Faith, Reason, and CES

Last week, the Deseret News published an essay by Elder Clark Gilbert, the commissioner of CES. (Remember, CES is over the church’s secondary education system, including the BYUs and Pathways.) In it, he argues for the distinctive—and critical—role religiously-affiliated colleges and universities play in our broad network of secondary education.

And honestly, I found the essay deeply troubling.

Not, let me point out, because I disagree with Elder Gilbert’s premise. I’ve spent my entire academic career teaching at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. We’re a Jesuit school, and our sense of Jesuit identity is central to our mission and to the way we educate our students. This mission encourages us to center justice, as well as the well-being of our students, faculty, and staff. It motivates and permeates the education we provide.

But we don’t see a conflict between the delivery of a secular education and our mission to produce lawyers who will help transform the world.

Elder Gilbert starts his essay talking about being on the Harvard campus and looking at the library from the steps of the chapel. His takeaway? Faith and reason at Harvard were in conflict, with reason the inevitable winner.

But here’s the thing: he doesn’t provide any evidence—any suggestion, even—that anybody but him has had that reaction. Yes, Harvard is a secular university. And it has a world-renowned divinity school. It has a beautiful chapel on campus. (And I’ll note here that BYU-Provo does not have a chapel on campus.) And it produces graduates who are deeply religious.

Elder Gilbert contrasted his Harvard experience with his BYU experience. And that’s probably what troubles me most: somehow his BYU experience left him with the belief that faith and reason were incompatible and stood in contrast to each other. Somehow his BYU experience led him to believe that Harvard detracted from faith, not because of any affirmative attack on faith, but because it wasn’t religiously affiliated.

So yes, I strongly believe that religiously-affiliated colleges and universities play an important part in the constellation of secondary education. I also believe that secular universities do. And I believe that you can find and nurture faith at secular institutions and that you can lose faith at religious institutions.

But I think it is absolutely critical that we—and especially the head of a network of religious universities—not give in to, and not promote, a vision where faith and reason are inevitably locked in conflict. Because that’s not the world we live in.

Image by Crimson400. CC BY-SA 3.0


  1. Isaiah 1:18

  2. Reading Clark Gilbert’s essay and reflecting on other talks at BYU recently (Elder Holland’s, most of all), and comparing to Charles Eliot’s philosophy (as Gilbert describes it) that the way to serve Christ and the church is “not through the founding ideal of knowing God, but rather through cultivating open inquiry,” I’m seeing a replay of a fundamental disagreement about religion and reason. In effect, do we start with God or do we (hope to) end with God? What we’re getting from the Church these days is that we must start with God and ensure that every inquiry points that way. What we get from people like Charles Eliot is that we start with open inquiry in faith that we will end with God.
    I think it’s a legitimate debate. It’s certainly long standing. I’m very much in Eliot’s camp. For me the start with God approach would be constraining. I just wouldn’t do it; I haven’t done it. The start with God approach suggests a fear that if we don’t constrain inquiry but open it up, we might end up not finding God or religion or the Church. That’s a fear-based forced-thought religion I’m not interested in promoting.
    However, much as I would choose Eliot’s Harvard model for myself, I would not seek to make BYU-Provo the Harvard of the West, as some people have suggested. In that, I think Gilbert poses a false binary. As you suggest, or at least hint, Sam, I’d suggest the Jesuit model as a third option. I don’t know Loyola (Chicago) except through your experience, but I pay attention to Georgetown (Washington, DC) and I”m regularly impressed by that model.

  3. I remember reading the essay and liking it. I wasn’t completely sold on what he was saying though. It did come top of mind to me when today I was reading

  4. “All truth is circumscribed into one great whole.” I remember being taught that as part of some covenants that I personally no longer believe in, but I assume that Gilbert does. “The Glory of God is intelligence” is in our scripture. There is also a quote from Brigham Young about “all truth no matter where we find it is part of Mormonism.” Truth, no matter where we find it is still truth, whether it is in the geology of the earth or in the Bible.

