This articles 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 the first three parts of this series on challenges facing BYU in honoring its unique religious mission, we have noted the call of various Church and University leaders for BYU to develop a unique “gospel methodology” in order to avoid being absorbed into the conventional, secular universe of higher education. In the last part, we saw that Elder Christofferson’s powerful speech at the annual university conference pointed the way to a substantive and effective understanding of the university’s unique mission. In this final part of the series, we will consider more closely what kind of practical steps might be taken in order to implement the idea of moral and spiritual “self-reliance” preached by Elder Christofferson as the core of a “gospel methodology at BYU.
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, or things s/he 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 are 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 Pres. 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 meaningful 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 was 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 my own). 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.
Thirty-four years ago, then BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland, appealed to the university community 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” may be heard to evoke Pres. Holland’s “even-balanced soul.”
We are, alas, further from answering Elder Holland’s plea than when we first heard it thirty-four years ago. 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. A recovery of the classical tradition of liberal education, in which questions of the good of the soul and the good community were front and center, would build a bridge between the various secular disciplines and the truths of the Restoration, thus providing the first essential step towards the articulation of a truly meaningful and academically effective “gospel methodology” – and thus towards becoming what President Holland called “A School in Zion.”