A Time of Reckoning

Clearly something is stirring at Brigham Young University. The university is re-examining its fundamental mission, taking stock of how it has drifted away from this mission, and undertaking a realignment with that mission. All Latter-day Saints, and indeed all friends of religious higher education in the United States, have a stake in this challenging ongoing process. The university’s leading officers, under the direction of the Commissioner of Church Education, Clark Gilbert, and of the Board of Trustees in Salt Lake City, have addressed the university audience repeatedly, clearly, and emphatically — especially over the last two years — concerning the need to realign BYU with its distinctive religious as well as intellectual mission as a university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is much less clear, though, how these efforts to redirect BYU will unfold or what will be the eventual outcome of the present ferment. This article is mainly a reflection on the university’s annual conference, August 22, 2022, as well as on meetings and conversations at the college and department level that same day, and on subsequent reverberations throughout the institution that I have witnessed directly or that have been reported to me by BYU colleagues who share my concerns. I aim both to clarify the nature of the changes being called for by BYU leadership and to explain the very significant obstacles that stand in the way of these changes. Let me say at the outset that I wholly embrace the present call for mission realignment, and that I also understand that the obstacles to it are in many cases structural and not a result of deliberate opposition or disloyalty on the part of recalcitrant faculty.

As I will show below, President Kevin Worthen and Vice President Shane Reese made it very clear in their respective addresses on August 22, 2022 to the whole BYU community — and to the whole faculty — that improved alignment with the Church and the Restored Gospel is a high priority in the school’s updated strategic planning. VP Reese, in particular, offered some very bold and suggestive reflections on BYU’s need to articulate a “gospel methodology.” What remains unclear is just how the re-commitment to a gospel-centered education approach is to be articulated and just how this mission realignment is to be conceived and implemented, given the university’s deep involvement with and dependence on the mainstream establishment of higher education in the United States. I will argue, further, on the basis of observations at the “operational” level of the university (academic colleges and departments), that

in the absence of a clear and substantive articulation and organizational incentivizing of the administration’s mandate to integrate religious faith and intellectual learning, the faculty as a whole will likely continue in their familiar professional grooves, and that many professors will continue to interpret gospel imperatives in ways that align conveniently with the humanistic religion, now largely driven by victimhood identity politics, that is prominent in the mainstream academy.

Finally, returning to the most important message from the annual university conference, I intend to show that a careful reading of Elder Christofferson’s speech of August 22 provides the key to a fuller and more practicable articulation of BYU’s mission and shows the way forward to a difficult and gradual but necessary implementation.

Truth and Authority, Religious and Secular

Brigham Young University has striven from the beginning to meet the challenge of being a University that embraces high academic standards necessarily grounded in the larger world of higher education, and at the same time rooted in and fully supportive of the doctrine and mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was never going to be easy to reconcile these two sides of the university’s mission, the dual commitment to reason (as practiced in the academy) and to faith. For those who, like me, fully believe in the truth of the Restoration, the problem is not one of any fundamental incompatibility between the two poles of BYU’s mission, that is, between learning that is at once “by study” and “by faith.” The Restored Gospel is not only true but intellectually rich and satisfying, and so the activities and attitudes of careful thinking on the one hand and humble openness to revelation are of necessity allies in the understanding and application of truth. The difficulty, however, is that we are never in full possession of the whole truth as we undertake the educational process; in both the exercise of the gift of our natural reason and in the application of our faith to the pursuit of fuller understanding, we are always on the way and never at the end of our search for truth.

Where faith and revelation are concerned, we have the benefit of fundamental principles and doctrines that we accept in part on the basis of our trust in prophets (scriptural and contemporary) as mouthpieces for Heavenly Father. I am grateful for the ordained authority that supports and clarifies revealed teachings, both for me personally and for Brigham Young University as an institution. The authority of such basic teachings is not in question in this essay. Indeed, my view is that more careful and faithful attention to truths expounded by prophets and apostles, including very recent apostolic counsel, is essential to helping the BYU community recognize and overcome the difficulties that arise from the limited and imperfect exercise of our natural intellectual faculties.

It is too rarely considered by academics and intellectuals that the influence of authority on the pursuit of truth does not operate only on the religious side of the educational equation.

It is important to reckon with the rather obvious fact that there is a secular academic establishment, a network of institutions and a force-field of professional prestige that necessarily exercises great influence over all universities.

It is impossible, moreover, that BYU should be completely immune or indifferent to this influence. Our very sense of what it means to be a real, reputable university is not something we can create for ourselves, and BYU depends, like every other recognized university, on a thousand incentives and cues that emanate from the sources of validation that are built into the academic enterprise. A literature professor who wants to succeed in his profession cannot afford to be indifferent to the norms represented by the Modern Language Association any more than a political scientist can define political science according to her own idiosyncratic taste or beliefs, with no regard for the definition that is operative, for example, in the American Political Science Association. Similarly, BYU may well seek to be “unique” as a university in important respects, but as long as it aims to maintain and enhance its reputation as a university, it cannot heedlessly flout the understanding of higher education represented by Harvard or Stanford or the University of Utah. To be a unique university, we must first of all be a university.

And of course BYU is very much a university that occupies a real and respectable place in the larger academic world. Indeed, BYU has undergone a process of professionalization over recent decades that has succeeded in solidifying the university’s status among its secular peers. This enhanced professionalization benefits the university and the Church as a whole in countless respects, but it also inevitably presents a challenge to our unique religious mission. BYU is part of the Church, but it is also, inevitably, and increasingly, part of this academic world. This dual participation in the Church and in the academic world is in some respects a notable achievement. But it is also, increasingly, a problem for an institution that claims a distinctly religious mission; indeed it is a big problem and one that, if not confronted head-on, can only get bigger.

The challenge of BYU’s being in the secular academic world but not totally of that world is not a new one, but it is has become increasingly salient in recent years. Elders Jeffrey R. Holland and D. Todd Christofferson, as well as Elder Clark Gilbert, who now heads the Church Education system, seem clearly to have become concerned, even alarmed, at the flagship Latter-day Saint university’s evident drift away from its distinctive mission. This drift is most evident to outsiders in an increasing presence of and apparent tolerance for certain expressions of leftist ideological radicalism on the part of some students and faculty. [1] But

the more blatant demonstrations of ideological passions inconsistent with the gospel by a minority of faculty and students are only the tip of a massive iceberg that drifts mostly unseen.

That iceberg is BYU’s involvement in and dependence upon the larger academic establishment itself and its intellectual assumptions. The university’s drift away from the goal of being a unique university thoroughly informed by the Restoration is driven by deep and persistent intellectual currents, materialist or amoral and anti-family views of the human being that are now dominant in the mainstream academy. These dominant intellectual currents are profoundly incompatible with the gospel and indeed with the pursuit of truth itself understood as a standard and a possibility above human desire and power and ideology. [2]

My goals in this essay are (1) to persuade any of my faculty colleagues who are interested in engaging the question of the university’s mission that there are ways to respond to the new call for mission alignment other than quiet dismissal, irony, resentment, and subversion; and (2) to propose to various levels of administration a very general but substantial model, largely inspired by Elder Christofferson’s university conference remarks, for articulating and incentivizing the implementation of the “gospel methodology” called for by President Kimball. This articulation and implementation would require not all, but some critical mass of faculty and administrators, to undertake the costly task of taking a critical distance from the mainstream secular disciplines that now provide the unquestioned framework of our teaching and scholarship.

The Focus on “the Student” as a Proxy for Religious Mission

BYU Presidents and other Church leaders have of course long recognized and warned against the threat to BYU’s distinctive mission represented by the massive secular drift of the academic establishment. Such a warning has been nowhere more clearly stated than in Church President Spencer W. Kimball’s 1975 speech, "The Second Century of Brigham Young University."

