By Rhett Wilkinson
In many ways, Randall Paul’s subscription to Mormonism is based
in its absence.
“The (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is the only true church because it doesn’t matter if it’s the only true church,” he said in a telephone interview following the ninth annual meeting of The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, held last semester at the University Inn on the Utah State University campus. It marked the second time in the conference’s history at USU, the first coming in 2005.
For Paul, the president of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, certain of the church’s practices assures that the faith can be exactly what it claims to be, as he articulated in the conference’s plenary address, “The Book of Mormon on ‘The True Church’ and Religious Pluralism.”
“Mormonism makes that so explicit, with its doctrine and ordinances for baptisms and sealings for the dead, that salvation is as important for anyone, and that everyone will have a fair chance to advance in the world to come,” he said.
Because he had determined internally that God loves all his children—because of his pronounced adherence to the faith, he acknowledged—he sought the next step: to validate it in scripture.
“I wasn’t I wasn’t trying to prove myself right or wrong by my text; I was trying to prove myself through something that is solid, based on my faith position,” he said.
He found passages like Alma 29:1-12, which teaches that God “gives to all nations sufficient to bring them to salvation—a powerful idea,” he said. In validating the passage with similar scriptures in the Book of Mormon, Bible and “especially” the Doctrine and Covenants, he was able to collaborate his belief that the Almighty could provide a deliverance he’s familiar with.
“God is loving and sufficient to allow for others to bring themselves to the same amount of happiness that I desire,” he concluded. “I think the question has both, for me, a personal religious or theological or state-based motive, and that is ‘how can I believe and trust in a loving heavenly parent who treats his children so obviously different in the human condition?’ I want to believe in a loving God, but when evidence says that he is so partial in how he distributes his love on the earth and his truth to some and not others, it’s a disconnect. It’s a nice idea, but God has not seemed to live up to his reputation.
“That kind of fundamental question is something that drives me.”
Many other inquiries into core doctrines of the faith brought dozens to the hotel. Other presentations included a discussion of plurality of gods and Fatherhood of Christ, from Of God and Gods author Blake Ostler; the Book of Mormon as a “Book of the Weeping God,” from Benjamin Huff of Randolph-Macon College; “A Catholic View of Grace in the Book of Mormon,” from Peter Huff of the Besl Family Chair in Ethics, Religion and Society at Xavier University; and “Death, the Fall (of Adam and Eve), and Darwin” from Steven Peck of Brigham Young University. USU’s own Philip Barlow began with his “Questions at the Veil,” a series of inquiries of the Lord about man’s spiritual journey once it ends.
Others stemmed from a fallout with church-owned organizations.
Daniel Peterson is a BYU Islamic Studies professor. After Blair Hodges of Georgetown University spoke of “Jacob, Isaiah, and Social Justice in the Book of Mormon,” Peterson participated in a panel discussion titled “Secular Norms and the Scholarship of Faith.” Peterson welcomed the forum to express his own frustrations with the occasional discord between academic study of religion, including Mormonism, at the LDS Church-owned school where he is employed. He called it the “politics of BYU.”
Peterson was recent dismissed from the BYU-owned Maxwell Institute, a forum that had since 1998 harbored apologetic information about the LDS Church. Peterson said the theme of the institute was the very reason for dismissal: because the organization sought a route that was more strictly academic.
Peterson was dismissed in June while overseas. That mode of dismissal also bothered him.
“A lot of it is personal, frankly,” he said. “It’s partially a disagreement to do explicitly Mormon scholarship, or whether we should pretend that we don’t have a dog in the fight.
“I know, for instance, that it’s not for all Catholic theologians to be open,” he added. “I see nothing wrong with being loyal in the commitment.”
Peterson was also reportedly dismissed from the Maxwell Institute ultimately for being involved a 100-page article about John Dehlin. A church member in Logan, Dehlin has launched a podcast called Mormon Stories, which welcomes those who question aspects of LDS history, practice and theology. Dehlin’s group has published articles about reasons Mormons leave the fold and research on gay members, among other topics.
After hearing about the piece, Dehlin called an LDS general authority who was a personal friend, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Eventually, Maxwell Institute Director Gerald Bradford pulled the article from the journal, leaving a giant hole and putting it behind in its publishing schedule.
Peterson appreciated the free will topic because of the doctrine’s dichotomy with a divine hand behind the operations of our lives, starting with the universe’s origins.
“Are we just pre-programmed machines, or was the whole universe set in the Big Bang?” asked Peterson, who blogs daily at Patheos.com, a forum for scholarly discussions on faith. “We can’t act if we aren’t free—I can’t wait for a force to get me out of bed. So if there’s no free will, there’s no point for the conference. I can’t think of a of pre-planned conference and make it happen because (the universe) doesn’t operate that way.”
While Peterson acknowledged that the conference could be marketed better, he is motivated by its progress. In order to attract current attendees in recent years, they’ve kept it in Utah after holding it in Claremont University in California in 2009. Peterson said that stipends are also offered for students who are interested in traveling to one, adding that donations of even $10 are helpful.
“We’re that small,” he said, adding that the conference received the most papers and presentations in its history. “We want to cast (the conference) widely.”
Paul estimated that about 90 percent of the several dozen who attended the conference were LDS.
“I’m a very orthodox Mormon—at least, I see myself as much—but there were some pretty wide views of church that are quite different from mine,” he said.
“Sometimes they have alienated Mormons. Some are viewed as radical; others, not at all. It makes for a rich mix. And I like that,” he said. “I can learn well from a cynic. ‘I’ve had a lot of dealings with Mormons; they’re mostly useless on matters of scholarship,’ some have said to me. Then I say, ‘I don’t believe it.’ They say, ‘yes, you do.’
“To understand us and offer to give and take—that persona is very valuable, even as a believing Mormon.”