Diligence and Grace

Shortly before he died, Johannes Brahms granted an intimate interview about his life, in which he described the powerful place of heavenly inspiration in his composing. He ascribed much of his gift to direct impressions from “the great Nazarene,” even though he had little use for the established churches of his day. He also predicted that no atheist would ever compose great and lasting music, because without belief in God, a composer has no access to the source of divine inspiration. But then Brahms added that even inspired melodies would never amount to great music unless they were crafted and developed through the intellectual “structure” of rigorous musical forms.1

I see this same connection between inspiration and structure in the Lord’s revelation to Joseph Smith: “Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you” (D&C 88:78). I wish to testify about the interaction between professional diligence and heavenly grace by describing the relationship I see between those two forces at Brigham Young University. The BYU community is engaged in a large, diverse, and incredibly successful educational enterprise. At its best, this enterprise combines both the grace of inspiration and the diligence of structure. The university’s dual heritage gives us membership in and allegiance to two different worlds—the world of higher education and the world of the Church. As a description of that heritage, I offer a simple visual method.

Imagine two circles representing the two worlds of higher education and the Church. Color the higher education circle red, and color the Church circle blue. Bring the two circles toward each other until they overlap somewhat. The overlapping area will, of course, be purple, the color resulting from mixing blue and red. Given its deliberately dual nature, BYU belongs in the purple area of overlap—it is genuinely part of the Church, yet genuinely also part of American higher education; it is inevitably affected by what happens in either world. In this unique domain we have found a more perfect way to teach and learn.

Yet some people in the red world of education look at a purple BYU and say, “But you’re not red like us, so you must not be a real university.” And some people in the blue world of the Church say, “You’re not blue like us, so there must be something wrong with you.” Such comments from both directions can give BYU people, and many other LDS scholars, feelings of tension, if not an identity crisis—despite their being part of the great purple tradition of religious higher education. But that tension and our unique identity are the sources of our greatest contributions to both the red and blue worlds—and our ability to contribute is improved every time someone in either of those worlds understands how our purple nature can bless them in ways that a simple blue or red entity never could.

Despite a tradition of higher education that has made American colleges and universities the world’s finest, not everything about U.S. higher education today is healthy. Hence, BYU’s membership in the community of universities does not mean we uncritically accept every new academic trend or value. But in the simplest, most general sense, BYU is clearly a player on the field of higher education. It thus differs in certain respects from other agencies sponsored by the Church, which explains its direct reporting line to a distinct board of trustees. BYU’s sponsorship and its educational mission do make it accountable first of all to the Church, and if it ever has a truly irreconcilable conflict between higher education and the Church, it will always choose the Church.

But the BYU community is also accountable in very serious ways to accrediting bodies, government agencies, the academic disciplines, the professions, and even the general public. The day the Church created BYU as a serious university, it made a substantial contribution to the public interest. BYU is obliged to prepare its students to function successfully in that public world as well as in their private worlds of family and Church. BYU will never be of the [public] world, but it is unavoidably and wholeheartedly in that world.

In this spirit, I salute the growing numbers of Latter-day Saint scholars at BYU and elsewhere who are major contributors to their academic and professional fields. The Church’s scholars, artists, and researchers are making a difference in a society that sorely needs their inspired and creative genius—precisely because their religious commitments give them access to authentic inspiration. Then their professional rigor lets them add structure to that inspiration, thereby giving their inspired ideas lasting value in the real world. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “It is required of [us] that [we] should share the passion and action of [our] time, at the peril of being judged not to have lived.”2 LDS scholars whose work reflects both inspiration and structure are already being judged as having lived.

Our commitments to the blue world that gives us inspiration and the red world that gives us intellectual structure teach us how to integrate the academic and professional disciplines with the gospel. As Alma taught Korihor (see Alma 30), the divinely given sacred map of the universe is large enough to encompass the secular map, but the secular map is too small to include the sacred map. This perspective teaches me to have a sacred, as opposed to a profane, perspective on the whole of life. But this does not mean I exclude secular maps—I just see them in perspective. This understanding can also inform me when some value-laden premise from the red world is simply wrong. But that red world still offers much that is “lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy” (Articles of Faith 1:13).

Because of their active participation in the red world of higher education, LDS scholars are inevitably affected by—and must therefore come to terms with—developments in the academic disciplines. I note especially the newly radicalized disciplines with which all major universities are now concerned. In my own field of law, for example, the critical legal studies movement, which partakes of several post-modernist elements, has challenged not only the very foundations of legal education and law practice, but the very idea of a system of law. This movement asserts that law has no objective legitimacy and is simply a euphemism for power. Similar claims in the humanities and elsewhere challenge every discipline they touch.

Many of these arguments have value, forcing us to rethink prevailing paradigms and helping to unmask remaining pockets of discrimination and unfairness. But while some radical advocates have staked claims to new theoretical constructs, they also convey anti-intellectual overtones when they rely on simplistic conspiracy theories urged by “true believers” who refuse to deal rationally with the arguments against their positions. Some of these radicals are waging war against American universities, uprooting established disciplines and turning departments on many campuses into what one writer described as islands of repression in a sea of freedom.

Some proponents of change put power-oriented “activism” ahead of rational discourse in their teaching and scholarship, a step that raises troubling questions for those of us who thought universities were designed to liberate us from making decisions in the streets. And, as New York University’s Joseph Salemi wrote, “Academic freedom . . . [to some] means [their own] freedom . . . to be hired and tenured without the inconvenience of competition or the necessity of producing real scholarly work.”3

The new movements are asking large and searching questions, and we must not dismiss them out of hand. We must maintain open minds and a willingness to debate the issues honestly. BYU must be among the universities that thoughtfully distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate arguments in this area. And as we encounter these contemporary currents, we must help our friends in both the blue and red worlds understand that not everything about these trends is bad. Moreover, the noisy debates the movements foster can, if conducted civilly, be a sign of educational health, not a sign that BYU is falling apart. At the same time, BYU also belongs to that Church world; thus, its faculty who accept activist premises must not take lightly their need for the understanding and support of mainstream Church members.

