During the past decade, as the LDS Church has dealt with criticism from "historic Christian" faiths about its own claim to being Christian, some believe Latter-day Saints now seek to stress common belief and subdue unique Latter-day Saint theology when talking with other Christians.

That was one of the questions raised Thursday during the first sessions of a two-day conference on "Mormonism and the Christian Tradition," held at Utah Valley State College.

Participants in a panel discussion representing various perspectives shared their thoughts on a host of doctrines that mainstream Christian faiths and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have widely divergent opinions on.

As to scriptural dialogue with other Christians, the level of understanding among Latter-day Saints about both the Bible and uniquely LDS scripture has increased since the 1970s, according to Bob Millet, a professor of religion at Brigham Young University.

He said the reason that doctrines like eternal progression — the notion that mortals can become like God in the afterlife — are less discussed now is "because we've begun to talk about other things more." An emphasis on personal scripture study for Latter-day Saints began in the 1970s, as the church was preparing to put all of its scriptures — including the Bible — together in one book.

At that point, church members "began to become much more literate in the scriptures," which led to a greater emphasis on redemptive theology through Jesus Christ. The result "has caused us to focus more on some things and less on other things," Millet said.

The impact of a belief in the Christian trinity — the literal union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit — on believers sets them apart from those like Latter-day Saints who believe the three are separate beings, but one in purpose, according to James Wakefield, a professor at the Salt Lake Theological Seminary.

When asked how such a belief impacts people's daily actions, Wakefield pointed to the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation — those who believe the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally are Christ's body and blood. "One literally takes Jesus into his body and has communion with him. The other only engages in a remembrance" of Christ's sacrifice, he said.

In daily life, it's the same as kissing your wife, he said. "If you kiss your wife, you kiss your wife. If you only think about kissing her, you don't kiss your wife."

When questioned about the place of historical evidence vs. personal witness when it comes to belief, Wakefield's colleague, Ron Huggins, pointed to the LDS missionary program. Missionaries who ask people to read the Book of Mormon and pray to know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet are seeking to create a spiritual feeling in those they teach, he said, and then using that desire to align with the feeling as a truth claim.

In contrast, the Christian tradition doesn't rely on getting people to state that they "know something is true" when they merely want to believe it is, he said. "In getting people to say they have something they don't or experience something they haven't, in my view, that leads to self-deception, disappointment and frustration."

Conversely, one of the difficulties of the Christian tradition is "that you can become very much a part of the tradition without ever actually knowing God."

Millet said he is often questioned by Christians who accuse Latter-day Saints of discounting historic evidence and engaging in a "feelings only" approach to discovering truth. An exclusive focus on either evidence alone or feelings alone is dangerous, he said. Truth is found with elements of both.

Those who say the only basis for belief is the Bible, without relying on a personal experience of it through thought, feeling and prayer, place their entire faith on "rationalistic explanations for everything. How can you appreciate the Bible if you can't think, feel or pray about it?

"I believe the resurrection of Jesus Christ literally took place. But I don't have an ounce of physical evidence other than the holy scriptures."

The conference continues through 5 p.m. today in the school's faculty seminar room, LC 243.


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com