Gordon Monson: What is good for BYU and its professors is good for the LDS Church and its members — seeking and finding truth

Limiting the faculty’s teaching and research runs the risk of ruining the reputation and credibility of both the school and the religion.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and patrons walk between classes on the BYU campus in Provo in September 2022. Tribune columnist Gordon Monson argues that the school's professors should be freed up to pursue truth wherever it leads them.

Are you confused by the message being sent to Brigham Young University professors by leaders of the church that owns the school and that also controls those professors’ employment?

I am. Some BYU faculty members are, too.

And the effects of that confusion extend beyond the school, what is researched and taught there, straight through to truths and principles embraced and insisted upon by the top echelon of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A recent story by Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Tamarra Kemsley revealed, one more time now, that BYU is stressing and basing faculty promotions upon research that backs the church’s tenets.

From the standpoint of the welfare of the organization that operates BYU, that emphasis is understandable. The church foots most of the bill at the university, constructs and maintains the buildings and everything that goes into them, hires and pays the faculty. The faith wants its precepts to be substantiated, otherwise, why would it sponsor the whole of it? To somehow damage its own foundational beliefs through research and teachings that do exactly that?

The problem, though, is that putting the screws to proper research and those who do it, wherever it leads, backfires on those doing the screwing. It hurts the reputation and credibility of the church and the school.

A question, then, for the university and its faculty, and in a wider sense for the church and its members, is this: Is the pursuit of substantiating the church itself more important than the pursuit of what the church is supposed to be built upon — namely, truth? And if those pursuits really are one and the same, then why the paranoia, why the constant overbearingness about what rigorous research might bring? That’s what universities are meant to do — find and teach truth.

If Latter-day Saint leaders are so confident that the church holds rock-solid truths, wouldn’t — shouldn’t — they be eager to turn loose some of the faith’s most accomplished scholars on whatever their specific disciplines are without infringing upon their academic freedom by way of direct or implied threats to keep their pursuits inside established boundaries?

What are school and church leaders so afraid of?

Matters of faith, granted, sometimes aren’t emboldened by raw or refined scientific approaches. There are collisions and contradictions. But most BYU professors already are faithful believers. Those who are Latter-day Saints are required to have and keep a temple recommend to be employed at the school. If intellectuals like that can’t be confidently empowered to pursue and teach truth, then who can be? The zealously obedient and properly harnessed who are less intellectual?

Same thing with the church’s general membership, all of whom should be encouraged to seek truth with whatever firepower — intellectual and spiritual — they can attain, not just blindly accept whatever is spoon-fed them from church leaders. After all, it was the quest for truth that church founder Joseph Smith said led him to establish a new religion in the first place.

One high-level church leader recently spoke at BYU and suggested that Latter-day Saints with questions, when it comes to that spoon-feeding, sub out the word “church” and sub in the name of Christ. He said those two things are synonymous. When the church establishes a policy, it’s really Christ establishing it.

The trouble there is that church leaders are not infallible. They make mistakes. They’ve made errors in the past, and they’re likely to make errors in the future.

It doesn’t take a staunch Latter-day Saint to be certain that Jesus Christ doesn’t goof things up, not when it comes to, say, matters of race or treatment of women. Leaders are human. Christ is more than that.

Apostle David Bednar once said the following about education and learning:

“I have spent most of my life involved in education. When I was younger, I thought education meant going to school, taking tests and getting good grades. But as I grew older, I began to learn the difference between doing well in school and becoming educated. A person can do well on tests and still not be educated. True education is learning how to learn. Once I discovered that lesson, learning became fun.

“One of the primary purposes of mortality is to learn — to gain knowledge and intelligence. Doctrine and Covenants 93:36 states, ‘The glory of God is intelligence.’ You might think intelligence means being gifted in academic work, but intelligence also means applying the knowledge we obtain for righteous purposes.”

Pursuing truth in all its forms is righteous, right?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saint apostle David A. Bednar addresses members of the National Press Club at a luncheon in Washington on Thursday, May 26, 2022. The church leaders has said that "one of the primary purposes of mortality is to learn — to gain knowledge and intelligence."

I’ve talked with enough BYU professors, unencumbered by the concern of anyone reporting them to their bosses or their bosses’ bosses, who do not want bumpers put up on both sides of their lanes to restrict them in their chase for truth. They want to utilize the experience, knowledge and intelligence with which God has blessed them to go on discovering what their training has positioned them to discover: truth.

The same is the case for faithful rank-and-file Latter-day Saints. They may not always agree with positions the church takes, or they may question and struggle with them. That does not make them part of Beelzebub’s legions. It makes them students trying to seek and process knowledge, learners trying to become educated.

Just because they can, without thought, obey, check boxes, pass tests, get good grades and do well in the church, does not make them educated.

One of the primary purposes of mortality is to learn — to gain knowledge and intelligence. It’s not to be spiritual automatons. Acquiring knowledge and intelligence is based on the bedrock of both — seeking truth.

And not be afraid of the bump and skid of finding it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

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