Gratitude and hope on the Institute’s 10th anniversary
The following remarks were delivered by Maxwell Institute executive director Spencer Fluhman at Brigham Young University on October 29, 2016 during the Maxwell Institute’s 10th anniversary celebration banquet.
Friends, we are honored by your presence here tonight. Thank you for helping us celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. My purpose is to briefly thank those who helped build the Institute, to tell a little about our important work, and most importantly, to invite your participation with us as scholars, partners, or readers. In the end, I hope you will consider yourselves friends of the Institute—we certainly see each of you that way.
Elder Maxwell himself effectively charted our course and expressed what is at the core of our work, so I begin with a quote from him. It’s our unofficial Institute motto; the words ring with power for us:
For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is actually another dimension of consecration … For the disciple-scholar, the first and second great commandments frame and prioritize life. How else could one worship God with all one’s heart, might, mind, and strength? ((Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “The Disciple-Scholar,” in On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar, ed. Henry B. Eyring (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 7.))
So in the tradition of our revered namesake, then, we at the Maxwell Institute pursue scholarship on religion as a dimension of Christian discipleship
. Elder Maxwell modeled this impulse, of course, at every turn during his ministry. No one could question his commitment to faith and his work—and words—demonstrated a vivid engagement with the broader world of ideas and culture. So my first “thank you” is to Elder Maxwell himself. We’d also like to thank his family and to the others who helped give us our honored institutional name a decade ago. Some of the Maxwell family are with us here tonight, raise your hands. Thank you. We are so honored to work with your father’s name on our door. With his name on our door, there is no question about the values and commitments that must always define us. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks put it when he spoke ten years ago at the event celebrating the naming of the Institute:
The work of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship must be genuine and pervasive—as broad as the spiritual interests of the children of God, as faithful as eternal truth, and as bright as the light of truth within us. ((Elder Dallin H. Oaks, remarks at the event celebrating the naming of the Maxwell Institute, 26 April 2006; transcript in my possession.))
That there is a dedicated research institute for religious topics at Brigham Young University—
which has defined its mission in terms of undergraduate teaching—
tells us all something about the commitments both BYU and its Board of Trustees. It would be easy with regards to the study of religion at BYU to simply face the choir. We could lob intellectual softballs to each other as we wend our way towards Zion. It would be easy to brush aside the broader academic world as hopelessly profane, unworthy of serious notice. We could simply retreat into the bunker, surrender the scholarly fields to the “heathen,” and patiently do our home or visiting teaching while awaiting the millennium. That would be relatively easy.
And, on the other hand, it would also be easy for Latter-day Saint scholars to give up on their less intellectually-inclined fellow Saints. One could simply teach her university classes, cash her massive academic checks—
(that was a joke line),
write for the seven other people in her field, and then go to church and bite her tongue during gospel doctrine class. One could sequester one’s academic and church lives into neat, separate spheres and let reason rule the week and the Spirit rule the weekend. That would be relatively easy, too.
But with Elder Maxwell’s name on our door, we can accept neither retreat nor surrender! No, at the Maxwell Institute we opt for the hard thing, for that sometimes vexed space where learning is had only “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). The trustees, the university, and each of us at the Institute steadfastly refuse to retreat to the bunker of insularity or to surrender the religious studies field. Meaningful engagement with the broader academic world is our only option. Likewise, faithfulness to the body of Christ and His gathered church is our only option. To do both,
simultaneously, is our only option with that name on our door. That a religious research unit sits on this particular campus dedicated primarily to undergraduate teaching amounts to an unmistakable flag planted in the ground. We intend to engage and we intend to contribute!
Can you feel that the time is ripe for more vigorous engagement? We can. In graduate school, I had an advisor who was Jewish, and he taught me a really important truth about our religious community. Noticing the work of several young LDS historians, he quipped to me one afternoon, “You all have been parrying the sword thrusts so long that you’re only now starting to take serious stock of yourselves.” As my colleague (and Maxwell Institute author) Patrick Mason has said, “in 2016 it’s not about survival any more.” The pressing question for Latter-day Saint scholars now seems to be, “Can we contribute?” To contribute, we must be in the conversations. We must engage those outside our own religious community. We’ve seen Latter-day Saints in business and politics do just that. The Maxwell Institute proposes to support LDS scholars in fields related to religion so they can contribute enduring work in the broader world of research and ideas.
I offer my second “thank you” to those who built the Institute’s forerunner institutions. Your massive investments of time, talent, and treasure made this promising moment possible, as did your significant work “parrying the sword thrusts” as my advisor said. So, to those who built the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, we express deep gratitude. To those who built Word Cruncher, we express deep gratitude. To those who built CPART, we express gratitude. To those who built METI, we express gratitude. To those who built the William “Bill” Gay Research Professorship, we express gratitude. To the who built the Willes Center, we express our gratitude. (If you got lost in those acronyms and titles, don’t worry. I’ll be cornering you in a back alley soon to explain each of them. I’m bent on it. You’ll get an explanation!) You can infer from this list that a significant portion of academic careers and significant financial donations from deeply consecrated Latter-day Saint families brought us to this moment. It is true. Thanks to each of you who contributed!
