Baker – “God With Us”: Panentheism, Pansyntheism, and the Mormon Concept of God

“Though originally developed over two centuries ago in Western thought, the concept of panentheism has become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional theism and pantheism. It seeks to avoid both isolating God from the world (the absolute transcendence of traditional theism) and identifying God with the world (the absolute immanence of pantheism), by seeking a middle position that asserts that the Being of God penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in him, but that His Being is yet more than the universe. Proponents of a panentheistic view of God argue that panentheism fulfills theology’s central task of articulating the appropriate harmony between immanence and transcendence, as well as a satisfactory reconciliation with contemporary science. To date there has been no extended treatment of a comparison between the Mormon concept of God and panentheism. Such an exercise in comparative religion would serve to help insert the Mormon concept of God into contemporary scholarly discourse. This paper seeks to lay a groundwork for such a comparison. There are interesting parallels and dissimilarities between the two concepts, but I will ultimately argue that the Mormon concept of God does not fit comfortably into theistic, pantheistic, or even panentheistic categories. Instead, the Mormon concept of God might more accurately be described as “pansyntheistic,” a term coined by theologian Ruth Page and closely related to panentheism.”

Brian Birch – “Treasure them Up”: Providence, Pluralism, and the Plan of Salvation

As the LDS Church moves into a more inclusive phase of its development, questions of religious diversity will become increasingly relevant. A well-known maxim among Latter-day Saints is Joseph Smith’s declaration that “we should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.'” One important means of gathering and treasuring these principles is the effort to make theological sense of them. Questions thus emerge: What are possible candidates for these “principles”? Can Mormons declare as true a Hindu, Muslim, or Catholic principle? How tradition-specific can religious concepts be in order for it to possess this kind of truth-value? What concept of truth is required for this kind of inclusivism? This paper will explore these questions and examine some theological implications of a Mormon theology of religions.

Richard Bushman – On Being Ill at Ease in the World

Mormonism, like every other American cultural system, is nestled in the midst of the great cultural systems dominating our time: science, democracy, and capitalism. With none of these is it perfectly at ease. Despite the efforts of individual Mormons to demonstrate compatibility with each one of these systems, Mormonism chides and chafes each one of them. Efforts to achieve perfect harmony not only lead to the idolatries of our era, they dilute Mormonism. Implicit in our belief is a potent critique of culture which it would be a mistake to dissipate in our eagerness to fit in. Our task is to make the most of the creative tensions with the ambient culture and to enjoy being ill at ease.

James Faulconer – The Secular and the Sacred

Secularity is a necessary condition of contemporary democracy. One need know little history to know the horrors that a nonsecular government can wreak. Nevertheless, we are short-changed if secularism is not augmented by “prophets” in a broad sense, by the ethical intuitions of thosethrough whom at least the sacred and perhaps also the holy are revealed. Secularism seems to have no need of prophets. It cannot understand them because they stand outside the horizon of its possibilities. Yet it is precisely that position outside that makes the prophets valuable to secular society. Being outside, the prophets can bring the sacred into secularism, raising the question of justice and giving secularity a ground from which to make just decisions.

Alonzo Gaskill – Mormonism, Hagiography, and the Virgin Mary: A Look at the Role of Patron Saints in LDS Belief and Practice

Throughout the church’s history, Latter-day Saint leaders have occasionally publically expressed their discomfort with the place of patron saints in Roman Catholic worship and practice. It seems fair to say that such criticisms are, more often than not, the result of misunderstandings as to what the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church is on saints, their role and powers. This paper will seek to do two things: (1) establish what the official position of the Catholic church is on patron saints, and (2) show that Mormonism has their own patron saints that function in ways very similar to Catholic saints.

