Reason, Faith, and the Things of Eternity
Reason, Faith, and the Things of Eternity
Elder Bruce C. Hafen
President Samuelson, Sister Maxwell and your family,
students and other friends and guests, it is wonderful to be with you tonight. I
have cheered since first hearing that there would be a Neal A. Maxwell
Institute. I’ve known the people in this institute a long time, and to see
those people and that name come together warms my heart. I’m very grateful for
your work. I know how very much Elder Maxwell admired it. It is a great
blessing not only to BYU, but throughout the Church.
My purpose tonight is to
explore the relationship between the life of the mind and the life of the
spirit, with some connection to Elder Maxwell’s life as a mentoring model. He
showed us not only how to balance the natural tensions between faith and
reason, he showed us how to move beyond those tensions to a higher level of
resolution. When he first invited me to work on his biography in 1999, I
believed that the main theme of his life story would be his contribution to the
Church as a role model for educated Latter-day Saints, showing how religious
faith and intellectual rigor are mutually reinforcing. In both his public and
private ministry, he had been a great mentor on such issues for thousands of us
as students, teachers, and other Church members.
However, my research on
his life revealed a different core message than the one I had expected to find.
Personal Christian discipleship is really the central message of Elder Maxwell’s
life and teachings. His background and contributions as an educator and scholar
still matter a great deal; in fact, they matter even more when we also know
that his life story is a kind of guidebook on seeking to be a true follower of
In my own life (and I’m only a sample among many others) his
mentoring about faith versus intellect issues prepared me to benefit even more
from his later, higher-level mentoring on very personal questions about being
and becoming. To talk about these ascending levels of his influence on me, I
must go back to my BYU student days in 1963.
The first semester after my mission to Germany, I enrolled
in a small Honors religion class called “Your Religious Problems.”
The teacher was West Belnap, BYU’s Dean of Religion.
The format for each class hour consisted primarily of a presentation and
discussion led by a student in the class. We would identify a “religious
problem,” do research on the issues, then lead a
class discussion on the topic. Each student then submitted written comments,
both to our teacher and to that day’s presenter.
The first time I ever noticed Marie Kartchner from Bountiful was in that class, when she presented her religious problem: “How
can I bring the influence of the Holy Ghost more into my life?” Almost
every class day, a small group of us, including Marie, would keep talking, out
into the hallway and across the campus. Coming to know Marie in that way
actually solved my biggest religious problem when that friendship blossomed
into our marriage. In the last forty-five years, those same lively gospel
conversations have continued on, with Marie’s approach always making me want to
The problem I
presented to our class was something like this: “How much should we
develop our minds and think for ourselves, and how much should we rely on
Church authority and spiritual guidance?” These were honest questions for
me. I was experiencing what Catholic sociologist Thomas O’Dea had described in
1957 as “Mormonism’s most significant problem.” He thought
the Church’s “great emphasis on [higher] education” created an
inevitable conflict for young Latter-day Saints because he believed the Church’s
literalistic and authoritarian approach to religion would collide with the
skepticism and personal independence fostered by university studies. Toward the
end of his book, The Mormons, O’Dea had written, “The encounter of
Mormonism and modern secular learning is . . . still taking place. . . . Upon [the outcome of this source of strain and conflict] will depend . .
. the future of Mormonism.”
I could see from BYU’s very existence that the Church was
deeply committed to higher education, and I had returned from my mission in
Europe with a high awareness of my own ignorance, which fueled my hunger to
learn. I was close to some faithful LDS university teachers whose examples helped motivate that desire. One of them liked to quote J.
Golden Kimball: “We can’t expect the Holy Ghost to do our thinking for us.”
Another of my teachers had a great love for literature and the arts, and he
emphasized that students needed both discipline and personal creativity to
develop their God-given gifts.
One influential teacher from that era recently passed away
here in Provo—Reid Nibley, Hugh Nibley’s younger brother. Reid, who was a consummate artist
at the piano, was the Utah Symphony’s official pianist and taught for years on
the BYU music faculty. He was my piano teacher in my mid-teens. I lived in St.
