The University and the Kingdom of God | Spencer Fluhman

The University and the Kingdom of God | Spencer Fluhman


Friends, this morning I offer a love story. It is not the love story, mind you, but it
is in some ways like the love story. The love story would take three hours (if
I did it right), and I am told we don’t have time. If I were telling the love story, about the
remarkable woman seated behind me, you might be struck by the story’s influence on me. In fact, please inscribe this on my tombstone:
“If he amounted to anything, it is because he loved her.” I love Hollie more for the good she calls
forth from me than for what she does for me. In a word, she inspires me. And therein lies my simile. This morning’s love story centers on this
university and the church that sponsors it. As with the love story, my love for The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and for Brigham Young University has everything to
do with the good they call forth from me, with what they insist I become. First, a word or two about universities more
generally. I love them. I have always felt at home on university campuses. I have had more than one opportunity to leave
academic life, but I can never seem to pry myself away. I have lectured or researched at many of the
great universities in the United States and Europe and hope to visit a few more. Something about the life of the mind has always
resonated with me. I find it stretching and exhilarating. It feeds my avid curiosity. In fact, when other fourth graders were getting
sports and achievement awards at our year-end ceremony, I got what seemed at the time to
be the lamest award of the bunch: my citation noted my “thirst for knowledge.” I must have looked devastated, because I was. That award earned me no new friends, but it
at least predicted my future career. When I was early in my graduate studies at
a venerable Midwestern research institution, I passed a prominent inscription that stopped
me in my tracks: Whatever may be the limitations which trammel
inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever
encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can
be found. I knew the plaque was not intended as a religious
message, but it resonated with my religious self. “Truth” named a quest that I had long
invested in, and I came to feel quite at home in that secular university community. For several centuries before I arrived for
graduate training, colleges and universities had functioned as a critical mechanism for
transmitting knowledge. The “modern” university was born in the
late nineteenth century, however. It was oriented not merely around the transmission
of knowledge; through focused research, it was to create knowledge. Such a thing has always seemed bold and exciting
to me, and I have never tired of the process of knowledge creation. I suppose I love universities because I am
unfinished, because I am perpetually “in process” myself. That university ideal of knowledge transmission
and creation has had an uneasy history with religious institutions in the United States,
however. Many religious traditions feature revelation
as a critical means of gaining or creating knowledge, and revelation and academic research
sometimes have been seen as oppositional in the history of American universities. In fact, the questions of whether religious
ideas or institutions or, more specifically, which religious ideas or institutions should
set educational agendas became an almost overwhelming problem in this country. A kind of compromise developed in which a
so-called secular ideal took root at many elite institutions, in which no preference
for any particular religious identity or position reigned, at least explicitly, and in which
a “marketplace” of ideas could wend as it may. Significantly, some minority faiths experienced
this secular ideal as heaven-sent. Early Latter-day Saints, for instance, frequently
found elite institutions to be places of belonging, since their talents were often valued in spite
of their unpopular religious identities. There was a price to be paid for that secular
ideal, however. Universities, fearful of favoring a single
religious tradition or having religious institutions command special sway, gradually drew back
from the idea of the university as an engine for moral, ethical, or spiritual development. Though early universities had sometimes seen
themselves as critical partners in fostering public morality or human flourishing in a
broad sense, modern universities have increasingly left these big questions to others. Partly as a result, ­academic disciplines
increasingly have drawn ­narrow lines around intellectual inquiry, with methods and training
designed for ever-­increasing specialization. In extreme cases, ­universities have focused
their efforts on preparing laborers for labor markets and little else. Important for Latter-day Saints, the university
looms larger than a mere historical accident in what we call “the Restoration.” When the early Saints scarcely had resources
for food and shelter, they were organizing universities. Joseph Smith, who had plenty to do leading
the Church in its infant years, seemed inspired by the university ideal, especially so for
someone who lacked all but the meager beginnings of formal education himself. Joseph Smith was spiritually and intellectually
voracious—if indeed it makes sense in his case to separate the two. He ­incessantly collected beauty and truth
from the world around him with what one prominent scholar has described as a process of inspired,
eclectic ­gathering from disparate sources. He gathered good and virtuous things where
he found them and then repurposed them to enrich and propel the kingdom of God. The university surely counts as one of those
inspired borrowings. Subsequent prophets and apostles have consistently
elaborated on Joseph’s seedling ideas. It should not escape our attention that the