Deidre Green – Mormonism, Gender, and Sin-Talk

Mormonism relies on a rigid and essentialist bifurcation of gender to support its patriarchal structure and doctrine of theosis. This essentialism is particularly relevant with regard to sin-talk. Latter-day Saints often hear that because women are innately less prone to sin, they are in less need of priesthood responsibility than men and better suited to the nurture and moral upbringing of children. Such sin-talk reinforces harmful gender essentialism. This essentialism leads to patronizing discourse about the moral superiority of women, which is only ostensibly positive since it bears important implications for what it means to be a female self. For example, in LDS soteriology women cannot be “sons of perdition,” which means that men are capable of a degree of damnation that women are not. Such beliefs do not elevate women, but rather reflect essential gender differences in knowledge and agency. Ultimately, gendered sin-talk renders women less than agents and less than persons. As Stephen Ray argues in his book, Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility, essentialist discourses about sin lends itself to creating a hierarchy of sin, which works to focus attention on personal purity and piety rather than on issues of social justice.

Farooq Hassan – Pluralistic practices in the life of prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

The concept of pluralism and its dimensions promoted in Islam has been attested to by comments from the international community in various publications and fora. Islam is being labeled as the “enemy of the civilization,” but the fact is that pluralism was a reality that Islam addressed at its very beginning 1400 years ago. Islam approves of tolerance among individuals, groups, states and family members. The teaching of the Quran and the transparent life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) prove the pluralistic approach and utmost tolerance in Islam at all levels in life with all human beings. Muhammad (PBUH) preached and practiced tolerance and acceptance towards non-Muslims in every walk of life. Islam can be properly understood by nonMuslims if projected theoretically as well as practically in the right spirit by Muslims in general and scholars in particular. Muslims and people of all other religions face common challenges and dilemmas which have to be understood. All of us have to share the planet Earth; no matter what religion we belong to. So why should we not do it gracefully—in the true, pluralistic way?

Blair Hodges – C. S. Lewis, Latter-day Saints, and the “Virtuous Unbeliever”

“You ask me my religious views,” an 18-year old C.S. Lewis responded to lifelong friend Arthur Greeves. “I believe in no religion. . . Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it.” Almost fifteen years later he confessed to Arthur, “How deep I am just now beginning to see: for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity.” Since the 1950s various Latter-day Saints have shown particular interest in Lewis’s religious and fictional works. This paper will make use of Lewis’s recently published collected letters to argue that Lewis’s transition from atheism to Christianity led him to view conversion in general as a process of “coming home” to God by retaining good and rejecting evil. For Lewis and Latter-day Saints alike, various beliefs can be seen as stepping stones or signposts pointing to higher truths on the road home. Part of Lewis’s wide appeal results from an ecumenical view of other religions that is similar to (though looser than) that of Latter-day Saints. Lewis sought for ways to hope for those not converted to Christianity during mortality—those whom he referred to as “virtuous unbelievers.” Because Lewis never came close to joining the LDS Church, he raises interesting questions on the eternal status of non-LDS inspired voices; to Latter-day Saints, Lewis is the virtuous unbeliever. Often quoted by LDS General Authorities, teachers and authors, Lewis is representative of God”s inspiration which Latter-day Saints believe can (and does) exist apart from official LDS channels.

Jennifer Lane – I Am among You As One that Serveth

The status of women in LDS doctrine and practice is currently vigorously debated. This paper briefly highlights points of doctrinal distinctiveness in relation to traditional Christianity, but argues that to emphasize these doctrines above the life and imitation of Christ is a profound misunderstanding of Church doctrine and the message of Christianity. Efforts to emphasize the divine identity and role of women are important, but must also be seen in light the radical demands of the imitation of Christ and the model of servanthood that he offers. This discipleship of service is, however, a path that each must freely embrace.

Richard Livingston – The Paradox & Possibility of LDS Theological Discourse

Without a doubt one of the most fascinating, peculiar, and even ironic aspects of Latter-day Saint discourse is its extremely ambiguous relationship with theology. On the one hand, it has a rich and complex heritage of theological reflection. On the other, in recent decades there has been a rather influential impulse that has taken a decidedly negative stance toward any formal engagement with “God-talk,” rejecting the very possibility in an LDS context. In my brief presentation, I want (1) clarify the basic task of theology-i.e., elucidate what it means to do theology at all; (2) highlight what I take to be the most salient concerns held by those who argue against the value of and need for sustained theological exploration; (3) show why I think such aversions are largely misguided and mistaken-misguided because they are typically based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what theology has been and can be; and mistaken, because so many arguments against theology ultimately fall into a sort of pragmatic self-contradiction; and (4) suggest several methodological alternatives that I view as both appropriate and compelling within the parameters of LDS self-understandings-i.e., propose a few “live” options. In short, I intend to draw out the paradoxical polarities that characterize the contemporary landscape of Mormon discourse on the Divine, and argue in favor of not only the possibility and viability of LDS theology as such, but also the necessity and vitality of an engagement with and development of multiple LDS theo-logoi.