George and went to Salt Lake City to take lessons in the summertime. He also wrote the words and music to the song “I
Know My Father Lives.” He deeply affected my life, opening my eyes not only about the meaning of real
musical skill, but to a much larger world of thought and perspective than the
one I had known in my small hometown. Yet Reid also loved the Lord with depth
and meekness. Sometimes he used to tell me that a heightened sensitivity to
music would increase my sensitivity to spiritual things. I can still see him
sitting cross-legged on a chair near the piano bench, quoting from D&C 59
with his animated, optimistic voice that the Lord had given us nature and the
arts “for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to
gladden the heart; . . . to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul”
(vv. 18–19). When I was about sixteen, someone asked me to list “my
heroes.” I listed only two—Vic Wertz, who played right field for the
Detroit Tigers baseball team, and Reid Nibley.
Later I had a mission president whom I also loved; but he
saw the world very differently from the way these teachers did. He introduced
me to precious doctrines about knowing the Lord and relying on the Spirit. I
came to prize those doctrines when I saw their fruits in our missionary work.
He loved to quote Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (3:5). He would cite the Gospel of John, emphasizing
Christ’s total reliance on the Father: “I speak not of myself: but the
Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works”
(John 14:10). He often said, “Christ was the most unoriginal man who ever
lived. He did only what the Father told him to do.” He also once warned me
to stay away from people who took literature and the arts too seriously. One
time he said, “Don’t think too much.”
Then, just after my mission and before I went to BYU, I was
with a seminary teacher I greatly admired. When he asked what I planned to
study, I said I wanted to learn everything I could about subjects like history,
literature, and philosophy. He replied with great concern that I should avoid
those subjects because they can easily lead people into what he called “intellectual
So the “religious problem” I presented to our class
reflected the confusion I felt in trying to reconcile the conflicting
viewpoints among these teachers. West Belnap’s comment to me on my presentation was, “Well, some of our people have it in
their heads, and others have it in their hearts. I think the best way is to
have it in both places.” I understood that as a plea for simple balance.
Brother Belnap’s counsel helped me
decide to reject what I would call, for ease of conversation, a “level one”
either-or approach to my questions. Level one required a permanent, categorical
choice between extreme religious conservatism or extreme religious liberalism. But neither extreme choice made sense to me. I
remember some of the first definitions I heard for the term Mormon
liberal. One was “A Mormon liberal is someone who drinks Coke,
reads Dialogue magazine, and begins the Articles of Faith with ‘Would you believe . . . ?'” I remember a more serious definition from President
Harold B. Lee, who said a Mormon liberal is a person
who doesn’t have a testimony. To me that meant reason alone,
with no foundation of real faith.
During that same era, I also saw the other extreme at level
one—overzealous and unchecked religiosity. I had a stake missionary companion
who was sure the Holy Ghost would give him the answer for every detail of his
life and thought. He was always writing in a little book he carried the things
he believed the Spirit was telling him. He would dust off his feet after we
left the door of someone who didn’t want to hear our message. Only a few years
later, he felt God had called him to leave the Church and found an apostate
group. His overzealousness eventually ended in tragedy.
I was also called as a
counselor to two different student ward bishops, who leaned toward the opposite
extremes of level one. One of these bishops was an ardent political
conservative, dogmatic, authoritarian, and extremely distrustful of all
academic disciplines. The other was very politically liberal, freethinking, and
highly academic. (I love the broad spectrum this Church has in it.) He said he
was close enough to some senior Church leaders that he was aware of their
personal flaws, and that concern, which ate away at him, eventually compromised
his willingness to follow their counsel. Some years later he also left the
These experiences reinforced my inclination to seek what I’ll
just call level two: a balanced approach between the liberal and conservative
tendencies I had seen. I felt that I didn’t need to make a permanent choice
between my heart and my head. I soon found an opportunity to explore this concept
further in a BYU class I was teaching. My summary to my students went something
like this: The tension between faith and reason is a challenge with a very long
history. During the time of Christ, He taught His gospel almost exclusively to
people of a Hebrew background. Not many years after Christ’s death, Gentiles
with a Greek heritage began entering the Church. Other factors increased that
Greek influence until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman
Empire in the fourth century. That huge historical shift created an official
but complex merger between the Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures, combining two
very different religious traditions.
As one historian put it, through this merger, the “entire
Hebraic Tradition was superimposed upon classical [Greek and Roman] culture.” And because Greek thought had by then so heavily influenced the Roman Empire,
another historian could say, “Here were two races [the Greeks and the Hebrews],
living not very far apart, yet for the most part in complete ignorance of each other. . . . It was the fusion of what was most
characteristic in these two cultures—the religious earnestness of the Hebrews
with the reason and humanity of the Greeks—which was to form the basis of
later European culture.”
