Mormons, Methodists meet to consider similarities, compare cultures, theology, music

By Blair Dee Hodges

Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 9:00 a.m. MST

Jones said the fingerprints of Methodism are still detectable on the contemporary LDS Church. For instance, Brigham Young's brother Lorenzo Dow Young was named after a prominent Methodist circuit rider. Several hymns penned by Methodist Charles Wesley are still found in the Latter-day Saint hymnal. LDS missionary patterns and General Conference schedules also bear marks of influence, according to Jones.

The third session focused more directly on theological questions. Terryl Givens, a professor of religion and literature and Latter-day Saint, paired with Kendall Soulen, professor of systematic theology at Wesley, to discuss views on heaven and hell. Soulen said the key distinction between LDS and Methodist views of the afterlife is the difference between human nature and the nature of God. He said Methodists believe in an eternal difference between the Creator and the creature.

"Our creaturely identity remains essential to who we are in the world to come," Soulen said. "I am finite, wholly dependent on the Creator. God calls us out of nothing in an act of love so complete that it must be sustained moment by moment. So heaven is a growth in which we come to share more in the divine nature, but God remains great, mysterious, awesome, beyond comprehension."

Givens responded that this difference may not be as large as Soulen suggested. Although Latter-day Saints view humans as somehow co-eternal with God, this does not mean humans are not dependent on God, according to Givens.

"Mormons begin with the premise that our relation to God is one which God invited us into," Givens said. "God initiated the relationship. He looked upon our weakness and will shepherd us through the eternities to achieve the condition he enjoys."

Soulen playfully suggested that if the difference wasn't so great, perhaps Latter-day Saints might simply "give that one up."

"I'll trade you baptism for the dead," Givens responded.

During a "Dialogue among Conferees" session, about 50 conference-attendees met in smaller groups to discuss questions like "Why doesn't God just save all?" and "Does your understanding of salvation lead to any anxieties?"

Ben Sloan, a 24-year-old Methodist graduate student at Wesley, said the small groups provided a good opportunity to learn directly from other believers in a more intimate setting.

"I've found a lot of value in my world religion classes hearing about the perspectives of other faiths and denominations," Sloan said. "But I didn't know as much about Mormonism as I'd like to, so talking directly with Mormons is a great opportunity to fix that."

Sloan, who plans to become an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church following graduation, was also pleased with the opportunity to discuss his own Christian faith by answering questions from Latter-day Saints.

The most rousing session of the conference did not feature any theological jargon or fuzzy historical puzzles. Eileen Guenther and Kristine Haglund led the participants in a variety of traditional Methodist and Latter-day Saint hymns. These included "O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," a Methodist hymn which used to be in an older LDS hymnal, and "Redeemer of Israel," a Methodist hymn in the current LDS hymnal with re-worked lyrics.

Brian Birch, who co-directs the Mormon chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, said the Foundation hopes to provide more positive opportunities for grassroots interfaith dialogue outside of the institutional LDS Church.

"We want people to become bilingual in religion," Birch said. "We want to show that there are people who can, and want to, and are very skilled at discussing their faith openly with others. Then show others how to do it."

In addition to the Mormon chapter, the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy includes an evangelical chapter directed by John W. Morehead. According to the Foundation's fidweb.org website, other chapters currently being formed include Jewish, Mahayana Buddhist, Shia Islam and Sunni Islam.

Paul, the foundation president, said the foundation eventually hopes to host a monitored website where members of different faith traditions can meet online for personal face-to-face faith discussions.

"These are vehicles that the chapters of the foundation can use to have serious discussions about our faith," Paul said, "and we think we'll be getting something quite wonderful done. To get people talking in respectful and open ways — that's our goal."

The conference continues Saturday with sessions that include former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett and Utah Valley University President Matt Holland.

The conference's co-sponsors also include UVU, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, the Claremont Graduate University Mormon Studies Council and Patheos.com.

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