Saints planned a University of the City of Nauvoo or that the seeds of a University of
Deseret were in place by 1850 or that a Brigham Young Academy was a fledgling reality by 1875. Simply put, prioritizing something like a
university when so much else seemed so tenuous surely tells us something about the place
of the life of the mind in God’s kingdom. The plain fact of this university shouts quite
a sermon, don’t you think? In truth, with the full history of The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in view, we dare say that the world of ideas is indispensable
for the Restoration. As the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell put it,
most memorably: For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship
is a form of worship. It is actually another dimension of consecration. As a result, Brigham Young University will
not and cannot divorce itself from the big questions of human experience. Unlike other institutions, there is no secularizing
retreat here that permits any discipline or field to imagine itself apart from questions
of human flourishing or morality or even holiness. Put another way, where does God’s light
not seek to shine? What field of inquiry can stand apart from
questions of ultimate reality? Of divine love? Of God’s design in creation and redemption? To paraphrase a modern revelation, which powerfully
echoes ancient ones, God’s light proceeds from His presence to fill the immensity of
space and is thereby in all things. Would we dare circumscribe that light? An eminent scholar and Christian believer
wrote this of faith and scholarship: “Put most simply, for believers to be studying
created things is to be studying the works of Christ.” This insight hardly limits learning. It should set it free. Nearly a century ago, Elsie Talmage Brandley
urged the Latter-day Saints on: To know the fundamental truths of the gospel
is to leave one free to go far and wide, anchored by that knowledge, in search of all else that
earth and sea and skies have to teach. Indeed, for us there are only hazy, probably
illusory, boundaries between the compartments modern people often draw within their lives
and around their institutions. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, speaking last year
to Maxwell Institute scholars on this campus wrestling with these very matters, put this
powerfully and succinctly: “Your soul must be one—integrated, intact, and whole.” The same holds true for a university in Zion. Where do Christ’s claims on us end? Where do charity and justice not demand a
hearing? In medicine? In law? In the management of resources? In the deployment of technology? In politics? If we can imagine a field of knowledge here,
at this university, about which the gospel of Jesus Christ has nothing to say, we may
have traded our birthright in Zion for a mess of secular pottage. There can be no wholesale acquiescence to
modern categories here. Religion pours out, hot and demanding, into
every field at this university because it must. Again, from Elder Maxwell: The redeeming presence of our loving Father-God
in the universe is the grand fact pertaining to the human condition. It is the supernal truth which, along with
His plan of happiness, reigns preeminent and imperial over all other realities. So business as usual cannot be business as
usual here. That redemptive presence, that “grand fact,”
must organize and prioritize every effort at this university. These realities will make the disciplines
more demanding, not less. A steady diet of religious or intellectual
Twinkies—sugary sweet but without real nourishment—as one of my colleagues describes them, has no
place in God’s kingdom. The intersection of academic disciplines and
the Restoration’s grand facts should be electric and, in every sense, rigorous. This university, after all, must call forth
our best selves to be worthy of its place. To be casual about our collective aspirations
would be to trifle with sacred things. Expect your courses to be difficult. Expect your professors to wrestle mightily
with their topics. Expect unfinished business all around. Expect theory and hypothesis to jostle alongside
settled conviction. Expect now and again to fall short of our
stated aspirations—those failures are crushing but necessary. And above all, expect to wrestle yourself. There is deep magic in the spiritual struggles
demanded here. Joseph Smith hinted at this when he wrote
of what it would take to make a difference in this world. Notice how he connects mind and redemption: Thy mind, O Man! if thou wilt lead a soul
unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate
the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of
eternal expanse; he must commune with God. It will not be all sunshine and angels, in
other words. Expect some abyss. One of our finest theological minds, Francine
R. Bennion, reminded us why the way is so often clouded: “We have to [learn to] be
real ourselves and not dependent on externals.” We must labor, in other words, with a clear
sense of the world and its deepest problems, or none of us will be ready to lead anyone
to any kind of salvation. To commune with God, according to Joseph Smith,
is to begin to comprehend reality as broadly and as viscerally as He does. Superficiality and slothfulness would thwart
that kind of education as surely as sin or oppression. Accordingly, we can’t simply steer around
difficult questions here. We have to wrestle right through them, and
we must do it together. My marching orders came years ago in BYU’s
new faculty orientation. When asked about dealing with difficult questions
as a featured visitor in that setting, the late Elder Richard G. Scott warned us that
avoiding them might actually harm faith down the road because we would have missed an opportunity
to engage them here, together, within the household of faith. I have never forgotten that apostolic warning. In my many years of teaching, I have seen