A few years ago I read a fine article by BYU’s Dan Peterson
that shed light on the implications of this historical watershed. He wrote that
when Christianity’s center of gravity shifted from Jerusalem into the
Greek-speaking Hellenistic world, this gradually cut the New Testament’s ties
to its roots in the Hebraic world of the Old Testament. The resulting Greek
influence preserved Christ’s words in the New Testament only in the Greek
language. “Mormons,” wrote Brother Peterson, “recognize in this
[Greek absorption of Christianity] at least one aspect of what they term ‘the
At the same time, I told my students that the gospel
contains strands that connect to both the Hebrew and the Greek elements in our
heritage. That helped me see why I had found the conflicts I did in my student
days. Without attempting a complete comparison, here’s an example of how
Western culture reflects both the Greek and Hebrew traditions. Take a coin from
your pocket and you’ll notice two familiar phrases: “Liberty” and “In
God We Trust.” The personal liberty of the individual was a key element in
the hierarchy of Greek values. In the Greek heritage, man is the measure of all
things. For Socrates, nothing was more important than for each of us to “know thyself,” and the ultimate goal was to ennoble
man through reason.
But the coin’s other phrase, “In God We Trust,”
would have perplexed an ancient Greek—even though it spoke directly to
the Hebrew soul, who did try to trust in the Lord with all his heart and leaned
not to his own understanding. The goal of the Hebrew pattern was to glorify
God, not man; and one reached this goal through faith and obedience, not by
relying on human reasoning. In this example from the differing Greek and Hebrew
worlds we find the seeds of countless arguments about the place of reason and
the place of faith in our religious life.
The restored gospel accepts elements from both traditions.
For example, we place high value on both personal liberty and reason. No other
religion or philosophy takes a higher view of man’s nature and potential.
Consider these phrases: “This is my work and my glory—to bring to
pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). “I am a
child of God.” “Man was also in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29).
Regarding reason, the Lord told Oliver Cowdery to “study it out in your mind” (D&C 9:8) before
seeking a spiritual confirmation. Alma told Korihor that “all
things [in nature] denote there is a God” (Alma 30:44). In preaching to
the Lamanites, Lehi and
Nephi helped convince them “because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received” (Helaman 5:50). And
Elder John A. Widtsoe entitled his classic book Rational
On the other hand, the gospel teaches that all blessings are
predicated on obedience to God. Further, faith in God is not only the first
principle of the gospel, it is an essential check
against unrestrained liberty and reason. When the free individual chooses to
disobey God, he not only rejects divine authority, he damages his future
liberty. As the Lord said, “Here is the agency of man, and here is the
condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly
manifest unto them, and they receive not the light” (D&C 93:31).
Imagine with me two circles that partially overlap each other.
One circle represents the Greek tradition, with reason and individualism as
samples. The other circle represents the Hebrew tradition, with faith and
authoritarianism as samples.
On the left end of the spectrum, outside the area of
overlap, we see the Greek tradition alone. At the right end of the spectrum,
also outside the overlap, is the Hebrew tradition alone.
We will be in trouble if our individualistic Greek strain
cuts loose from the anchoring authoritarianism of our Hebrew strain. That’s
what happened with the bishop I mentioned, who could not reason his way through
the flaws he perceived among some Church leaders. His unchecked commitment to
reason alone eventually took him out of the Church. We might consider those on
this end of the spectrum as “cultural Mormons,” who accept only that
part of the gospel that meets their standard of rationality.
At the other extreme, my former stake missionary companion
exemplified the Hebrew strain gone wild. Unchecked by reason and common sense,
he veered off the edge and became what we might call a “cultist Mormon.”
In other words, we can go off the deep end at either the right or the left end
of the spectrum.
The area of overlap,
where the individualistic and authoritarian principles coexist, is where we
live most productively. Here authoritarianism acts as a check against unbridled
individualism, and individualism acts as a check against unbridled
authoritarianism. Both principles are true, both are anchored
in our doctrine, and both play a role in our decisions and
attitudes—though the outcome in particular cases may vary, depending on
the circumstances. Similar interaction occurs between faith and reason, which
are both within the area of overlap.
