Faith and scholarship, yet again, and at BYU

Back in 2012, TT announced a series here on the balance or integration of faith and scholarship, revelation and reason, etc., in the context of Church Education at the BYUs. TYD contributed to the series. I took a stab at it then too. Unfortunately, the series apparently fizzled out after that. (My apologies, if I’ve missed someone.)

I’d be interested to read more from other LDS bloggers and commenters, especially those of you who think about religious studies and the humanities. Above all, I’d be keen to know how your thinking may have changed over time.

I myself am revisiting the topic now several years later.

The occasion is this: Rumor has it that, as a thank-you to faculty donors at BYU-Provo, LDS Philanthropies recently gave out pamphlets of a talk by Elder David A. Bednar, current member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and past president of BYU-Idaho.

The talk was originally delivered to BYU-Provo faculty and staff last year. So the pamphlet is something of a re-gift to them. And that emphatic repetition is probably no accident.

In fact, Elder Bednar’s talk itself underscores previous remarks by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, current member of the First Presidency and past president of BYU-Provo.

The part of the pamphlet/talk that I want to focus on is the following, where he says …

Elder Oaks has addressed challenging and hard issues in several BYU leadership conferences with the deans, associate deans, and department chairs. I now reiterate five of those issues:

1. Acknowledging the reality that the mission of Brigham Young University will not be attained in exactly the same way that other universities have achieved their greatness. It will become the great university of the Lord—not in the world’s way but in the Lord’s way ….

2. Aligning all aspects of the work performed at BYU even more closely with the purposes of our Heavenly Father.

3. Resisting external pressures that would prevent or impede the attainment of our Church and institutional goals.

4. Encouraging BYU faculty and other employees to offer public, unassigned support of Church policies that are challenged on secular grounds.

5. Inviting serious consideration of and adjustment to the patterns of what and how we measure student learning and faculty research and publication.

Elder Oaks can speak to these challenges in such a direct and clear way precisely because he left his professional and scholarly “nets” in response to the Lord’s call to serve as a special witness of His name in all the world. He has learned of and from the Savior, he listens to His voice, and he walks in the meekness of His Spirit. I admonish you to review and heed his counsel and instruction.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on these five points. Maybe you work at one of the BYUs. Maybe you’re an alum. Maybe you’re a student. Maybe you have family and friends that are.

Here’s my take, for now anyway.

The BYUs are, or claim to be, universities, and universities are first and foremost places set apart for critical thinking and the scientific method.

That does not mean universities must eschew faith, revelation, and the like, but they must begin with scholarship, reason, and so on. If they don’t, then they are not universities. Period.

Elsewhere, beginning with faith, revelation, and the like is by no means necessarily a bad thing to do – it’s just not the thing that universities do, or at least not what they should do.

If the Church does not want its universities to begin with critical thinking and the scientific method, the Church needs to get out of the university business. It’s as simple as that.

In that case, the Church would do better to invest its time and resources in institutes of religion, while selling off the BYUs so that the BYUs can in fact do what universities are supposed to do, you know, as accredited institutions.

That’s my overall comment.

About the specific points, let me just mention the fourth. Elder Bednar seems to be saying quite plainly that BYU faculty should back up the Church if ever the Church faces ‘secular’ opposition.

But that is not what universities are for. University faculty are not troops to be marshalled and commanded by religious leaders in various culture wars.

It is shocking that past presidents of accredited universities would not understand that.

It is also shocking that he/they would couch his/their commands as ‘unassignments’ on the one hand and apostolic admonitions – using ritual temple speak no less – on the other.

We are not within a thousand miles of a university setting at this point.

Furthermore, the notion that the Church and its policies ‘are challenged on secular grounds’ presumes that there are no challenges based on ethical grounds or the grounds of basic human decency. There are. Many.

And it is perhaps the most important job of any university to ensure that those sacred grounds of ethics and basic human decency are respected, even and especially by religious leaders.

23 Replies to “Faith and scholarship, yet again, and at BYU”

  1. You do not seem very familiar with the history of universities. Most universities in the United States were originally established for religious purposes and did not believe that “faith” and “critical thinking” were mutually exclusive. Today most universities have as their mission to find and teach truth. I don’t know any of the major universities, public or private, established over 50 years ago that had as their mission statement or “most important job” to “ensure that those sacred grounds of ethics and basic human decency are respected.” I know very few universities today that have that as their mission statement. That may be what you’d like universities to be, but that is not in-line with history or modern reality.

    1. Thanks for your comment, anonymous.

      Yes, there is a history, and yes you could say many universities in the US were more overtly religious and Christian back in the day. But the story of education and its relationship to tradition is both longer and more complicated. See , for instance, Aristophanes’ Clouds and Plato’s Republic.

      About truth: ethics and basic human decency are truth, in my opinion.