We can sometimes make concord with ­others, including scholars who have parallel purposes. By reaching out to the world of scholars, to thoughtful men and women everywhere who share our concerns and at least some of the items on our agenda of action, we can multiply our influence and give hope to others who may assume that they are alone.
In other instances, we must be willing to break with the educational establishment (not foolishly or cavalierly, but thoughtfully and for good reason) in order to find gospel ways to help mankind. Gospel methodology, concepts, and insights can help us to do what the world cannot do in its own frame of reference.
In some ways the Church Educational System, in order to be unique in the years that lie ahead, may have to break with certain patterns of the educational establishment. When the world has lost its way on matters of ­principle, we have an obligation to point the way. We can, as Brigham Young hoped we would, “be a people of profound learning pertaining to the things of the world,” but without being tainted by what he regarded as “the pernicious, atheistic influences” that flood in unless we are watchful. Our scholars, therefore, must be sentries as well as teachers!”

It is very encouraging to note that Pres. Kimball’s bracing challenge has been closely studied over recent months by BYU leaders and has been quoted repeatedly and emphatically as a standard to strive for in much recent counsel to university personnel. In order to begin to assess the challenges facing the university in implementing a “gospel methodology” at the core of the life of the university, we next turn to President Worthen’s university conference address, and then to Vice President Shane Reese’s remarks the same day to the entire BYU faculty. Following a consideration of these important speeches, I will share my own observations on the difficulties faced by colleges and departments in receiving and implementing the administration’s counsel concerning fundamental mission realignment. Finally, I will turn to Elder Christofferson’s address, in which I believe the keys to the real implementation of such a realignment may be found.

President Kevin Worthen’s tenure in his office has been marked by a continuous and devout attention to the university’s distinctive mission.

His addresses to the university over the years can all be profitably studied by those pondering the school’s distinctive mission. This year’s speech is a particularly notable example of the recent enhanced emphasis on BYU’s religious mission, including its multiple references to the landmark speech by President Kimball. Worthen’s speech also referenced significant revisions to the university’s “strategic plan” in view of this renewed mission commitment.

President Worthen began his address by acknowledging certain special challenges the university, and our society more generally, have been facing of late: Covid, inflation, and, notably, “increasing polarization.” He then introduced a review of the university’s progress towards its goals by referring first to the more measurable and conventional signs of success for universities. Coming, then, to a more focused discussion of the university’s mission as represented in recent revisions of BYU’s strategic plan, President Worthen’s central focus in this year’s message becomes clear: likening himself to a football coach who called his team back to basics by the simple statement, “this is a football,” he showed several photos of young people and simply repeated, with notable emotion: “this is a student.” The gesture was quite moving and effective in reminding us of our central obligation, as faculty and staff, to students. This focus on students is certainly a valuable way to put in perspective the often very specialized and technical scholarly projects (not obviously connected to the holistic education of the student as a whole person) that tend to dominate the reward system of academics at BYU as elsewhere. But the word “student” by itself does not by itself clarify BYU’s explicit commitment to an idea of education that aspires to draw as much upon faith as upon reason, and only secondarily upon purely technical or specialized competence. A student-focused university is not necessarily a university that integrates the rational pursuit of truth with the Restored Gospel.

The question left unanswered in President Worthen’s emphasis upon students as the core of BYU’s mission is: just who, in an eternal perspective, is a student? Just what are we supposed to help the students become? (I will suggest below that this was precisely the question Elder Christofferson was answering, or showing us how to begin to answer, with his focus on the priority of the first commandment and of self-reliance.)

To make students the priority of a BYU education without saying something to specify how we want to help them become better human beings and Latter-day Saints risks in effect separating the Second Great Commandment from the First, as if devotion to the benefit of students could be pursued without a clear idea of what is essential to the students’ true good as children of a Heavenly Father.

This is not to say that there is anything in President Worthen’s presentation of BYU’s mission that contradicts or is incompatible with an enhanced focus on what President Kimball called “gospel methodology.” In fact, the president references a “holistic” understanding of student development, which might well evoke precisely the ethical and religious idea presented by the apostle. But we will need more than the general term “holistic” to spur reflection on just what view we take of the whole person and the whole community, and of higher education’s contribution to this whole.

In a video prominently featured in his speech, the president presented an impressive student, Hannah, who exhibited admirable traits both of intellect and of character in her studies of different grasses that led to the development of a water-efficient grass for athletic fields and other uses. Clearly there is much to admire in Hannah’s BYU experience. Any of us would certainly be proud to be her teacher, or her parent. But what is not clear is whether there is anything specifically derived from or closely, distinctively connected with the gospel in Hannah’s excellent work, or in its portrayal. She is doubtless a good example of “helping other people improve their lives,” and of “going out and making a difference,” but in no obvious way that was explained is she an example of what would distinguish BYU from other universities involved in developing technologies to improve the material condition of humanity. There is no clear linkage between Hannah’s service and any substantively “holistic” understanding of the human person or the Zion community.

Of course, it would be unreasonable to ask that every edifying and instructive example say everything that needs to be said about BYU’s mission. The problem is that one hardly ever hears from the platform of the Marriott Center of cases that really exemplify that mission in any deep or specific way. Time and again we are invited to admire technological contributions to material problems (e.g., digging wells in Africa or providing huts in Mongolia) that are indeed praiseworthy but that have no evident bearing on a distinctive gospel methodology. These, to be sure, are often impressive examples of technical learning applied to real-world problems, but they help little in highlighting anything distinctive about BYU. [3]

President Worthen in fact admitted candidly that he is “not fully sure what President Kimball meant by gospel methodology.” In fact, officers of the university all the way down have been consistently humble regarding insight into the actual meaning of this key term, and faculty have certainly registered the fact that those to whom they are accountable admit to having no clear idea what they are to account for.

(The mention of “gospel methodology” elicited nervous laughter among faculty in a recent interdisciplinary gathering I attended.) President Worthen’s humility and candor are welcome, to be sure, and the problem of knowing just what it means to adopt a gospel perspective in each of the fields of study of the modern university is admittedly very challenging, to say the least. And President Worthen is surely right to counsel us to take the Savior as our model and to seek personal revelation as to how to apply a “gospel methodology” in each of our domains. We are unlikely to discover any fully consensual or “objective” standard of such a methodology to guide faculty hiring and development. But surely some more concrete and substantive shared understanding will be necessary if the university is to move forward meaningfully towards a true mission realignment.

Without such a shared and incentivized understanding, the path of least resistance will always be determined by professional influences foreign to BYU’s distinctive mission. The risk of defining ourselves with a view to how we are seen by those who do not and are not likely to share or sympathize with our mission came to the fore in the last section of President Worthen’s talk, when he discussed new efforts at the “branding” of the university, that is, the refinement of a “Strategic Communications Plan” aimed at influencing “what others say about you when you are not in the room.” No doubt such public relations efforts are necessary to the work of any modern institution that depends upon the respect or at least tolerance of a broader public. But the risk of diluting our mission in order to “enlarge our influence” is obvious. In discussing BYU’s “branding” efforts, President Worthen returned to a fundamental premise of all BYU mission statements, that is, the idea that faith and reason can be understood as mutually supportive of each other. But to merge faith and reason in the context of public relations runs the risk of defining the terms in a way that will please or at least mollify those who share little of our fundamental understanding of either faith or reason.

The proposition that “here everything is sacred” seems to represent BYU’s strategy for synthesizing faith and reason on the one hand, and internal mission commitment and “branding” on the other. The claim is sublime, but the risk is that the branding will color or even determine the mission: “everything is sacred” tends in practice to mean “sacred is everything.”

President Worthen invites us to “sacramentalize the secular,” but it is not clear how to distinguish this from permission to “secularize the sacramental.” Here again the path of least resistance for most faculty will be simply to regard conscientious work according to agendas set by the mainstream disciplines as satisfying the aspiration to the “sacramental.”

