Education and the Consecrated Life
Christ’s Perfect Love Requires Emptying Ourselves in Service
Few feelings will fill your life with more joy and significance than to know you are known and loved by God and that you are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. To know these truths is to walk with God. If you can accept you are known and loved by God, you will begin to feel called to give your life to him. You will begin to feel the holy significance of even ordinary events in your life. This paradigm shift is consecration. Latter-day Saints believe that God’s work and glory is helping us to realize our divine potential. We join in God’s work by inviting others to Christ, and we do this too with every ounce of effort we make to bring service, education, and opportunity to others. In the words of Micah, our call is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Christianity calls us to a life of service that lifts our fellow sisters and brothers both temporally and spiritually. Consecrating our lives to God means that we look at the seemingly random and particular conditions of our lives—what we might consider our secular life—as gifts of God and sacred opportunities to realize these purposes for his children.
My college education awakened me to the reality that my intellectual and spiritual growth were bound together. I was aided in this discovery by my parents and my brothers, who had taught me to seek, without fear, the wisdom of the world, and by such beautiful Latter-day Saint ideas as the mandate to “seek out of the best books words of wisdom . . . by study and also by faith.” Of course, more learning often raises more questions, leading us into uncharted and sometimes troubled waters, and we find ourselves needing models for integrating faith and learning. It is no exaggeration to say that I was exposed to so few thoughtful Christian writers in my ten years of higher education at Stanford and Berkeley that one could only rationally conclude that thoughtful Christianity was an oxymoron and that if religion was relevant to the problems of the modern world, it was as an obstacle—not as a solution. I consider this one of the most significant insufficiencies of my education. In all of a university’s pretended authority, and in the hallowed halls of beautiful buildings and prestigious lecture halls, a formal education will only ever offer you a partial vision of wisdom and truth. That always was and will forever be true of any university, including my own.
I have spent enough time behind the curtain of academic authority to know that it is not uncommon for professors to pretend to know more than they do and to express strong opinions in classrooms that would barely hold water with their peers. If it is foolish to disregard the importance of getting an education, it is likewise foolish to place too much confidence in any one class or professor. Different worldviews and values can be disorienting, but presenting only one set of values and opinions to the human mind does not appear to be God’s method for raising his children, despite his steadfast commitment to unassailable truth. A consecrated life can always sniff out error and discover oases of wisdom and truth, even in deserts of secularism, especially when we remain anchored by faith in Christ, in his restored gospel, and in the commandments.
Patience with differences serves us in church life as well. Although we like to think of church as a refuge of truth in a world of error, we can’t help but notice that we sometimes hear opinions by members and leaders that are erroneous and unfortunate. Family, our fellow members, local leaders, and general authorities deserve our trust and loyalty, but they generally don’t ask for and certainly don’t need our blind obedience. What they need is to be sustained, meaning that we should listen for and embrace the highest and best of what God inspires them to say and do.
Members, leaders, and policies will at some point disappoint us. As I have learned in my time in church service, at BYU, and in city government, sometimes the left hand of bureaucracy doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. But in my experience, I am also unquestionably capable of being a better church leader, administrator, and civil servant when, like a driver of a truck trying to back into a small space, I am surrounded by people who can assist me in seeing what I can’t see. These are good and honest people who love the organization as much as I do and who give me the benefit of the doubt but who are also not afraid to offer honest and constructive criticism, helping me to see how my decisions might impact people in ways that I had not intended. We are better, in other words, when we all see and hear each other and work together.
If you feel that your education or your religion, your family or your culture have offered you an incomplete understanding of reality, it might be tempting to conclude that you should throw away the whole of it and start over. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that you yourself won’t continue to run the same risks. The fact is that you and I are always possessed of insufficient understanding. Institutions and cultures are always similarly placed at an intersection where faith and learning are still necessary to find a way forward. So even our perception of weakness is weak. Accepting this requires a certain humility, a willingness to mourn, and a hunger and thirst for greater righteousness, qualities that Jesus praised in his Sermon on the Mount. Lowell Bennion once said, “a love of knowing without the love of learning leads to dissipation of the mind.”Don’t be the self-satisfied Latter-day Saint who can only read books by and for Latter-day Saints and who shuns the learning of the world, but also please don’t be the Latter-day Saint intellectual that Gene England once described as the “provincial anti-provincialist,” who can’t help but see all things Mormon with a degree of disdain.
