NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Mormon author and scholar Robert L. Millet presented on “What Mormons Really Believe" in the Newport Beach California Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Almost everyone is interested in Mormons,” said Joseph Bentley, former regional public affairs director for the LDS Church. Bentley and David Silva, president of the Newport Beach California Stake of the LDS Church, worked with church volunteers to organize the March event, which was at the Newport Beach California Stake Center near the Newport Beach California Temple.
Millet said that he has spent the past 15 years involved in interfaith relations from which he “developed a deeper reverence for God, and God doing things in his own mysterious way.” Millet’s credentials made him well-suited for this work. A longtime member of the LDS faith with bachelor's and master's degrees from Brigham Young Univeristy, Millet went to Florida State University, where he received a doctorate in religious studies.
Millet was raised in Louisiana, where Mormons were a small minority and where he learned to respect friends and colleagues from many Christian sects. He was quick to note, “Most my friends were Catholics and Baptists. They knew I was a Mormon, and never challenged my faith, put me down or questioned whether I, too, was a Christian.”
Millet said that the key to building bridges in the interfaith dialog between Christians is to establish grounds for common beliefs, which for Mormons would include their belief in the person and power of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and God the Son, “fully human yet fully God,” and who will return to earth again to reign as King of Kings for a thousand years.
He continued, “We, too, believe in the New Testament accounts regarding the virgin birth, life, ministry, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the universal resurrection of mankind. He is the mediator and the advocate for God the Father.” As a pattern for living, “Jesus possessed a perfect love toward people of all walks of life with the Atonement being his greatest act of love.”
Like most Christians, Mormons believe that no man can be saved except through the grace of the Savior, and therefore they strive to live by faith in his name as the only name by which salvation comes.
Despite many common grounds, Millet said that opportunities for dialog should continue regarding differences between Mormon theology and certain doctrinal creeds of the “Nicene Christians,” which was developed three centuries after Christ. Millet stressed that “disagreeing with the Nicenes is different that disagreeing with the New Testament.” He said that “Having a different theology about Jesus in this respect certainly does not merit the accusation that we worship a ‘different Jesus.’”
Millet said that consistent with the New Testament, Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is both “God the Son” and the “Son of God,” with the Son in every respect being equal in power and authority to God the Father, and that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost constitute “One Eternal God.”
Millet added that Mormons need not choose between the Bible or the Book of Mormon because the Book of Mormon stands together with the Bible as a witness for Christ, and they do support each other.
“In fact,” added Millet, “I have taught the Bible as the word of God in my religion classes for 40 years now.”
Millet addressed the charge that Mormons were viewed by some as arrogant because they are “working to become like God himself."
“The reality,” responded Millet, “is that the process of deification or becoming like God is fully in accordance with the teaching of the New Testament, including Christ’s admonition to 'be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect' (Matthew 5:48), and scriptural accounts including 'that ye might be partakers of the divine nature' (2 Peter 1:4), and 'when he shall appear, we shall be like him' (1 John 3:2). The invitation to become like Christ, or deification, is a very old doctrine which was part of Eastern Christianity from the very beginning.”
Another area of debate is whether Mormons’ zeal for “good works” really suggests their belief promotes salvation by works rather than by faith.
“Not true,” Millet said. Rather, Mormons believe in being “faithful” through obedience to Jesus’ commandments. Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Notwithstanding the importance of faithfulness, Mormons maintain that salvation is possible only through the grace of Christ.
“I really need his grace,” Millet added. “I didn’t bring my wife tonight; she could tell you how imperfect I am!”
Millet also addressed why Mormons perform temple work on behalf of deceased individuals. Millet suggested that such practices, such as baptism for the dead, were carried out during New Testament times (1 Corinthians 15:29). Additionally, Millet suggested that the notion that God would provide means to save the unevangelized is not so unusual, since C.S. Lewis inferred in his work “Mere Christianity” that opportunities to grow toward God could continue beyond the grave. Further, Christian theologians believing in a loving God have noted that God can, in fact, provide means of salvation, sometimes miraculous, to those who had died or who were near death.
Providing proxy baptisms is merely another extension of his love, Millet said. Rather than shutting the gates of heaven to those denied the physical ordinance, the proxy baptisms actually embody the expansive vision of God’s plan to reach out and bless all mankind with an opportunity to accept or reject the gospel ordinance.
“We’ve got to stop wrangling about our differences," Millet said. "Otherwise, we will be prevented from working together to fix social problems.”
In addressing the differences, Millet advocates that discussions should be “undertaken in a spirit of openness (knowing that we really can learn something from the other); sincerity (knowing that only through honesty, transparency and trust can genuine progress be made); and love (knowing that only as we seek to see and feel toward the other something of what the Master sees and feels are we prepared to minister meaningfully to one another).”
In closing, Millet quoted a non-Mormon colleague who came to aid the Mormons in a public dispute in Stockholm, Sweden, when Mormons were building a temple there. After noting that the temple was merely an embodiment of the Mormon “belief in the immortality of the soul,” the colleague provided a three-fold guide for evaluating all religious faiths: first, ask a member of the faith what they believe; second, compare their best with your best, and third, always leave room for “holy envy” (admiration of their best).
Using this template, which downplays doctrinal differences, Millet concluded that “there are no ills that cannot be healed, even the breach between religious faiths.”
John K. Skousen practices law in Irvine, Calif., and is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He lives with his family in Coto de Caza, Calif.