students and faculty meet that challenge in memorable ways. Last year, when a colleague and I team-taught
a course on Latter-day Saint political engagement, we joked the first day that we would rather
casually combine the two topics one should never discuss in polite company! Our students marveled throughout the course
that we refused to maneuver around tough questions. Each class period featured some fresh, daunting
challenge, from violence to race to immigration to gender and sexual orientation. And we marveled back as our students navigated
these issues with rigor and faith and, especially, that they chose to do it together, as difficult
as it was for Saints from such varied backgrounds and perspectives. I wept as I read their course evaluations. To a person, they left the course more committed
to the things that matter most, not less. Looking ahead at the challenges that await
each of us, it might be helpful to remember that this university has both direction and
magnitude. (That’s right, Despicable Me fans, this
university is a vector!) Its direction is unalterable. It is chiseled in Wasatch granite. It must build God’s kingdom or wither away. Its magnitude, however, is variable. Its significance in the world depends on our
collective intellectual and spiritual force as a gathering of God’s children. If we reduce our time here to personal calculations
about jobs and salaries and individual futures, we will have failed to recognize this place’s
embeddedness in the overarching project of the Almighty. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves firmly
within that grand project, our time here will feel less like a breathless sprint toward
a certificate and more like the gift that it is. You might think of yourself as seeking God
here, but, in truth, He has been seeking you. He is fitting you for a world that needs you. There are always problems afoot that will
demand our very best and then some. From poverty to racism to ecological collapse
to rampant inequality to sexual violence to poor healthcare to religious freedom to deficient
education—this world groans under the weight of our collective failures. This world yearns for a people with a broad
and compelling vision infused with the hope and compassion the gospel of Jesus Christ
inspires in each of us. In short, this world needs you. Our numbers will always be miniscule, but
where there is great need, Latter-day Saints must be there. We will be motivated by something beyond self-interest,
I hope. We will stay a little longer, I hope. We will do the things that no one else wants
to do. I trust that we will be out of the spotlight,
helping the forgotten ones. Do you want to make a difference in your communities? You are at the right university. Do you want to change the world? You are in the right church. You will learn from both our successes and
our failures, but, make no mistake, your time here will be a wide-ranging education if you
will let it be. At this point I offer a caution as one who
has intermittently done it wrong in the past. Sometimes academic training can work to distance
us from the body of Christ. Because we ask different questions, or ask
them differently, we can come to believe that our perspectives are more important than those
of others who may lack our training or our experience. We can grow impatient or condescending with
our fellow Saints. We can become cynical. I have experienced some of this. I have bite marks on the insides of my lips
from past Sunday School lessons to prove it! But I rarely experience those frustrations
these days. What changed things for me was church service,
actually. As I have come to better comprehend the scale
of human suffering around us, my questions have changed. Rather than being haunted by the fact that
other Saints don’t care about the same questions I do in every instance, I have been obliged
to reframe the problem this way: “How can my academic training answer the problem of
human suffering or contribute to the redemption of the human family?” This is, I suspect, what Elder Maxwell was
getting at when he equated scholarship and worship for the disciple. Such a question challenges us to consecrate
our minds and training to God’s purposes. It moves us toward that primeval command to
love God with all our minds. In this pivot, my cynicism has faded—mostly. As God has brought me into closer proximity
to suffering, I have had far less time for cynicism. Ultimately, reframing in this way has drawn
me profoundly toward, rather than away from my fellow Saints. In the final tally then, this university should
help facilitate our spiritual renovation—that process of transformation at the heart of
God’s great plan of happiness. Indeed, it must function as an instrument
of redemption, writ large. In what I consider Joseph Smith’s mature,
perhaps final sense of Christ’s Atonement’s net effect on the human family, he portrayed
God’s plan as one of unceasing expansion. Preaching his most famous sermon just two
months before his death, he characterized true religious life as a process of “going
from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace
to grace, [and] from exaltation to exaltation.” Joseph Smith’s understanding of Jesus Christ’s
Atonement as facilitating an ongoing renovation of our capacity for good seems to provide
a direct link to the university experience. No wonder our institutional mission is so
audacious! How could a university propose “to assist
individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life” unless it understood itself
in these terms? So we should leave this place with expanded
capacities, yes, but that word capacity deserves our careful attention. It certainly relates to what we can do. Our capacity for hard work, for critical thinking,
for expression, for creativity, and for collaboration should expand during our time here. But the word capacity also relates to what
