Brigham Young University: A Special Commitment to Faith

Noel B. Reynolds

Noel B. Reynolds, “Brigham Young University: A Special Commitment to Faith,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 45–49.

Noel B. Reynolds was associate academic vice president and professor of political science at Brigham Young University when this was published. He received his MA and PhD from Harvard in political and legal theory and did postdoctoral work at Harvard in law and legal and political philosophy. During his years of teaching at BYU he served as chairman of the Philosophy Department, associate director of the Honors Program, director of General Education, president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, and director of the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts.

It is an honor to represent our university president, Jeffrey R. Holland, in welcoming all of you to this important symposium today. As President Holland had to be out of the country this week and next, he asked me to greet you and to read his personal statement to you:

I am delighted in absentia to welcome all of our symposium participants and guests to Brigham Young University. I apologize for my absence, but I know all of my colleagues will put forth every effort to make your BYU visit a pleasant and rewarding one.

I especially wish to commend Dr. Spencer J. Palmer and his committee members for organizing and sponsoring this discussion of “Islam: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations.” I fear we in the Western world have been unconscionably negligent in addressing this very important topic. I am delighted that BYU, including its Religious Studies Center and Near Eastern Studies Program, can play some role today in expanding our understanding of and appreciation for Islam’s traditional beliefs and contemporary significance.

Those conference participants whom I personally invited to join us, I thank warmly for their response. I do hope that the future will hold many opportunities for me to meet you personally and enjoy your personal and professional friendship. Once again, I wish you well for a stimulating symposium in an atmosphere of faith, fellowship, and genuine goodwill.

I especially want to add my own greeting and expression of gratitude for those of our participants who have traveled so far for this meeting. We recognize in your participation a gesture of extraordinary generosity and goodwill. We hope that you will feel welcomed here in that same spirit. BYU’s interest in such a symposium merits some attention. BYU differs from every other university in the world in that it owes its existence to the appearance of a modern prophet. Joseph Smith was called by God in 1820 to bear a special message to the world and to counteract the forces of evil and disbelief that were mounting on all sides. Joseph Smith was told that his call had come because the people of the earth had strayed from the ordinances and covenants of God; that they no longer respected the teachings of the prophets, but that “every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol,” Joseph Smith was instructed to teach faith and repentance to all people and was promised that “inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time” (D&C 1:15–16, 28).

Because of their adherence to this nineteenth-century prophet, the early Mormons were driven from one community to another and were finally expelled from the heart of Christian America out into the great western desert, where they began to build their own society. Freed from the dogmatism and intolerance of a nineteenth-century Christianity which could not conceive of a new prophet, the Mormons began to flourish.

Learning was especially important to these people and they established schools wherever they settled. Amazing and pretentious though it may have seemed, they determined at a very early stage to establish a university. Evidence of this early and continuing commitment to education is seen in the fact that even though Utah still has a relatively small population, it supports four universities and has an average level of education that has led the nation for many years.

To understand the Mormon commitment to education, however, one must see that for us it is a sacred charge. In the revelations received by Joseph Smith, the Latter-day Saints were instructed to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith,” to “seek . . .out of the best books words of wisdom,” and to study all peoples and nations, both near and far (D&C 88:79, 118). Furthermore, we have been taught in our own scriptures to look for the inspired teachings of God that have come to men in all nations; “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8), and in the words of Joseph Smith himself, “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.’” [1]

But assessing our own achievements as a university, it is painfully obvious that only a handful of our scholars here have carefully studied the history and culture of Islam—one of the great religions of the world. We earnestly hope that this conference will increase the awareness of and active interest in these subjects on this campus. I have to confess a serious weakness in my own studies of this area. Of all the literature produced in the culture and history of Islam, I have read only in the Qur’an and in the works of a handful of medieval philosophers, such as Avicenna, Averroes, and Alfarabi. Because of its special commitments, Brigham Young University should prepare to lead the way among American universities in more extensive studies in such areas as this.

I am sure there will be many opportunities in this symposium to make some comparisons between Islamic and Mormon beliefs. It may come as some surprise to our visitors to learn that there are many important elements of Mormon thought in which we would feel closer to the followers of Muhammad than to the contemporary Christian culture in which we have been located since our beginnings. This point was emphasized for me a few years ago as I observed a map of the world indicating country by country the relative ease with which abortions might be obtained. Mormons today are increasingly uncomfortable in a greater Christian society which has rapidly moved to an extremely liberal approach to abortion. I was impressed to see that it is the Muslim countries of the world that have most successfully resisted this alarming trend. But this is only one of many such issues which might be mentioned.

The secularization of belief is a challenge of the contemporary world which is vigorously resisted by Mormons and Muslims alike. To the extent that the secular studies which comprise the bulk of the offerings in modern universities seek to develop a view of the world in which the will and power of God is of no relevance, our scholars are confronted with the special task of seeking out what is good and true in those studies as a means of enhancing and enriching faith without compromising it.

Although many religions find exposure to the learning of the world extremely threatening, such need not be the case here. Our confidence in God and in the teachings of His prophets is such that we feel quite free to examine the findings and theories of all fields of scholarly endeavor with openness and genuine interest. Because of our faith we have no ultimate commitment to academic theories, and we are therefore, in an important way, much freer than others to consider the weakness of such theories at the same time that we admire their strengths.

Finally, as Latter-day Saints we firmly believe that the pursuit of knowledge and truth will be of most value to those who have learned first to submit themselves to God in all things. The character of the seeker affects both his ability to find enlightenment and his ability to use it wisely. For us, as with Plato of old, knowledge without virtue is nothing, and the better understanding we can get of this world) the better will be our understanding of God who made it. The better our understanding of man becomes, the better will be our understanding of his Creator.


[1] Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 5:517.