I conclude that President Worthen’s counsel, while overall inspiring and certainly unobjectionable on every point, remains at such a level of generality (thus prioritizing the avoidance of “polarization”) that it would be hard even for a faculty member of the most earnest and sympathetic intention to infer just what it means to follow it, or, for that matter, to flout it. This is why I believe that without a more specific linkage with a distinctive view of the human good such as proposed, as we shall see, in Elder Christofferson’s idea of a “self-reliance” — an idea that, we have seen, is at once material, moral, and spiritual — then the language of the “sacred” or the “spiritual” or of the student as a “whole person” is unlikely to bring the university into a closer alignment with its distinctive mission.

The search for a “gospel methodology”

Academic Vice President Shane Reese’s address to the BYU faculty, “Becoming New Creatures,” was in many ways the clearest and most emphatic of the university conference in calling us to more fully embrace BYU’s distinctive educational and religious mission. Those of us ready to take to heart and put into practice BYU’s distinctive mission may surely take much encouragement from it.

Referring, as did President Worthen, to President Kimball’s Second Century Address, Reese focused on Kimball’s urging that we develop a “gospel methodology” to inform all of our teaching and scholarship, and that we learn to see our academic discipline through a gospel lens, and not the reverse. This may prove to be counsel of decisive importance if we can find a way to implement it.

Reese recalled the prophet’s 1975 instruction that we would need in some significant ways to break with the educational establishment, and, braving the comfortable ethic of non-polarization, he went so far as to quote President Kimball’s warning against “pernicious, atheistic influences” and his call for faculty to be “sentries as well as teachers.”

Vice President Reese commended initiatives that aim to help prepare students heading for graduate degrees for the “opposition” they are likely to face, noting that mission alignment continues to be a key emphasis in BYU’s hiring of new faculty. He also urged departments and colleges to recognize and reward scholarship that addresses our core mission and promised more funding for “inspiring learning.” All these points add up to an ambitious and inspiring agenda for the university.

Given such a repeated emphasis on BYU’s mission as profoundly different, even in some respects opposed to, the idea of education that is understood to dominate the academic mainstream, it still remains somewhat surprising how little faculty have been instructed on just what the BYU difference should consist of when put into practice. Following President Worthen’s lead, Vice President Reese disarmingly confessed that he himself does not yet know just what we are talking about when we say “gospel methodology,” and that “we still do not know” what programs matter most in the area of “inspiring learning.” Here again the actual definition of the BYU difference was deferred to the personal revelation of professors and to discussions at the departmental level. The video example shared by President Reese depicted a team of computer graphics specialists who, through prayer, were able to find the solution to a technical problem –—an inspiring case study in the efficacy of prayer, but one that sheds no more specific light on our distinctive mission than did President Worthen’s example of the student who succeeded in developing better grass. Faculty who are not in the habit of including professional concerns in their prayers should take notice, but we are still waiting to hear about any specific answers that have been given to prayers of administrators concerning the concrete definition of BYU’s “uniqueness.” [4]

Vice President Reese’s humble confession certainly deserves respect, but it leaves one wondering just how we faculty are supposed to be bold sentries against an unnamed enemy for a yet-to-be-specified cause. If there are any faculty who do not pray for success in their research or in other worthy pursuits, then they have been well reminded.

Just what is the common goal that defines us as a Latter-day Saint university,

and what are the pernicious, atheistic influences that prevail in the secular academy that we must resist? This is a topic that seems to be scrupulously avoided in speeches by members of the administration (and, I should be clear, not only the present administration). As in President Worthen’s address, Vice President Reese used BYU’s focus on students, and specifically undergraduate teaching, as a kind of proxy for BYU’s distinctive mission: worldly universities are research-focused, but BYU, while supporting a “robust research program,” is student-focused. But again, just what might be the intellectual content through which BYU faculty might support the student’s eternal and holistic well-being, and not only such technical capacities as computer graphics and grass-breeding? Without some shared and determinate intellectual substance, the content of our focus on students will default to the secular research paradigms we share with the broader academy. The problem is not that BYU faculty are not student-focused. The problem is that we are not united around a “holistic” aim that is supposed to be guiding our teaching and mentoring. By asking faculty to distinguish their own intellectual aspirations from their efforts to educate students as whole persons, our administrators seem, in effect, to be conceding the whole substance of the life of the mind to methodologies unconcerned with (if not opposed to) the holistic self-reliance of students. In practice, this can only mean that our concern for students is decisively shaped by our specialized disciplinary or sub-disciplinary ideas about the true meaning of research and scholarship. For a professor to put concern for students above his or her own intellectual life (a message many would have taken from these university proceedings), rather than asking the professor to share a holistic spiritual and intellectual life with the student, might miss the more important focus — while inadvertently allowing specialized and secular understanding of the life of learning to dictate outcomes over time.Once this dichotomy between learning and the whole of a good and faithful life is assumed, then the professor’s role in the intellectual formation of the student seems almost inescapably guided only by more dominant secular- professional norms. If we cannot agree on the meaning of a “whole person” (student or faculty), then we will tend to produce only young professionals after our own image.

Vice President Reese’s boldest and most promising reflection on BYU’s mission centered on President Kimball’s expression, “gospel methodology.” Reese notes, significantly, that the prophet used the term in the singular: a gospel methodology, not several, or an indefinite number of, gospel methodologies. Consulting dictionary definitions of the term, he makes an important distinction between “methodology” and “technique.” A methodology is “a set or system of methods, principles and rules for regulating a discipline … or the underlying principles and rules of organization of a philosophical system or inquiry procedure … or the study of the principles underlying the organization of various sciences and the conduct of scientific inquiry.” To focus on “gospel methodology” as more fundamental than disciplinary “technique” would thus imply attention to our basic motives and purposes as scholars and teachers. It would also invite searching examination of the fundamental philosophical assumptions underlying the methodologies (always disguised as morally and politically neutral scientific techniques) that define our specialized disciplines. Very rarely does our formation in our specialized disciplines include a serious or sustained examination of those philosophical assumptions. Without such examination, how can we know where “pernicious, atheistic influences” might be at work underneath the calm, supposedly neutral scientific surface? Vice President Reese has done us great service by calling our attention to such questions.

Reese’s reference to our proper shared motives returns us to the basic theme that we shall find in Elder Christofferson’s address: We are to be guided by love for God, for students, and for truth, and our objective must be to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life. (It is striking, moreover, that in his September 13 BYU devotional address, President Oaks also emphasized the two great commandments, properly ordered.) On the basis of this deep definition of “methodology” inspired by President Kimball, Vice President Reese suggests that our scholarship needs to be distinctive less in technique than in motivation and purpose, which should be “illuminated by gospel concepts and insights, which will give us a better sense of where to look and what to look for.” In so far as we have a distinctive “technique,” Reese suggests, this will simply be the commitment to seek truth “by study and by faith,” and thus to seek personal revelation in connection with our scholarship.

I wonder, however, whether this is an adequate response to the power of technical, secular, methodologies.

Our disciplines are governed by techniques masquerading as methodologies (in Reese’s principled sense), and these carry with them underlying and unexamined principles, motives, and purposes, however explicit or implicit, that are incompatible with the “methodology” of the gospel.

Vice President Reese’s speech invites us as faculty members to consider and discuss among ourselves the implicit principles that lie beneath the “techniques” and practices that we tend to take for granted in our disciplines. What are the prospects for such discussions of fundamental principles at the level of departments and colleges, and for any practical fruit that such discussions might bear?

