Soulcraft at BYU
Consecration calls us to something more than credentials.
In the fall of 2022, Deseret Magazine convened an extensive panel of authors and religious leaders to talk about the need for—and unique advantages of—a specifically religious education. Voice after voice articulated not just that religious universities should be allowed the freedom to flourish but also what their respective universities seek to teach with that freedom.
Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, says that his university teaches students the difference between living a life of covenants and a life of consumption—and then states:
But the covenantal model of faith will always provide values for the lives of our students. Covenant creates community. A consumer mindset is utilitarian—information precedes commitment. In a covenant, however, commitment precedes information—the relationship is a product of the commitment itself.
Likewise, Peter Kilpatrick, president of Catholic University, writes:
We penetrate more closely to the core of what is truly real. At Catholic University, we invite students to wrestle not only with quantum physics but with its implications for belief in God; not only with the music of John Cage but with whether we find God’s beauty in it; not only with Marxist political theory but with its compatibility with Catholic anthropology. Faith invigorates the academic life.
When I read these invocations of deeper values, my soul stirs. Though I am neither Jewish nor Catholic, each of these formulations speaks to the deeper precincts of my soul—the place where the religious impulse sparks and thrives.
As I ponder these thoughts in the context of our own religious tradition and the work of our religious universities, I wonder if we have fully tapped into the vast potential restored Christianity has to offer in formulating the answer to this central question: if we are clamoring for the freedom to teach our young adults according to the dictates of our own conscience, what is it, then, we want to use that freedom to do?
In thinking on how we might answer this question, I’m reminded of a discourse given exactly forty years ago by Hugh Nibley at the Cannon-Hinckley Club in downtown Salt Lake. In that talk, entitled “Work We Must, but the Lunch is Free,” Nibley imagines a benefactor who sends a student to school with all the student’s expenses paid. Nibley uses the sobriquet “lunch” to refer to all of these necessaries. The student will be permitted—with his daily needs all provided—to study anything from the entire panoply of subjects the school offers, yet, when the employer returns to check on the student’s progress, he discovers that the student has neglected the study of all else in the name of discovering how to…get more “lunch.” The employer is aghast at this turn of events, and his worry only deepens when the student explains in protest: “My purpose in life is to get more and better lunches; I want to go right to the top....”
Nibley’s social commentary has always cut me to the quick, and no address of his floors me more completely than this one—because at one time I was the student studying to get more and better lunch. I spent so much of my time at BYU focused with laser-like precision on how to get into the best medical school because it was right at the top.
But if Jesus made anything clear in his earthly ministry it is this: at the moment a man begins to worry about being impressive, amen to the Christianity of that man. The problem with my college self was not that I wanted to get into a great medical school, but rather that, at least in large part, I wanted to get in because it was the best.
But my experience at BYU brings me to a deeper question. While we want BYU students to excel in all they do, something must lie beyond that. What, exactly, is that thing that lies beyond?
I believe the answer comes to us woven like a golden thread throughout the scriptures. There is a transformative idea that is central to the restored Christian project. It is presaged in Jesus’s words in the New Testament, implicit in King Benjamin’s magisterial sermon, peppered throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. It occupies a crowning position in our temple theology: Humans most deeply and thoroughly fulfill the measure of their creation by consecrating themselves and all they have and are to the project of loving God and building Zion.
We would do well to remember that much of scripture—and modern temple worship—cannot be understood but with an eye toward our own history. For a brief time in the early church, after all, members were invited to live the law of consecration. The physical administration of the law never functioned as intended—and commanded—but the ideas still matter greatly.
In this theoretical order (as outlined in Doctrine and Covenants 42), a person upon joining would legally deed all they owned to the church. Now penniless, the member would counsel with the bishop, and they would together determine a stewardship over which the member would be given temporary control. But, again, the property was not given—it was loaned with an expectation of accounting down the road.
The consecrated life—even today—involves multiple paradigmatic shifts:
I own nothing.
