Dr. Spencer Fluhman, the Maxwell Institute Director, gave a BYU Devotional speech titled “The University and the Kingdom of God” July 30, 2019. I can have a flair for the dramatic, but I really think this might be the most important LDS talk I’ve ever heard on the topic of the modern faith challenges in the Church. Please stop and listen to the whole talk. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/j-spencer-fluhman/the-university-and-the-kingdom-of-god/
He introduces his topic talking about the importance of education and intelligence. Joseph Smith and the early restored Church put a supreme priority on education, establishing a university as one of its first priorities after coming to Utah. Indented quotes in this post will all be taken from the speech.
“For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is actually another dimension of consecration.” (Neal A Maxwell) As a result, Brigham Young University will not and cannot divorce itself from the big questions of human experience. Unlike other institutions, there is no secularizing retreat here that permits any discipline or field to imagine itself apart from the questions of human flourishing or morality or even holiness. Put another way, where does God’s light not seek to see to shine? What field of inquiry can stand apart from questions of ultimate reality of divine love, of God’s design and creation and redemption…Where do Christ’s claims on us end? Where do charity and justice, not demand a hearing in medicine, in law, in the management of resources, in the deployment of technology, in politics? If we can imagine a field of knowledge here at this university about which the gospel of Jesus Christ has nothing to say, we have made, we may have traded our birthright in Zion for a mess of secular pottage. There can be no host’s whole scale acquiescence to modern categories here. Religion pours out hot and demanding into every field at this university because it must.
He then shifts to focus the message to the process of religious study at BYU which could be more broadly applied to the Church in general.
These realities will make the disciplines more demanding, not less. A steady diet of religious or intellectual twinkies, sugary sweet, but without real nourishment as one of my colleagues describes them, has no place in God’s kingdom. The intersection of academic disciplines and the restoration’s grand facts should be electric and in every sense rigorous. This university after all, must call forth our best selves to be worthy of its place. To be casual about our collective aspirations would be to trifle with sacred things. Expect your courses to be difficult. Expect your professors to wrestle mightily with their topics. Expect unfinished business all around. Expect theory and hypothesis to jostle alongside settled conviction. Expect now and again to fall short of our stated aspirations. Those failures are crushing but necessary. And above all expect to wrestle yourself. There is deep magic in the spiritual struggles demanded here. Joseph Smith hinted at this when he wrote of what it would take to make a difference in this world. Notice how he connects mind and redemption. “Thy mind, oh man, if thou will lead a soul under salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse. He must commune with God.” It will not be all sunshine and angels, in other words, expect some abyss.
It’s not going to be easy, but we need to rigorously explore every aspect of our religion, no matter if it has potential for faith harm.
To commune with God, according to Joseph Smith, is to begin to comprehend reality as broadly and as viscerally as He does. Superficiality and slothfulness would thwart that kind of education as surely as sin or oppression. Accordingly, we can’t simply steer around difficult questions here. We have to wrestle right through them. And we must do it together.…the late elder Richard G. Scott warned us that avoiding difficult questions might actually harm faith down the road because we would have missed an opportunity to engage them here together within the household of faith.
This sounds scary. Will it work? Dr. Fluhman answers boldly and emphatically that yes it will as he describes an experience with students in a class that faced the tough issues.
Our students marveled throughout the course that we refused to maneuver around tough questions. Each class period featured some fresh, daunting challenge from violence to race to immigration to gender and sexual orientation. And we marveled back as our students navigated these issues with rigor and faith and especially that they chose to do it together. As difficult as it was for saints from such varied backgrounds and perspectives. I wept as I read their course evaluations to a person. They left the course more committed to the things that matter most, not less.
We need everyone. We have an important work as a Church and we need everyone.
This university is a vector. Its direction is unalterable. It’s chiseled in Wasatch granite. It must build God’s kingdom or wither away. Its magnitude, however, is variable. Its significance in the world depends on our collective, intellectual and spiritual force as a gathering of God’s children…You might think of yourself as seeking God here, but in truth, he has been seeking you. He is fitting you for a world that needs you. There are always problems afoot that will demand our very best and then some from poverty to racism, to ecological collapse, to rampant inequality, to sexual violence, to pour healthcare to religious freedom to deficient education. This world groans under the weight of our collective failures. This world yearns for a people with a broad and compelling vision infused with the hope and compassion that the gospel of Jesus Christ inspires in each of us. In short, this world needs you. Do you want to make a difference in your communities? You’re at the right university. Do you want to change the world? You’re in the right church.