The Challenge of Aligning BYU with Prophetic Ideals

The question of how to relate a “gospel methodology” to the many “methodologies” or “techniques” that govern our disciplines and subdisciplines is certainly a very challenging one. It would not be reasonable to criticize President Worthen or Vice President Reese in their recent remarks for not providing a one-size-fits-all answer, certainly not in the context of an inspirational exhortation. But without some general agreement on this question, it is far from obvious how we are to progress towards the mission alignment that is now the clear imperative for BYU faculty. And how can we hire to support this mission, or more generally incentivize contributions to this distinctive mission, when we acknowledge that we have no idea what that would mean, what a gospel methodology would look like, or how it would depart from reigning methodologies that present themselves as mere neutral techniques?

Finally, if President Kimball was right that sound higher education is threatened by “pernicious, atheistic influences,” then what are they and how can we identify and counteract them?

Without some shared understanding of a gospel methodology and its hostile alternatives, it is hard to see how faculty can be rallied to participate in anything that might be called a definite and unique educational project. Certainly there must be a place for open discussion at the departmental level and for personal revelation to be sought by each individual professor. But we will also need a more substantive and concrete understanding of our distinctive mission.

To measure the challenge ahead of us we must realistically consider the circumstances in which professors generally find themselves. We cannot be surprised that many honest and conscientious faculty members are quite at a loss to determine what it would mean to put aside the disciplines in which they have been trained and in which they have achieved professional success and the esteem of their peers, be they freshly minted PhDs, or senior faculty with decades invested in their specialized fields. The disposition of many such faculty ought not surprise us: they naturally feel that they were trained and hired to do one thing, and have been given to believe that they were doing it well, and that they are now being asked to perform some quite different but only vaguely indicated task. If many faculty seem to resist movement towards a new “gospel methodology,” it would be wrong to conclude that it is purely out of ill will or a lack of the “meekness” that Vice President Reese implored us in the university conference to exhibit. If we respect the actual intellectual content of a university education, then we cannot assume that conventional methodologies can be replaced by a “gospel methodology” by a simple and instantaneous assent of the heart. Apart from a spiritual appeal to the hearts of faculty, there is massive intellectual work to be done in conceiving such a methodology, critiquing existing methodologies in its light, and learning what it might mean to apply this methodology in all the areas of study that constitute a modern university.

What is true of faculty in general is doubly true of those who have risen through the ranks to occupy positions of influence in departments, colleges, and other units. It appears that in general, or at least in many cases, the administrative infrastructure at BYU — the department heads, deans, and committee leadership — have not been formed and selected mainly in view of the distinctive mission envisioned by President Kimball and other Church leaders, but rather, that they have, on the whole, been groomed and selected mostly according to conventional academic and administrative criteria.

That last statement may seem sweeping and extreme, but I believe it must be recognized that

President Kimball’s speech, when not completely forgotten, or even explicitly repudiated or sidelined at the highest level of the university, has been practically a dead letter in all but a few units of the university for decades as the professionalization of the university (according to quite legitimate academic criteria) has advanced.

This means that success, prestige and influence have more often flowed towards those not inclined to question the prevailing professional models and assumptions, and that those showing particular interest in implications of “gospel methodology” have routinely been rejected or marginalized. This is to suggest that for a long time BYU has not adequately hired to mission, nor has it promoted or filled administrative positions to mission, in the sense of prioritizing serious engagement with the intellectual issues involved in conceiving and implementing “gospel methodology.” [5]

Admittedly, it would have been difficult to prioritize such deeply mission-based hiring in some areas, since the pipeline — for which we rely largely on the secular academic establishment — is in some cases all but empty. The system as it now exists for producing excellent students and future graduate students is not designed with a view to any concern for “gospel methodology.” And in areas where the pipeline of young scholars committed to a truly distinctive BYU mission has not been completely choked off, majorities in departments who take their bearings from the cues of dominant academic models are quite unlikely to vote to hire faculty who don’t match their own, more conventional, understanding of academic excellence or prestige. A key fact of academic governance that BYU’s leaders and constituencies need to take account of is precisely this: While the university administration and general authorities are in positions to exercise veto power in the hiring process, it remains the case that hiring is largely in the hands of majorities or supermajorities in departments. And these majorities can naturally be expected to reproduce themselves. It will prove much easier to veto problematic candidates than to cultivate and select candidates substantively prepared to contribute to BYU’s distinctive mission. As things now stand, the very candidates who are most qualified to move the university forward in the articulation and implementation of its truly distinctive mission are very likely under the present system to be excluded from BYU employment because of that very qualification.

This observation about the difficulty in changing course in faculty hiring points to the depth of the challenge BYU faces in its effort to be truly unique; unique in the intellectual substance of its education as well as in the personal worthiness of its faculty and students. BYU is heavily dependent on the larger academy; it is part of the larger academy. Fortunately, that larger academy, though dominated by the tendencies alluded to by President Kimball, is not completely homogeneous. There are colleges and programs that refuse to ape the mainstream, that continue to respect and draw upon the sound elements of a traditional, more holistic education that President Kimball references, and that could be BYU’s natural allies in developing and implementing a unique and substantial academic vision. But rather than cultivating proactively such friendships, we have largely sought to rise in the rankings of the dominant secular establishment.

Where we are starting from

The notion of bathing every discipline, from mathematics to literature to sociology to neuroscience, in the light of the gospel is quite sublime, and certainly not meaningless, but as a touchstone for institutional reform it will require considerable fleshing out. And this process of articulating just what a gospel methodology might mean is at best in its infancy in some areas that lend themselves most naturally to such reflection, while in others sincere and diligent faculty understandably hardly know where to begin. Most faculty seem to be quite comfortable with the methodologies they share with secular or mainstream academics. Each has his or her own specialized sub-discipline, and each sees the existing methods or techniques as somehow serving the benefit of humanity and therefore as aligned with the gospel, not unlike the exemplary student whose mastery of grass-breeding methods made the world a little bit greener. As I observed above, this is the faculty who have been hired and promoted in recent decades (which is not to say that there was some earlier golden era in which things were necessarily better in every respect).

Of course there can be much good in making the world a little greener, or more “democratic,” or more prosperous, etc. But what view of humanity and its whole meaning or purpose informs this vast network of specialized and fragmented research programs, all vaguely understood as serving human progress? This is the question put to us by President Kimball’s call for a “gospel methodology,” and it is not one that our disciplines and subdisciplines equip us adequately to address.

Let me be clear that in the serious process of mission-realignment that I am trying to envision there would be no expectation, and certainly no requirement, that all or even most BYU faculty radically transform the ways they teach, research and publish. Many will necessarily continue to take their bearings by the technical methodologies and other scholarly frameworks that are well established in their various fields. Work that fits comfortably within prevailing scholarly conventions, when these do not directly or obviously contradict gospel teachings, must continue to make its contribution to learning at BYU. Progress will be made, not by requiring every professor to re-tool according to some interpretation of “gospel methodology,” but rather by hiring, promoting, and rewarding those faculty who show themselves to be ready and willing to teach and to publish in ways that more explicitly explore ramifications of the gospel for the study of the human being, the family, society and even nature more generally. This exploration will necessarily involve questioning the assumptions that prevail in the secular and increasingly ideological academy, and so we must not expect to evaluate the work of those faculty taking the most initiative with respect to gospel methodology to be measured mainly by the criteria defined by the powers that be in the secular mainstream. Suitable peers and peer institutions will need to be sought out and cultivated — and perhaps in some cases established.

What fills the vacuum.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the void of holistic meaning in the specialized sciences will be filled. In fact, it is being filled — in many cases — at BYU as throughout the academy, by an understanding of human meaning as the progressive liberation from all forms of moral, religious, and familial authority, and all standing norms and hierarchies.