President Spencer W. Kimball, speaking at BYU during Elder
Maxwell’s time as Commissioner of Education, also spoke about our “double
heritage” of secular knowledge and revealed truth. He said we must become “bilingual”
in speaking the language of scholarship and the language of the Spirit.
Within the overlap area
of our dual heritage, true principles drawn from the two traditions can
sometimes compete and conflict. For example, the idea of “liberty” on
our coins is in a natural tension with the idea of “in God we trust.”
If we really trust in God, we must at times place limits on our own liberty.
Christ’s teachings are full of similar paradoxes—that is, true principles
that seem to contradict each other but which are reconciled by higher
doctrines. Consider, for example, the principles of justice and mercy. At times
they may seem to be in opposition, but both are essential in the higher doctrine
of the Atonement.
Gospel teachings contain other paradoxes. For example, the
Savior taught us to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see
your good works, and glorify your Father which is in Heaven” (Matthew
5:16; see 3 Nephi 12:16). Yet elsewhere He taught, “Do not your alms
before men, to be seen of them” (3 Nephi 13:1; Matthew 6:1). Another example: In some circumstances
Christ called Himself the “Prince of Peace” and promised to give
peace to His disciples. Yet elsewhere He said, “I came not to send peace,
but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).
In presenting these ideas to my class, I concluded that
Brother Belnap was right—it is best to nourish
our religious commitments in both our hearts and our heads, even if doing so
means we must sometimes work through apparent paradoxes. The process of reconciling
competing true values requires effort, but it can yield very good fruit.
Then I told my students that the best way to resolve such tensions
is not through abstract discussion, but through the personal examples of people
whose lives represent balanced, productive resolutions. I offered them as a
role model Elder Neal A. Maxwell, whose heart and head worked so well together.
For example, he once said that “[at BYU] we
cannot let the world condemn our value system by calling attention to our
professional mediocrity.” He also told BYU students and faculty to be unafraid of dealing with the world
outside the Church, because they are needed there. They must be like Joseph of
Egypt, he said. In today’s famine of the spirit, they should lean into the fray
and draw on divine power in their professional work so they are part of society’s
solutions—not just another hungry mouth to feed. He also told LDS faculty
they should take both scholarship and discipleship seriously because
consecrated scholarship converges both the life of the mind and the life of the
Elder Maxwell had first developed these attitudes during his
own days as a university student, when he instinctively looked for ways to
integrate secular and religious knowledge. Even as a young political science
major, he didn’t think the field of political theory was complete without
including the gospel’s teachings about government and about man’s nature. As
his experience grew, so did his confidence that the findings of the academic
disciplines would never seriously challenge gospel teachings. For him, every
dimension of the gospel was relevant to modern social problems, and, whenever
possible, he thought LDS scholars should take their research premises from gospel
Elder Maxwell drew on these attitudes when he actively encouraged
LDS scholars to do the kind of work now found in the Maxwell Institute. To him,
the internal evidence for the Book of Mormon’s legitimacy was so strong that it
was simply unscientific to think the book was concocted in the nineteenth
He often reminded LDS scholars that he wasn’t interested in
trying to prove in some scientific way that the Book of Mormon is true. Rather,
he saw faithful scholarship as a source of defense, not offense. In his words, “Science
will not be able to prove or disprove holy writ.” However, our best LDS
scholars will bring forth enough plausible evidence supporting the Book of
Mormon “to prevent scoffers from having a field day, but not enough to
remove the requirement of faith.” That kind of
scholarship has the modest but crucial purpose of nourishing a climate in which
voluntary belief is free to take root and grow. Only when belief is not
compelled, by external evidence or otherwise, can it produce the growth that is
the promised fruit of faith.
I return now to my own autobiographical journey because as I
grew older I kept having experiences that pushed me beyond that second level of
balance toward yet a third level of understanding. I can illustrate my
development by remembering an interview with a prospective BYU faculty member.
He described his religious convictions as “an intelligent faith.” As
a level two response, his attitude seemed balanced and constructive. But as I
reflected more, something felt amiss—not about him personally, but about
modifying the word faith with a word like intelligent.
I remembered how President Marion G. Romney had answered the
missionary who asked, “Why don’t we baptize more intelligent people?”
