Defending the Faith: When it comes to religious differences, first show charity, then get charity

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Religion and politics can ignite ugly passions. Perhaps it's not amiss, therefore, in a column broadly dedicated to "defending the faith," to consider how such defense ought to be conducted.

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Religion and politics can ignite ugly passions. Perhaps it's not amiss, therefore, in a column broadly dedicated to "defending the faith," to consider how such defense ought to be conducted.

A recent book by Richard J. Mouw, "Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals," offers some excellent thoughts on the subject — and provides a good example of respectful, fair-minded disagreement. Mouw, a prominent Calvinist theologian and, for the past two decades, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, has been involved for a number of years in precisely such "talking with Mormons." He's perhaps best known among Latter-day Saints for the apology that he offered from the pulpit of the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 2004: "We evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: We have sinned against you."

I hope to engage Professor Mouw's little book more fully elsewhere. Here, though, I'll summarize and comment upon just three pages from it.

Drawing on his own theological tradition, Mouw cites John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion." (Some will be surprised; Calvin is rarely cited as a model of religious toleration.) Reflecting on times when states go to war out of righteous indignation, Calvin warns that such instances put leaders at extreme spiritual risk.

They need to examine their own motives carefully and honestly. "Let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity." Instead, they should earnestly attempt to "have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing."

We have a natural but worrisome tendency, Professor Mouw comments, "to put the best possible interpretation on our own motives and the worst possible interpretation on the motives of the people we want to attack." Not only in warfare and politics but in religious disputes — which some, significantly, consider "spiritual warfare."

He then proceeds to reflect upon Psalm 139:21-24:

"Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?

"I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.

"Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:

"And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

There is, Mouw observes, "a noticeable shift of mood between what the psalmist says in verses 21-22 and what he goes on to say in verses 23-24. In those first two verses, the psalmist seems to be proclaiming boldly that he and God are on the same wavelength, working as allies in a battle against the same foes."

"But then," continues Mouw, "his tone seems to change drastically. … Suddenly the psalmist seems to realize that he has slipped into an arrogant spiritual state, realizes that he has to turn inward. And that's when he pleads with the Lord to deal with the sin he finds in his own soul: 'Search me, O God,' he prays."

This is solidly biblical. As the Savior himself warns:

"Judge not, that ye be not judged.

"For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

"Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

"Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

Proverbs 25:21-22 recommends treating opponents well, though with a humorous twist:

"If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee."

The apostle Paul echoes this somewhat cynical advice in Romans 12:20, but then goes on to advise that we "Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good."

We cannot expect to be treated with charity if we don't treat others charitably. We may still be treated poorly even then, but, if so, that's not our responsibility.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.

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