The Trouble with BYU’s Religious Education (Part III)

In the previous posts I described how two methodological problems with Religious Education allowed for the Bott problem, as well as the likely short-term response. In this post I’ll articulate a few thoughts in terms of what I see as a potential, and positive, long-term response to this situation. 

As was mentioned previously, CES has cut back on encouraging its employees to pursue PhDs (a necessary qualification for teaching full-time in most departments at BYU). This, in combination with more LDSs pursuing PhDs in religion-related fields, many of the CES professors in RE retiring, and the increased pressure to professionalize, will lead to a different composition of Religious Education faculty in the next decade.

The long-term response to the Bott situation will be a more scholarly professoriate. While the short-term response will also entail a constriction in orthodoxy, I believe that the momentum for change generated by the Bott situation can be channeled to support a more inclusivistic notion of orthodoxy in the long-run. The long-term goal for Religious Education, in my opinion, is developing a faculty trained in religious studies (broadly conceived) that are allowed to teach and study things through a wider variety of approaches than is currently done. RE need not become a religious studies department (a separate department could be set up at BYU; see here, here, and here). Personally, I think it is important to maintain the devotional aim of Religious Education; and as such, professors in the departments should assist students in making sense of their faith. What is needed, though, is the recognition that such an understanding can occur through a variety of approaches, some of which are more intellectually rigorous.

While this long-term goal will have to be achieved carefully, there are several things within the current infrastructure of Religious Education that can serve as good starting points for continuing to move in this direction.

I mentioned in the first post that the mission of RE has changed. The language has moved from “kingdom building” and “preserving the doctrine” to “assist[ing] individuals in their efforts to come unto Christ by teaching the scriptures, doctrine, and history of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.” I believe that the new language allows for some healthy distance between Religious Education and the Church (I’m not sure if this was intended, but it can still serve this purpose). The more Religious Education is seen as the Church’s doctrinal arm, the stronger the pressure for RE to present itself as uniform and the stronger the pressure for RE to produce apologetic work (not that it shouldn’t produce apologetic work, rather apologetic work should be but one of the kinds of work faculty produce).

The new mission is focused first on the individual and the material used in teaching and research rather than the “kingdom.” Individuals require different approaches in their efforts to understand their faith, and surely the scriptures, doctrine, and history can be treated differently in order to bring this about. RE professors should use the new mission as a means of distancing themselves from their previous image as the guardians of orthodoxy.

Equally important is an appeal to the already established learning outcomes for Religious Education.

A BYU education should be spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging and character building, leading to lifelong learning and service. As part of obtaining a BYU education students who successfully complete the required Doctrinal Foundation core in Religious Education will be able to demonstrate that they have acquired an understanding of LDS scripture, doctrine and history through the process of rigorous study and personal faith (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118).

Inherent in the process of learning by study and by faith is the responsibility each student assumes for their part in the learning process. Therefore, students who apply themselves will be able to demonstrate competence in the following areas:

The ability to demonstrate an understanding of the foundational or factual information essential for a basic understanding of LDS scripture, doctrine, and history.

The ability to comprehend, analyze, and interpret LDS scripture, doctrine, and history.

The ability to use foundational knowledge and conceptual understanding of LDS scripture, doctrine, and history to problem solve.

The ability to receive the Holy Ghost as an aid in studying and pondering LDS scripture, doctrine, and history.

While I personally have misgivings about the language that excludes the study of other religions, these seem to provide a decent basis for more thoughtful approaches to teaching RE classes. Looking at them from an outsider’s prospective, I would expect a higher degree of rigor than is actually offered in many classes. Being able to comprehend, analyze, interpret, and problem solve are quite demanding skills. Variations of these learning outcomes should be put on the syllabi for every class. RE professors should use the language of these learning outcomes to encourage students to rethink the way many of them view RE classes.

I could say more about each of these, and there are a few additional things that could be mentioned, but I think this gets the ball rolling and is perhaps already longer than a blog post should be. In the end, I’m optimistic about Religious Education, despite the fact that old habits die hard.

  • jupiterschild

    Thanks for these nuanced reflections, sa.

    Maybe this is implicit in your three posts, but this last one raises the question, at least for me, of what the role of PhD training is when the mission (building individuals’ testimonies) could be equally applied to Sunday School or to the whole Church in general? Especially when the PhDs that are hired are consistently in fields tangential to “Doctrinal Foundations”?

  • Cushan Rishathaim

    All I know is that the next time a BYU Religious Education professor suggests that his or her commission is that of guardian of true doctrine and orthodoxy, I’m going to kindly refer them to Elder Christofferson’s Sunday morning talk.

    Very interesting.

  • smallaxe

    Sorry for not responding sooner. I haven’t forgotten your comments.

    I suppose the question could be rephrased: What does or should Religious Education do that the Church doesn’t? And if there is something that Religious Education does that the Church doesn’t, does it require a PhD to do it?

    The original angle I was coming from was assuming that BYU, as a religious university, should have some kind of a devotional/spiritual/religious component. IMO, that component is best provided by LDS’s trained in religious studies (broadly conceived) and active in a scholarly community. I think Institute could provide a positive social environment (as an extension of the Church); but I think BYU could provide a more thoughtful engagement with religion than Institute offers. To do this properly I think some distance from the Church is required (I didn’t look at my philosophy profs at BYU as representatives of the Church, for instance), and I see the change in RelEd’s mission as a step in that direction.


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