To be a religious university in the 21st century is to stand athwart history. For more than a century, the overwhelming trend among religious colleges and universities has been to distance themselves from their religious moorings and to sever ties with their sponsoring churches. This path was almost always paved with good intentions. No one decided, at one fell swoop, to convert a religious university into a secular one. But the drift has followed a pattern so familiar as to seem almost inexorable. The coming apart of church and school can have the appearance of an inevitable process; their separation can feel like a natural state.

The flip side is universities that have retained and even strengthened their religious identity strike some as anachronistic, even unnatural. To some observers, such schools — including Brigham Young University — seem doggedly, even perversely, to commingle things that rightly belong apart: academic inquiry and religious authority, scientific observation and spiritual devotion, the life of the mind and the hopes of the heart, reason and revelation, study and faith. These, to some, are unnatural pairings. It is a grounding premise of the secular academy that these dichotomous twains shall never meet.

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At BYU, we respectfully but roundly reject these dichotomies as false. Our work, instead, is the work of “paired aspirations,” to borrow a phrase from our predecessor, Elder James R. Rasband. We seek to unite what others are determined to divide. We insist we can indeed have it both ways — that we can be rigorous and excellent academically while remaining unequivocally loyal to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. We believe that we will succeed in our academic mission, not in spite of our religious mission, but directly and precisely because of it. In this respect, we hope to answer the call of Elder Clark G. Gilbert, Commissioner of the Church Educational System for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who urged faith-based universities to “dare to be different,” showing both spiritual and intellectual courage. Embracing our uniqueness lies at the heart of what has been termed “becoming BYU” — becoming the Christ-centered, prophetically directed university of prophecy.


Resisting false dichotomies requires that we identify and name them. Their name, of course, is legion. But for present purposes we focus on five false dichotomies that strike us as particularly pernicious. Although we initially intended this essay for fellow scholars in university settings who are also wrestling against these false dichotomies, we hope these reflections are also instructive for our students, our alumni and any others who feel pressured to either accept these false dichotomies or ignore them altogether.

Faith and reason

The first false dichotomy is also the most obvious. It informs and encompasses all the others. Modernity’s major gambit has been to assign faith and reason to separate spheres and then to neglect (at best) the domain of faith until it withers, dies or disappears. Such a separation disserves both faith and reason. Far from being separate ways of knowing, “faith and reason are,” as Pope John Paul II once wrote, “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

To neglect either faith or reason is to sever the wings of the human soul. The resultant perspective is emphatically earthbound — limited, myopic, distorting. To embrace only reason is to ignore life’s largest and most consequential questions. To embrace only faith is to give those questions facile answers. Truth and fullness lie in fusion, such as when scientists of faith explore both the what and the why of God’s infinite creation.

Rigor and orthodoxy

A second false dichotomy insists that rigorous academic inquiry is incompatible with settled religious conviction — that one can be thoughtful, or one can be orthodox, but never both. For us, by contrast, religious conviction provides both the framework and the spur for our scholarly pursuits. In this respect, we embrace what Elder Neal A. Maxwell once called “the romance and high adventure of orthodoxy.” In that great quest, orthodoxy does not suppress or stultify academic inquiry; it gives such inquiry a heavenly motive and a unifying frame.

Some have been tempted to misappropriate Elder Maxwell’s resonant phrase, forgetting that the adventure of orthodoxy demands, well, orthodoxy. Elder Maxwell was as brave an inquirer as any, but he had little patience for those overly smitten with their own doubts, and he embodied an approach to faith that was thoughtful and wholehearted, vibrant and exuberant, confident and joyful. His example is a standing rebuke to any notion that a thoughtful faith must inevitably be cynical or critical, painful or detached.

In this connection it is worth noting that secular academics have not, by and large, escaped or abandoned orthodoxy. They have merely embraced secular orthodoxies in the place of religious ones. John Henry Newman identified this tendency more than a century and a half ago. In his great book, “The Idea of a University,” Newman rebuked those who “scatter infidel principles under the garb and colour of Christianity; and this, simply because they have made their own science ... the centre of all truth.” Newman warned that all academic disciplines lead to colossal error unless they are tempered by other disciplines and ordered by revealed truth.

