Cover image via BYU Magazine.
This article and others to follow in this series is adapted from a longer article available here:
You may also want to see the video interview with Professor Hancock on the subject of this article by Greg Matsen of Cwic Media available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOLpenbEW8M
(In Part One of this series, we saw that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, with the assistance of the Church’s Commissioner of Education, Clark G. Gilbert, has very strongly urged faculty and administrators at BYU to be truer to its distinctive mission and to support the doctrines and the leadership of the Church. We also began to see some of the challenges inherent in making what President Kimball called a “gospel methodology” central to the university’s teaching and scholarship. In this second part of the series, we consider BYU Academic Vice President Shane Reese’s counsel regarding a gospel methodology and then examine why many faculty seem to be unwilling or unable to follow such counsel.)
The search for a “gospel methodology”
Academic Vice President Shane Reese’s address to the BYU faculty in last August’s university conference, “Becoming New Creatures,” was, in many ways, the clearest and most emphatic of the university conference in calling us more fully to 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 to 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.
But here again the actual definition of the BYU difference was deferred to the personal revelation of professors and to discussions at the departmental level. And so we are left to ask: 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? …
Vice President Reese’s boldest and most promising reflection on BYU’s mission centered on President Kimball’s expression, “gospel methodology.” President Kimball’s prophetic directives on this matter 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? VP Reese has done us great service by calling our attention to such questions.
But the obstacles to pursuing such questions are formidable. 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. VP 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.
The Challenge of Aligning BYU with Prophetic Ideals
Given President Kimball’s warning that BYU’s mission is threatened by “pernicious, atheistic influences,” it is up to us to ask: just what are these noxious influences, 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 begin to develop such an understanding, 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.”
The Vacuum and What Fills It
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. But rarely do we ask: 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.
Our failure to ask this basic question leaves BYU open to the dominance of methodologies and frameworks incompatible with the gospel. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the void of holistic meaning in the specialized sciences will be filled. It is being filled, in fact, 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 those 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 “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” risks being 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 focused, say, on helping students see why it is immoral to vote for Donald Trump. In the same sense, a prevailing emphasis on merely defusing “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.”
In the next article in this series we will see how Elder Christofferson’s counsel in the August University Conference may provide some guidance in applying the principles of a gospel methodology to the various areas of teaching and study in the university.
 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.”