Natalie Brown: Challenging LDS Church orthodoxy, even at BYU, can help students build their faith

Critical thinking is key to navigating the religious questions that will inevitably arise.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students walk between classes on the BYU campus in Provo in 2022. Tribune guest columnist Natalie Brown says higher education needs to teach students to think critically, arguing that can help them build a more robust faith.

Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland’s “musket fire” speech will soon become required reading for incoming students at Brigham Young University. In this speech, Holland encourages the school’s faculty to expend more effort defending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ position on same-sex marriage. He points to concerns raised by some members that insufficient orthodoxy on campus might be causing students to leave the faith or experience “confusion.” Holland also signals the possibility that adherence to BYU’s mission might mean retreating from the American educational establishment at a “future time,” even at the cost of “professional affiliations and certifications.”

There is nothing surprising about a church-owned school teaching the church’s positions. It is appropriate, of course, that students reflect critically on the history and aims of the university education they are receiving. The content of this speech and its inclusion in the curriculum, however, have concerned some that BYU is more interested in cultivating minds that defend a particular viewpoint than think critically about the ideas they encounter. It is difficult, after all, to have a robust conversation about a sermon by an apostle at a university controlled by the church, particularly when that sermon implicitly endorses members complaining to church leadership about viewpoints expressed in the classroom and has left many LGBTQ students feeling less safe.

The speech assumes a fundamental tension between the historic purposes of a university education in teaching students to encounter and think critically about a range of ideas and the church’s legitimate interest in building its faith. These aims, however, are not necessarily in tension. Encountering a range of thinkers, including those who might challenge church orthodoxy, can be the best preparation for maintaining faith.

In full disclosure, I did not attend BYU. I went to the University of Chicago, a school known today for its robust commitment to free speech on campus. At the time, the University of Chicago was best known in Latter-day Saint circles for its association with apostle Dallin H. Oaks, who graduated from and later taught at its law school. In attending the school, Oaks was following in the footsteps of earlier Latter-day Saints. In the 1930s, the church, in fact, called scholars to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School to prepare to teach in the Church Educational System. Although the church oscillates between embracing and distancing itself from secular education, saints who sought education in universities outside of Utah played large roles in shaping the Mormon experience.

How higher ed can lead to higher faith

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, speaks at General Conference in 2023. Oaks graduated from — and later taught at — the University of Chicago Law School.

By the time I went to Chicago in the early 2000s, Latter-day Saints were often more suspicious of outside learning than eager to bring it to Zion. Attending the University of Chicago was admirable for Oaks, but many people worried that I was headed toward apostasy and spinsterhood. Today, I credit my education in Chicago for helping me cultivate a testimony that has proved resilient over time. It did so by teaching me to lean into my questions and dig deeper into ideas and history rather than defend a particular viewpoint or turn a blind eye to the facts.

The University of Chicago requires students to take an extensive core curriculum that introduces them to the key thinkers throughout intellectual history and across the political spectrum. We read foundational conservative figures of Western thought as well as theorists of race and gender. We examined their assumptions, their historical contexts and their political motivations. We did not avoid ideas. We were given the tools to evaluate what we encountered.

The people who warned me against Chicago assumed that I would leave the church if I encountered ideas that challenged the faith’s teachings. Instead, critically studying a variety of perspectives allowed me to place the church in its historical context, consider sacred text complexly, and extend grace to the humans running the church. Sometimes, my education led me to the conclusion that certain church practices were a product of history rather than eternal truth — an insight that gave me patience while waiting for change. Often, my education helped me make sense of practices that seem odd today.

I was unfazed, for example, when people argued that polygamy, multiple accounts of the “First Vision” or Joseph Smith using a seer stone to bring about the Book of Mormon disproved the church. These supposedly dispositive facts were consistent, or at least not incompatible with, my more general understanding of history, relationships and the writing process. An education that allows us to think with historical and intellectual nuance matters, given that concerns about history and the Book of Mormon rank among the top reasons that members leave the church.

Confront the facts

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland speaks to faculty at Brigham Young University on Aug. 23, 2021.

Today, students have access to every argument on the internet. They need the ability to discern good arguments from bad in an era when many members are being misled by disinformation and conspiracy theories. Students need the ability to understand and converse civilly with those who disagree with them. They need a solid grasp of the facts within our own history and in the larger world. These cross-cultural skills are particularly required for students who we hope will serve as missionaries and leaders in their communities. They are unlikely to be acquired through an education that focuses on defending a single viewpoint, ensuring students’ intellectual comfort or sequestering students from wider debates.

Indeed, the church itself recently caused an avoidable social media firestorm when it posted a factually inaccurate message about women’s power and authority in the Latter-day Saint community compared to other religions. Failing to think critically about the assertions we make, however well intended, does not result in arguments that hold up over time. A robust faith must account for and grapple with reality.

I do not need to distort facts, gloss over history or ignore the lived experiences of other people to maintain my faith. There are parts of church history and current policy that disappoint me. I understand why many members who are more sophisticated thinkers than I am decide that the individual costs of continued participation are too high. Yet what I have learned in secular settings has not been a deal-breaker for my faith.

My testimony is narrow but resilient: I believe in a God who loves us, and I have found that love in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I see his love, grace and individual guidance — alongside the pain and human missteps — as I allow myself to dive deeper into the messiness of our history and culture. When I encounter dirt on the church, I dig deeper until I have a stronger foundation.

Studying Holland’s speech should be the beginning, not the end, of an ongoing and important conversation. We should study what Holland and other apostles have said about the aims of a church education. We should study what people outside our faith have said, too. There is every reason to model for Latter-day Saint students how to think critically about the ideas they will inevitably discover.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a Latter-day Saint based in Colorado. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the church or her employer.