Richard Mouw’s Talking with Mormons encourages interfaith understanding

01.31.2014 | Blair Hodges

…with reflections on the Maxwell Institute’s mission

Over the past decade, Richard Mouw—evangelical (Calvinist) president of Fuller Theological Seminary—has been in dialogue with various Latter-day Saints in order to better understand Mormonism and to help Mormons better understand evangelical Christians. During Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns he became one of the go-to sources in news reports about Mormon/Evangelical relationships. He’s taken a lot of heat for this within his religious community, going as far as apologizing to the Mormon community on behalf of evangelicals who he said had sinned against Mormonism by misrepresenting their beliefs and practices. His latest book Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals is an effort to educate the evangelical community about his ongoing work with Mormonism.

In Talking Mouw invites evangelicals to “nurture friendlier relations with the Mormon community. I want us to listen carefully to our Mormon neighbors, without deciding ahead of time what they ‘really’ believe. Patience, humility, a willingness to admit our own shortcomings—all of these are necessary to move the dialogue forward” (Talking, 43). He later adds “The goal of all this is not simply to understand—although that’s a worthy goal. It’s to earn the trust that allows genuine dialogue about our deepest convictions” (Talking, 94). Of course, Mouw hopes to move Mormons closer to his own theological positions, but he emphasizes that understanding and trust are prerequisites that are good ends in themselves.

Mouw’s book also serves to encourage Mormons to better understand other Christians. One of his most important insights is that we can gain a deeper understanding of our own faith as we increase our knowledge about the faith of others. Mouw pictures theology as humanity’s attempt to address “the deepest yearnings of the human spirit—’the hopes and fears of all the years.’” So an important question to ask in the process of interfaith dialogue is: “What is it about their teachings that speaks to what they understand to be their deepest human needs and yearnings?” (Talking, 80–81). He believes Mormons could do better at trying to understand other Christian perspectives without resorting to unfair caricatures.

Toward the end of TalkingMouw praises Mormon Studies Review editor Spencer Fluhman for “showing a willingness to entertain new—and old!—questions in a self-critical spirit.” He sees Fluhman as “one of the many hopeful signs within Mormonism,” not because he wishes to see Mormonism become more like Mouw’s Calvinism, but because “he wants to keep talking about these things” in order to reach greater understanding all around (Talking, 94–95). Fluhman’s ability to participate in fruitful dialogue across religious borders is one of the reasons he was selected as editor of the Mormon Studies Review, which seeks to include the voices of Mormon and non-Mormon scholars.

In fact, much of the work produced at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is intended to foster productive and lasting relationships between people of various religions. For example, our Middle Eastern Texts Initiative translates and publishes medieval texts from the traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Eastern Christianity. These translations celebrate the joint achievements of diverse thinkers and scholars across time, geography, and faith, serving also as models for such cooperation today. Likewise, our Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts seeks to provide greater access to ancient Syriac Christian texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls, benefiting not only scholars, but anyone interested in considering how the religious perspectives of times past have informed the present.

Just as Mouw says about the teachings of Joseph Smith, the work produced at the Maxwell Institute “can serve as an important springboard for ongoing conversation about matters that go deep into the secret places of our shared humanity” (Talking, 89). Ultimately, the Institute’s mission “is to deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints and to promote mutual respect and goodwill among people of all faiths through the scholarly study of religious texts and traditions.”