President Romney quoted D&C 93: “The glory of God is intelligence, or
in other words, light and truth. Light and truth forsake that evil one”
(vv. 36–37). Then he said to the missionary, “A converted person
forsakes evil and embraces light and truth. So what kind of person is he?”
After a pause, the surprised missionary said, “An intelligent one?”
At about this same time, I was watching a close friend my
age decline physically from multiple sclerosis. I had seen him gradually lose
his ability to walk, to stand, and then to sit. During the stage when he was
fully bedridden, his wife passed away from cancer. His family wheeled him into
her funeral on a mobile bed.
Not long after his wife’s funeral, we had a visit in his
home. The more he talked, the more amazed I was at the spirit of peace and
light that surrounded him. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about how
fortunate his life had been—so blessed by the woman he’d married, by the
children the Lord had given them, by their rich
life together in their wholesome little town. He chuckled as he said how glad
he was now that he and his wife took so many “happily ever after”
trips in their early years, even though they couldn’t afford it. And he kept
talking about his admiration for the pioneers, the ones who left Nauvoo and
helped settle the town where he lived. He felt so thankful to them. He’d been
thinking about why they needed the temple endowment before leaving Nauvoo for
the wilderness. Every word and feeling that came from him was genuine. There
was no trace of self-pity. The light in his face and the spirit in the room
gave me the sacred impression that I was seeing the process of sanctification.
That night I felt drawn to read in D&C 101:2–5: “I,
the Lord, have suffered affliction to come upon them. . . . Yet I will own them, and they shall be mine in that day when I come to
make up my jewels. Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as
Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not
endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified” (emphasis
added). Then from D&C 97:8: “All among them who know their hearts are
honest, and are broken, and their spirits contrite, and are willing to observe
their covenants by . . . every sacrifice which I, the Lord, shall command—they
are accepted of me.”
Soon after this experience, I had similar feelings as I
watched our son Tom and his wife Tracy experience the birth of a child born
with severe cerebral palsy. Because this baby had threatened to come several
months early, Tracy had been on total bed rest for nine weeks. Despite bed sores and increasing medical threats, she became very
single-minded about hanging onto that baby until it could survive outside the
womb. One night Tracy sensed something about how her determination, her
sacrifice, emulated the Savior’s example—giving up her body’s strength to
strengthen another body. She said that thought led her to realize that her
experience was actually a privilege, not a burden.
After the birth, the baby was confined to the hospital for
ten more weeks before coming home to a life in which she would never walk, nor
talk, nor feed herself. She is now almost twelve, and what a light there is in
her. (Her name is Chaya. In Hebrew, it means “life.”)
Soon after her birth, Tom gave her a blessing, in which he realized that this
was a defining moment in his own life. He sensed that all he and Tracy had done
and learned up to that point didn’t matter. All that mattered was their awareness
that God knew their circumstances and that this child’s condition was not accidental,
nor arbitrary; indeed there was great purpose in it. They felt that they were
both being asked to offer the sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit,
which was somehow making the Lord’s own sacrifice more accessible to them.
Something about these two experiences set me to thinking
about that little summary on the Greeks and Hebrews I had shown my students—and
about that prospective teacher’s comments about an “intelligent faith.”
The experiences with my friend and my granddaughter defied rational explanation,
and yet I had witnessed the sanctifying effects of these afflictions. I sensed
that a balanced quest for knowledge, as valuable as that is, cannot be our ultimate end. Simply knowing something will not
sanctify us; won’t make us capable of enduring God’s presence. And the circumstances
that sanctify us often won’t be rational ones. By its very nature, faith
ultimately takes us beyond the boundaries of reason. Thus someone who
conditions his faith on its being rationally intelligent may shrink back from a
sanctifying experience—and thereby not discover what the experience could
At the same time, even if yielding to such transforming
experiences is necessarily a leap of faith, we can’t go there until we’ve walked
as far as the light of our search for knowledge allows. And a lifetime of
trying to make sense of mortality, especially on days when it doesn’t seem to
make sense, gives us the experience we must eventually have to appreciate the
meaning of our sanctification after it has been completed.