    But there are some religious people who hate to integrate new truth into things like the Bible, because they think that their assumptions about what the Bible says are the only truth. So, when geologists talk about the billion years it took to form our earth, and the Bible says one day, they get all confused and then assume that the geologists are wrong, because they assumed when the Bible said one day, that God made the earth in one rotation of the earth. But, you know, the earth didn’t exist yet, so it didn’t rotate, so there was no such thing as a day back when God formed the earth. So, it is literally impossible to read that…um literally. There were no “days” yet, so how exactly did God form the earth in one day? Obviously the Bible is using the word “day” with a different meaning. What the Bible is doing is explaining to Bronze Age humans about the Big Bang and the formation of the universe and the earth in language they could grasp. If God were to explain to the prophet today, he might say, “you idiot, listen to the scientists. They will explain *how* I did it. All the Bible says and all you need to remember is that I did.”

    No, I forget, God is much more polite and kind than I am. So, it might be more like, “Rusty, dear boy, cut with the monkeys with the type writers examples. The earth was not formed by accident or randomly. It was chosen out of the billions and billions of stars, I picked the one earth where my children could live. Listen to the scientists and remember that all truth is circumscribed into one great whole.”

  5. Thanks for your thoughts on this subject, Sam. I read Gilbert’s op-ed and was also struck by his straw man arguments.

    I went to BYU as an undergraduate during the 1980s when it seemed open inquiry and academics flourished and complimented one another more than the eras prior to that time and since the late 1990s. Eugene England and Stephen E. Robinson represented this healthy dynamic well. They squared off once on the Daily Universe editorial page, exchanging multiple op-eds on the presence and roll of academic freedom at BYU. Robinson, a Duke educated religion professor and scholar, represented the establishment view, and England, a Stanford product and giant in Mormon letters, argued a more progressive view. These scholars and their arguments were enriching to me and deeply satisfying to read. (And I should add I took classes from both.) Their commitment to the gospel and restored church was unquestioned and their displayed ability to reason was impressive. Both represented an ideal to me.

    I don’t see that kind of open exchange being possible today because of policies Holland is promoting and Gilbert is enforcing, and faculty and students are worse off because of it. BYU today is an institution I would not be interested to attend. This makes me sad. All of my children have attended either state universities or highly ranked private universities for similar reasons. All were taught the virtues of honesty, kindness and duty to humanity. All have become stronger moral agents because of their educations. BYU may have a unique mission, but it does not hold a monopoly on producing the kind of students that will carry our nation forward on a moral footing and in a way that makes the world a better place for all people. I struggle to accept the hardiness of Gilbert’s premises.

    What bothers me the most is the lack of discussion by Holland and Gilbert on why policies like the revocation of ecclesiastical confidentially is a necessary condition to achieve BYU’s mission. I’m struck by the irony that faculty, evidently, can’t be trusted to uphold the mission of BYU and that removing a key religious sacrament (confessionals and seeking pastoral counsel) is the answer. I’m bothered by the fact there is no transparency coming from the Office of Ecclesiastical Clearance, nor is there an deeper and more public explanation for its purpose. Gilbert makes the argument for the mission of the BYUs, but there is no discussion that explains or seeks to justify the draconian methods they are now using to achieve that aim. And I’ll add that Jeffrey Holland’s meanspirited and unnecessary public shaming of Matt Easton at last year’s faculty and staff meeting at BYU leaves me cynical when I read about the virtuous aspirations for religious education at BYU Gilbert advocates. There is a vein of hypocrisy there that I can’t look past.

  6. Scott Abbott says:

    Thank you for the link to Clark Gilbert’s essay. And for your thoughts about the false duality he advocates between faith and reason. My essay on BYU’s faith/reason possibilities is a chapter of the BBC Press book “Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger” (2022). In that essay, I cite the same James Burtchaell Gilbert cites (on why religious universities have become secular over time). Gilbert draws from Burtchaell an odd summary about “decoupled leadership, decoupled funding, and decoupled faculty hiring” … three of Gilbert’s guiding fears as he closes down academic freedom and due process and shared governance at BYU. Here three more relevant passages from Burtchaell, especially in the context of Gilbert’s ravages to Mormon education:

    “There was a period of great intellectual turbulence, when fresh findings and methods and disciplines raised fearful philosophical challenges to theology. Spokesmen for the church’s concerns, by a compound of incapacity and animosity, exacerbated the apparent hostility between the church and rigorous scholarship.”

