Monday, April 27, 2015

Asking Questions

This past weekend we attended graduation ceremonies for our daughter, Social Sphere, and her husband. Both graduated from the College of Family, Home, and Social Science from Brigham Young University. At BYU, graduation consists of a commencement exercise, on Thursday, with all graduates—nearly 6,000 this April. And then, on Friday, a convocation ceremony, by college; this is where the students get their name announced and walk across the stage to be handed their diploma. 

Both of these events have speakers, and they tend to be memorable. I still remember mine. So I thought I’d pick a couple of the speakers and share some valuable thoughts from them. 

Robert P. George
This photo was used in the
BYU Commencement Program,
I found it here
At the commencement, an honorary degree—the degree of doctor of law and moral value, honoris causa—was conferred upon Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton, referred to by the New York Times as “the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.” I thought I wasn’t aware of him before this speech, but I did a search of my files, and I have collected a number of pieces he’s written. Particularly, he co-wrote “What Is Marriage?”[i] along with then-grad student Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Gergis. Supreme Court justices have referred to this work already in their opinions, and are likely to turn to it again following tomorrow’s oral arguments concerning same-sex “marriage.” 

He didn’t speak about marriage; he spoke about the necessity of religion in finding truth. I expect eventually I could get a transcript, but for now, I’ll just share a few things from my written notes. 

Professor George starts with the question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” quoting Tertullian. And he adds, “What do secular studies and religious studies have to do with each other?” He’s speaking at Brigham Young University, after all, one of the largest and oldest religious universities. And he wants us to know that the way BYU integrates spiritual and academic—or secular—studies is valuable, even necessary in our world. 

He quotes Pope John Paul II as well: “Faith and reason are like two wings of the human spirit by which it soars to the truth.”  

So there are two separate but equal paths to truth—faith and reason are both necessary for the intellectual and spiritual quest for truth, in harmony together. 

Professor George reminded us that the very idea of a university is religious. According to John Henry Cardinal Newman, the idea of a university requires both kinds of learning, faith and reason. The earliest—and at one time nearly all—universities were created by churches to educate religious people more fully. And we continue to need universities that do not limit the universe. 

He said that universities have three main purposes:

1.      The creation of knowledge.
2.      The preservation of knowledge.
3.      The transmission of knowledge. 

He adds an additional purpose: The appropriation of knowledge.

He’s using the term appropriation in a particular way, which I tried to glean from context. I think he means something like putting knowledge in its appropriate context, in the larger picture. Or he could possibly mean making the knowledge one’s own. 

He says faith is necessary in the cause of learning. He said, “Our aim is not merely to acquire knowledge, but to explore its lasting significance.” Our aim is not necessarily to know truth, “but to grasp its meaning—its existential meaning.” 

This is where religious colleges can be valuable. He said, “Religious colleges must be more than secular universities with religious symbols in the classroom and prayers before some classes.” Faith must play a role in intellectual life, and inform curriculum. 

He urged that we “avoid the pitfalls of aspiration to be the Mormon Harvard or the Catholic Princeton—especially in humanities and social sciences.” He said the consequences of mimicry will be the loss of the appropriation of truth. “The secular will soon come to be regarded as the only valid intellectual pursuit,” the only type of thought considered rational.  

This is not just theoretical, he said. While many private and state universities were created with a religious purpose, many have lost the religious wing of thought. He suggested reading The Dying of the Light, by former Notre Dame provost James Tunstead Burtchaell, which follows seventeen religious colleges in which each school's religious identity eventually became first uncomfortable and then expendable. 

But, he says, “Secularization isn’t inevitable.” You can resist. And you can command respect. The world needs the connection between religious fidelity and academic excellence.  

Professor George said, the question of how to find truth keeps coming back. “Human nature will see to it. We long for the truth. We’re not satisfied with placing the deepest questions out of bounds, or off limits.” 

He said that some secular institutions are beginning to see this. “Institutions need to be a bit more like Brigham Young. This is no time to back off. It’s time to be superior.” 

I was reminded of a quote from my time working at BYU, when then-President Jeffrey R. Holland thought it wasn’t enough to be the Harvard of the West; President Holland wanted to see Harvard and Yale fighting “to see who can become the BYU of the East!” 

Professor George urged, “Always be faithful to your mission.[ii] Appropriate truth more and more deeply.”  

So far BYU has kept its mission to educate the whole person—mental, physical, and spiritual—in a world that doesn’t know how valuable that kind of education is. 