What do we do when our journey leads us to a frustrating place where no one else seems to have done the same intellectual work we have and care about the same issues we have? How do I survive in this Church when I’m in that state? Answer: reframing.
We can come to believe that our perspectives are more important than others who may lack our training or our experience. We can grow impatient or condescending with our fellow saints. We can become cynical. I’ve experienced some of this. I have bite marks on the inside of my lips from past Sunday School lessons to prove it. But I rarely experience those frustrations these days. What changed things for me was church service, actually. As I have come to better comprehend the scale of human suffering around us, my questions have changed. Rather than being haunted by the fact that other saints don’t care about the same questions I do in every instance, I’ve been obliged to reframe the problem this way. “How can my academic training answer the problem of human suffering or contribute to the redemption of the human family?” …In this pivot, my cynicism has faded, mostly. As God has brought me into closer proximity to suffering, I have had far less time for cynicism. Ultimately, reframing in this way has drawn me profoundly towards rather than away from my fellow saints.
What if the struggle is too difficult?
If in the complexities and contradictions we must all face along the way, we are driven to our knees before the beautiful, startling mystery of it all than we will be latter day saints, indeed.
This is when the talk for me hit an emotional nerve and the tears flowed. I was there. I have loved ones that are there. Many are there. It feels good for at least one person to validate that. If you have a tough time in your faith journey, does that mean you’re not as faithful, or you’re inferior somehow? No, it means you’re a latter day saint. I don’t write that in the official church’s style because I think it has two meanings. 1) you’re a church member 2) you’re doing saintly things in the latter days. You’re not less than anyone. You’re doing what God would have you do.
This intellectual and spiritual work can be difficult. It can be exhausting. I know some of you are tired. You’re not sure you can keep at it. You go ahead and find some stillness today. Gather your strength today. Rest up today because tomorrow we ride for Zion! And it’s not quite Zion if you’re not there. Remember you don’t ride alone. Step back and consider the thousands around you. Consider the thousands who preceded you. Consider the unnumbered hosts yet to come. You don’t ride alone. This path takes courage and vision, yes! It takes faith. And faith will always be counterintuitive in this world. So is love. Why believe or hope or care when the data seems so often stubbornly trailing in other directions. Faith, hope and charity are audacious in such a world as this. But make no mistake, we’ll find the place that God for us has prepared, even if it seems far away today. Just when your strength is flagging, you’ll catch the glint of some gleaming tower off in the distance and you’ll sense that God is there. He is. Keep going. God is playing the long game and we should too. If we understand the scale of the struggle, the ride will not end. The restoration will not conclude until every daughter and son of God, who will come, has been safely gathered into his extended covenantal embrace.
Calling the words of of the hymn Come, Come Ye Saints, Dr. Fluhman compares the difficulty and the importance of the pioneer journey to the important work of this generation of Latter-day Saints to intellectually push through all the modern challenges to a testimony of God and the restoration.
We all know the stats of millennialls leaving the Church. I hear him lovingly encouraging those that have stumbled. Rest a while. But please come back and join us when you can. We need you. The world needs you. We have something to do together that’s way more important than polygamy or Book of Abraham issues.
As a result, the critical moment in church history is now because it’s the one that falls to us each generation and the church gifts to the next. The faith that has lighted our way in return. The rising generation reveals to us those facets of the gift that are most meaningful. Now that is what you students gift to us. So I thank you, my students numbered in the thousands now for showing me what is both timely and timeless and durable about this faith that has won my devotion in the early history of the church.
My words now, forgive me if you think I’m taking too many liberties with Brother Fluhman’s message.
If you haven’t faced every difficult Church history and scriptural issue, do it now. Let’s all do it together. Not just BYU students but the entire millennial generation, the entire Church. Let’s face it together, now, together in the household of faith. Read the scriptures. Understand the Documentary Hypothesis. Understand New Testament textual criticism. Read scholarly commentaries. Study philosophy. Plato, Nietzsche, Charles Taylor. Study other religions. Read the CES Letter. Know the FairMormon responses. Study the alternative approaches like Greg Prince. Know the viewpoints of leading LDS scholars: Bushman, Givens, Mason, Miller, Hardy, Riess, McBaine, Peck. If you’re struggling, rest a while if you need, keep with it when you can, and we’ll all figure it out together.
You, dear millennialls, are here in this critical moment of time in Church history for a reason. It’s your responsibility to do the work. Read and study. Struggle and pray. Fall and give up but then try again. The Spirit, your ancestry, your posterity beckon you.
You will transform yourselves through this process and what you will learn, the Church needs. You will then take that and transform the Church and continue in this work of redeeming the world and create Zion, a heaven on earth.