If you accept that God wants you to consecrate your life to him, then you believe that God apparently is content to take you as you are, despite your insufficiencies, and convert you into something far greater. When you see insufficiencies in others or in institutions, instead of feeling despair or cynicism, you might feel hope that, through Christ, things might be made whole. A consecrated person plays the long game of character- and institution-building and not the short game of judgment. Getting in the game, staying with institutions that need our help, and working steadily for improvement not only gets more done but also teaches more understanding than passive or armchair criticism. This is true in the work of governments, nonprofits, businesses, schools, and churches. Many today assume that they can show their moral strength by virtue signaling and breaking definitively from flawed people and institutions, but the world needs less energy devoted exclusively to clamoring for change, and more poured into developing and applying the skills to make that change. The insufficiencies of the education we have received and the frustrations and turbulence that come with church life become opportunities to grow in wisdom and faith that will distill upon us as we stay on the adventurous path of service.
My faith and my education gave me the skills to keep searching for truth and wisdom with confidence that the gospel of Christ was large enough to contain my many questions and contradictions. Throughout my career, I have learned that both the gospel and the world’s ideas are more resilient and multi-dimensional than I often supposed, and that there are many great Christian intellectuals who have offered valuable models of faith and learning. Now more than ever, there are also many great Latter-day Saint scholars doing the same. What keeps me up at night is the thought that young people remain largely unaware of this treasure trove. I hope that those who find themselves burdened by the inadequacies and imperfections of church life, as well as those who remain protective and defensive about its virtues and strengths, are both motivated and informed by deep and careful investigation, rather than by the cheap and easy wisdom of memes and social media posts.
In an America that is increasingly sorted according to wealth and political affiliation, church life is an opportunity to love and serve those of different economic levels, political parties, and personalities, even those who disdain or distrust our differences. Institutional and community settings can cause at least some discomfort and chafing, but those experiences teach us not to trust our every instinct and to instead learn from those different from us. Choosing a consecrated life leads to a realization that the highest purpose of our education has nothing to do with benefiting us and everything to do with benefiting everyone else we will ever meet in our lives.
The mutually reinforcing benefits of faith and learning are hampered if it is assumed, either by religion or the secular world, that religion is segregated from life, from the world’s problems, and from ideas proposed by education. The church needs more and better thinkers, agents of change who can build those bridges of understanding that will help religious faith meet the challenges of our world, rather than retreat from them. Challenges such as intergenerational poverty, international development, public health, social unrest, environmental degradation, bigotry, and war are all problems that could be improved by both education and religion. Contention about race, gender, sexuality, the climate, the authority of religion and science, the exclusive claims of the two political parties, and all of the unpleasant conflicts we have seen regarding the pandemic would all be ameliorated with the work of both faith and reason.
When I was young, I often heard that the gospel would solve the world’s problems if only enough people would embrace it. The assumption seemed to be that we just needed to focus our efforts on converting enough of the world’s peoples and that would do the trick. Sharing the gospel is one of the most joyful and important things I can do as a member, but conversion isn’t the only thing that will bring peace to this world or the only way to work for that peace. In a world deeply divided by nationalism, race, class, gender, and sexuality, baptizing more members won’t bring the peace we imagine if the result is more Latter-day Saints who are indifferent, uninformed, or even antagonistic toward such problems or who treat their religious affiliation as a tribe. We need to learn how to have more of what Richard Bushman called “radiant Mormonism,” that is, Latter-day Saints whose lives offer a leavening and benedictory effect in every walk of life and in every community, wherever they may be found and no matter how small their numbers. That only seems possible if, as members of the church, we see not just our ward but our broader community, even the world and its problems, as the garden we need to tend.
We read in our scriptures that we are to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause” and that God respects us enough not to command us in all things. This responsibility can be daunting, and we might shrink and prefer to be told what to do. In the end, though, such a life is not very satisfying. It won’t fulfill that deep hunger we all have to choose a life of meaning and high purpose. Consecration starts with the simple and brave habit of turning our everyday life and all of its opportunities over to God and thereby transforming every aspect of our life into a series of callings, large and small. In this way, church service is really just the lab where we learn to extend consecrated service to every dimension of life. If church life seems limiting or a tad boring or too conformist, consider that the problem lies not with the institution or even with the gospel, but with us as believers who need greater ambition and creativity in living in adventurous partnership with God. Choose to be that member who radiates a passion to make a greater difference.
