In the last part (Part Two) of this series, we learned of Academic Vice President Shane Reese’s bold call (echoing President Kimball’s “Second Century Address”) for BYU faculty to embrace a “gospel methodology,” that is, to approach their various specialized areas of study from the standpoint of eternal truths.  We also saw that there is little consensus yet concerning the bearing or content of a gospel methodology, and that few faculty are willing or able to  reconsider their disciplines in any fundamental way from the standpoint of the Restoration.  Many faculty tend to fall back on one kind or another of amoral scientism, while others readily reinterpret the gospel to fit progressive ideologies that are ascendent in the academy.  In today’s installment (Part Three), we will see that Elder Christofferson’s speech in the August 2022 BYU opening conference, pointed the way towards a substantive understanding of “gospel methodology.”

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 Pres. 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 to ponder seriously its deepest purpose. His message contains far more than vague spiritual uplift. It points to the deepest fundamentals in pondering 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 to better serve others. And in turn, this service strengths 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 – that is, that there are 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, namely, forgiveness. There always have been and there 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 Mandel (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. (My emphasis)

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). (My emphasis)

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.

……

In the next and final part of this series (Part Four), we will consider more closely how the idea of “Self-Reliance” preached by Elder Christofferson might form the core of a Gospel Methodology at BYU.