Faith, not fear, will save BYU


If you were a Latter-day Saint who used social media or went to church about 15 years ago, you might have heard a story about the halls of heaven at a time when the dead of centuries past learn that the young people today lived at the dawn of the 21st century. At the invocation of this most important era in human history, “a silence will fall on every room, every corridor of heaven”.

One version told young people that they were “the bravest and most righteous” sent to earth during the cruellest time in history. It ends with an ominous question: “Are you still?”

The story spread like wildfire, fast enough that leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints felt compelled to refute its validity. It’s not hard to guess why.

Although the story is fake, it echoes real feelings. In a speech in 1981, for example, the apostle Ezra Taft Benson told students at Brigham Young University that “the truth is that you live in one of the most exceptional times in the history of the world”. He cited various Bible prophecies. “Wars and rumors of wars, atheism, agnosticism, immorality and dishonesty,” Benson said. “…desertions, cruelty, divorce and infidelity.”

But prophecies like these are tricky. Church leaders have invoked the New Testament phrase “wars and rumors of wars” since the founding of the faith. It meant Civil War, it was World War II, it was, memorably, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

Likewise, church leaders since the 19th century have been convinced that their young people were threatened with corruption at the hands of a secular and anti-religious society. “The spirit of the world had slipped among our young people”, worries Eliza R. Snow in 1878. She warned Latter-day Saint educators that there were “infidels among them.”

What is at the heart of all these stories that Latter-day Saints have told about their young people in the world is fear. Latter-day Saints have long lived in a sense of opposition to the world around them.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and patrons walk between classes on BYU’s campus Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

That brings us to what’s happening at BYU today. In recent months, church education administrators have tightened control over faculty at the University of Provo. BYU has long required Latter-day Saint faculty members to seek approval from their bishops as to their merit to teach in the school. Now, the university requires bishops to ask a longer list of questions that focus on particular issues in church doctrine and practice. New faculty members have also been asked to waive the confidentiality that most Latter-day Saints expect of their conversations with their bishops.

It seems that, like Eliza Snow, some members of the church today worry about the rising generations. These policies seem to arise out of concern that BYU is secularizing, that secularization is growing out of BYU’s faculty, and that its inevitable end will be young people leaving the church.

Why Religious Schools Should Be Different

Let’s leave aside whether this is an accurate assessment of the trajectory of young Americans (although I think the best scholarship on the issue of the numerical decline of Christians in the United States indicates that this is not the case ).

We can even put aside the question of whether BYU should implement such policies. Certainly, many religious universities in the country have such strict expectations, and that is appropriate. BYU certainly shouldn’t just try to become a church-run version of Harvard, or even the University of Utah.

Clark Gilbert, the current church commissioner of education, argues that religious educational institutions should retain a separate identity. That’s absolutely correct.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) General Authority Seventy Clark G. Gilbert speaks at General Conference Saturday, October 2, 2021. Gilbert serves as the Church’s Commissioner of Education.

We desperately need stronger and more vital religious voices in the American public square. The virtues that religious people bring to our attention and the capacity for community building that religious organizations foster are crucial counterweights to the forces of disintegration at work in our lives today. Consumerism and the media teach us to think of our interactions with each other in terms of branding and self-promotion, and the purpose of our lives in terms of pleasure, economic gain and personal advancement. Religion is one of those forces that can make us realize that what seems normal can actually be broken and need healing.

Thus, BYU should claim a religious identity. Gilbert offers intriguing insights into what a typically Latter-day Saint form of education might look like, emphasizing concern for community and genealogy. I might add other distinctive Latter-day Saint concepts that can shape the way BYU students and faculty study the world around them. What might it mean to think of English literature, sociology or biology through the prism of ‘restoration’, the need to fix what is broken in our lives and societies, for example ? The possibilities are inspiring.

But despite the promise of Gilbert’s vision, what draws me to BYU’s new policies is a phrase from the New Testament. The Second Epistle to Timothy reminds us: “God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and love, and a sound mind.

A solid foundation of trust

Gilbert presents us with a sharp distinction between the religious and the secular in the United States today. His writing on the subject opens with an elegiac description of Harvard University’s transition from a ministerial training school to a modern secular university, and it is evident that Gilbert believes that this decline confronts every religious school in the country .

But I fear that the measures implemented at BYU will heal the wound. They seem to me to be promulgated out of fear. Fear does not build; fear does not last; fear does not heal. Policies adopted out of fear produce neither loyalty nor love. They only produce more fear.

Timothy’s advice calls us to a different way of imagining the relationship between BYU and the secular academy and, more broadly, the relationship between the church and the world – one rooted in hope rather than fear.

Faith is the antidote to fear, and BYU, at its best, generates faith that dispels fear and heals anxiety. We see this faith in the graduates who go on to serve, having learned at BYU how to find the desire and skills there to change the world for the better. We see it in BYU devotions from faculties across multiple disciplines that show us ever-new and surprising ways to illuminate the service to which they believe God has called them.

Faith is not the same as belief; rather, faith is trust. Faith is the guarantee that the long-term work of persuasion, trust and hope that the scriptures call upon us can establish relationships between teachers and students, administrators and professors, and the human beings and God who will survive. to the tides of the modern world. Faith can grapple with the changing society around it and grow stronger in the process, because faith finds God’s purposes and God’s goodness in all things.

This is the work that a religious university like Brigham Young University should engage in: building Zion through engagement with the world in trust and hope in God. It is the work that will produce generations of teachers and students who love their faith because they know its leaders trust them rather than fear them. It is trust that ultimately breeds faith.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and “Christian: the politics of a word in America.”


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