To live a consecrated life is not only to assume responsibility for personal and private morality, but to assume a social morality for the individuals and institutions that make up our society. It means assuming a moral responsibility for our roles as citizens, consumers, professionals, and neighbors. Those who are most adept at communal life seem to have that gift described in the scriptures as charity, that rare ability to bear all things. They don’t burn bridges; instead, they build them. We might mistake this quality for weakness or as mere tolerance of the status quo, but charity gives us the staying power to remain in a struggle over the long-term. Besides, those who truly bear the contradictions and burdens of their time are often the most effective and creative thinkers, believers, and agents of service. As a church, we are one body and we need to learn to bear the weaknesses and burdens of all, for both the members on the pew and those at the pulpit. As Christians, we shouldn’t fear that, somehow, we are morally tainted by associating with flawed people, institutions, and communities. Christ lived and served among the sick and sinful, and he wasn’t rendered impure by association. Instead, he offered healing.
In service, we discover that people are generally more interesting and good than assumed and that actual circumstances are far more complex than armchair theories admit. The best way to keep faith alive is to allow it to inspire us to follow up on that deep and simple instinct in all of us to use our gifts to make the world a better place. Service helps keep our focus when controversies arise. Lowell Bennion may be the best example of this I have ever witnessed in my life. His life was devoted to service. He was never afraid to voice his concerns about problems in the church, of course, especially the priesthood ban, but when the change finally happened, he was asked if he felt vindicated. He simply said he hadn’t given it a thought because he had more service to do. Service does not replace the importance of belief, but it tempers it, because when left alone in our individualistic culture, belief can easily become deeply and problematically intertwined with our identity and self-interest. When belief and identity are synonymous, another person’s different beliefs become a threat to one’s existence. Belief is what we should hold up to measure our progress toward an ideal, not to bolster who we think we already are.
American culture used to be more communal than it is today, but it also used to be even more divided and oppressive of minorities, so perhaps that former sense of community was incomplete. We have desperately needed to confront legacies of discrimination and marginalization in our nation and church, but as a nation and as a church, we also now desperately need to relearn the art of community. In the hyper-individualism of American culture today, the church can offer a model of a unified community that also respects and embraces difference. But that won't happen as long as Latter-day Saints find themselves in the trenches over the controversy of the moment, lobbing grenades at the other side in the culture wars. Such work is both morally weak and politically ineffective, and it certainly doesn’t model charity, the core value of Christian community. Strong reactions to controversy—the kind that social media seem to demand of us—can’t facilitate what Jesus reminded us was central to discipleship—the cause of losing ourselves in service of others. He didn’t call us to defend our identity or to battle over words. Instead, in the face of opposition and enemies he still loved, he modeled the virtue and power of a consecrated life given to God.
As I have learned in my research on climate change, it is not uncommon for individuals and traditions to deny problems or downplay their severity when those problems appear to have been unanticipated or unimagined. It can be a devastating and humiliating blow to admit a problem that our cherished worldview didn’t contemplate. So, it is tempting instead to ignore the problem and give in to that perennial religious tendency to wring our hands and bemoan our fate, harassed by a wicked and misguided world. The world is misguided in some ways, but our religious quest is to heal it, not escape it.
When confronted with new problems, we would do well to remember that it isn’t the gospel that is too small to encompass new realities, but our understanding of it. When Christianity has been faced with perplexing problems like evolution or climate change, it has responded brilliantly and best when, instead of falling into denial, believers have asked: Is there something in our tradition that we have missed that could open new avenues of understanding through better thinking and imagination? Were we as individuals and as a community born and prepared and called for a moment such as this? To accept the realities that surround us and to believe that our tradition and even our individual lives are uniquely prepared for the unprecedented is a profound act of faith. Faith that is sheltered by denial, fear, or apathy and a refusal to change is not faith but stubborn will.
I am not saying that the way in which certain problems are framed by secular discourse is always fair and to be categorically trusted. Too often secularism is overly antagonistic to religion and uses shame as its strategy, which is particularly hypocritical since secular social science tells us that shame rarely changes hearts and minds. I have often heard my fellow environmentalists speak as if the most significant obstacle to addressing climate change is religion, despite the fact that the moral foundations of modern environmentalism and of many activists today stem from religion, and that sharing climate data hasn’t proven to be as effective in changing hearts and minds as an appeal to morals. But before we get too defensive about how the secular world might frame certain problems, we should at least acknowledge that some Christians have modeled very poorly how to respond to them and have indeed caused or at least exacerbated them. When Christians say that 9/11 happened to punish us for acceptance of homosexuality, or that because the earth is going to die anyway, we shouldn’t bother trying to save it, or that the pandemic is a fiction intended to promote socialism and that masks are a threat to freedom, then they have only proven the point of the secularists who claim they can’t trust the rationality and ethics of the Christian mind. I should note that in these examples, I am citing not only what I have heard in our national discourse but what I have heard from some of my fellow Latter-day Saints.
