The Heaven and Hell Symposium that took place on Thursday, Oct.15, 2015 featured representatives from four different faiths to discuss beliefs of the afterlife. These individuals each had different upbringings and backgrounds in religious education.
The first speaker was Brent Top, the dean of religious education at BYU. Top presented the Latter-day Saint perspective on heaven and hell at the symposium.
Top said he received a history degree at BYU with intentions of going to law school. After graduation, he worked for the Church Education System as a seminary teacher. The dean said that experience made him feel like he was making a positive difference.
“Seminary-age students are at an important crossroads in their life,” Top said. “They are impressionable, and I felt seminary gave them a meaningful spiritual infusion.”
Top has written several books on the LDS doctrine of the afterlife. “My focus and specialty is the doctrine of the church,” Top said. “I enjoy studying the scriptures and how they determine what we believe.”
Top said he tries to teach at least one class a semester at BYU. This semester he teaches Missionary Prep. Top served as a mission president in the Peoria Illinois mission. “My favorite thing as a mission president was seeing the remarkable transformation of the missionaries,” he said. “The missionaries are the miracle of the work.”
The Dean said the Heaven and Hell symposium had offered students a valuable opportunity to be exposed to other religions. “Learning from those of other faiths broadens our perspective and our appreciation for religion,” Top said.
He said it is important to look for common ground in different beliefs, but also find strength in the differences.
“Our beliefs in God and our desire to love others surpasses our differences,” Top said.
Imam Shuaib-ud Din
The second speaker was the Imam Shuaib-ud Din, the religious leader at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy, Utah. He offered the Islamic perspective on the afterlife at the Symposium.
He provided a brief description of the Utah Islamic center. “The carpet is made of stripes of different colors, which makes it easy to make straight rows and face northeast toward Mecca,” the Imam said.
The Imam was born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago. He said he left the U.S. when he was 14 years old because there were no theology schools in America at that time. His calling to religion did not happen all at once. “My father saw that religious streak in me before I saw it in myself,” he said.
He studied theology for four years in England and then traveled to Pakistan to continue his studies for another five years in that country. “I taught in two Islamic schools after my studies, and then I went on a missionary trip to preach to Muslims,” the Imam said.
The Imam explained that he met Muslim missionaries from Utah while he was on his missionary trip. He said they were persistent in wanting him to come to Utah. “I came to a Friday prayer here in Utah, and when these Muslim missionaries kept calling me, I gave in, and moved to Utah,” the Imam said.
He then discussed his responsibilities as the religious leader of the Utah Islamic Center. “I conduct the daily prayer five times a day, give the Friday sermon, conduct the educational classes for adults and supervise Sunday school for children studying the Quran,” he said.
The Imam commented on the relationships between the Islamic faith and the Mormon faith. “I think that higher up in the hierarchy, they are very open to interfaith relations,” the Imam said. “But this needs to trickle down to the grassroots level, because all action takes place there.”
The Islamic leader also recalled how Muslims and Mormons have cooperated to offer global relief during several natural disasters. “The common goal of both our religions is the welfare of individuals,” the Imam said.
When asked about the shelves of colorful Arabic books in his office, the Imam relied on an old saying. “The elephant has tusks for show, and teeth for function. These books are the tusks,” the Imam said. “But I actually do use some of them for reference. They are copies of the Quran, words of the Prophet, Islamic Law and Islamic History.”
He mentioned that helping others learn about their faith and serving God is the greatest reward of his position. “There is a certain level of job satisfaction, knowing that I am serving God,” the Imam said.
Monsignor M. Francis Mannion
Next, Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, a priest of the Catholic Dioceses in Salt Lake City, addressed the audience. Monsignor M. Francis Mannion is a priest with the Catholic Dioceses of Salt Lake City. He was born into a strong Catholic family in the west of Ireland. The lifelong Catholic said this upbringing was key to his spiritual journey, but he still had to develop his own faith.
“Staying a Catholic is something one has to choose every day,” Mannion said. “I have been in love with being a Catholic all my life. I have a strong sense of vocation to the priesthood and have never looked back.”
The Monsignor expressed his love for his work in the Church. “I never recall a time when I did not wish to be a priest,” Mannion said. “I never really thought of any other vocation.”
He became involved with the Heaven and Hell Symposium because he is writing a book on heaven. “My specialty topics are liturgical studies and sacramental theology,” he said.
The priest praised the dynamic relationships between leaders and members of the Mormon and Catholic faiths. “Catholic and Mormon dialogue is strong because both traditions pay great attention to theological clarity, and both faiths have a strong teaching authority,” Mannion said.
He expressed his gratitude at being part of the Symposium because of the event’s goal to create a positive inter-faith dialogue.
“There can never be too much dialogue, never too much of what Pope Francis calls a theology of encounter,” Mannion said.
Finally, Travis Kerns, who oversees Southern Baptist Missionaries on the Wasatch Front offered his perspective. Kerns is part of the Send City Missionaries branch in Utah. He oversees Southern Baptist missionaries along the Wasatch Front.
“I was raised in a strong Christian home in South Carolina, and I was involved in my local church from birth until leaving my hometown after college,” Kerns said.
The Southern Baptist explained that he became interested in the Latter-day Saint religion in college, which ultimately led him to earn a doctorate that focused on LDS Philosophy.
“In the midst of a college course on minority religions in America and new religious movements, my mind was perplexed by the history, people and theology of the LDS Church,” Kerns said. “From that point on, my entire academic and professional career has focused on the history, people and theology of the LDS Church.”
Kerns taught at the Southern Baptist Theological in Louisville, Kentucky for nearly nine years.
“I was privileged to serve on faculty at one of the largest Evangelical institutions in the world alongside some of the greatest Evangelical minds in the world,” Kerns said. “I left that position as I was facing the possibility of tenure and a rank promotion in order to move to Salt Lake City in 2013, but the move has proven to be more than worth the loss of the teaching post.”
He also discussed the responsibilities of his work as a Send City Missionary.
“My duties are two-fold. First, I am charged with recruiting new missionaries to come to the Salt Lake metro area, and with mentoring and coaching them through our assessment process,” Kerns said. “Second, I am charged with recruiting new church partners to come alongside our new missionaries and encourage them as they begin their work in the Salt Lake metro area.”
His evangelical work has been rewarding in several aspects. “Seeing new Evangelical churches start inside Utah has been the most rewarding part of my work as a Send City Missionary,” he said. “Similarly, seeing the lives of people change as they come to a personal relationship with Christ has been equally as exciting and rewarding.”
The Southern Baptist expressed his gratitude for events like the Heaven and Hell Symposium that allowed constructive inter-faith discussion. “Though each of the four representatives disagree over varying issues regarding heaven and hell, the way in which we disagree is important to understand,” Kerns said. “We can have honest, deep disagreements in beliefs but not be disagreeable amongst each other as human beings. We learn that those with whom we disagree are not the enemy, they simply see the world from a different perspective.”
Kerns was grateful for the role that Christ’s gospel plays in his life. He hoped that his life and ministry was characterized by the mind and teachings of Christ.
“He is my all in all and, without him, I would be nothing,” Kerns said. “Without Christ, I would be lost in my sin and without any hope. It is only through the blood of Christ that I can have hope and only because he, as John 1 declares, is the Word become flesh which has dwelt among us.”