we can hold. Think of Joseph Smith’s statement in that
light. How much light can I hold? How much patience can I hold? How much compassion? How much love? When we begin to see our university time—and
our lives, for that matter—as a renovation of our capacity for both good works and for
holding beauty and truth and every other good thing, then we will be learning indeed. And if in the complexities and contradictions
we must all face along the way we are driven to our knees before the beautiful, startling
mystery of it all, then we will be Latter-day Saints indeed. This intellectual and spiritual work can be
difficult. It can be exhausting. I know some of you are tired. You are not sure you can keep at it. You go ahead and find some stillness today. Gather your strength today. Rest up today, because tomorrow we ride for
Zion. And it is not quite Zion if you are not there. Remember, you don’t ride alone. Step back and consider the thousands around
you. Consider the thousands who preceded you. Consider the unnumbered hosts yet to come. You don’t ride alone. This path takes courage and vision, yes. It takes faith, and faith will always be counterintuitive
in this world. So is love. Why believe or hope or care when the data
seem so often stubbornly trailing in other directions? Faith, hope, and charity are audacious in
such a world as this. But make no mistake, we will find the place
that God for us has prepared, even if it seems far away today. Just when your strength is flagging, you will
catch the glint of some gleaming tower off in the distance, and you will sense that God
is there. He is. Keep going. God is playing the long game, and we should
too, if we understand the scale of the struggle. The ride will not end and the Restoration
will not conclude until every daughter and son of God who will come has been safely gathered
into the Lord’s extended, covenantal embrace. As a result, the critical moment in Church
history is now, because it is the one that falls to us. Each generation in the Church gifts to the
next the faith that has lighted our way. In return, the rising generation reveals to
us those facets of the gift that are most meaningful now. That is what you students gift to us. So I thank you, my students, numbered in the
thousands now, for showing me what is both timely and timeless and durable about this
faith that has won my devotion. In the early history of the Church, holy temples
of necessity functioned as classrooms too. Those Saints had no other choice. The first temples became sites of teaching
and learning on a wide range of topics. As a result, those early believers understood
well that teaching and learning in this Church operate in sacred space. Think about the classrooms of Brigham Young
University. Think about those library carrels. Think about those late-night study sessions. Remember endlessly parsing those Hebrew verbs
on the chalkboards of the empty Martin Building. Remember your time learning. Recall the steep price you and others paid
for it. Now look back and behold what God has wrought
in you. Are you not a marvelous work and a wonder? The teaching spaces of this university are
“old-school” temples to me. They are spaces made holy by the teaching
you have done, by the learning I have done, and by the glorious Zion we have been pursuing
together. May God continue to illuminate our way in
the bright light of His Son and fit us for the weighty moment that has fallen to each
of us is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

6 Replies to “The University and the Kingdom of God | Spencer Fluhman”

  1. "Yesterday, I was talking to a great friend of mine who's in a challenging situation. She told me that she both admires and envies me because I have everything together. Her words surprised me and made me reflect on two things: the message of this page and how we perceive ourselves. First, I want to stress that I don't have everything together! I'm 28, and I only discovered my purpose in life 6 months ago! If you've already found your purpose, that's amazing, but if you haven't yet, don't worry. Everyone has their own timing. Each person's journey is different. I know what I want to do, but I'm still learning to accept myself as I am. Some days everything seems to fall apart, and I would just like to run away from my problems and close myself off in my safe world. Sometimes, I still get caught up in negativity, and I don't feel like posting, but I keep doing it because I know there's always at least one person who needs to read my quote. I'm posting for that one person. And as I'm helping you, you're helping me. We're all in this together. No one person is better than another. I'm posting only positive messages because I want you to focus on the positive, but it doesn't mean that the negative doesn't exist in my life. The negative is what makes us who we are. The negative is what makes us appreciate the positive. Welcome it, embrace it, but don't let it win! Don't let a negative moment ruin your entire day. Don't let a negative day ruin your whole life. The secret is that the choice is yours. Some days choosing to be happy is easier, other days you won't feel like it, but you get to make that choice every single day! The second thing I reflected on is that my friend is the sweetest and most beautiful girl in the world. I'm 100% sure that she was born to accomplish great things in her life. So, we can both see the greatness in each other, but somehow we can't see it in ourselves. And we can all learn something from this. Just because we judge ourselves so harshly, just because our mind says that we aren't enough, it doesn't have to be true. There's always someone who can see that we're amazing just the way we are. Sending you Love and Light, Cecilia" ❤️✨

  2. Love this. Is anyone else impressed by his vocabulary and sentence structure? Did he major in English linguistics?

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