Jared Ludlow – Uniting All Peoples by the Gospel

As an apostle, David O. McKay undertook a world mission tour in 1921. One of his stops was Laie, Hawaii, where he “witnessed a most impressive and inspiring sight” as 127 children from many nationalities participated in a U.S. flag raising ceremony. When President McKay later recalled the flag raising ceremony of 1921, he referred to it as a “melting pot.” This paper explores McKay’s vision of bringing together diverse ethnicities and backgrounds—taught in American principles (and even language), but especially unified under the gospel of Jesus Christ—and compares it with the concept of the “melting pot” which originated in an early 1900s Broadway play. In this play, actors in various ethnic costumes descended into a “melting pot” and then reemerged from the other side dressed as “Americans.” Was this the international experience President McKay envisioned when using the term “melting pot”?

Paul Miller – Subjectivity and the Sovereignty of God: Engaging with Karl Barth on Revelation Theology

While a propositional model of revelation is vital in developing doctrine and legitimizing priesthood authority, my paper focuses on the comparable need for an experiential model that clarifies how ordinary people receive and interpret divine revelation. As a theological ethicist, I am interested in the role of prudential judgment in discerning God’s will for the present moment. In taking the reality of continuing revelation seriously, Latter-day Saints are well aware of the problems associated with spiritual discernment. Mormon leaders appeal to various principles to assist members in understanding the revelatory process, such as the claim that revelation applies to each person’s stewardship and that God honors human agency. My paper seeks to clarify and evaluate these criteria by exploring the revelation theology of Karl Barth. I highlight his warnings against anthropocentrism, his central concern with acknowledging the freedom and sovereignty of God, and his views on the role of inspiration in transmitting canonized doctrine to succeeding generations.

Jason Monson – Mormonism and the Religious Other

There are numerous reasons for Latter-day Saints to be interested in the ‘religious other’ and a variety of positions one can take in approaching them. These various positions are fully addressed in Schmidt-Leukel’s theological typology which considers all logical possibilities of theological approaches to other faith traditions within the categories of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. The diversity of views in Latter-day Saint scriptures, and particularly in the words of LDS Church leaders, allow them to be used to justify each of these theological positions by placing emphasis on particular passages at the expense of others. Although the inclusivist position appears to be the most common in LDS teachings and the most widely accepted, exclusivist notions are still evident and the possibility remains for a form of ‘Mormon Pluralism.’

Mark Olsen – On the Corruptibility of Matter: The Possibilities for a Material Version of an Immortal Soul

Jan Erik Jones argues that Mormon materialism, together with certain assumptions about the corruptibility of matter, require the belief that the functional elements (or Lockean “nodes”) of the soul are constantly transferred by God to other actual material constituents in the face of traumatic physical events. I argue in this paper that such a view of constant transfer of functional elements is not necessary, and that furthermore, it defies Mormon orthodoxy in insisting that matter is inherently corruptible. In the process of resolving, however, the problems raised by Jones’s argument, I propose a view of matter that allows that some middle sized objects may be affected by radically traumatic physical events without dissolution.

Randall Paul – Sociality: Pluralism in the Experience and Thought of Joseph Smith, Jr.

While Joseph Smith did not directly address the topic of religious pluralism in a systematic theory, he seemed to decry it in the First Vision but embrace it in Nauvoo when he made practical appeals for reciprocal religious acceptance. I will discuss how he negotiated this tension with his radical belief that the love of God could not be coerced and really be love—nor could God win a believing heart by any power other than persuasion. Religious freedom (which means religious pluralism) was a theological tenet of his religion based in the sociality of a God who desires loving unity and real difference. After detailing the theological structure of Mormon pluralism, the sociality of gods, I conclude by discussing how some of Joseph Smith’s statements pertaining to religious pluralism and conflict might be useful for advocates of any tradition.