Thus, alongside those faculty members who are content with the beneficent, material objectives of their scientific methodologies, there are others ready to redefine the gospel in terms of a commitment to liberation from “oppression,” with the attendant obsession with ideological identities, racial, sexual, etc. This is to say that, besides those who are reluctant to question their “scientific” methodologies, there are many who have their own divergent understanding of “gospel methodology,” or of a Zion society — an understanding that has little to do with the vision centered in material, moral, and spiritual self-reliance and the natural family expounded by our general authorities. Here the problem is not a lack of professional preparation for the momentous task of developing a “gospel methodology,” but rather the conviction of some faculty that they understand the social and moral implications of the gospel better than prophets and apostles. In a word, there is a kind of religion of the academy that speaks the language of “diversity,” “equality,” and “liberation” (or “anti-oppression”), and many faculty and intellectuals within the church as well as without find too little difficulty in re-interpreting the Restored Gospel so as to align with this ascendent academic religion. Faculty who are not focused on the more or less ethically “neutral” professionalization of students thus tend to be focused on the ideological conversion of students, the re-formatting of their understanding of the Restored Gospel to fit the social justice and identity politics agendas of the broader intellectual world.

From my personal observations, and consultations with colleagues in various departments, it is therefore impossible not to conclude that the strong and unmistakable message of the University Conference, and of other notable general authority speeches addressing BYU’s mission, becomes heavily diluted as it flows down from the trustees and the administration to the actual operational level of BYU faculty (teaching and research), to the point of being practically meaningless, or even subverted and converted into ideas perfectly at home in the secular academic mainstream. For instance, the idea of a “beloved community of Zion” is all-too-easily translated into the language of identity politics against which we have been repeatedly and insistently warned. The priority of the First Great Commandment over the Second, and therefore the understanding of love as informed by worship, commandment and moral discipline, likewise can easily give way to a secularized or hollowed-out understanding of love as “compassion” informed by the struggle for social justice, the struggle against racism, sexism, “ableism,” etc.

After such dilutions, what is left of the redemptive mission of the gospel is simply the conventional progressive language of “diversity” in politics. This conventional academic version of (or substitute for) Christianity, of course, includes the uncritical feminist assumption that what is best for women has little to do with family, but is rather to be measured in terms of matching or surpassing the numbers of men in the academy and in other occupations deemed to be successful and prestigious.

“Belonging” is defined not by a shared gospel ethic and hope, and certainly not by sharing in the struggle against dominant secular ideologies, but by a vague and purely humanistic idea of human solidarity, of the global sameness of humanity,

that is somehow supposed to be achieved along one or both of the two styles of research and teaching BYU faculty share with the broader academy: either by technical progress (including progress towards political and economic “development”), or by ideological radicalism, however “bathed” in the rhetoric of the gospel, that is, by dividing up people into ideological identities according to approved notions of group victimization. This is a secular solidarity that can easily be sanctified by a gospel vocabulary and sentimentality, while representing the near-absolute elevation of the Second Great commandment and the near-oblivion of the First. At the bottom of this purely horizontal humanism lies the idea of the expressive individual, the self as liberated from the natural family and from moral self-reliance. As an example, there is the statement by a BYU student, prominently cited in a college meeting as an example of our (secularized) mission of “belonging”: “I learned I needed to be who I am.” This kind of language meets absolutely no resistance at BYU, and there can be no clearer example of the emancipation of compassion for a liberated humanity from the demanding love of God.

In sum, the BYU administration’s preaching of a new commitment to a “gospel methodology” as trumpeted in President Kimball’s 1975 address seems to be falling in the great majority of cases on ears that cannot hear.

This includes too many faculty, who, when they are not offended by, say, the implication that Elder Holland does not implicitly trust them to do the jobs they were hired as professionals and servants of human progress and liberated equality to do, are simply (and, as I have argued, understandably) puzzled by what it would mean to be scientists — natural, social, or behavioral — who would explore the world and seek the truth on the basis of “gospel methodology.”

Where the more radical language of identity politics is avoided, the tendency is to interpret away BYU’s promise of uniqueness by translating “gospel methodology” into a generic student-centered attitude, a vague “spiritual” ambiance, or a commitment to ethics , say, in helping students see why it is immoral to vote for Donald Trump. In the same sense, a prevailing emphasis on countering “polarization” does nothing to encourage an actual engagement, as clearly intended by President Kimball, with social and ideological forces (far stronger than in the former prophet’s day) that are incompatible with any possible conception of a “gospel methodology.”

I conclude that, although the language of “holistic” education focused on the benefit of students rather than on scholarly prestige is inspiring enough, it cannot be the basis of any actual reform or realignment of the university’s mission unless we find a way to articulate a notion of the “whole” human being that (1) is deeply informed by the Restored Gospel and (2) can articulate its relationship to the (most often implicit) ideas of the human being and of human purposes that lie almost wholly unexamined in the foundations of the prevailing disciplines. Has not Vice President Reese pointed in this direction by inviting us to reflect on a gospel methodology that would be much more than a technical apparatus, but would grapple with the philosophical principles underlying our research and teaching?

Elder Christofferson on Self-Reliance, Service, and the Two Great Commandments

Elder Christofferson has pointed the way towards a more substantial and consequential understanding of “gospel methodology.” The connections he limns between the first great commandment and “self-reliance,” understood as at once practical, moral, and spiritual, proposes a view of human beings and of society that is distinctive in relation to prevailing academic assumptions. The proper ordering of the Two Great Commandments and the idea of self-reliance can be understood as the foundation on which to build in line with President Oaks and Elder Gilbert’s recent emphasis on the centrality of family, religion, and constitutionalism to the substance of a distinctive Latter-day Saint education.

Elder Christofferson’s remarks (in the same opening session of BYU’s annual conference that began with President Worthen’s speech discussed above) deserve our closest attention and are essential for understanding what is at stake in the other speeches given at University Conference, as well as in discussions at the operational levels of the university.

The apostle’s speech, I believe, provides a deep and solid foundation for considering the present implications of President Kimball’s 1975 challenge to the BYU community.

By closely linking the idea of service with that of self-reliance, and by reminding us of the necessary priority of the First Great Commandment to the Second, Elder Christofferson has provided a touchstone of eternal truth by which to guide and evaluate BYU’s mission alignment efforts.

Elder Christofferson’s choice of the theme of “self-reliance,” including very close attention to Pres. Marion G. Romney’s 1982 General Conference address, “The Celestial Nature of Self-Reliance,” in addressing the BYU community at a critical moment in its history strikes me as not at all a casual or incidental choice of theme. Thus, I think it is worth taking time seriously to ponder its deepest purpose. His message contains far more than vague spiritual uplift. It points to the deepest fundamentals at stake in the challenge of BYU’s distinctive mission, and thus can show us how to avoid the co-optation of BYU’s prestige and resources by godless worldviews and influences that increasingly prevail in the world at large — and which are all but totally dominant in the academic world as a whole. At a time when the university is struggling to understand how to align our religious and intellectual purposes, and one year after Elder Holland’s impassioned (and surprisingly controversial) call for BYU to embrace its uniqueness, Elder Christofferson has thus provided what is arguably a key to addressing this challenge, especially when this speech is studied in the context of other talks the apostle has given at BYU and in general conference.

After a strong “amen” to President Worthen’s address and expressions of gratitude for his own personal experience at BYU in the 1960s, Elder Christofferson takes up the idea of service, referencing the university’s familiar motto: “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.” Affirming this motto, the apostle noted that the whole point of BYU’s commitment to the development of the whole person — moral and spiritual as well as intellectual — is to prepare us for service to others. We will see that this concern for the whole person is essential for understanding just what it means to serve, that is, for appreciating the true character and purpose of service. I propose we read Elder Christofferson’s talk with a view to the question: just how is “self-reliance” to be understood as an essential concept for gaining a fuller understanding of BYU’s mission?

