Before I sign off – or am run out of town – I might serve you well by offering a perspective on an extremely interesting conference held last weekend on the USC campus in LA. The conference was titled “Mormon Engagement with World Religions,” and was organized by Randall Paul, founder of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy, and by Brian Birch, head of the LDS chapter of same Foundation.
Randall’s vision of the inter-religious conversation is quite rich and distinctive. He is not interested in diluting or understating doctrines in order to commune lamely on some lowest common denominator of belief; rather, he believes we can get closer to the truth by being frank about our differences and talking together to figure out what they mean. I think he’s right, and this conference went some way toward proving such a proposition.
Let me first say that this was a terrific conference, with very interesting and substantial presentations from in 7 sessions over 2 days. Elder Bruce D. Porter gave a clear and bracing keynote address in which he first expounded the expansiveness of LDS thought, its openness to all sources of truth, and then made clear our commitment to the essentials of the Restoration. Finally, he emphasized the interest of LDS in making common cause with other believers against aggressive secular trends in our Western societies.
Panels followed that focused on general theological questions, on the current situation, and on LDS engagement with Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, respectively. Some of the excellent LDS presenters whose names will be familiar to many of you were Jim Faulconer, Dan Peterson, Richard Sherlock, Greg Smith, Bonner Ritchie, Phil Barlow.
I was on a panel on The Mormon Voice in a Pluralistic Society: The Challenges of Secularism and Religious Indifference. I won’t be able to do justice to the other participants’ remarks, but let me try to convey something of what went on. (It would be great if other panelists could jump in and join us here at T&S to correct/supplement this brief report.)
James Burklo, Associate Dean for Religious Life at USC and an ecumenical and (self-described) liberal Protestant minister. He spoke from a wealth of experience with college students, and made very concrete the proposition that the upcoming generation is “spiritual, not religious.” He seems to take this to be good news, of which I am frankly skeptical. One feature of his ministry he was proud to note was, to quote: “I help gays be who they really are…” that is, find some place within Christianity that will not constrain their sexuality.
Kristine Haglund, Editor of Dialogue and well known to most at this blog, I think, gave I think the best presentation, but also the hardest to summarize – very literary and nuanced. I want to read it. A central theme was that limitation of language, “the little narrow prison of imperfect language” (–J.Smith). She used the tabernacle as a metaphor for a space between the temple and the public space (poplars); there we should forthrightly declare our position on issues such as marriage, not on rational, public grounds but on theological grounds. (Again, please supplement and correct, Kristine.) Good stuff, and well said. It was unfair to be so much more poetic than the rest of us.
My old friend, BYU colleague (he holds – or sits in — a very distinguished chair at the law school), and ideological nemesis ? Fred Gedicks. Fred is skeptical of LDS engagement as LDS in the public square. We had to pay a price (under W. Woodruff) to move into the mainstream at the end of 100+ years ago, and it looks like we’ll have to do so again. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves regarding the influence we, a mere 2% of US population, can exercise over the direction of the country. We don’t have reliable allies. We’re “weird,” and we must come to terms with this fact. (Fred: please join in and fix what I’ve said of what you said.)
And then there was me. I, like Fred, accepted my duty of raining on any ecumenical parade that might be forming, but from a different vantage point on some religious and/or political spectrum. Yes, you guessed it, I was more “conservative” – it’s an inadequate, often reductive and dismissive term, but I won’t refuse it.
My main point was to ask about conditions of true “openness” to Truth, that is understanding that concerns some purpose or Good of the human soul. Closedness comes in two forms: the more obvious form of thoughtless, un-self-critical religious dogmatism: one isn’t open if one believes he/she already fully possesses it. The less obvious, more subtle, and perhaps now more common form of closedness takes the form of a pretention to pure openness: each has his own “truth,” so there is no Truth to seek.
The problem of openness has an inevitable, insuperable political dimension, because the fundamental terms of our existence in common our settled and re-negotiated in the political realm. Politics requires closure, and this closure cannot be irrelevant to our religious approximation of the Truth. Therefore, to dismiss the political is to fall under its sway.
For the rest, I self-quote:
The rich and difficult ‘pluralism’ – the non-generalizable openness of friends to possibilities the convictions of one friend may offer to the enrichment of the convictions of another – this true, difficult and rare ‘pluralism’ is always at risk – even here, I propose, among friends – of confusion with a shame pluralism that is in fact a closed secularism.
For example: when we uncover diversity, apparent contradiction w/in our own beliefs, or their history – in the making of doctrinal or theological ‘sausage’ – then we may indeed make this out as good news, food for thought to be celebrated, a welcome challenge to think more carefully and deeply about ‘things that unite us.’
But there is always the risk that this ‘good news” will come too easy, and that instead of digging deeper with the help of deeply committed friends, we will join in the ungoing manufacture of another kind of sausage, that is, we will simply assume that “what unites us” is what secular liberalism says unites us – i.e., our progressive quest for limitless personal freedom, freedom from authoritative norms, from shared understandings of something “higher”, some good of the soul — a quest for limitless freedom that is always accompanied with the promise of the scientific mastery of the natural limitations on our humanity. The risk, then, is that we will assume a progressive direction to History, that we know what kind of sausage we are making, and that all that’s left is to try to help the less enlightened and progressive ones around us see that there’s no authority but the joint reign of science and freedom.
This is the factor that we must be aware of when we include non-religious views in our quest for respectful contestation – we must be aware that a certain viewpoint that seems readily, easily, immediately amenable to inclusion in such a rich conversation among friends, that is, secular progressive liberalism, the view that all views are equal by default, because none can be settled by science, so none really matters – this view is actually the most crippling to our efforts to be both grounded and open at the same time – for in truth it is neither.
Secular liberal fundamentalism is the most subtle, most alluring, but also most hardened and often self-deceived , non-negotiable, debilitating fundamentalism. I propose to you that Randall Paul would have more to talk about with Jerry Falwell than with John Rawls or Richard Rorty.
I conclude, here, for now: The sine qua non of “openness” is belief in the possibility of a Truth higher than scientific mastery and limitless, amoral freedom.