In 1934, renowned German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler delivered a series of lectures at Harvard. Still in the shadow of the devastation of World War I, many were grappling over how such brutality could happen despite so much modern, scientific advancement. Why hadn’t such enlightened progress been enough to stop 20 million deaths?
Similar questions are being asked by many today, who witness the technological marvels around us, alongside the brutality of war abroad and violence within our own borders. With all we know scientifically, technologically and medically, we really can’t figure these things out?
Clearly not yet. So, maybe we just need more of what we’ve already been doing — more data, more innovation. Maybe AI will finally help unravel our thorniest problems?
A wisdom greater than TikTok?
Köhler highlights a different possibility — that barriers to resolving aching societal problems may not be scientific or technological, but rather moral. If so, what does it mean that so many young people are taking their moral cues from the online “influencer class,” rather than from teachers well-positioned to provide a compelling alternative to pop culture?
This is the backdrop behind a spring conference held at Brigham Young University on “Embracing the Divine Purpose in Education and Scholarship,” sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning. Rather than ceding the ground to TikTok gurus on questions of life, love and identity — what if faculty at places like BYU leaned further into these bigger questions in their scholarly work and teaching?
Presenters at the conference outlined several ways teachers could do this more for students:
1. The courage to push beyond the secular status quo
BYU professors and instructors have long been encouraged to keep their various subject matters “bathed in the light and color of the restored gospel.” Psychology professor Richard Williams reminded attendees that “stuff washes off” when anything gets “bathed” and often it comes out slightly “different than when it went in.”
He then asked, what could all the various fields of study become when they are “bathed” in sacred truths?
Too often, even believing scholars may not realize how their approach remains largely “indistinguishable from those whose approach is purely secular.” This can happen unawares, Williams noted, by fixating on narrow truths such as “the brain is always involved in our actions” or “human sexuality is a natural biological process we share with other mammals” — without asking deeper and distinct questions.
The key is curiosity about where ideas or facts come from and where they take people. More of that, Williams suggested, could demonstrate how the restored gospel often “provides context and alternative possibilities” for understanding and appraising popular claims that are frequently embraced with little examination.
This might mean studying very difficult issues or claims others leave unexamined. Dr. Justin Dyer, for example, spoke about his work analyzing suicidality among sexual minorities in Utah. When he took a hard look at the data he found it contradicted popular narratives suggesting that religious households and environments were suicide-inducing. Dyer detailed his analyses of state surveys demonstrating that stable Latter-day Saint homes in Utah represent the “safest place” for youth, statistically speaking, “regardless of sexual orientation.”
2. Celebrating the freedom to take all truth seriously
Of course, it’s precisely these potential secular/sacred conflicts that some worry might constrain teaching and research at religiously-oriented schools. Yet professor Jason Carrol, associate director at the Wheatley Institute, remarked, “I’m so grateful to be at a university where we have the academic freedom to draw upon these truths as we do.”
Rather than merely teaching how “couples need to learn how to manage conflict,” Carroll described the power of helping students see how shared religious marriages or “disciple-marriages” are “committed to equal partnership.” Counseling psychologist Kristin Hansen and family scholar Jenet Erickson each highlighted how spiritual teachings around agency and the intrinsic value of bearing children, respectively, had shaped their own distinctive careers. And scholar Edwin Gantt spoke of therapists appreciating that, in the Latter-day Saint tradition, they are not the ultimate “healer” but must instead work to “create a space where the Lord can provide healing.”
3. Welcoming dialogue about disagreements
Students in various academic contexts are increasingly worried about raising religious or other views that might be perceived as controversial. Some fear that standing up for increasingly countercultural religious ideas necessarily means “driving wedges.” Professor Stephen Yanchar noted how even raising honest questions a la critical thinking “has a reputation of being an attack.”
But he insisted this work of grappling over truth on college campuses, religious or not, can all be “loving, kind and gentle — a part of relationship building.” Other speakers concurred, emphasizing the power of exploring disagreements with generosity. “But the most charitable thing we can do is tell the truth,” emphasized Williams.
The fact that profound disagreements have become so scary at universities — the very place dedicated to hashing out different perspectives in a search for truth — highlights the unique opportunity to model a different way, perhaps especially at a place like BYU with a greater political balance than many other college campuses.
“Yes, people will disagree … and we can talk. But at least we’ll be having the discussions,” said Williams, who has spent his career encouraging a deeper conversation about unquestioned assumptions in psychology. “What could be more important than having these conversations with fellow believers in a spirit of respect and love?”
Carroll noted that some fear such bridge building is a “one way ticket to banishment in the academic world” wherein they won’t be taken seriously anymore and will instead be seen as speaking “just another language for Sunday school.”
“Those who fear” this kind of searching dialogue, Yanchar suggested, “have overstated its dangers.”
4. Prizing diverse ways of knowing
Much of this may seem strange to those convinced that “only knowledge gathered through careful application of certifiably natural science methods can count as valid and valuable knowledge.” This kind of a “zealous metaphysical commitment” and associated “orthodoxy in methodology and thought” can make those drawing on other sources of knowledge and wisdom seem somehow backward.
Counseling psychology professor Lane Fisher described fellow classmates in graduate school “disparaging my use of scriptures as a base for exploration,” preferring instead to ask only “what do the data say (as though data speak with a voice of their own).”
Carroll described receiving an academic award in his field, while admitting the “true origin” of his theoretical contributions were prompted by a religious message from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called “Of Souls, Symbols and Sacraments.” What he taught, Carroll explained, shaped the questions his research team went on to explore.
What might have been lost in the scholarly conversations about marriage and sexuality if Carroll had decided it was silly to take spiritual insights seriously as academic concerns — or had Dyer been scared away from any serious examination of the suicide data anchored in his own faith?
This brings to mind a conversation Elder Clark Gilbert recently reflected upon having with Dan Sarewitz, former editor of the journal published by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Sarewitz underscored, “The academy needs BYU. But we need BYU to be BYU, and not a watered-down version of every other secular university.”
Highlighting the array of other religiously-rooted campuses across the nation, Elder Gilbert added that “these and other religious schools across the country enjoy a huge strategic advantage, but only if they dare to continue with and strengthen their religious identity — only if they dare to be different from their peers.”
So, who’s ready to take the dare?
Jacob Hess is the former editor of Public Square Magazine and writes at Publish Peace on Substack. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, he also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”