    “There was a transfer of primary loyalty from the church to the ‘academic guild,’ especially on the part of the faculty” Why? Burtchaell asks. Because the “angry General Conference … had narrowed its view of what it meant to be Methodist to things like a religious test for all faculty and disciplinary control over students. Absent any larger vision of Christian education, this program was unrelievedly negative, and assured the educational reformers that the church had no stomach for ambitious scholarship.”

    “There was a progressive devolution of church-identifiers: first from Methodist to generically Christian, then to generically religious, then to flatly secular.” Why? Burtchaell’s answer is because “an effective bond to the Methodist Church instinctively evoked references to bigotry, exclusion, narrowness, sectarianism, and selfishness.” There is no acknowledgment of “any intrinsic benefit for the mind in Methodism . . . and no exploration of the [more general Christian] faith which would suggest that it was illuminative of the mind.”

  7. your food allergy says:

    Faith and reason *shouldn’t* be incompatible, on that I am in agreement with the OP. But with BYU’s recent laser-like focus and commitment to the family proclamation as unchangeable doctrine, they are building a situation where they very well may be incompatible. If faith equals the proclamation, he is probably right that reason may not affirm those positions.

  8. Sam, you’re misreading Gilbert’s essay. The opening anecdote is a flashback to a momentary personal impression from his time at Harvard. Call it unartful if you want, but he doesn’t say that “faith and reason at Harvard were in conflict,” and it’s not the thesis of his essay. In any case it’s not exactly a unique insight that faith and reason can at times be in conflict – I think we can find examples going back thousands rather than hundreds of years. And he would agree with you: “The most profound insights happened when secular and spiritual truths were brought together in inspired and reinforcing ways.” And his point isn’t to criticize Harvard: “The purpose of this article is not to criticize Harvard’s path to secularization. In fact, the road that Harvard modeled has made it the envy of the world.”

    What he is arguing for is that religious universities are most useful when they fully embrace their religious identity and religious mission. For that, the opening anecdote serves as a nice setup for the later discussion of real contemporary pressures religious universities can face. You don’t have to agree with Gilbert, but he’s well placed to make valid points worth discussing. It’s more useful to address his main points as fully expressed rather than to be troubled by something he didn’t say, and would likely disagree with himself.

  9. C. Keen, to be clear, I said I agree that religious universities are an important part of the college and university ecosystem.

    But you are underreading his framing anecdote: he perceived the choice between faith and reason at Harvard were in a winner-take-all struggle. But that perception—a perception that underlies and motivates his article—is a misperception, and idiosyncratic conclusion he took away from his life experience and his time at BYU.

    And it’s this ineluctable conflict—his “Hobson’s choice”—between faith and reason that he sees as the reason we need religious universities, because faith would otherwise fall to reason at secular universities.

    And the thing is, he’s wrong. He’s wrong about Harvard, he’s wrong about Columbia, he’s wrong about Stanford. That’s not to say that there’s no reason for religious schools–again, see what I said about religious schools—but if the reason for them is to allow room for faith, well, then they would be unnecessary.

  10. Preaching to the choir is an enduring GA habit. God forbid Gilbert’s social critique should actually make it into the opinion sections of NYT, LAT or WAPO – hell, even the DALLAS MORNING NEWS or BALTIMORE SUN, where these thoughts will actually be subject to Gentile scrutiny. The marketplace of LDS “ideas” is roughly the size of a 7-11.

  11. nobody, really says:

    I’m guessing that BYU would claim “every classroom is a chapel”. I was unfortunate enough to live in a “ward” for a few months that met in a lecture hall on campus. I can’t imagine attending an Economics lecture in a room with a piano and sacrament altar.

  12. This is pretty easy to test. Do people leave Harvard more or less religious compared to BYU? What’s your hunch? It feel a little bit like you’re grasping at straws to find disagreement.

    He’s not saying faith and reason must necessarily be at war, but rather that at Harvard reason was given more weight than faith, with reason inevitably triumphing there under those conditions. Do you not see that as accurate?