Chris Smith – Sibling Rivalry: Mormonism and Pentecostals

Pentecostals and Mormons have more unfavorable views of each other than of other Christian groups. To a large degree, this animosity stems from their similarities rather than from their differences. The two groups sects share a common ancestry, similar maps of the universe, similar theologies and experiences, and similar missionary ambitions. Despite modest strides toward reconciliation in the United States, it is likely that mutual demonization will continue for the foreseeable future, especially as the two faiths compete for converts in the global south. Both groups must overcome significant theological and cultural obstacles to dialogue if they are to leave sibling rivalry behind in the spirit of Christian brotherhood.

Joseph Spencer – Omnipotent Weakness: Toward a Mormon Doctrine of God’s Omnipotence

John D. Caputo has, in The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, argued that the traditional distinction between God as ontologically existent and God as ontologically non-existent should be deconstructed, making way for a third possibility—one might worship God as ontologically deferred. In the end, however, such a move can be revealed to be an essential politicization of God: the ontologically deferred God is the evental God of politics. Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Marion provide a possible framework for making sense of what is ultimately at stake in Caputo’s politicization of God, opening the possibility of there being a fourth category for God’s essence. If orthodoxy regards God as ontologically strong (omnipotent), the critical tradition regards God as aesthetically weak (impotent), and the Derridean movement regards God as politically weak (potently impotent), Mormonism might be said to regard God as amorously weak, such that omnipotence is redefined as all-loving-ness. This, in the end, cannot be separated, however, from the Mormon idea that God is a gendered person.

Sheila Taylor – Doctrinal Development and Continuing Revelation

In the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman proposed a model of doctrinal development as a way of understanding revelation in the church. In this process of development, one does not add new truths to the deposit of revelation, but continues over time to unpack and better articulate the truths contained therein. This kind of approach can also be seen in the work of twentieth-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who distinguishes between original transcendental revelation and its categorical articulation. In this paper, I will look at these ideas in relation to the LDS notion of continuing revelation, and argue that the differences between contemporary LDS and Catholic approaches at least partially arise from different understandings of what revelation is. I will also consider the question of how much the models actually differ when it comes to practical application.

Roy Whitaker – Is the Mormon Church Still Racist?: Methodological Approaches to the Current Challenge of Blacks in Mormonism

Despite it having been thirty years since the Mormon Church rescinded the priesthood ban of members of African ancestry, the controversy still remains whether Mormonism is still racist. That is, just because a particular practice ended, it does not mean the ideology behind it has too. This paper explores methodological approaches to this 21st century challenge facing this new religious movement. To be sure, the historic debate on this problem is not monolithic, yet two recent voices push the debate forward: Eugene England and Dwight Hopkins in their essays in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies. This paper particularly highlights England’s approach to the problem of whether racism still exists in the Mormon Church today.

Miranda Wilcox – Teaching Religious Pluralism and Brigham Young University

As violence perpetuated in the name of religious ideology escalates around the world, experts of comparative religions advocate that one of the most crucial, though neglected, ethical responsibilities of a contemporary world citizen is to develop religious literacy, literacy that promotes respectful communication rather than confrontation among people of faith. These experts suggest that religious literacy ought to be a component of every college and university curriculum. Such a goal seems particularly feasible at institutions, such as Brigham Young University, where religious education is already a fundamental aspect of the curriculum. However, BYU’s comprehensive focus on the Mormon tradition discourages students from encountering and engaging with alternate religious perspectives and developing a deeper understanding of their own tradition by engaging dialectically with another. Students of Brigham Young University share the responsibility of being religiously literate in multiple traditions as ethical citizens, as charitable Christians, and as faithful Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, specific complications arise when considering the pedagogical implications and possibilities of teaching religious pluralism to a homogenous student body living in a homogenous environment. This paper will consider theological implications and practical solutions to these questions.