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Following 'Da Rules

27 March 2015

Too often when people get into a religious discussion, initial pleasantries quickly give way to disagreement, and pretty soon, both parties are involved in a sort of theological cage match. Due to the noticeably wide gap between LDS beliefs and those of post-New Testament Christianity, this turns out to be especially true when we Mormons talk about our faith. Often within minutes or even seconds of the start of a religious discussion, we are assaulted with "anti" material. The priesthood ban, polygamy, "factoids" about Joseph Smith, and an innumerable pile of other tired catch-phrases all get trotted and put on parade. 

So how should we respond?

Option 1 (bad) - Meet them head-on

We can (politely) defend our faith, counter the attacks, and show them that, we are "not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ" (Rom 1:16). After all, we have answers and explanations for their material-- why not correct false doctrines and set the record straight?

That's a lesson that every missionary learns (hopefully) early on-- don't bash. I used to think it was because my mission president was afraid we would get really involved and lose our testimony, but after a few times getting in such arguments, I realized that wasn't the reason.

You stand at the door, respectfully answering and countering accusation after accusation, attack after attack. At the end of the day, no one gets baptized, and no one invites you back. When the next set of missionaries shows up at the door two months after you've left, the same verses and quotes from the Journal of Discourses get tossed into the fray all over again.

So, in the end, what have you accomplished? Maybe the other guy did finally run out of things to throw at you. Maybe he was really surprised because you had an answer for everything he could come up with. Maybe you could even go so far as to say you won the debate. Maybe. 

But what really happened is that you've satisfied your pride fulfilling the negative stereotypes that make people not want to answer the door. And it probably came at the expense of the Spirit's companionship and an hour of the Lord's time.

Option 2 (good) - "Get you out"

I've learned that 99% of the time, it is a waste of time to talk to people who come into the discussion with fists raised. Our message can only be received and understood if the recipient is ready and willing to learn, so if someone just wants to bash, there's nothing you can do to help him. No matter how intelligent or well-intended your answers, you just cannot convince a hardened heart.

So, maybe we should just walk away. Go find someone who is prepared. Go find something more effective to do, like playing basketball or break-dancing.

True, walking away probably isn't going to change their hearts. True, they will be gloating over their supposed victory when you withdraw. And true, it will take a while to find the Christlike love to pray for them charitably, when you really just want to shake them by their shirt collar and shout "Don't you get it?!" But that pride is one of the costs of discipleship.

Option 3 (best) - Set the terms

Getting out definitely beats bashing. But it also creates the wrong impression. We are not afraid of answering the tough questions. Many members have spent a lot more time considering, studying, and reflecting on historical and doctrinal concerns than even the most fluent anti-Mormons out there, and we can respectfully talk about what they've heard. Here's where my favorite policy comes in.

During my mission, we often shared a fantastic video called Between Heaven and Earth (For anyone not familiar with the video, it's a great documentary about Temples and a look into the whats and whys of Temple service in our faith). Featured in that video is the late Krister Stendahl (pictured at the top)-- a Swedish theologian, professor of Harvard Divinity School, and Bishop of Stockholm.

In that video, he proposes the following three rules for interfaith dis
cussion (quoting from the video below):
  1. To understand another religion, ask the adherents of that religion-- not its critics
    If you're going to ask the question 'What do others believe in their various faiths?', ask them-- not their critics, not their enemies because what one religious tradition says about another is usually a breach against the commandment 'Thou shalt not bear false witness.'"
  2. Compare best for best and worst for worstIf you're going to compare, don't compare your bests with their worsts, but compare bests with bests. Most people think of their own tradition as it is at its best, and they use caricatures of the others"
  3. Leave room for 'holy envy'
    Let me give you an example of my holy envy for the Latter-day Saints. We Lutherans, when we lose our loved ones, we have funerals, we have cemeteries, but that ends our concern with those who have gone before, but the Latter-day Saints care about their forebears to the point that they want to bring the blessings of Christ's atonement to them, so they build temples, and according to Paul's instruction in 1 Corinthians, they perform baptisms for the dead. I have holy envy for that."
When I have been in discussions where these principles were followed, the Spirit has been there on both sides. We were learning, discussing, and seeing the issues clearly-- without the lenses of prejudice or superiority. It is a humbling and beautiful experience. I get to share the principles of the Gospel that I hold most dear, and learn about the good things in others' faiths, too.

Next time someone wants to talk about the Church, try explaining that you follow the three rules of interfaith discussion. Establish that you will not attack anyone's faith, and that you expect to not be attacked in turn. If the Spirit starts to leave because the the rules are not being followed, the discussion is over.

Everyone wins. Thanks, Bishop Stendahl.

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