After growing up in a family of Christian academics, Harvard Law professor Ruth Okediji began asking the question early on: what does it mean to be a person of faith in an academic environment? While in college, she wondered whether schools that are grounded in faith can be sufficiently rigorous. During a Bible study one night, she found the answer in a familiar verse: “You shall love God with all your heart ... and with all your mind.”

On Wednesday, Okediji, a renowned scholar in intellectual property law, joined with former Brigham Young University president Kevin Worthen to discuss the role of faith in pursuing excellence in education and in the legal profession. The event at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was hosted by The Harvard Law Latter-day Saints chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society.

Faith and intellectual rigor are not only compatible but required of us, the panelists said.

“This lightbulb went off [that] actually, my faithfulness to the Bible and my faithfulness to the commands of Christ ... requires me to love God with my mind; it requires me to actually use my mind,” Okediji said. “And that began a whole new journey for me as a Christian.”

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Are faith and intellect compatible?

At BYU, Worthen explained, the point of education is to ultimately become more fit to serve others and pursue all truth “wherever it may be found.”

One visitor to a 19th century Latter-day Saint community remarked on “an extravagant thirst for knowledge” among members of the church, he said. “The ultimate goal is not merely the attainment of some abstract information. But it is to help us change our nature to become more God-like through the power of Jesus Christ,” said Worthen, who is also a distinguished visiting professor of law at Yale Law School and a former area authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Worthen, who was president of BYU from 2014 to 2023, clerked for Malcolm Wilkey of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and for Justice Byron White on the U.S. Supreme Court, and was dean of the BYU Law School from 2004-2008.

At BYU, he explained, students are encouraged to study by faith, reason and revelation — this kind of synergy was once found at private universities but is less common today. Today, he noted, there is a tendency — and a temptation — to compartmentalize various aspects of our life: “Here, I’m acting like a lawyer. Here, I’m acting like a disciple of Jesus Christ,” he said, adding, “It never goes well when you do that.”

BYU, which is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, resists this trend by focusing on the education of whole person, Worthen said.

This synergy stood out to Okediji on her recent visit to BYU. She touted the students’ commitment to both their faith and intellectual pursuits in a way that enrich one another.

“So if we’re serious about faith and if we think it’s important to cultivating virtuous citizens and faith has application to poverty, to injustice, to unfairness, to environment issues — you name the social problem — we believe that God’s word in the Bible has wisdom and insight and discernment for the things that we face today, we must be bold about faith in academic institutions,” she said. “I do not think there is a choice.”

Okediji kicks off every admissions cycle with a prayer to have more Christians enroll at Harvard. If Christians want to bring about change in the world, “then it’s important that we are faithful in the places that train leaders for the nations.”

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‘Giving your best is an act of worship’

Okediji shared that some Christians she’s known in the past have not always shown the highest standard of excellence when it came to their studies. She recalled, for example, a student who dismissed a study session opting to pray instead. But a mention of Abel’s “more excellent sacrifice” than Cain’s in Hebrews reframed the connection between excellence and faith for Okediji.

“Whether it’s my scholarship, or whether I’m teaching or talking to my students — give your best because it’s an act of worship.”

At BYU, students are encouraged to pursue the careers that God called them to. Low tuition rates, compared to most secular universities, alleviate the pressure of financial burden, Worthen said. When he proposed to raise tuition at BYU, the answer came back that student debt would limit the students’ choice of career. But with this financial relief, students have an obligation, too. “You have a Christian obligation to worship with your mind, to fit yourself to be better prepared to do what God wants you to do,” Worthen said.

Maintaining a ‘faithful witness’

The pressures of a rigorous academic environment can take a toll on students, Okediji noted. She asked Worthen how he was able to maintain a “faithful witness” during challenging times.

It’s a disciplined routine of prioritizing the aspects of spiritual maintenance: daily prayer and scripture study— which come first thing, before distractions of the day, Worthen said. And then, he said, ask God what he thinks of you.

“When the anxiety is such that you think ‘I’m failing in every possible way, I’m in debt, I’m not going well’ – if you really ask God what he thinks of you, in whatever form it is, I think that could be transformative.” He added, “I think we underestimate the motivation that comes from feeling God’s love for us.”

But “falling off the priority wagon” is bound to happen, Okediji said, usually when we fear missing a promotion or a recognition.

“There’s this fear that if you somehow honor the Sabbath, that the career train will leave you behind,” she said, noting that she signs off from all work on Friday after sunset to honor the Sabbath. “And I will tell you that in my entire career, I have never missed one thing.”

Instead, keeping the Sabbath has helped Okediji be more efficient with her time and set the tone for her co-workers to respect the time she’s away.

“This whole idea that we have to work ourselves to the ground until we die, with no fulfillment — the world is dying as a result of that,” Okediji said. “It needs believers in the gospel of Jesus, because it needs believers in God’s word to say, ‘that is not what God created you for, you are not a machine.’ And that there is a virtue in rest, and that there is excellence in rest, and I really want to encourage that.”

Lawyers face a unique challenge in reconciling their career and faith, both speakers emphasized. Legal cases tend to reduce people to plaintiffs or defendants, dehumanizing people in real-life situations, Worthen said. “You have to remind yourself that you’re dealing with people who are divine.”

Okediji agreed that the legal profession “is too wired for the flesh.”

“You will have to very deliberately lay down the desire for the accolades and the recognition, otherwise, it will overtake you,” Okediji said. “Every day it will knock on your door, and every day you’ve got to let your love for God open that door and say ‘no, not today’.”