    If I plant some weed seeds and some tree seeds and water them equally and do nothing else, to support the tree, do I sit back and proclaim faith loses when the seeds are chocked out by weeds even though I treated them both “equally”? What if I actually water the weeds even more as well? Shouldn’t we recognize the different ways faith and reason can be increased and cultivate accordingly?

    It should be clear that the circumstances that promote scientific knowledge are created more readily through a typical university education than the circumstances that promote religious knowledge. That’s probably still even true at BYU, albeit less so than Harvard, et al.

    One thing I’d like to see BYU do is require a semester of service(mission doesn’t count) in poverty stricken areas (necessarily including religious study during that time) in order to graduate. That’s something that helps stack the deck in favor of faith, and should still be appealing to any secularist as well.

    The church subsidizes BYU, so I have no problem saying those students should take some extra debt upon themselves and spend it studying the Gospel while spending a full semester serving those in dire need. Literally taking the burdens of their fellow man upon themselves. That’s balancing the scales in favor of a Christ like Education.

    Now, requiring them to sit through another devotional instead of the above idea? Well, I suppose there are those who want religion where someone will preach to them. But we ought to be uncomfortable with that for a reason.

  13. Sute, my hunch is that more students leave BYU less religious than they entered. My own experiences suggest that at a minimum, more leave the Church after attending BYU than you might think. BYU tends to breed white/black thinking and simple-minded testimonies that come crashing down when you remove nuance. And you suggesting that ‘reason’ is equivalent to ‘weeds’ is utterly, mind-boggingly hogwash and anti-traditional-LDS. Though I know it’s all the rave now in contemporary LDS thinking.

  14. Sam, you’re reading way too much into this. The essay isn’t about how faith and reason are in conflict at Harvard. It’s about how Harvard and other universities have abandoned their religious missions and character to pursue a secular mission. It’s explicitly non-judgmental of whether that’s a good or bad thing for those universities, but it does argue that the Harvardization of religious universities will lead to a loss of the religious mission of these universities and the benefits that accompany it.

    Your characterization of the essay seems to rest entirely on the opening anecdote, Elder Gilbert presents as a framework for his thesis. But it isn’t his thesis, which is apparent if you continue reading the essay without the goal of constructing a straw man.

  15. Brian,
    Way to go in false equivalencies. I didn’t say faith is a tree and reason is a weed. Try harder. I said you don’t treat them equally. If you feel happier, let’s replace weed seed with watermelon seed. The conditions to nurture both a tree and watermelon (and the time to yield fruit) aren’t the same.

    And I highly, highly doubt that more people leave BYU less committed to the gospel than when they started. Whatever the choices people make that lead to their loss of faith, almost certainly it happens more outside of BYU than in it.

    I suppose you could argue the brethren are just completely irrational and love funding a university that has negative returns. But…you’d almost certainly be wrong.

  16. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    More than a hunch, I’ll say that I know more members of the Church who have attended (or currently attend) Harvard than BYU, and more of those who attended BYU have left the Church than those who were/are at Harvard. And it’s not even close.

  17. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    …and don’t forget all of those General Authorities who attended Harvard (and the many other very fine non-BYU schools). They seemed to do just fine and, in fact, those experiences undoubtedly led them to very successful professional and Church careers.

  18. Dsc, if your concern is that BYU will transform into Harvard, I have good news for you: for various reasons, including history, location, endowment, budget, and the stickiness of reputation, it’s not going to happen. (And I say that as someone who was perfectly happy with my BYU education and as someone who knows excellent faculty who teach there.)

    But also, I think you’re seriously misreading the piece. Elder Gilbert is a former academic and now heads up a major university system. I assume that he’s capable of writing carefully. And you can’t divorce the opening anecdote from the rest of his article—that perceived conflict between reason and faith (at least at secular schools) is what frames his entire discussion. He asserts that religious schools are important, and it’s important that they stay distinctly religious. But he doesn’t say what he means by religious. And he doesn’t argue for their distinctive and important place in the collegiate firmament.