At level two, we prize the value of individualism and
reason, and we also prize the value of God’s authority and our faith in Him. We
would not return to a simplistic level one choice that completely excludes
either reason or faith. But level three invites us to realize that a “balanced”
approach simply won’t be enough when we encounter the most demanding
experiences of our spiritual growth. When we find ourselves stretched to our
extremities, we need a new level from which to draw more deeply on our Hebrew
roots than our Greek roots. No wonder Elder Maxwell often said we should have “our
citizenship in Jerusalem and [have a passport] to Athens.” In fact, part of the sacrifice the Lord may require is that we accept what He
may inflict upon us without understanding to our rational satisfaction why we
should be lost in some dark night of the soul. Eventually the light of Christ’s
atoning power can pierce our darkness and bless us with understanding, but we
may receive no such witness until after the trial of our faith.
Elder Maxwell knew that for all his love of fine
scholarship, the life of a disciple-scholar was more about consecration than it
was about scholarship. To be sure, he believed that “academic scholarship
[can be] a form of worship, . . . another dimension of consecration.” But
he also said, “genius without meekness is not enough to qualify for
discipleship.” On one occasion, he made this memorable statement: “Though I have spoken
of the disciple-scholar, in the end all the hyphenated words come off. We are
finally [just] disciples—men and women of Christ.”
He once told me that he felt sorry for LDS scholars who
overdo the “intelligent” part of practicing their “intelligent
faith.” They tend to measure the gospel and the Church by what they have
learned in their academic disciplines rather than the other way around. For
that reason, he said, they can ironically become “anti-intellectual about
the gospel—not seeing its depth, its applications, its beauty, and its
fruits, which go far beyond merely being ‘active’ in the Church.”
As part of his own discipleship, Elder Maxwell very
consciously cultivated the qualities of meekness and
submissiveness—precisely because he knew all about pride’s subtle
seductions. Even the Greeks had no use for hubris. Elder Maxwell had seen very
accomplished people become too impressed with themselves—the learned who “think
they are wise” and therefore “hearken not to the counsel of God”
for they suppose “they know of themselves.” Those who are, as Jacob
said, “puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom” suffer
the great loss that the “happiness which is
prepared for the saints” “shall be hid from them” (2 Nephi 9:28,
Most of you would remember that Elder Maxwell appreciated
the work of C. S. Lewis. One interesting little aside is that as a young man
Neal liked Lewis’s writing so much that he paid Lewis the ultimate compliment:
he sent him a copy of the Book of Mormon, along with a letter expressing Neal’s
own testimony. On the point we’re now discussing, Neal liked these lines from
Lewis: “I reject at once [the] idea that . . . scholars and poets [are]
intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. . . . The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on
precisely the same condition, that of being [humbly] offered to God. . . . This does not . . . mean that it is for anyone a
mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must
dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow.” But if one’s circumstances
give him a “learned life,” let him lead “that life to the glory
of God.” In living a learned life, Lewis noted that personal humility is
essential; otherwise, we “may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more
than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the
fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success
in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he
must give up his scholarly work.”
Still, continued Lewis in this same passage, which aptly
fits the work of the Maxwell Institute, “the learned life [is] . . .
especially important today. If all the world were Christian, it might not
matter if all the world were uneducated. . . . To be
ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own
ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated
brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks
of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, [than]
because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
I said earlier that my study of Elder Maxwell’s life showed
me that even though he was an ideal role model for educated Latter-day Saints,
his life message was only partly about learning and scholarship. His life’s
most central message was about discipleship—becoming a true follower of
Christ. For me, that discovery makes it more appropriate, not less, that the
Maxwell Institute should carry his name.
In learning about his early life, I found that young Neal
Maxwell was incredibly attentive to developing the skills of self-discipline
and self-improvement. One sees the same determined effort in his approach to
playing basketball, raising prize pigs in a 4-H project, learning to write in
high school, serving in combat during World War II, studying government as a
college student and a U.S. Senate staffer, or finding a better way to do
missionary work in Canada and leadership in the Church. One friend who first
saw Neal’s fierce tenacity during his years as an administrator at the
University of Utah said he “has tried very, very hard over the years to
make himself a better person. For most people, New Year’s resolutions don’t
last. But his do.” Another lifelong friend said, “No one I know requires
such extreme effort of himself.”