When I hear such things, I don’t hear theology but political ideology, fear, and bigotry dressed up as religious conviction. I hear a version of my faith that I can scarcely recognize. I bristle, of course, when those not of my faith want to use such attitudes as defining characteristics of my religion, since I know these attitudes are not predominant, so I have to remember not to despair and make the same mistake. Sometimes Latter-day Saint cynicism runs even deeper than that of our worst critics. The fact is that no one stands pure and untainted by the political polarization of our time. It infects our church, even if we are more polite about it than other Americans. It is far easier to notice and criticize the secular mote in the eye of a fellow member on the other end of the political spectrum than to recognize the secular beam in our own. If it has been a while since you had an honest conversation with someone you respect who thinks differently from you, and you find yourself parroting the script written by a party, talk radio, online thought leaders, and cable news, chances are pretty high that you are more motivated by ideology than theology and that some correction is in order.
In America today, we are more and more likely to align our political affiliation, gender, race, sexual orientation, sectarian affiliation, and income level and associate predominantly with others whose intersecting identities correspond to ours. This is especially true of those educated at elite institutions who belong to the upper middle class. This sorting predicts our attitudes and beliefs with astonishing reliability, better than do simple Christian moral principles. We can all benefit from the kind of commitment Christ demonstrated to move into circles where he was not welcomed or where his community forbade him to go. I am a male, straight, Latter-day Saint raised in the upper middle class. This presents me with some real blind spots. But like most of us, I am also more complex than at first glance. I am straight, happily married, and belong to a church that nurtures and believes in the traditional family—and my dear and only brother is gay, as well as many dear friends of mine. I have Black friends and colleagues and know Black citizens in Provo who don’t feel safe—and I have a brother-in-law and sister-in-law who are selflessly devoted to risking their lives and serving others as police officers, and I admire the police chief of the city where I live. Raised by Democrats, I attended the wickedly liberal institutions of Stanford and Berkeley but I have happily worshiped in various Republican-majority wards, teach at BYU, and serve on the Provo City Council (not a town known for its liberal policies).
I don’t pretend that these more complex intersectionalities in my life add up to much, but intersectionality gives us an opportunity to resist the scorched-earth, winner-takes-all attitudes that surround political and cultural discourse. If we seek and embrace unexpected connections, they can work to prevent ossified positions and rigid identities that deny new phenomena and challenges. I know that it is a satirical joke to say “some of my closest friends are _____” but the truth is, if you don’t have a friend who is of another race, another party, another religious persuasion, another sexuality, then you are likely part of the problem. This is because friendship means more than the superficial familiarity or tokenism that the joke implies.
My field of comparative literature has helped me to become intimately familiar with different literary traditions that often ignore each other, and one of the things that starts to become apparent is that many of the struggles and achievements of different cultures are imagined to be more exceptional than they are. What separates them is simply a lack of a common language or a lack of bilingual readers. I noticed that in the literature about slavery, which affected the majority of nations in the Americas and especially Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States, each nation was both disturbed by what it thought was its unique history of racism but also proud of what it considered to be its unique racial achievements. There was certainly some awareness that other nations had confronted a similar history, but the bias was always that the experience of others wasn’t as legitimate and that others’ failures were greater, their achievements less. And perhaps most importantly, that mutual blindness only seemed to perpetuate the nature of the struggle each nation had.
I later had an epiphany about how this related to a family struggle. Because of our different sexualities, my brother and I had very different experiences in the church. In my misdirected youth, I needed and directly benefited from church teachings on sexuality, whereas they caused my much more obedient brother considerable trauma. There was a time when, if we found ourselves reflecting on our experience growing up, it was as if we were speaking of two different churches and different church members. This was very hard to reconcile, and it was tempting for both of us to feel dismayed and even betrayed by our differences. As younger teens, I had been the wayward one, he the stalwart, and yet as we entered adulthood, I found my direction in the church and left on a mission—in no small part due to his influence—just as he came out and felt he needed to withdraw from active participation. We wanted the other to see the legitimacy of our own experience, which we believed was paradigmatic of reality. The deeper and richer and more unique our individual experiences became, the harder it was to maintain a close relationship.
