A “Kindler, Gentler Form of Christianity”… with Real Differences

In a conversation full of irenic Christians, no one has approached this project in better faith than our resident Latter-day Saint. Month in and month out, I’ve not only learned more from Robert Millet about Christian theology and practice, but what it means to live out the principles that undergird the “respectful conversation” project. I’m sure it helps that, unlike me, Millet has had years of experience doing this kind of hard work in real life.

For example, Rich Mouw’s short book inviting evangelicals into conversation with the Latter-day Saints (Talking with Mormons, to use the older term that I will occasionally repeat, hopefully not offensively) starts with Millet inviting him to take part in a 2004 “evening of friendship” at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. That event initiated Mouw’s participation in a decade-long project of “Mormons and evangelicals… going out of our way genuinely to listen carefully to each other, trying to get a clearer understanding of what the real differences are between us.” (Mouw also wrote the foreword to Millet’s book A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints.)

Now, Mouw also emphasized the importance of evangelicals learning when they and their LDS interlocutors are “not quite as far apart as we had imagined. As an evangelical, therefore, I highly value how Millet’s contribution to our year-long conversation helped me see the many ways in which the Mormon way of following Jesus is so similar to my own. Most any Pietist could hear herself described in Millet’s essay about “a praying people” (and a singing people!) who “seek to follow Jesus by serving and loving others as he did.” At the same time, our bent towards individualism can find correction in a tradition that insists that “Christianity is fully lived out only in community,” through a church that “is given to assist and empower us toward that spiritual maturity that is the perfection of which the scriptures speak.” And would that each branch of this conversation join Millet’s in helping to meet the clearly “great need for a kinder, gentler form of Christianity, the kind that Jesus Christ displayed so beautifully”!

That’s all uplifting. But strangely, and to my real surprise, I felt myself a bit disappointed that so much of Millet’s essay sounded so familiar.

Earlier in his book, Mouw reflected on how LDS appreciation for Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, and the Apostle Paul is, nonetheless, “mixed in with many things that I find worrisome. And I thank God for that.” I don’t know that I’d always use the word “worrisome” to describe the distinctive beliefs and practices of Mormonism; indeed, in reading the work of LDS scholars like Matthew Bowman (plus that of my friend John Turner, a rare evangelical historian of the Latter-day Saints who wrote an entire book about The Mormon Jesus), I’ve been struck by the Saints’ commitment to developing a theology of the body, a branch of Christian belief that often seems to be neglected or distorted by other followers of a Lord who is both human and divine. But precisely because I share Mouw’s desire for “our Mormon friends to help us better understand their answers,” I wish Millet had done more this month to help us understand the “real differences… between us.”

I particularly wish for that as a Pietist. Because I’ve made so much of my own tradition’s emphasis on the Bible, not just as an object of devotional study but “an altar where we meet the living God,” I’d love to understand better how Latter-day Saints distinctively “search the scriptures daily.” Does it make any difference, for example, if one’s canon includes texts beyond the Old and New Testaments? And if there are “teachings… received from prophets of God” who lived in the 19th or 20th centuries — or live in the 21st, how does one’s searching in scripture relate to a belief in continuing revelation?

Moreover, I could use the practice in listening attentively and speaking truthfully to a fellow follower of Jesus with whom I know I have significant theological differences. Precisely because I so highly value Pietism’s commitment to Christian unity, its aversion to heresy-hunting, and its relative decentering of doctrine in favor of emphasis on “lived faith,” I know that I am tempted to elide important differences. And to do that is to avoid the hardest aspect of the hard work of respectful conversation.