As an institution resolutely rooted in the revealed truth, BYU can resist the trends that Newman decried. Because we are a university, we can integrate truth from all disciplines into one harmonious whole. And because we are a restoration university, we can order and unite all truth under the grand, unifying head of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

Authenticity and conviction

Ours is an age that rightly prizes authenticity and recoils at hypocrisy or insincerity. Those vices, however, are best cured through the old-fashioned virtue of honesty, whereas the modern exaltation of authenticity often privileges untrammeled subjective experience above all else. In this context, some imply or openly declare that certitude and sure conviction regarding religious matters is somehow inauthentic and incompatible with the life of the mind. President Jeffrey R. Holland responded to this suggestion emphatically: “Sometimes,” he observed, “we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not!” In our experience working with the remarkable faculty at BYU, we have been blessed to rub shoulders with hundreds of intellectually honest, morally courageous scholars whose religious convictions run deep and whose faith commitments are unwavering.

Asking hard Questions and giving faithful answers

A related imputation suggests that assuming a faithful, orthodox position means avoiding difficult questions. It is of course possible to shun difficulty by retreating to dogma; but it is equally possible to confront difficult questions from a position of faith and to answer them in a spirit of conviction.

Some might ask hard questions in an iconoclastic spirit, wishing to challenge settled convictions, make academic waves, or draw attention to ourselves. By contrast, when we pose hard questions at BYU, we do so in the hope of offering faithful answers that will remove obstacles to others’ faith — in the hope of helping fellow believers increase their capacity to “give ... a reason for the hope that is in” them (1 Peter 3:15). In this effort, we insist that a faithful answer is not less honest than a dissident answer; it is only more faithful. To challenge the secular assumptions and ideological priors of the broader academy is not to flee from hard questions; it is rather to resist spiritual colonization at the hands of a dominant dogma. In this respect, scholars of faith could surely be bolder in bringing a unique perspective to the disciplines we explore together with nonbelievers.

Engaging charitably and defending the faith

Such a call for greater boldness might raise hackles in some quarters. Some scholars of faith are reluctant to offer an affirmative defense of faith — or even to speak from a position of faith — because in the past they have seen others do so in ways that seem strident and tendentious, mean-spirited and counterproductive. It is, of course, possible to defend faith in boorish and bad-tempered ways. But the problem in such cases does not lie with defending the faith; it lies in being a boor (and often a bore). We cannot defend the faith affirmatively if we do not live the faith wholeheartedly. And for Christians that requires being peacemakers and loving those — our brothers and sisters — with whom we disagree. This means that we must cultivate charity, “the greatest of all,” over all other gifts and pursuits. Without charity, as Saint Paul reminds us, even our best-intended advocacy becomes “as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).

This doesn’t mean, however, that we shy away from our convictions. “We can still love others and find common ground without compromising the truths we know,” as President Dallin H. Oaks told a global audience of young adults last year. “Defend your beliefs with courtesy and with compassion,” President Holland once urged, “but defend them.”

In sum, we maintain that it is not only possible but imperative for scholars of faith at religious universities to pursue our highest ideals, not as stark dichotomies but as paired aspirations. We can combine faith and reason as harmonious and complementary ways of knowing the words and works of God. We can rigorously pursue our academic craft while honoring authoritative religious teaching. We can be thoughtful, probing, and intellectually honest in the certainty and authenticity of our religious convictions. We can ask and answer difficult questions in a spirit of devotion and faith. We can be as charitable as we are unequivocal in our fervent defense of the faith.


In the end, however, we cannot achieve these kinds of paired aspirations alone. Final reconciliation requires heaven’s help. In Christian terms, it requires the intercession — the at-one-ment — of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul taught this truth beautifully and memorably:

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-18).

It is striking how often the scriptures describe the Savior in terms of eternally paired but apparent contraries. He is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. He is the word made flesh — true Man yet very God. He is the mighty Man of War and the Prince of Peace. He is our merciful Advocate and our just Judge. We can do nothing without Him, and yet He bids us choose. He wields all power in heaven and on earth, and yet He works without compulsory means. He is the root and the offspring of David — the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Lamb of God. He is the Holy One of Israel and the Savior of the World. We can hold fast to paired aspirations because He has already reconciled them. He is the One in whom all fullness dwells.

For any Christian university — and indeed for any Christian — the only way to unite both halves of our paired aspirations is to turn to Him. We can only claim both sides of the blessing — heart and mind, study and faith, inquiry and alignment, rigor and devotion, tradition and renewal — by giving all that we have and are — our studies and our supplications, our souls and ourselves — to Him.

Justin Collings is the academic vice president of Brigham Young University, and President C. Shane Reese is Brigham Young University’s 14th president.