    And Sute, whether BYU or Harvard is more conducive to maintaining faith is, ultimately, an empirical question, and one that I can’t answer. I can say, though, that I know many people of faith who credit their Harvard experience with deepening that faith. If the sole raison d’être of religious schools were to promote faith, it would be a purpose that could be absorbed by secular schools without a problem. (And again, I believe that religious schools provide something important and distinct. But I don’t believe they do it as a result of some inherent Hobson’s choice or incompatibility between faith and secular education.)

  19. Okay, okay, Sute. I get it. Look, I know you didn’t ‘say’ that. But that’s the implication by what you wrote, whether you intended it or not. But sure, I’ll ‘try harder’ to read your mind instead of your rhetorical moves. And I guess I can ‘try harder’ to just accept what ever your hunches are without regards to my own experience. In end, then, I guess you must just be right just because. Sorry about that?

  20. Do more young people leave the Church during/shortly after graduating than those who do not attend BYU? It would be wonderful to know. I hear anecdotes. If Mack the turtle is right, then isn’t that reason enough to move to a different environment at BYU where questions/disagreements/critical thinking/”secular reason” are welcome?

  21. Furthermore, Sute, I have no idea how you can use that watering analogy and then so quickly dismiss the idea that the ‘watering’ at BYU might lead to people leaving. That seems quite simpleminded and logically inconsistent to me.

    Look, let’s say that Mack and I are right. Then, as Romni’s pointing out, perhaps the Brethren do realize there’s a problem of people leaving after BYU and that’s why they’re cracking down. But, you see, the problem is that they are going after the wrong factor. They are further taking away the very thing that allows people to thrive afterwards (nuance, intellectual rigor that can handle difficulty), instead preferring the shallow and hallow mantra of ‘if you keep them ignorant, they’ll stay longer.’ Not a good move. Not a good move at all. We’ve come a long way in the Nelson years from the gospel topic essays to this dumbing down of the followers.

  22. I grew up in Utah Valley, I and a lot of my childhood friends went to BYU-P, I’d say roughly at least of a third of them have left the church since graduating, maybe more, it’s hard to tell sometimes, but for at least a third of them they’re very transparently no longer practicing. It’s anecdotal, but as an active member, I do find it upsetting that some of my closest friends and family members no longer want anything do with the church. It was ultimately their own decisions, but the ‘wedges’ that started their path to leaving are all pretty similar.

    I agree with Brian that the GA’s are aware that membership is hemorrhaging among young and young-ish people, BYU grad or not, and that this ideological circling of the wagons is what they’re doing, and I also agree that it’s probably the wrong way to do it. Making the tent smaller and refusing to grapple with the thorny questions is the wrong way to do this.

    I do think that education and research in general can lead some to leave the church. I remember studying early American religious history and the early history of the modern church and indeed, some of the things that are left out or at least ignored in the Church’s record of events do make you really think about what you really believe in and whether you want to be committed to it or not. Confronting those questions was scary, but after a period of time that included BOTH study of non-church sanctioned materials, and running the usual gambit of prayer/fasting/scripture study. I came to peace with that particular situation and decided to stick with continuing to be an active member of the church.

    I think in the GA’s minds they worry that too many people will find themselves in similar situations and decide to leave the church, hence their strategy is to prevent people from coming to that situation in the first place. Which I think is the wrong move, but I’m not in charge.

  23. Elder Gilbert’s essay states:

    “The most profound insights happened when secular and spiritual truths were brought together in inspired and reinforcing ways. As John Donne penned, ‘Reason is our soul’s left hand, Faith her right, By these we reach divinity.'”

    From this, you conclude:

    “[Elder Gilbert’s] BYU experience left him with the belief that faith and reason were incompatible and stood in contrast to each other.”


  24. If Elder Gilbert had started his essay with his anecdote, but then followed it with “and later I learned that I was wrong” the rest of the essay would be more cohesive, since he’s arguing to keep some religious universities around. But he doesn’t. This is what makes the essay feels somewhat bifurcated. Given that beginning anecdote, one would think that he should be arguing to get religion out of universities. Or universities out of religion.

    I have an anecdote of my own. After President Monson lowered the age for missionaries, my in-laws hypothesized it was because of the rate of young men who were on track to serve a mission, go to a year of university and then decide to not to serve a mission. In their ward there was a rash of young men (about two year’s worth) who had graduated from high school, gone to a year of BYU, and then went inactive.

