With his tall frame leaning against a desk at the head of the classroom, big hands in the air with palms upward and eyes creased with wisdom, Roger Keller tells his Religions of the World students about the blind men and the elephant.
“Say one blind man feels the front of the elephant, another feels the side, another feels the face and they tell you what they feel,” says the 69-year-old Keller. “They’re all right; they’re all wrong. That’s the difference between a Jain [an Indian religion] and a Mormon. We have the fullness of the gospel, but we do not have the fullness of truth. Truth can be found in many places.”
Keller has spent more time as a BYU professor in Asia than full-time missionaries spend in the field. He spent more time as a Presbyterian minister than many BYU students have been Mormon. And now he teaches how to use correct knowledge of world religions to spread the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“A student told me a couple of years ago, ‘I’ve never had a professor explain it like that before.'” Keller said, smiling and shaking his index finger toward the students to make his point. “I said, ‘that’s because you’ve never had a convert for a professor before.'”
Keller holds the position of the Chair of Religious Understanding, which puts him in the ranks of former notable chairs Truman Madsen and Robert Millett.
“It’s very enriching having him around,” says Associate Dean Richard Bennett. “He has been the pilot in developing our graduate chaplaining program. He speaks the language of the military and other religions, because of that we have very illuminating discussions. They are corrective at times.”
Keller has been mediating religious discussions long before his teaching days at BYU. In the mid 1980s, he was called to a national council to diagnose the accuracy of the controversial film “The Godmakers.” He defended the Church against the film then; he defends other faiths against false rumors now.
Just like many Latter-day Saints who are offended by anti-Mormon media, Keller says in his new textbook we often offend members of other faiths by propagating false understandings of their beliefs.
“I see no way we can be good neighbors and evangelists if we do not know what they believe, it’s the Ammon principle — you must have a point of contact,” Keller says. “LDS members, especially the lifelong members, have to work to understand the beliefs and reach the hearts of those who desire the fullness of the gospel. Ammon connected with King Lamoni when he talked of the great Spirit, he met him there. Members today can find these points of contact, and they will see the fingerprints of God on people, too.”
“Points of contact” are Keller’s specialty, which he expounds on in his new textbook issued by the BYU Bookstore. In it, he teaches how Hindus have a doctrine much like eternal intelligences, Jains follow a close parallel to the Word of Wisdom and Sikhs believe in baptism and female leadership.
Doctrines from Confucianism and Taoism regarding work for the dead are also similar.
Modern revelation teaches us these diverse doctrines come from God, Keller says.
“Most of you are familiar with 2 Nephi 29:11-12, wherein we learn that each religion and scriptural canon are God’s doing to help His children attain the highest possible relationship with him,” he says. “It’s arrogant to believe that these teachings do not come from Heavenly Father, and it’s an easy mistake for Mormons to make.”
Unique Mormon doctrines, like the plan of salvation, have much to offer tenants of different religions, Keller says. But for missionaries to successfully teach them, they need to know points of contact.
Keller says he has been thrilled with greater numbers of pre-mission freshmen taking his Religion C 351 class.
“I used to get only RM elders who would learn what they wish they’d known earlier, and sisters before they left because they were smarter,” Keller chortled. “Now I get freshmen,” he said with a nod of approval.
Many of these freshmen are conscious of the potential challenges of serving a foreign mission.
“Over the past 25 years, the emphasis on world religions has increased: the Church has expanded, there are more more and more returned missionaries, and the events of our day have played a role,” says Church History Chair Brent Top. “All of our World Religions classes are full, and we would offer more if we had the resources.”
Keller is one resource the department will lack when he retires next year.
“Dr. Keller helps [faculty] and students understand religions better, and helps us make sure that in our own teaching we are clear and respectful when we talk about other faiths,” Top says. “We will miss him very much.”
Keller’s daughter Marta Taylor, oldest of three, and her central Wisconsin family are excited to have grandma and grandpa back next year. Taylor accompanied her father on one of his BYU missionary trips to India 17 years ago, a pleasant five-week pilgrimage.
“My dad has helped me be more broad-minded,” says Taylor, baptized with her parents and siblings at age 12 in Mesa, Ariz. “I am so glad I have a different background. I can take people with non-LDS backgrounds for who they really are, and take in what they are really saying.”
Keller has a boyish exuberance about taking on the mission field with his wife and daughter’s family in their small Wisconsin branch.
“There is something exciting about a society where most people aren’t alike; some people may not agree with that, but that’s how we feel,” he says.
Who could doubt Keller enjoys a little variety in his associations?
“If you cannot meet people where they are and love them, you cannot minister,” Keller says. “I try to be like Christ in that I meet people where they are.”