But we had one important factor in common (and it wasn’t our shared blood as brothers): it was the traumatic loss we had both experienced when our older brother took his life just on the cusp of these changes in our lives. And it was our deep love for our parents who told us in the wake of this difficult loss that it was important and comforting to them to know that we would always be close. I prided myself that I was not a bigot. I was careful not to say a word of judgment. But the truth is, I was also not a deeply empathetic listener, and I denied that his story held the same legitimacy as my own. To affirm the legitimacy of his experience felt like a denial of mine, so I slipped into passive denial. I suppose he felt exactly the same way. I was familiar with his story but not fluent in his language of understanding, and I wanted to pretend that my problems and my experiences were exceptional and had nothing in common with his. I did not listen deeply and my faith was consequently rendered more shallow.
Despite our troubles, we refused to let our relationship become definitively broken. In all of my prayers seeking answers, I only felt God repeatedly telling me to love my brother. Over time, I started to see the courage and beauty of his life path and the way he did God’s work, and I started to feel his sincere appreciation for my religious life and its merits. We stopped asking the other to feel the same way we did, stopped feeling betrayed by our differences, and finally started to understand our struggle in a larger context in which we held truly equal worth. This new relationship did not make either of us feel that we had to abandon our unique life experiences in order to experience closeness with one another. It exposed to our mutual view the beauty and gifts of our distinct experiences and, in letting go of the need for self-defense, it gave us our lives and relationship back in even greater richness. Indeed, the uniqueness of each other’s experience is now something that we both take particular pride in and identify as part of our own. I no longer see his sexuality as a burden or a struggle but as a gift in his life and in mine, and he has expressed similar feelings about my faith and the faith of my wife and kids. We are committed to the full realization of potential in the other. This is a deeper kind of brotherhood than one of blood. I consider this to be as significant a miracle as any I have witnessed in my life.
I’ve sometimes been comforted by reflecting that our heavenly parents also lost a son and, as a result, want us desperately to draw near to one another in this world as brothers and sisters. They are asking us to use our unique experiences and gifts to bridge the gulf of differences that separate us and heal the wounds of this world. The paradox seems to be that those same conditions often blind us to the experiences and true equality of others. This was for me an insight that took almost half a century to gain. While in college, I became excited by the growing realization that God wanted me to magnify the particular and unique gifts and conditions of my life—and that was true—but I didn’t realize it was so that he could eventually remove their blinding effects on my spiritual understanding. This is what it means to lose oneself only to find oneself again. It is, after all, our identity as beloved sons and daughters of heavenly parents that ultimately matters and truly unites us.
I can understand why faith in this principle can ring hollow if we don't have a laser-like focus on seeing and embracing difference in our pursuit of belonging and inclusion for all in our families, wards, and communities. Loving others as Christ loves us is hard work, involving decentering, deep listening, and forbearance, and it isn’t complete until we remove our own life conditions as the assumed center of the spiritual family of humankind. Christ’s perfect love, I believe, requires emptying ourselves in service and giving up on those superficial things that we have mistakenly made central to who we are. This can be initially painful, but I believe this is how Christ lifts the blinders of our identity and transforms our unique selves for his holy purposes. This expansive, consecrated love is also how he brings us healing joy.
As painful and confusing as any present moment can be in our lives or in our church or nation, let us remember that consecration transforms the present moment from its seemingly arbitrary and disorienting qualities into that very moment for which we were born. When we walk in God’s spirit, it whispers over and over to us, Right here, right now is your moment. Consecration is a way of coming into awareness that our lives are saturated in God’s light, that all of it is a calling, that we walk on holy ground, and that we find ourselves among divine beings and walk in a heavenly creation. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely said, “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” In the end, the joy it brings to meet your life and time with faith is what makes life most worth living and Christ and his gospel most worth loving.
George Handley is a professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities and Comparative Literature at BYU and the author most recently of The Hope of Nature, If Truth Were a Child, and the novel, American Fork.
Essay adapted from a convocation address given to the Stanford LDSSA October 20, 2021.
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Lowell L. Bennion, How Can I Help: Final Selections by the Legendary Writer, Teacher, and Humanitarian (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1996), 111.
Eugene England, “Provincial Anti-provincialism,” The Student Review 4.12 (13 December 1989): 8.
This absolutely takes my breath away.