All I have and am are gifts from God.
Those gifts are meant not for me alone but to be used to bless the world entire.
I will be held accountable for the stewardship I exercise.
Thus, the thrust of an education within the restored church must consist of two parts. We must first be about the discovery and candid acceptance of our gifts. BYU offers a wide expanse for exploring biology, physics, chemistry, art, music, philosophy, photography, and all the rest of the academic disciplines. In working my way through the various rigors of these classes, I might learn that my love of spreadsheets evinces an ability to administer complex organizational tasks; or that my wizardry with calculations suggests a deeper love of abstract math and a commitment to understanding number theory; or that my flair with a pen in nature is the beginning of a lyrical ecotheology; or that my affinity for scripture indicates a dawning awakening as a theologian. The point is not the specific gift, but instead that we must cultivate a campus where the discovery and acceptance of gifts is paramount.
But this only gets us half way there. Our unique doctrine of consecration positions us to make an important contribution to society’s understanding of the power of education: consecration allows us to measure value not in what we achieve or what we gain, but, paradoxically, in how little of what we gain is left for ourselves.
In 2014, William Deresiewicz made a splash in The New Republic arguing that Ivy League colleges were vastly overrated and that, far from minting free thinkers of nascent change-makers and moral agents, they were largely insular and even cosseted, producing instead conformists, narcissists, and snowflakes. A few months later Stephen Pinker, a world-famous Harvard psychology professor, responded:
Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it. I submit that if “building a self” is the goal of a university education, you’re going to be reading anguished articles about how the universities are failing at it for a long, long time.
I believe Dr. Pinker’s words suggest the limitations of a purely secular education. At base, such an education is constrained precisely by the secular underpinnings that formed the assumptive worldview of secular academia. If, as Bertrand Russell argued, we are nothing but “random collocations of atoms,” and if, as Yuval Noah Harrari has argued, humans are nothing but exceptionally complex information-sorting algorithms, then how can a purely secular education deal in soulcraft? None of this is to claim that secular universities fail to do good—far from it. I have been embedded in secular universities for a decade and a half and have found great moral resonance with many of my colleagues.
But if we are calling for the freedom to educate Latter-day Saints at BYU according to the dictates of our theology, we cannot simply be demanding freedom for freedom’s sake. My observation has been that at BYU—just as at secular universities—the temptation will always be to talk about doing good in the world, but to in fact care more about the appearance of doing good than the act of blessing those around us. Even at secular universities with the most sterling articulated ideals, after all, we often observe a “gold star” syndrome, where great resources are devoted to appearing elite in rankings, promoting the accomplishments of our own, and buffing the sheen of greatness, while often falling far short in real terms.
But consecration calls us at BYU to something more. We cannot be sated with the earnings potential or even the PhDs of graduating seniors. We cannot believe that entrance into prestigious graduate schools is enough, or, indeed, that the rankings of our own graduate schools will suffice. We could not even be satisfied with producing the intellectual stars of our generation or with mentoring a generation of leaders and executives.
Instead, resting on the underpinnings of restored Christianity, we can widen the canvas and thus grasp a more expansive view. This is not to say our graduates ought not strive for excellence—surely they should—but instead to recognize this: excellence matters not for excellence’s sake but as a means to blessing the world. Our excellence and all that flows from it are gifts to be consecrated, not property to be exploited. We will be judged not by the appearance of the good we do, but by its substance. We cannot prove greatness by amassing degrees, money, positions, or power—we will demonstrate our greatness only by the completeness with which we give it all away. It is by not having any left for ourselves that we fulfill the commandment that comes to us by way of covenant.
Tyler Johnson is a Wayfare contributing editor and an oncologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford University.
Thank you for this beautiful piece. As a doctor in training, this piece resonated with me on several levels. I will refer to this often!
I’m sharing this with all of my college age grandchildren— thanks so much! Haha— I tried just sharing it with the moms but they think the kids will listen better to me!