To Listeners of John Dehlin: A Christmas Peacemaking Letter

Dear brothers and sisters,

Last year, as some of you know, I released two short videos addressing the work of Dr. John Dehlin. I’ve written plenty of things that triggered frustration; never as much backlash as this one. There were nearly 800 commenters on his response expressing frustrations before I stopped counting. 

In this season more focused on “peace on earth, good will to men,” and with President Nelson’s nudge earlier this year to “end the conflicts that are raging” inside and around us, it felt like an especially good time to write this letter.

I won’t be responding here to John. He and I have had productive interactions in the past, and I’m open to that in the future. I’m willing to take up his questions in a serious conversation. But I’m writing today not to him, but to you, his listeners. 

I hope this note finds you with joy and peace in your life. My heart hurts to see estrangement and bitter feelings between so many current and former members. Does it have to be this way? I know many wonderful people doing good things in the world who don’t see the world like I do. In fact, some of my dearest friends are Marxist, atheist, and uber-progressive—each of whom thinks some of my core convictions are flat-out wrong (and vice-versa). But despite even vociferous disagreements, we really do love each other, enjoy each other, respect each other. I’ve wondered a lot this last year why that sort of relationship seems so much harder to cultivate between those with different conclusions about faith?  

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Joseph Smith wins again

Yes, some conspiracy theories are real.

It really is true that the CIA was involved in killing JFK.

And it turns out that the FBI ran Twitter like its own personal fiefdom and committed 80 agents to monitoring and censoring the tweets of everyday Americans.

Yes, Joseph Smith was correct, the government has become a mob. Note: this does not mean that every person in government is a mobster or dishonest. But it is impossible not to see that the agencies we are supposed to trust — like the CIA and FBI — are becoming mobs. Yes, they are.

The historical consistency of the LDS experience

“If Joseph Smith were to walk into a conference of the (LDS) Church today he would find himself completely at home; and if he were to address the congregation they would never for a moment detect anything the least bit strange, unfamiliar, or old-fashioned.” — Hugh Nibley, writing in 1946 in the essay “No Ma’am, That’s Not History.”

if we are to imagine Joseph Smith talking at General Conference, what would he say? Would he feel comfortable with the words of modern-day prophets?

With the exception of mid-19th century figures of speech that we would not recognize, Joseph Smith’s doctrine would be exactly what modern-day prophets teach today. He would recognize that the tweaks in the doctrine — ending plural marriage, for example — would be necessary for our modern times. Re-read some of Joseph Smith’s talks to see what I mean.

This is unique. I can think of very few religious institutions that are two centuries old that have such historical consistency. This is worth pondering for faithful Latter-day Saints. When the Savior comes again, would he feel comfortable at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint General Conference? Based on what I know if Him and what I have read of His actions and words, I would have to say yes.

Ralph Hancock’s excellent article on the future of BYU

We urge all readers to take a look at Prof. Ralph Hancock’s excellent articles on BYU. As many readers know, there is widespread dissatisfaction among Latter-day Saints regarding the type of education students are receiving at BYU, specifically BYU-Provo, but also other BYU institutions.

To summarize the dissatisfaction from the conservative and traditional perspective, the concern is that BYU is becoming too worldly and embracing too many “woke” causes. But progressives are also unhappy that BYU is not like other universities in the U.S.

Prof. Hancock addresses these are other issues here.

Clearly something is stirring at Brigham Young University. The university is re-examining its fundamental mission, taking stock of how it has drifted away from this mission, and undertaking a realignment with that mission. All Latter-day Saints, and indeed all friends of religious higher education in the United States, have a stake in this challenging ongoing process. The university’s leading officers, under the direction of the Commissioner of Church Education, Clark Gilbert, and of the Board of Trustees in Salt Lake City, have addressed the university audience repeatedly, clearly, and emphatically — especially over the last two years — concerning the need to realign BYU with its distinctive religious as well as intellectual mission as a university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is much less clear, though, how these efforts to redirect BYU will unfold or what will be the eventual outcome of the present ferment. This article is mainly a reflection on the university’s annual conference, August 22, 2022, as well as on meetings and conversations at the college and department level that same day, and on subsequent reverberations throughout the institution that I have witnessed directly or that have been reported to me by BYU colleagues who share my concerns. I aim both to clarify the nature of the changes being called for by BYU leadership and to explain the very significant obstacles that stand in the way of these changes. Let me say at the outset that I wholly embrace the present call for mission realignment, and that I also understand that the obstacles to it are in many cases structural and not a result of deliberate opposition or disloyalty on the part of recalcitrant faculty.