I mention this general commitment to self-mastery to put
Elder Maxwell’s quest for discipleship into context. He always had a believing
heart and a desire to serve the Lord. But during his adult years, his
understanding of the word disciple developed significantly—and
deliberately. He first used the written word disciple in the 1960s as a
synonym for “Church member.” Then during his years as Commissioner of
Education in the early 1970s, he became concerned about the growing influence
of modern secularism. He began using disciples to describe those
Church members who resist secular siren calls. Then, within a few years, he
became close to several Church members who were coping with adversity in ways
that enhanced their spiritual growth. He soon felt that these people were the
His call to the Twelve in 1981 turned his full attention to
becoming a more faithful disciple of Christ himself. Reflecting his great determination
to live better, his writing and his talks now focused more on the disciple’s
personal relationship with Christ, and how the Lord will help true disciples
learn such Christlike attributes as patience, hope,
and lowliness of heart. He also saw discipleship more as a process than a
single choice, and he realized that adversity is sometimes a tool the Lord uses
to teach his followers the very attributes they need for their development.
That is why he wrote, in terms that would one day take on such personal meaning
for him, that “the very act of choosing to be a disciple . . . can bring to
us a certain special suffering. . . . [Such] suffering and chastening . . . is
the . . . dimension that comes with deep discipleship,” when the Lord
takes us “to the very edge of our faith; [and] we teeter at the edge of
our trust . . . [in] a form of learning as it is administered at the hands of a
No wonder, then, that when he found in 1997 that he had an aggressive
form of leukemia, he said, “I should have seen it coming.” What did
he mean? Neal Maxwell, the ardent student of discipleship, had signed up years
earlier for divine tutoring, and his Tutor was now ready to teach him a course
in personal and clinical graduate studies. In his remaining seven years, he
thus embraced the heart-wrenching process of sanctification as his final
tutorial. Most people who experience a terminal illness can’t help being
consumed with their own suffering; but not Neal Maxwell.
He saw himself in a time for testing and refining. And because he was not
imprisoned by his own misery, he was free to reflect on what his new
understanding could teach him and how it helped him teach others.
As a result, those who had known him for years now saw a new
mellowness, greater empathy, increased spiritual sensitivity, and keener
compassion for other people’s needs. Neal viewed this experience as a gift, not
as an achievement. He knew the Lord was giving him a new, sanctified heart
filled with divine attributes, and he said, “The natural man[‘s] . . . heart . . . is pretty self-centered and hard.”
But “adversity can squeeze out of us the [remaining] hypocrisy that’s
there. [So for me] it’s been a great spiritual adventure, one I would not want
to have missed. . . . And even though this has [had
high costs], it’s been a great blessing. I know people may think I’m just being
patriotic to say that, but it’s true.”
It is hard to describe how watching Elder Maxwell’s
experience, like watching the experience of my friend with MS, has changed my
perspective about what I’ve called my “religious problem.” Those who
taste sanctification must often pay such a terribly high price that they can’t
possibly understand the need for their suffering. Rather than looking for a
rational explanation, Elder Maxwell would just quote Nephi: “I know that
[God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not
know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17).
At about this point in my writing a draft of this talk, a
visitor came to our home—a BYU student whose parents Marie and I had met
in another city a few months ago. We met them at a hospital, where his father
was in the last stages of a terminal illness. Despite his tears and his
questions, this father was exceptionally full of peace and purpose. He told us
he knew his days were numbered, but he was reading the scriptures with a true
hunger to understand and internalize the doctrine of sanctification. His
countenance, his manner, and his thoughts were very similar to what I had seen
before, with my friend and with Elder Maxwell. We offered words intended to
give support and love, but he is the one who gave us spiritual perspective.
His son had just dropped by to tell us his father had passed
away a few weeks ago. Then he said he had learned about sanctification from his
father during his final weeks and that experience had permanently changed his
view of life, including his daily priorities. Applying his father’s perspective
to his own life as a BYU student, he didn’t want to wait until he had cancer;
rather, he wanted to live in a different and better way now,
closer to what he called “the things of eternity.”
This student’s visit somehow illustrated level three for me,
even though I still don’t have quite the words to define that level. I will
leave you with the invitation to find your own words, but in just a moment I
will try at least to show you a picture of what I think level three looks like.
It is something about how the consecrated sacrifice of a broken heart and a
contrite spirit blesses us with inner sight in our lives and in our religious
problems. This perspective takes us to a higher spiritual realm than mere
balance can ever lift us—even though standing on that balanced foundation
helps us reach upward. This level does not ask us to give up anything of value
in our reason or our scholarship, though it does recognize reason’s limits.