That idea of asking the deep question and searching for answers continued in Friday’s convocation. The main speaker for the College of Family, Home & Social Sciences was Sheri L. Dew, CEO of Deseret Book, and a former graduate of that college. 
Sheri Dew
image found here

She first became familiar to many of us when she was a counselor in the LDS Relief Society General Presidency, the world’s oldest, and possibly largest, women’s organization. She was the first single woman to hold such a position that I was aware of in my lifetime. And she was a great example. 

I’ve often seen parallels to her in my life. She’s just a few years older than I am; I think she must have still been at BYU when I was a freshman. She played basketball—better than I did. And played piano—also better than I. She’s a writer and editor (better…) She’s a terrific public speaker. My life changed directions from career to family when I got married, but I’ve wondered, if I hadn’t been blessed that way, would I have been a (much less visible or accomplished) mini-version of Sheri Dew? 

She talked about when she was assigned to be the CEO of Deseret Book. It was at a challenging time in the book industry. She didn’t know how to run a company. She had skills in identifying talent and working with authors. When she talked with then-President of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley about the position, and shared her doubts, and said she wished she was smarter, he laughed and said he wished so too. 

Her point was that there will come things in your life you’re not capable of handling if you rely on your own. So she suggests living your life “with the help of heaven.” You should “seek heaven every step of the way.” 

She told a story of an interview with a reporter some years ago. You never know what you’re going to get with an interview, but the woman seemed genuinely interested and curious—about a female CEO of a Church-owned corporation. It turned out they had a great conversation. 

Well into their chat, the reporter asked, “Do you have greater access to the power of heaven than I do?” That’s an interesting question and took some thought. Finally Sheri Dew answered, “Actually, yes.” And she added that she was “not saying God loves me more, or I’m more spiritual.” She was saying that we are committed, covenant members; we believe that when we promise to live a certain way, Heavenly Father makes promises to us, including greater access to His power. 

The Spirit came into the room. The reporter could feel it too. She said, “I wish I could say that about my church.” Sister Dew, ever willing to share her faith, said, “We can help you with that.” 

There are things we learn from the Spirit. She spent much of the rest of the time talking about learning to learn. That requires asking questions. Asking questions is good. 

Many people have asked her questions through the years. She has kept lists of them. Many are of the personal type: How will I know who/whether to marry? Should I take a job across the country? Some are deeper, more pressing, faith related. They’re all good questions for a person of faith. She asks them if they’re willing to put in the work to get answers, to engage in a spiritual wrestle. 

There’s a process for getting to truth. She has them bring every question, get their scriptures and study materials, read what the prophets have said, do the work. Study, search, ponder, pray. 

People of faith are required to exercise faith to have it grow. Our search, our wrestle for answers, leads to peace of mind, growth, and faith. Our Father will bless us with greater vision of what the world is like, what life is like. 

Once there is a testimony of the gospel (the heartfelt certainty that Heavenly Father is real, the Savior is real, and you’re on the right path home to them), then questions aren’t about doubts of belief; they’re about growth. 

She ended with, “Our Father needs men and women of covenant who are willing to wrestle. Learn to receive answers. Humbly, carefully, constantly engage in a spiritual wrestle.” 

I love that. I keep a list of perplexing questions most of the time. And I can see the growth as I look back and realize when answers have come.  

Using study, asking questions, and allowing answers to come through the combination of spiritual and secular study—learning is unlimited.  

There’s a story someone I know told. He was studying law at BYU, and then ended up taking an additional class at the University of Utah. He had found that there was a wide range of opinions in discussions at BYU. Because of the trust people had in the safety of their belief, they were free to explore, to discuss and debate. But at the other school—even among a fair number of faithful people—without the same school mission of using spiritual resources for getting to the truth, the discussion of anything that went beyond the popular secular opinion was oppressed. It looked like the class of good minds was too neatly aligned. It was enlightening, because if you’ve known freedom of thought, you know when it’s missing. 

There are many places where a person can find truth. Many schools. But there is a huge advantage when the very mission of the school is to allow all resources, not just secular ones, for finding truth.
That can be done anywhere, but it takes faith, and questions, and study, and wrestling. And then comes growth. 

[i] Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson, “What is Marriage?” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, vol. 34, number 1, 2011: 245-287.
[ii] BYU’s mission statement and aims can be found here: .

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