  25. Everyone says roughly the same things—in the abstract—about what characterizes the union of faith and reason at a religious university. Gilbert quotes John Donne. That sounds pretty good to me. I would say that the problem is how to create a place where faith and reason can together transcend the limitations of faith or reason alone. I’m no John Donne, but I like the way that sounds too. Lots of people can write things like that, though.

    The difficulty is figuring out what it looks like in practice. After we figure that out, then we need to describe what we’re doing well enough that we can keep doing it and help others replicate it. As it turns out, all of that is really, really hard.

    Gilbert’s essay doesn’t even touch those most difficult parts of the problem. It stays abstract enough that people can focus on the high-sounding, idealistic sentiments of the essay and wonder why anyone would complain about that.

    To evaluate Gilbert’s essay, here’s the bottom-line question: What are Gilbert and his people actually doing at the BYUs? Experience teaches that high-minded ideals about religious universities are often disconnected from what’s happening on the ground. Since nobody seems able to articulate the connection between ideals and practice in these matters, I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. The fact that someone claims to be doing something wonderful doesn’t necessarily make it so.

    What’s happening on the ground at the BYUs is that lots of teachers are losing their jobs for no apparent reason, the administration is increasing its coercive surveillance of professors and staff, leaders are making noises about firing muskets and losing accreditation, and morale is being devastated. People can pretend that this kind of thing is consistent with the idea that the glory of God is intelligence, but hey, really?

  26. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    It used to be that BYU aspired to become something similar to Notre Dame, or even Loyola- well respected and prestigious universities with religious sponsorships and affiliation. It now seems clear that they have shifted their aspirations to something like Liberty, or Oral Roberts, but with better athletics. The former goal is slipping away, but the latter seems well within range.

  27. Yes. The comparison to other religious universities illuminates the right questions.

    Is BYU completely unique? Which universities do we want to emulate, Notre Dame, Loyola, Baylor, Loma Linda, Liberty, Oral Roberts, or Bob Jones? Rather than just drawing lines between BYU and secular schools, it would be very helpful to know which religious schools Gilbert thinks are doing it right and which examples he aspires to follow.

  28. Sam, no offense, but you have a habit of over reading things and assuming facts not in evidence (see, e.g., the volleyball incident). I can only assume that Elder Gilbert is writing for an audience who isn’t like you, so whether you think he is or isn’t making his point is kind of irrelevant. Your opinion is valuable and noted, but I think it’s just plain wrong in this case.

  29. Daniel Ortner says:

    “And I’ll note here that BYU-Provo does not have a chapel on campus”

    Surely you realize that dozens of wards meet on BYU’s campus each Sunday in classrooms.and other buildings all across campus? That is one thing I loved about BYU. The same classroom where I studied law during the week was a chapel dedicated to the Lord on Sunday. This is one of the ways that BYU illustrates the integration between reason and faith.

  30. Possibly worth noting that the Eliot quotation is taken entirely out of context and made to mean something completely different than what Eliot said. Here’s the address from which the quotation is bastardized.

    Gilbert also misnames The Memorial Church, where it appears he did not spend much time, even though there are religious services there every day.

  31. Dsc, you’re naturally welcome to disagree with my reading, as I note that I also disagree with yours!

    Daniel, yes, I recognize that the church holds worship services in various classrooms and lecture halls throughout BYU. Which doesn’t change the fact that Harvard (and Columbia and Stanford and Yale and Princeton and Notre Dame and Loyola University Chicago and UVA and I’m sure I could go on all have dedicated chapels/basilicas/church buildings).

    Kristine, thanks for the context.

  32. Thanks for this post, Sam. I, too, find Gilbert’s approach here very troubling. Seems like a culture wars contribution rather than anything enlightening about the actual benefits of religiously affiliated universities as one among many contributors to secondary and post-secondary education in a pluralistic society. The secular universities are just as essential to such a pluralistic slate of options as the religiously affiliated universities. And as Scott Abbott points out, the BYUs (and Gilbert) certainly seem positioned to learn a few things from the posture taken by other religiously affiliated university networks for whom inquiry is welcomed as an expression of faith and not a threat.

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