By Bridget Jack Jeffries
I got my start in Mormon-Evangelical online dialogue posting on a now-defunct LDS-themed discussion board populated by a healthy mix of critics and apologists. This took place in the fall of 1998, when I was 16 years old. The experience of interfaith dialogue and debate was an entirely new one to me and I found it exhilarating; I often charged boldly (and perhaps unwisely) into arguments with people who were decades older than me and much more knowledgeable in Mormon studies than I was. I certainly made some foolish, naïve arguments and had my proverbial hat handed to me repeatedly, but I always came back for more. I had found something I loved, that I was passionate about, and failure was never enough to make me give up on it.
I've changed a lot in twelve years, and so has the face of Mormon-Evangelical dialogue, both in its mechanics and its flavors. Discussion forums are still around and continue to be a popular medium for online interactions, but they now receive strong competition from blogs, where people can often comment directly on religious articles without any registration process. Blogs and Wikis, with their community discussion mechanics, have replaced ordinary web sites as the most popular methods of disseminating articles and information. We can safely expect blogs to expand on their dominance as the most fruitful channel for online interfaith discussion.
In my view, the biggest change to content on the Evangelical end has been the emergence of groups and individuals committed to the promotion of respectful, mutual dialogue and/or debate with Latter-day Saints: Standing Together Ministries, Rock Canyon Church in Provo, the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, Craig Blomberg, Paul Owen, Carl Mosser, Richard Mouw, and Gerald McDermott, among others. I predict that the number of individuals who take these approaches and participate in such groups is only going to increase.
What about the counter-cult ministries, a group whose actions have often colored LDS perceptions of evangelical Christianity? Is their approach changing, and are they here to stay? The first question is muddied and difficult to answer, especially when one considers that counter-cult ministries are hardly a monolithic entity and some have always been more careful and kinder in their approach to Mormonism than others. While those of us who favor a gentler approach to Mormonism would like to think we're rubbing off on them, I think at least some of my friends in the counter-cult ministry would deny it. In any case, like it or not, the counter-cult ministries are quite satisfied that their approach does yield results and will continue to utilize their methods for that reason. I think there's room for evangelicals who disagree on this to critique one another, and I think there's room for a diversity of approaches among evangelicals, but I don't think there's room for one of us to demand that the other group disappear altogether. If our LDS friends expect counter-cult ministries to dry up and die out in the near future, they're setting themselves up for disappointment.
On the Latter-day Saint side, Stephen Robinson was famously influential in getting the interfaith dialogue ball rolling, but it's been Robert Millet who has kept it on the move. Numerous LDS scholars have participated in Standing Together's National Student Dialogue Conferences in the past decade, and the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy was recently started with a well-developed Mormon chapter. However, I have noticed that when it comes to Mormon-Evangelical interfaith dialogue on the internet, there seem to be far more evangelical bloggers specifically reaching out to Mormons than there are Mormon bloggers specifically reaching out to evangelicals. Certainly the evangelical bloggers get a healthy number of Mormon commentators when they post their material, but I observe less initiative on the part of Latter-day Saints when it comes to Mormon-Evangelical dialogue.
I believe that the trends I have witnessed in Mormon-Evangelical dialogue in the past twelve years have largely been positive ones. I'm not certain where we will be in another twelve years, other than feeling pretty confident that mutual dialogue trends are bound to continue. However, here are three things I would like to see:
1) The grace to critique one another's mutually exclusive truth claims free from the stigma of attack/victim accusations. For example, Mormons believe in a Great Apostasy while evangelicals believe Christ's Church has always been on the earth. In defending their own truth claims, Latter-day Saints are naturally going to criticize the idea that Christ's Church has always been present, while evangelicals are going to criticize the idea that there was a complete and total apostasy. For one group to play the victim card and stigmatize the other as attackers for challenging such beliefs is a sure way to preclude genuine, mutual interfaith dialogue. We cannot make the forfeit of distinctive religious beliefs a prerequisite to respectful, genuine dialogue, as such a dialogue could never be "genuine."