  2. I would argue that your definition of what a University is meant to do is far too limited. Most of the great Universities of today were started as faith based institutions intended first and foremost to teach students the great values and skills of a classical (and Christian) education. See Harvard or Yale for clear examples. The model of the University as primarily focused on unbridled research is a modern invention. There is no reason that BYU or any other University is required to adopt that model. And the state should not coerce or compel that model of education through the use of the cudgel of accreditation. There is room for a University that conducts research and teaching in harmony with religious faith, just as there is room for other institutions with other perspectives. Diversity of institutions leads ultimately to greater diversity of thought.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Daniel.

      Let’s say that Harvard or Yale used to begin with faith, revelation, and the like (I doubt that they did, but let’s say so). That would have been then. At any rate, they don’t now.

      Indeed, a lot has changed in education in the US and globally since the BYUs (in their nascent forms) were established. It’s time for the Church to modernize or get out of the university business. Theocratic ed is not a workable model anymore if it ever was.

      About classical education, if you mean ancient Greece and Rome, I don’t think it was as traditional and in-line with Christianity as you may be assuming.

      About diversity and tolerance, they do not mean that everything goes. Frankly, differences in ideology, including religion, should be actively opposed, if they threaten human life / safety / happiness or the eco-system. Hence ethics.

  3. I work at BYU. Regardless of what Church leaders or university administrators say, I feel it is my responsibility to search for and defend truth, not some institutional stance that may change over time as better information becomes available. If that is being “unfaithful,” so be it. I am interested only in truth, and sometimes it is difficult to ascertain, particularly when “spiritual” experience comes into conflict with reason and sound information.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Franklin. I’m glad to hear it! What are the biggest potential challenges or conflicts you encounter in your teaching and research there, if you can say? And how have you handled them?

    2. “… change over time as better information becomes available.”

      Except that that’s the very definition of the scientific model that you privilege over your scare-quoted “‘spiritual’ experience.”

  4. Daniel O.,

    I don’t think it is helpful to point to what Harvard and Yale and others were. A lot of things were one way a hundred years ago and another way now and will be another way in years to come. What matters is what is current. And this should appeal to your libertarian, free market sensibilities: BYU degrees will only be as valuable as the employment market deems them. There very well may come a time in the near future–maybe already occurring in some sectors–where a BYU degree is valued less because of its less than stellar track record of academic freedom, or its stance vis-a-vis LGBTQ issues, or to the fact that a sizable chunk of a bachelor’s degree is devoted to mostly useless Religious Education credits. This is not the state forcing any university’s hand. It’s just the market. Moreover, accrediting agencies are not organs of the state (though I think some of their guidelines are stipulated by the U.S. Department of Education). BYU voluntarily belongs to a regional accrediting consortium and *vigorously* works to maintain its accredited status.

    Nobody is attacking the diversity of institutions. The issue in the OP is whether a university can be a university in the current sense when someone like a cardinal in line to become the pope says in a public address to the faculty that they need to use their professional training and standing to defend church policies. And we’re not even talking about doctrines (whatever those are).

    1. I love your narrative on this matter. I perceive that the value of a degree from BYU has already begun to diminish; and I’m only speaking from the standpoint of the recruiting for which I’ve been responsible.

    2. All employees in all employments are required by inherent legal duties of loyalty to not undermine their employer’s purposes for which employees are being paid. Asking an employee for find ways to support the Church’s policies is akin to asking employees at all universities to not undermine the purposes of the institutions for which they teach. That does mean one cannot raise questions or even disagree on many issues — but an employee at BYU cannot e.g. write an anti-Mormon book and cannot undermine the Church’s efforts to carry out its basic mission. I suspect that as a Judge Elder Oaks is well-versed in these basic of American employment law.

  5. Daniel, setting aside questions of institutional categorization, do you think that the way Bednar (and Oaks too, I’ve heard and seen) want BYU profs to **reach conclusions** that support (not merely to do research about) the policies of the Church is any way to conduct any kind of legitimate inquiry? “Here’s a policy, now go find ways to call it ‘true’ in the language of the academy.” It’s just bad methodology, bad thinking, and smacks of a fundamental weakness of position. This is not faithfulness. It’s Bob Jones.

    There’s a reason or two the ivies abandoned this kind of inquiry.

    1. Could you show me where Elder Oaks advocated for that kind of methodology — “here is our policy now go find ways to support it”? i believe that you are being uncharitable by attacking a straw-man and placing words in his mouth he never asserted.

  6. Why does it always seem that church and secular insights are somehow in conflict? It says something very peculiar about one’s ideas about God and revelation if different ways of knowing must lead to diverging or even opposing intellectual outcomes.

  7. What on earth does it mean to “start with faith” or “start with reason.” I’m trying to understand that in practical terms but I can’t quite figure out. Let’s say I’m a mathematician and I have a dream about a theorem. Am I starting with reason or faith? It seems to me like your criteria doesn’t really work as a real difference.

    1. Clark, they’re not “starting with faith”. They’re starting with policy, and promoting research agendas tied to people’s livelihoods (that the Church directly controls) to support that policy. Again, which do you think produces better results: something that starts with the conclusion or something that starts with the question and follows where it leads?

      Your question definitely gets at heuristic values of different kinds of experience and thought, for sure. I just don’t think it’s operative in this case–where the institution is clearly motivated to support very specific outcomes.

