One approach I favor in religious dialogue is a respectful engagement that seeks first to understand and respect the beliefs of the other. While I believe spreading the message of my religion is important, one effective method of doing so rises from a foundation built on common ground. (At the least, such a common ground can be a mutual desire to understand one another). Morally, this approach fulfills the commandment to "do unto others." Pragmatically, it reduces the possibility of arguing past one another, or getting hung up on peripheral issues. One simple way to know if you understand the position of the other is by attempting to restate the position of the other to his or her satisfaction.
Based on a Judeo-Christian outlook, Mormons believe God reveals His will to His children in order to help them navigate mortality and return home to Him. Such revelation can be given to particular individuals for their own life situations, or to leaders in behalf of the Church as a whole. According to the founding prophet Joseph Smith, this revelation is continuing and "adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed." Mormons look to personal inspiration from God, written scripture, and the words of living prophets and apostles for guidance in belief and practice.
However, Mormons do not believe these scriptures or prophets are perfect. Prophetic declarations reflect aspects of the culture in which they occur and can later take on new meanings in different circumstances or be overlooked altogether. The dynamism of continuing revelation makes it difficult to take a "snapshot" of Mormon belief as a whole at any given time. Different Mormons may understand LDS doctrines differently.
Joseph Smith objected to various creeds that require strict belief in officially defined doctrines, but Mormons are generally expected to agree on some fundamentals. For example, in order to be baptized, one must profess belief in Jesus Christ as Savior of the world and in prophets who help guide the LDS Church. More than assenting to intellectual doctrines, however, Mormons also participate actively in a community forged by ordinances, living in a continuing sacred history as depicted in and extending from scripture. What Mormons become through righteous acts and faith in Christ is often considered more important than any specific peripheral doctrines Mormons might believe.
Mormonism is lived and experienced as much as it is believed. Moreover, various "folk" doctrines tend to spring up from time to time, some becoming generally accepted while others are jettisoned along the way. As Mormonism becomes more of a global religion, official Church statements and publications have become narrower in scope, streamlined, and applicable to the growing diversity in the Church.
Considering these circumstances, how can Mormon doctrine be determined in order to facilitate healthy interreligious discussion? There is still no comprehensive and official answer to this question and Mormons continue to answer the question differently. For instance, Robert Millett, a Mormon professor of religion, has described an "authoritative approach" wherein official Mormon doctrine is defined by appealing to what are considered authoritative sources like scriptures and the statements of prophets.2 Sociologist Armand Mauss described a "scale of authenticity," ranging from canonical to popular or "folk" doctrine.3 Mormon philosopher James Faulconer has argued that Mormonism is "atheological," consisting more of keeping covenants between humans and Christ rather than of various unchanging doctrinal facts.4
Given this variety of Mormon views, perhaps the most practical way to discover "who speaks for Mormons" is to develop an awareness of the diversity itself. In any given dialogue this variety can be acknowledged and a basis for what a particular Mormon accepts as authoritative can be discussed. If the goal of dialogue is constructive discussion rather than polemical debate it is important to allow each individual the right to speak for his or her own faith. This approach requires patience, time, effort, trust, and respect, but it bears the fruits of interreligious understanding.
Blair Hodges is a student at the University of Utah majoring in Mass Communications and minoring in Religious Studies. He is the former News Editor of The Signpost, the newspaper at Weber State University, and a frequent blogger.
One useful discussion on this topic is Loyd Ericson's "The Challenges of Defining Mormon Doctrine," Element, vol. 3 Issue 1-2 (Spring and Fall 2007), pp. 69-90. The image is "Dialogue" by Doc Ross.
See Robert L. Millett, "What Do We Really Believe? Identifying Doctrinal Parameters Within Mormonism," Discourses in Mormon Theology, James M. McLaughlan and Loyd Ericson, eds., pp. 265-281. An official statement from the Church's Public Affairs department emphasizes aspects of Millett's authoritative standards. See "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," LDS.org Newsroom, May 4, 2007, http://www.newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/approaching-mormon-doctrine.
See Armand L. Mauss, "The Fading of the Pharaohs' Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Ban Against Blacks in the Mormon Church. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 14, no. 3, Autumn 1981.
See James E. Faulconer, "Why a Mormon Won't Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Element vol. 2 Issue 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 21-37.