As I will show below, President Kevin Worthen and Vice President Shane Reese made it very clear in their respective addresses on August 22, 2022 to the whole BYU community — and to the whole faculty — that improved alignment with the Church and the Restored Gospel is a high priority in the school’s updated strategic planning. VP Reese, in particular, offered some very bold and suggestive reflections on BYU’s need to articulate a “gospel methodology.” What remains unclear is just how the re-commitment to a gospel-centered education approach is to be articulated and just how this mission realignment is to be conceived and implemented, given the university’s deep involvement with and dependence on the mainstream establishment of higher education in the United States. I will argue, further, on the basis of observations at the “operational” level of the university (academic colleges and departments), that in the absence of a clear and substantive articulation and organizational incentivizing of the administration’s mandate to integrate religious faith and intellectual learning, the faculty as a whole will likely continue in their familiar professional grooves, and that many professors will continue to interpret gospel imperatives in ways that align conveniently with the humanistic religion, now largely driven by victimhood identity politics, that is prominent in the mainstream academy.

Finally, returning to the most important message from the annual university conference, I intend to show that a careful reading of Elder Christofferson’s speech of August 22 provides the key to a fuller and more practicable articulation of BYU’s mission and shows the way forward to a difficult and gradual but necessary implementation.

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Returning BYU to its Original Mission

The founding of Brigham Young University was a long process. Although the official date is considered 1875, it wasn’t a full university and accredited until after the turn of the century. It started out as an LDS high school before receiving the designation as a higher education academy. A few years in and a fire destroyed the original main building. Presidents of the school came and went as some wanted to improve their professional opportunities. Benjamin Cluff Jr. was the president possibly most responsible for BYU becoming the university it is today, splitting the high school from the college students and implementing updated college curriculum. During his time the LDS Church formally took over the institution and it became a full university in name and purpose. Later presidents of the university would build on these changes and continue expanding its place in higher education.

Not only was the process for BYU long, but it had early controversies. When university President Benjamin Cluff Jr. introduced athletics to the school, they were rejected by those who made final decisions and cancelled. Some who were concerned about making it a university instead of remain an academy, including Elder Anthon H. Lund, didn’t think it would be successful. A huge argument about allowing the teaching of evolution ended with, at least for a time, a rejection of the subject in the school. Concerns were expressed that land bought from Provo for the school would be used for other purposes. It wasn’t until the 1920s that any accreditation organizations recognized it as an acceptable university. From almost the start the academic and spiritual mission of the school seemed to be at odds, or seriously questioned.

At a founding day event on October 16, 1891, the presiding BYU President Karl G. Maeser said about the reason the school existed and its mission:

A glance over the conditions of mankind in this our day with its misery, discontent, and corruption, and disintegration of the social, religious, and philosophic fabrics, shows that this generation has been put into the balance and has been found wanting. A following, therefore, in the old grooves, would simply lead to the same results, and that is what the Lord has designed shall be avoided in Zion. President Brigham Young felt it in his heart that an educational system ought to be inaugurated in Zion in which, as he put it in his terse way of saying things, neither the alphabet nor the multiplication table should be taught without the Spirit of God.

More than ever the dual purpose of education and spiritual development at BYU has become challenged. Those who should be the stewards have largely become offenders. It would be preferable if the spiritual side of an LDS owned university overshadowed the academic, but that isn’t the case. Too much of the world has overtaken to the point that the spiritual is often ignored and even mocked. The secular false gospel of “woke” has displaced the saving truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unless changes are quickly made, BYU will become fully nothing more than just another secular educational institution hostile to its original religious purpose.

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