Indeed, from this vantage point, we need even more rigorous scholarship and
deeper inquiry, especially about protecting and nurturing the things of
One thing level three tells us is that being a
disciple-scholar is not so much about what one does or how one thinks, but
about who and what one is—and is becoming. In the course of Elder Maxwell’s
adult life, he gradually shifted his emphasis from large
scale “macro” concerns about secularization and social
problems to the more focused, personal “micro” concerns of how to
live our lives. Not that the macro problems don’t matter; he just knew that the
micro problems are the ones we can do the most about. And in the long run, he
knew that the gospel’s way of changing the individual is the only lasting way
to change society.
Remembering this about
Elder Maxwell reminds me of one writer’s comments from an essay on C. S. Lewis:
“The kind of people we are is more important than what we can do to
improve the world; indeed, being the kind of people we should and can be is the
best and sometimes the only way to improve the world.”
So Elder Maxwell was right, both in what he said and in how
he lived. At the end of the day, there are no hyphenated words. And if we are
not true disciples, it won’t matter much what kind of scholars we’ve been.
Brothers and sisters,
today is Good Friday. This Sunday, March 23, is Easter. Easter is always on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the
spring equinox. The official Easter calendar also requires that it be
celebrated on a Sunday between the dates of March 22 and April 25. Applying the
official rules, I am told that this year, 2008, is the earliest Easter any of
us will ever see again. The last time Easter came this early was in 1913, but
the next time it will come this early will be in the year 2228.
The painting above is the
visual version of level three, a picture worth more than a thousand words. It
is Swiss painter Eugene Burnand’s depiction of John
and Peter, true disciples, running to the tomb on the very first Easter
morning. In John’s words, “They ran both together” (John 20:4). until they reached the sepulchre.
The look on their faces, their eagerness and their energy, make me want to join
them as they run to meet Him. Perhaps this painting could be called “Early
Earlier today, Marie
looked at this picture and said their faces capture the ultimate tension between
faith and reason. (Those gospel conversations do continue on!) Since no one had
ever risen from the dead before, it was completely irrational for John and Peter
to expect that Christ would live again. No wonder they couldn’t understand Him
when He had said He must soon leave them, yet in “a little while, and ye
shall see me [and] your sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John
16:18–20). But their faces also show their faith and hope rising to
overcome their rational fears. And when John and Peter did eventually meet the
risen Lord, their being faithful enough to see Him was the ultimate resolution
of the tension between faith and reason. He is the ultimate resolution to everything.
As we go home tonight and see the first full moon after the
spring equinox coming up over Y mountain, may we feel
the excitement of quickening our step and arriving early as we run to meet Him.
Whether as a scholar, a carpenter, a composer, a parent, or simply as a college
freshman, may we work with all our hearts, and all of our minds, and to the
glory of God. And may we hasten our desire to live closer to “the things
of eternity” even now, so that the Lord can prepare us now for whatever
further sanctifying tests await us. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Thomas. The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1957), 222, 225, 240. Quoted in Bruce C. Hafen, A
Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell (Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book, 2002), 333.
Know My Father Lives,” Children’s Songbook (Salt Lake
City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), 5.
 Rod W. Horton and Vincent F. Hopper, Backgrounds of European
Literature (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1954), 248.
 H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks (Hammondsworth,
Eng.: Penguin, 1957), 8.
 Daniel C.
Peterson, “‘What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?’ Apostasy and
Restoration in the Big Picture,” FARMS Review of Books 12/2
” I Am
a Child of God,” Children’s Songbook, 2.
 Spencer W.
Kimball, “The Second Century of Brigham Young University,” in Classic
Speeches: 22 Selections from Brigham Young University Devotional and Fireside
Speeches (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1994),
 Quoted in Hafen, A Disciple’s Life, 380.
 Neal A.
Maxwell, Plain and Precious Things (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 4.
 Quoted in Hafen, A Disciple’s Life, 379.
 Quoted in Hafen, A Disciple’s Life, 380.
 Quoted in Hafen, A Disciple’s Life, 380.
 C. S. Lewis,
“Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 48–50.
 Quoted in Hafen, A Disciple’s Life, 12.
 Quoted in Hafen, A Disciple’s Life, 558–59.
 Richard Neuhaus, “C. S. Lewis in the Public Square,” in First
Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life (December