Some readers may find the apostle’s focus on “self-reliance” as a touchstone of educational mission surprising, since the concept is often associated with a narrowly economic and individualistic idea of the self. Of course, Elder Christofferson provides, on the basis of President Romney’s much earlier speech, a much fuller understanding of the term — one that includes moral and spiritual dimensions. Still, it would be a mistake, as we will see, to dismiss as irrelevant the important parallels suggested by the term “self-reliance” between its spiritual significance and its more ordinary or elementary meaning, including its plain temporal and material connotations. Self-reliance is certainly spiritual, but its spiritual meaning builds upon economic and moral imperatives that start with responsibility for physical well-being.

Drawing on an analogy between material and spiritual service, Elder Christofferson asks, “How can we give if there’s nothing there?” Service is the very “fiber of exalted life,” but it depends upon the “freedom” that comes from self-reliance. In this way, self-reliance and service form a kind of “virtuous cycle,” Elder Christofferson explains — rehearsing President Romney’s teaching that we strengthen ourselves, and build our characters and competences, in order better to serve others. And in turn, this service strengthens our connection with God and enhances our self-reliance. This virtuous cycle is reflected most deeply perhaps in the Savior’s teaching, referenced by Elder Christofferson, that to find our life [hearkening to self-reliance] we must lose it for His sake [through service to needs outside of ourselves]. The meaning of each term is thus bound up with the other. To imagine that we can “find” ourselves in pure self-reliance is one mistake; to imagine that we can give to others without possessing some self-reliant substance (spiritual as well as temporal) ourselves, is another kind of mistake.

To which kind of mistake are we most prone? Some of us perhaps tend more to one vice and some more to another - some trying to be self-reliant without losing ourselves in service, others imagining we can serve without cultivating spiritual self-reliance. The kind of mistake Elder Christofferson is most concerned about, at least where BYU is concerned, becomes clear, I think, in the rest of his speech, where he discusses “three requisites” for maintaining the virtuous cycle of finding and losing our lives.

First requisite: God first. The first of these comes down essentially to the two great commandments: cultivating our love of God and of our neighbor. And here Elder Christofferson leaves no doubt as to where priority must be placed. Excusing himself for referencing his own words from a recent BYU devotional, he makes it very clear that the order of commandments is important: the first commandment, to love God with all our hearts, mind, and strength, comes first.

Finding our spiritual center in God must come before benefiting other people, for “the love of God transforms us and our love for each other” (my emphasis).

The very meaning of loving and serving others, the very content or substance of human love properly understood, depends upon a prior transforming infusion of charity, or the love of God. (Elder Christofferson here also encourages a focus on “civic charity,” implying that even our service as citizens should be infused with the love that flows from our relationship with God.)

Second requisite: Identity in God first. The next requisite discussed is that of focusing on our priority “identities.” Quoting President Russell M. Nelson’s remarks from earlier this year to an audience of young adults, Elder Christofferson reminds us of our priority identity as children of God, children of the Covenant, and disciples of Christ - cautioning us against prioritizing “labels” based on nationality, race, or sexual characteristics.

How exactly does this warning against alternative identities fit with the overarching emphasis on self-reliance? Most prominently, each of these alternative identities is associated with a claim of victimhood — and so with public claims for benefits or “rights” or special legal status or even material “reparations.”

Clearly, to embrace a mentality of identity-based victimhood is the opposite of working towards self-reliance.

Elder Christofferson subsequently points out how the priority embrace of alternative identities above an eternal identity feeds much hatred in social media. Strikingly, he does not instruct us to refrain from opposing those who traffic in victim identities, but counsels us rather, “If we must contend,” to do so without anger. To love our enemies is not to ignore the fact that we have enemies; there are indeed powerful ideological forces at work in our society that are incompatible with our core identities under God. This is a counterpoint to so much rhetoric at BYU and, indeed, more generally among Church members, that seems to place a premium on avoiding “divisiveness” or “polarization” over the duty to stand up for what is right and good.

Third requisite: God’s grace leading the way. The political, or shall we say, anti-ideological implication of Elder Christofferson’s argument becomes perfectly clear in the last requisite he discusses: forgiveness. There have always been and still are tragic injustices and oppression; these, unhappily, are deep and widespread. But to respond to these unhappy facts by encouraging perpetual and limitless grievance is to invite the children of God to see themselves as permanent victims. Citing examples such as Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (as well as the character George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”), Elder Christofferson wisely counsels that “there is no future without forgiveness.” In order to “move forward,” we have to forgive what we cannot fix.

Morally-grounded material improvement. I conclude from Elder Christofferson’s timely message that the aims of BYU education depend decisively on understanding service as being seamlessly bound up in a “virtuous cycle” with spiritual self-reliance. This message, as the apostle noted, builds directly on his BYU Devotional earlier this spring, “The First Commandment First.” There he warns that neglecting the priority of the First Great Commandment can impoverish our understanding of love of neighbor and produce the counterfeit he names “unbridled compassion”:

[I]gnoring the first commandment, or reversing the order of the first and second commandments, risks a loss of balance in life and destructive deviations from the path of happiness and truth. Love of God and submission to Him provide checks against our tendency to corrupt virtues by pushing them to the extreme. Compassion for our neighbor’s distress, for example, even when the suffering is brought about by his or her own transgression, is noble and good. But an unbridled compassion could lead us, like Alma’s son Corianton, to question God’s justice and misunderstand His mercy (emphasis added).

Such a “reversing the order” of the two great commandments is, I propose, a fair description of much of the confusion or drift that exists at BYU regarding its essential mission.

In this same BYU devotional, Elder Christofferson quoted Elder Holland, who made it as clear as can be that “love” must never be understood in any way that allows us to excuse, much less advocate, sin:

So if love is to be our watchword, as it must be, then by the word of Him who is love personified, we must forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it … Jesus clearly understood what many in our modern culture seem to forget: that there is a crucial difference between the commandment to forgive sin (which He had an infinite capacity to do) and the warning against condoning it (which He never ever did even once) (emphasis added).

These themes were further reinforced in the March devotional by Elder Christofferson’s emphasis on the importance of accountability:

Let me mention just one more way we enshrine the first commandment as first in our lives. It is to live with a sense of accountability to God—accountability for the direction of our lives and for each day of our lives. That means resisting and overcoming temptation, repenting and forgiving, combating selfishness, taking upon us the name of Christ, and developing the character of Christ…

This emphasis on accountability makes it clear that the extension of the idea of “self-reliance” to the spiritual realm is much more than merely a metaphor. The analogy between material self-reliance and spiritual self-reliance is not a purely formal parallel, not simply an accident of vocabulary. While the two forms of self-reliance are in some respects distinct, they share this essential core: they both involve agency and accountability. In a 2009 General Conference address, “Moral Discipline,” Elder Christofferson likewise highlighted the importance of individual moral accountability towards God when he taught:

In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay. Societies will struggle in vain to establish the common good until sin is denounced as sin and moral discipline takes its place in the pantheon of civic virtues.
Moral discipline is a matter of agency and necessarily involves accountability, and it is the essential link between the two dimensions of self-reliance, material and spiritual.

There can be no spiritual self-reliance that does not build upon the basic capacity to take responsibility as much as possible for one’s own life, to govern one’s passions and appetites, and to work towards worthy goals, in a way one can answer for. Our love for our neighbor and our care for the common good of the community – our “civic charity” – will be counter-productive, even destructive, if not grounded in love of God and in spiritual and moral self-reliance.

The implications of Elder Christofferson’s counsel for the implementation of a “gospel methodology” thus begin to come into focus. For those who study the human person and human community (social, political, familial) for example, the “common good” cannot be reduced to a matter of avoiding divisiveness or polarization, or to an abstract and empty commitment to “compassion” (which is very distinct from true Christian charity). This does not imply that we are isolated individuals, or that we claim to be the authors of our own salvation. It means that the “redemption of mankind” (the final goal of a BYU education, according to Elder Christofferson), cannot be reduced to the relief of the material or psychological suffering of passive human subjects or to their liberation from “oppression” (as Ibram X Kendi and his advocates at BYU would maintain). True love aims at whole-souled improvement, which necessarily involves the enlargement of agency and thus the cultivation of moral character.