  8. It seems like the Brethren view their universities in the same way they view LDS politicians, their PR department, and interfaith relationships — all just tools to advance their own agendas in shaping the world in their own image.. the spirit of learning from others, interaction, and dialogue somehow are just not on the menu when you are convinced that you walk “in the meekness of His Spirit”

  9. Clark,

    This is just my two cents. I think the meaning of “start with faith” or “start with reason” is pretty clear, at least in practice.

    Suppose you had that dream. If you start with reason, you try to develop the proof. If it cannot be proven, or you prove it false, you drop it and move on to another avenue of research.

    If you start with faith, you insist the “theorem” is true regardless of the ability to prove it. Perhaps you even deny evidence that it is proven false. Maybe you kill someone who reveals proof of its wrongness to others (thinking of the possibly apocryphal story about the Pythagoreans).

    1. I am not arguing against your overall point at all. I would just like to suggest that faith is not certain knowledge. We trust when we exercise faith, but we are never sure, and in fact there is an old aphorism from Anselm of Canterbury that speaks to this: faith seeking understanding.

      So I guess what I might say is that I trust that God guides when and where it fits his purposes. But I also seek understanding about those purposes and how various human activities are aligned with them. So as I think you are saying, we are not well served by acting on inappropriate levels of certainty.

  10. AM: “If you start with faith, you insist the “theorem” is true regardless of the ability to prove it. Perhaps you even deny evidence that it is proven false. ”

    Book of Mormon, for instance, which is likely part of what Bednar is trying to get at: the only way this book is in any way shape or form “true” is if you start with faith; otherwise, left to archaeologists, geneticists and linguists it is a novel. These two sides do not fit together, there is no common resolution. That’s a problem.

  11. I like that view of faith, mogget. It would be an improvement if that’s what Elder Bednar were saying, and if that’s how the BYUs were run. Mormonism could learn a lot from Catholic history and thought.

  12. Hello p,

    Yes, that’s a real sticking point in any conversation about what scholarship done by Mormons in an academic field should look like, perhaps especially in the fields of biblical and religious studies.

    At BYU, the Book of Mormon is taught as an ancient text in the Department of Ancient Scripture. No other accredited university would do that (with the possible except of SVU?), and neither should BYU.

    If the Church wants to claim that BYU is a university, then there are two options when it comes to the Book of Mormon …

    Option one. It should be taught within the Department of Church History and Doctrine (for example) as a 19th-century work of religious literature, because that is where the preponderance of evidence places it.

    Option two. It could be taught as ancient scripture within a religious institute but not an academic college or department.

    To clarify for any who may be concerned by that: I am not saying that the Church must abandon BoM historicity in LDS religious settings, like branches, wards, stakes, seminaries and institutes. I am saying that universities (should) have certain basic rules, and if you want to compete in the university game and thus be able to tout your status as a competitor, you (should) have to play by the rules *while you are playing that game.* You can play other games with other rules in other venues, of course. You can even invent your own game with your own rules. But that’s something else.

    1. It does seem that you are assuming that the Book of Mormon could not possibly be studied as an ancient text using the kinds of historical methods and analysis used by e.g., critical biblical scholarship. Are you assuming or asserting that?

  13. “If the Church does not want its universities to begin with critical thinking and the scientific method, the Church needs to get out of the university business. It’s as simple as that.”

    I think I understand your motivation here. I just disagree. Why should any endeavor at all have to begin as you suggest (as if it could)? The fact is that no scientific reasoning or critical thinking begins where you demand — nor could it. It begins where one is,
    with one’s basic faith commitments, life’s experience and world-view(s) already in place. It begins with basic commitments about the value of education and what is most important to study — most often with commitments that not only are not subject to the scientific method but are never adopted by first critically thinking.

    I doubt that many disciplines at universities really adopt the scientific method. Philosophy and English do not. I do not think that Psychology does — or any of the social “sciences”. I seriously doubt that even the hard sciences are based on the scientific method to the extent that all theories and methods arise from basic assumptions — including formal logic and mathematics that cannot proceed without at least some basic axioms and assumptions: derivation procedures, formation transference rules, and rules of inference that cannot be proven by the same rigorous reasoning. These facets of reasoning can be justified only as basic givens which have the property of just seeming right or that lead to explanation and consistency of a range of experience and data.

    Further, what counts as “critical thinking” for you seems way too narrow to me. I would like to see your definition or elucidation of what “critical thinking” consists in to better understand why you think it necessarily excludes studying devotionally or from the perspectives elucidated by Elders Bednar and Oaks. I believe that analytic philosophy involves “critical thinking” — but I doubt that a lot of what passes for Eastern philosophy would meet any definition you can come up with. I suspect that you do not mean to exclude such disciplines.

    Why cannot a university study begin with basic faith commitments as a stand-point from which to explore the basic texts and devotional life of the faith? As Mogget points out, some views can be explored only by beginning with faith. I would argue that all forms of critical study begin with some form of faith or prior commitment.

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