OREM — Charles Randall Paul had a discussion a few years ago with Hamoud Al-Hitar, a respected judge in Yemen.
Al-Hitar is best known for a plan that attempted to rehabilitate al-Qaida sympathizers in jail. Paul asked Al-Hitar if it were possible for him to have an honest dialogue with an atheist. Al-Hitar quickly responded, "In the Koran, God has a discussion with Iblis (the devil). If God can have a frank talk with the devil, I can do the same with a mere non-believer."
Paul is the founder of Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy and spoke last week at the 11th Annual Mormon Studies Conference at Utah Valley University. His lecture was titled "Mormonism and Islam: Commonality and Cooperation Between Abrahamic Faiths."
Paul looked at how God spoke with Satan in the Bible as well and found that "God and the devil are on speaking terms."
In Genesis, Satan is cast out of the Garden of Eden, but God did not act to eliminate him. In the New Testament, Satan tempts Jesus and they engage in conversation. "In this dialogue there was no anger or refusal to respond — just firm resolve," Paul said.
"God does not annihilate Satan or instruct his servants to do so," Paul said, "He says, 'Be gone!' He doesn't say, 'Poof! Be thou annihilated.' "
Paul said that if this is how scriptures depict the interaction of God with Satan, then a similar "measured" or limited or bordered conflict should be part of our discussions with people of other religious traditions.
Often people think that interreligious dialogue means trying to harmonize differences or at least to minimize them, Paul said. The thought is that if only we really understood each other we would see there is no real grudge — it was all just a misunderstanding.
But it isn't just a misunderstanding, Paul said. Religious differences are very real. They are life and death — eternal life and eternal death. The differences are outrageously different. Dialogue between religions doesn't require checking beliefs at the door and chatting about neutral ethics. It requires the opposite. It requires us, Paul said, to "stand unrepentant in our beliefs."
Instead, people try to avoid that conflict. "Let's just decree that we need to feed the poor and be nice to each other. That's what really matters," Paul said. "But most religious people say, 'It doesn't really matter whether I'm poor or whether I die of scurvy. What matters is eternity.' "
Jesus told his followers to "agree with thine adversary quickly" (Matthew 5:25). But Paul said this doesn't mean need to agree about the truth of God and the purpose of life.
"How do we 'agree quickly'?" Paul asked. "The answer is we agree that we will communicate that we care about each other sincerely and that we will not speak in anger together or call each other fools."
It is OK to be divided on doctrinal belief and religious practice, but those differences need to be engaged in honorably. "We can listen to our adversaries sincerely, letting them know that we honor them as honest opponents," Paul said.
It is the method that is important — engaging face-to-face, listening carefully and responding honestly without any angry accusations or threats.
"This is the most profound point of any interreligious dialogue," Paul said. "I am standing here. I am using your name. I am listening to you. I am giving you the gift of influencing me. … eyeball-to-eyeball contact."
Religious dialogue means understanding why you should be in conflict. It is coming to accept that we have, as Paul put it, "uncomfortable, unharmonizable, irreconcilable, irresolvable truth differences."
We are just not going to agree. And it is a beautiful thing.
Paul told a story about a Jewish friend of his that "finally grasped what I told him Joseph Smith's First Vision was."
In that vision, Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, said he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. And even though the Jewish friend had known the story for about two years, he never really understood the doctrinal implications.
Paul was talking to him about how "Almighty God was there and Jesus Christ was there and they told Joseph Smith. …"
His Jewish friend interrupted — putting up his hand, "What did you just say?"
"Almighty God and Jesus Christ. …"
"But you said there were two? They had two? Two bodies? You said what? What?" his Jewish friend said, stammering.
His friend became totally speechless, finally understanding, after hearing Paul talk about it on-and-off for two years, that Mormons believe God has a body. His face blanched as he leaned back and said to Paul, "That's blasphemy!"
Paul told the conference at UVU what he had realized at that moment: "Ah. We are now in dialogue."
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