Elder Christofferson’s “self-reliance” thus reaffirms the essential point made even more straightforwardly by President Benson in 1989:

The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.
Core to the principle of “self-reliance” is working from the “inside out”; that is, prioritizing what our philosophical and theological traditions called the good of the soul. This attention to the substantial good of the soul, of the human person, understood as intimately bound up with “moral discipline,” or moral agency and accountability, is what is almost wholly lacking in the contemporary social sciences and humanities.

It is only this that can prevent the “virtuous cycle” of one’s moral-spiritual development and service to others from collapsing into a hollow vicious circle. If we define Christian service purely in terms of abstract “altruism” or other-relatedness, or even “civic charity,” without any concern for moral and spiritual substance, then the very meaning of service is left prey to the world’s definition of purpose (or rather to the world’s lack of purpose). If we cannot answer the question of the true meaning of self-reliance, or of the moral and spiritual “inside” — and thus of agency and accountability — then in fact we are defaulting to the secular notion that what is good for a person is whatever a person wants. The circle of “compassion” without the grounding compass of true charity is a hollow one indeed.

It does not follow that material circumstances beyond an individual’s control are unimportant to that person’s well-being or not legitimate matters of public concern, not to mention concerns of Christian charity; nor does it follow that, as we reaching out to those in material need we should only preach to them of “self-reliance” and not lend a material hand, as if misery were always the fault of the miserable. Let us be clear that it also does not follow from the truth of “self-reliance,” or of working from “the inside out,” that we should not seek ways to help our neighbor, even when their suffering is arguably in some way “his or her own fault.” These are not at all true implications of the doctrine of self-reliance, properly understood. What does follow from this truth is that we cannot truly address a person’s material needs without addressing the person as moral and spiritual beings — and that as we “go forth to serve” we must not forget the moral and spiritual foundations of a kind of service that can redeem the human family, a service remote from the race to the bottom incentivized by politicized victimhood with the consequent endless recriminations and resentments that now pollute our public square.

Elder Christofferson’s university conference speech of August 2022 thus deserves very close attention as administration and faculty at BYU seek to articulate and implement the unique mission with which we were charged by President Kimball in 1975. He has made it as clear as can be that an adequate understanding of this mission requires understanding the priority of the First Great Commandment to the second, and thus the priority of a certain rich and eternal idea of “self-reliance” to the more open-ended and malleable idea of “service.”

Finding a Way Forward

Linking the search for a gospel methodology to the fundamental principles laid down by Elder Christofferson is a task, both intellectual and spiritual, that still lies before us. To be guided by the vision of profound personal, moral, and spiritual strength that Elder Christofferson sets forth will require great intellectual clarity, as well as genuine moral courage and religious commitment on the part of at least some critical mass of BYU administration and faculty. Can Brigham Young University muster the necessary understanding and resolve? So far, in my view, there is little evidence that the university community has really understood or accepted the challenge implicit in Elder Christofferson’s address.

How might we begin to apply Elder Christofferson’s insight to our academic challenge at BYU? What if we began as social scientists and humanists, for example, to take seriously Elder Christofferson’s statement that we cannot address “societal decay” without reference to the individual’s “internal moral compass”? What if we tried to explore and apply in our scholarly work his teaching that we cannot meaningfully seek “the common good” without denouncing sin as sin and elevating “moral discipline [to] its place in the pantheon of civic virtues.”

How can we continue to study the human person and the problem of the good society at BYU without centering our research and our reflections on such fundamental truths as the need for moral discipline, a key aspect of self-reliance?

But what mainstream scholarly enterprise today would even entertain the proposition that you cannot make society better without making better people, and that at the core of what makes a better person is self-reliance understood as grounded in the two great commandments in their proper priority? Indeed the very foundation of the study of humanity and society in the secular disciplines is the assumption that the improvement or “progress” of society must be considered as independent of any moral judgment regarding “sin” or true moral character.

The separation of the problem of the well-being of the individual and society from concern for the soul’s self-reliance is practically the first premise of the dominant secular human and social sciences that must be questioned. What would a discipline of psychology, political science, or sociology look like that sought to ground itself in the virtues of moral and spiritual self-reliance and the necessity of moral discipline? What would the study of literature and philosophy look like if they were attentive above all to the challenges of moral agency and accountability, and to the living reality of a child of God in a fallen world? What would the study of humanity and society look like if the Family Proclamation were understood as a foundation to be explored as well as built upon, and if the American constitutional tradition of moral liberty with freedom for (not from) religion were taken seriously as exemplary in human history, though of course far from flawless. What disciplines, what conversations, what courses, and what publications would support self-reliance, in all its dimensions: material, moral, spiritual?

To take our bearings from these foundations and from the centrality of these institutions (family, religion, constitutionalism) will, I believe, require a very fundamental re-tooling on the part of those willing faculty whose training and experience best prepares them for this task. Again, let us be clear that not all professors should be expected to undertake the essential task of engaging the foundations of the secular disciplines. The disciplines where a fundamental reorientation is most urgent are of course those in the human sciences and humanities. These are the fields of study that used to be the home of the “liberal arts” — that is, the areas of learning essential to the education of a free, self-governing person, of the whole person, with notable attention to the classics of Western civilization, a civilization forged by the effort to hold together the truths of reason and of biblical revelation.

President Kimball, again cited prominently by President Oaks at BYU just a few weeks ago, pointed us towards the classical or traditional liberal arts in an exhortation whose implications seem to have been very largely ignored: “BYU, in its second century, must continue to resist false fashions in education, staying with those basic principles that have proved right and have guided good men and women and good universities over the centuries” (emphasis added).

This reference to a tradition of education that goes back centuries should suggest to us that we are not tasked with developing a “gospel methodology” from nothing. The tradition of liberal or classical education, the great conversation that kept the question of the perennial truths of the human condition front and center, can still provide much of the structure and content of a gospel-centered education. The classics of the Western tradition from Plato to Tocqueville offer models of a rigorous and deeply humane reflection on self-reliance in the deepest sense, that is, the ultimate good of the soul, in relation precisely to the question of service to the good of the city, that is, of the broader community. The axis of meaning connecting the soul and the city is, for example, the deepest theme of the tradition of moral and political philosophy. This tradition of reflection has been shunted aside by newer models that neglect holistic self-reliance in favor either of supposedly neutral social science or radical utopian social experiments ungrounded in sober reflections on human nature. A recovery of the classical tradition of liberal education, in which questions of the good of the soul and the good of community were front and center, seems to me the necessary first step in articulating a gospel methodology — and thus becoming what former BYU President Holland called “A School in Zion.” [6]

Future Prospects.

My analysis may seem a counsel of despair, since we are surely very far from being equipped to implement President Kimball’s counsel on a large and inclusive scale. But let us not allow the ideal to be the enemy of good. A root and branch reform would in fact be a revolution, with all the costs and the risks involved in a total upheaval. While our thinking does need to be revolutionary, given what should be our distance from what is now the academic mainstream, our action should be prudent and incremental. Fortunately, our whole faculty does not have to be transformed and re-directed in order to begin to lift BYU towards its distinctive mission. A small helm can shift the direction of a large ship in a relatively short time.

To look toward BYU’s future with hope, it is possible to imagine incremental changes that, within a generation, could bring about the revolution in the university's mission that President Kimball’s charge to BYU would now require. Here, for example, is an incomplete and provisional list of some policies that might enable us to step up to that responsibility:

1. Zero tolerance for outright opposition to gospel essentials, including the Family Proclamation. This must include the undermining of the Family Proclamation by holding out a hope that doctrines essential to the Restoration will eventually give way to “continuing revelation” more aligned with the ethics and politics of our age.