I offer my third “thank you” to LDS scholars in fields related to religion. You have toiled in relative poverty. Your work is often read by only a leavening few. Your extra time with students is often known only to the angels. Efforts to bring your academic work and your religious life together are often fraught with tension. You prize your citizenship in the kingdom, to invoke another Maxwell-ian refrain. But it’s not always clear how best to deploy that passport into the broader world of academic work. (To say nothing of the fact that some of you have been repeatedly frisked at customs on your way back, you know who you are.) To all of you in fields related to the study of religion, I say: let the Maxwell Institute be a place where you consecrate your gifts for the Saints! Do you have something rigorous and redemptive to say to Latter-day Saints? We’ll help you say it. Do you need support to offer your work to academic audiences? We’re your people. Bring your intellectual loaves and fishes to BYU and the Institute and watch what happens!
I am deeply moved that some of our faith’s brightest minds and biggest hearts have signed on to help shape the Institute’s future. If you’ve not done so already, please refer to your program there at your table and join me in welcoming our magnificent inaugural Institute advisory board. Will you join me in thanking them for joining us in shaping our future? Thank you, Advisory Board members. They met for five hours today, so they deserve every clap that they got. I was deeply touched as I looked around that table. I was moved by the offerings of time and talent from those good folks, and we’re so grateful to them.
[See the Advisory Board here
I offer my fifth “thank you” to community leaders in business and government. Thank you for coming and hearing us tell our story this evening. We want you to leave knowing that the Maxwell Institute is a valuable community asset. We’re bent on improving what scholars call “religious literacy.” A healthy democracy depends on informed citizens who can sift through competing claims to make informed decisions. In our diverse and fast-changing world, religious literacy—knowing about your neighbor’s faith—is often in woefully short supply. And this is glaringly true in the United States. To address this problem, the Maxwell Institute provides accurate, responsible scholarship on the LDS tradition and other religions, too. To cite just one example, our Middle Eastern Texts Initiative is a world-renowned resource for Islamic texts. Few Latter-day Saints know of it. Our biggest group of followers for METI’s Facebook page is in Egypt, I’m told. It’s making a difference in communities beyond the Saints. Here, in adorable little Provo! In the future, we’ll offer a steady stream of scholarly analysis on religious topics and traditions, again coming right through Provo, in the form of publications, lectures, symposia, and conferences. Our scholarly network will educate communities near and far about their neighbors and about their own religious selves. In our city and our state, we intend to be a force for the common good by means of religious scholarship.
My sixth “thank you” goes to our past and future donors and partners. We could not have come this far without you and we need your continuing support. Given our name and our lofty ambitions, we intend to become nothing less than a leading center of LDS intellectual life. We’ll elbow our way into seats at the academic tables, we’ll provide the Saints with compelling reasons for their faith, we’ll build bridges of religious understanding with many communities, and we’ll mentor the next generation of LDS scholars. This joint will crackle and spark with intellectual and spiritual energy! It is coming!
But we can’t do it without you. We need you. Thank you in advance for your help in realizing this vision.
I’ll conclude now with another statement from Elder Maxwell. It has become my favorite. It hangs on the wall next to my computer screen. I read it every day. It strengthens my resolve. And I note that it represents an insight gained at a cost—he offered these words in that unforgettable 1997 General Conference session where most of us learned of his cancer:
The redeeming presence of our loving Father-God in the universe is the grand fact pertaining to the human condition. It is the supernal truth which, along with His plan of happiness, reigns preeminent and imperial over all other realities. ((Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “From Whom All Blessings Flow,” Ensign, May 1997, 12.))
One of the key insights of what we might call the “postmodern” academy is that knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Human learning and reason do not exist outside of time and space, somehow immune from culturally rooted values or perspectives. In light of that insight, I unreservedly claim that statement from Elder Maxwell as the
context for all the work of the Institute that bears his name, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Accordingly, we can never be “neutral.” We pursue scholarship in light of that “redeeming presence,” that “preeminent and imperial” “grand fact” of divine love. It fuels our rigor, it prompts our generosity, and it fires our collective imagination.
The divisions and commotion around us can seem overwhelming. Our faith community is torn in significant ways. The cultural problems are pressing. The burdens of faith and doubt, of reason and discipleship, can feel heavy. But in light of Elder Maxwell’s “grand fact,” we press on in the “brightness of hope” indeed (2 Nephi 31:20). None of this hard work is in vain. Of that divine love I bear witness.