To use the idea of continuing revelation to hold open a vain and corrosive hope that the Church will change on fundamentals is to allow the institution to be undermined from within. It is profoundly demoralizing to those striving to teach and live by unpopular commandments and principles to hear church-subsidized voices openly wishing for their elimination.

2. The cultivation and rewarding of existing academic units, sub-disciplines, and individuals — and the creation of new units and hiring of new faculty — that faithfully and seriously engage academic disciplines, that forthrightly call out evil ideologies and work deliberately and explicitly toward the articulation of “gospel methodology” as applied to the study of human beings, institutions, and cultural works. BYU faculty may also need to take the lead in the establishment of new scholarly journals that would publish research and reflection on the person and society that emphasizes the critical importance of self-reliance, holistically understood.

3. Existing faculty not inclined or able to prioritize a unique BYU mission should continue to be given due respect for their competent — and even excellent albeit more conventional — research and teaching. But they should not be given the responsibility (as chairs or deans or simply voting members of departments) to continue to define and implement BYU’s distinctive mission; the existing BYU mainstream cannot be reasonably tasked with sole responsibility for hiring new faculty better equipped to contribute to the development of a gospel methodology. The existing university, built over decades when the prophetic call for a unique university was mostly ignored or dismissed, can only be expected to reproduce itself, as faculty vote to hire new faculty who, like themselves, serve the Church in their disciplines mainly, if not exclusively, by serving the cause of neutral science or purely skeptical “critical thinking,” and/or of material and social progress and justice as understood in the academic mainstream. New faculty are now recruited and hired by existing faculty, and this can only lead to the reproduction of the academic and ideological (either implicit or explicit) approaches that are now dominant. In the present system, I am among those concerned that there is not only inadequate emphasis on recruiting faculty prepared to further a unique BYU mission, but young scholars and teachers most ideally suited to this mission have been and will likely continue to be excluded for that very reason — that is, because they fail to conform to the particular understanding of professional excellence that now dominates. Faculty colleagues in various departments and colleges at BYU have confirmed my sense that the administration’s very pointed recent emphasis on hiring to mission can get no traction as long as hiring decisions are left to majorities of existing academic units, since existing majorities — while willing to defer to higher-ups on the personal worthiness of prospective faculty — evaluate candidates overwhelmingly on the practically exclusive basis of professional credentials and measures of success that BYU professors share with the academic mainstream.

To escape the cycle of hiring based almost exclusively on conventional, secular academic criteria, it might be necessary to work around the existing departments, attached as they are to existing methodology and criteria, and to create new units explicitly mandated to hire to BYU mission, and led by faculty who have shown they have interest in and commitment to the expansion of a “gospel methodology.”

I have explained why the traditional liberal arts, or, as President Kimball said, “the basic principles that have guided universities over centuries,” offer the best stepping stone to the articulation and implementation of such a methodology.

4. The recruitment of faithful and intellectually and morally courageous students. This has been a clear emphasis of university leaders in the recent conference. But of course, this depends on bishops, stake presidents, and admissions officers who understand and are committed to the university’s distinctive mission — and in particular to the Family Proclamation — and on BYU personnel willing to stand behind this mission. The reality is that many of these Church and university officers may themselves be divided between the Restored Gospel and the religion of compassionate liberation. Alas, under the present system, LGBT+ activists and a group that actually brandishes the name “Black Menaces” are allowed relatively free reign, while more traditional, faithful, or conservative groups are restricted, presumably in the name of avoiding divisiveness and controversy. [7]


Then BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland appealed to the university community 34 years ago to strive towards a form of education that would “sort, sift, prioritize, integrate, and give some sense of wholeness, some spirit of connectedness to great eternal truths.”

Anticipating Elder Christofferson’s articulation of the principle “self-reliance” under the aegis of the First Great Commandment, Holland pleaded eloquently for a Restoration Christian ideal that would extend the classical liberal arts tradition by engaging afresh the question of “the good” and following the example of Matthew Arnold, whose touchstone of true education was an “even-balanced soul … Who saw life steadily and saw it whole.” Elder Christofferson’s “self-reliance” evokes then President Holland’s “even-balanced soul.” We are further from answering Elder Holland’s plea than when we first heard it. Recognizing how far we have yet to go is the first step towards the actual implementation of President Kimball’s vision of a unique university grounded in a gospel methodology.


[1] Greg Matsen of Cwic media has done great service by identifying and publicizing some of the more egregious examples of this ideological activism at BYU. See for example, this video, and this, and this. And this. --- [Back to manuscript].

[2] This essay cannot undertake the task of identifying and critiquing the assumptions that underlie the study of man and society in the reigning academic disciplines, especially in the social sciences and humanities. A useful introduction to the problem might be Jeffrey Thayne’s FAIR presentation on Worldview Apologetics. Here I discussed how an often implicit and unacknowledged worldview is deeply embedded in the evolution of liberalism, that is, at the core of our political regime. And in this First Things article from 2014 I explain how the uneasy truce between supposedly value-neutral scholarship and religious faith has been broken by the increasing ascendency of a certain “rationalism and reductionism.” [Back to manuscript].

[3] Other examples cited in this year’s speech under consideration include an elementary school teacher who took away from BYU the commitment to making every student feel loved by God – even if she was not free to explain the content of that love in her professional capacity. And then there was the excellent example of the BYU Women’s soccer team whose Sabbath observance and prospective missionary service put the university in a very good light last spring. [Back to manuscript].

[4] More than thirty years ago such a prayer and such an answer were reported in some detail by then BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland. His eloquent speech dared to directly challenge mainstream academic conventions and to offer concrete suggestions as to a path forward towards “A School in Zion.” Pres. Holland’s counsel remains largely unheeded, and more relevant than ever. [Back to manuscript].

[5] I make no claim here regarding the specific distribution of faculty opinion at BYU regarding new counsel toward a gospel methodology. Bradley Watson’s analysis of the breakdown of faculty types during the moral collapse of St. Vincent College is no doubt suggestive of analogous categories at BYU. “The faculty tend to divide into three groups: leftists who welcome administrative power when it serves their political ends, those (often in technical disciplines) who simply don’t care enough to rouse themselves because they believe — mistakenly — that questions of intellectual freedom don’t concern them, and those who genuinely worry about administrative despotism and will offer support in private but can’t find the courage to speak publicly.”
[Back to manuscript].

[6] Richard Williams of BYU has argued the essential value of the classical liberal arts for BYU’s mission here. --- [Back to manuscript].

[7] As Luke Hanson of the group BYU Conservatives recently noted, after this group was prevented from gathering to sing “The Spirit of God” on campus: “There have been multiple "rainbow days" at BYU that have been well publicized in advance and included not only wearing certain symbols and colors, but also a gathering in the Quad, which I understood to be a demonstration. Those taking part in the event seemed to be under that impression as well.” He added that there have also been “daily chalking of BYU property following Elder Hollands' remarks last year…. [and] two times the Y was lit. Per the Salt Lake Tribune, there were police officers there, but no effort was made to prevent the largest collegiate sign in the world from being hijacked by activists.” In addition, “the Black Menaces continually record video on campus in violation of campus policy” and they “also put many posters and QR codes for their event on campus.” Finally, “the USGA page for BYU is called @usgabyu and includes a depiction of Y mountain. Is this not also a copyright problem? …”
[Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Hancock, Ralph C. (2022) "BYU AND SECULAR HIGHER EDUCATION: THE CHALLENGE OF A “GOSPEL METHODOLOGY”," SquareTwo, Vol. 15 No. 3 (Fall 2022),, accessed <give access date>.

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