Consider now a few implications of BYU’s belonging to the blue world of the Church. First, we do not dilute everything blue with a dose of red. The doctrines of the Restoration inform and shape BYU and LDS scholars in utterly undiluted ways. In that sense and in other ways, my three-colored metaphor, like most metaphors, is obviously subject to important qualifications. Let us also note that BYU’s Church sponsorship is, and has always been, the source of its greatest strength. For one thing, the Church and its members are deeply committed to BYU, providing a very stable and secure source of financial as well as moral support. In addition, BYU’s blue background gives its educational mission a unique hue, enabling a truly distinctive contribution to society and to all the academic and professional disciplines. As other institutions become increasingly alike, the need for this contribution has never been greater.

BYU’s belonging to the Church world liberates rather than confines it in all of its campus activities. In nearly all matters of hiring, curriculum, academic programs, research projects and methods, organizational matters, and social activities, authorized faculty or staff have enormous personal discretion. These people must always strive for mature professionalism, but because of the religious world view held by virtually all BYU people, Church values obviously shape their discretionary judgments in appropriate ways—not because they have to follow Church values, but because they get to follow them. Sometimes the blue world defines BYU in ways that people in the red world cannot understand, but those limits do what the Lord’s discipline always does: enables greater, not less, educational perfection than the red world knows.

So LDS scholars and BYU as an institution live in two worlds—the red world of higher education and the blue world of the Church. I realize that some people see red when they think BYU looks blue, and other people turn blue when they think BYU looks red. Still, I hope that those who see mostly one or the other of these worlds will experience the other world more fully. We all work within a complex sphere, even though some disciplines naturally deal more with one color than another. It hurts us and drives the Lord’s spirit from our midst when some, who think mostly in either red or blue terms, sit in harsh judgment on those who think mostly in terms of the other color.

With the Church growing so rapidly all across the globe, we must continually rethink why BYU exists and draw on the best of these two worlds in ways that, above all, serve the long-term interests of the Restoration.

The eighty-eighth section of the Doctrine & Covenants, first given to guide the Saints in Kirtland in 1832, is still the best perspective on building Zion with a more perfect form. This revelation speaks of the light of Christ, which enlightens every person and fills every space. That light, said Parley P. Pratt, is the source of “instinct in animal life, reason in man, [and] vision in the Prophets.”4 It is the light of human conscience and of natural laws in the universe.

Those who leave the light will become without feeling or conscience, for they seek “to become a law unto [themselves], and [will] to abide in sin” (D&C 88:35). But for those who live in the light, section eighty-eight unfolds an amazing pattern of personal progression. As we grow in understanding and obedience, we receive more light. This includes the prompting of the Holy Ghost, then the gift of the Holy Ghost, then ratification by the Holy Spirit of Promise. As the light increases according to our faithfulness, the day will come when our calling and election is made sure (see D&C 88:4). Then we are prepared, taught Joseph Smith, to receive in this life the Second Comforter—the presence of Christ. And finally comes glorious sanctification in the Father’s holy presence. So it is that “he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter “(D&C 50:24).

Students and scholars love to learn. They seek to comprehend the mysteries of life. Thus, no more stirring promise could fill their ears than that of D&C 88:67–68, which describes the culmination of the fulness of light:

And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.

Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.

After giving this promise, the Lord speaks of a solemn assembly where the laborers for Zion may purify themselves, so that he by his atoning power may make them clean. He testifies of that cleansing power and asks the laborers to fast and pray. Then from this stirring train of thought flow these powerful words:

And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, . . . in doctrine, . . . Of things both in heaven and in the earth, . . . things which have been, things which are. . . . Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D&C 88:77–79, 118).

These phrases and those that surround them are the most celebrated lines in all scripture on the subject of teaching and learning. What are these verses doing in section eighty-eight, mixed with the promises of sanctification and being filled with light?

Could it possibly be that if we learn and teach with enough diligence, and if our eyes really are single to God’s glory, the grace of the holy Atonement would attend us in every dimension of our lives? What is the connection between “comprehending” and learning and receiving more light? What is “an eye single to the glory of God”? What must we do to invite this understanding into our lives? Seeking the answers to these questions is the quest of a lifetime. It is the quest for light, and more light, until the perfect day.

As BYU’s new Joseph Smith Memorial Building was nearing completion a few years ago, it needed some kind of artistic capstone that captured and conveyed the crucial place of religious education on the university’s campus. Franz Johansen of the BYU art faculty was invited to propose possible designs for a large relief sculpture near the building’s entrance. He brought in several beautiful sketches of Joseph the Prophet, but something was missing: the connection between Joseph Smith and the very idea of BYU—a magnificent school of learning that is filled with the Spirit of the Lord.

After a prayerful search, we found the answer in the eighty-eighth section: “And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you” (D&C 88:77–78). The Lord actually commands us to teach and to learn—even to the point of promising that once we exhaust our own efforts to understand “the best books” and “things both in heaven and in the earth” with utmost diligence, his divine grace will attend us. And when we sanctify ourselves to make room for the light of that grace, it will fill our very souls to the point that we comprehend all things.

Brother Johansen captured this idea with a sculpture showing Joseph the Prophet with outstretched hands, intently teaching a young BYU couple who will one day teach other people, including their own children, just as Joseph is teaching them. From above the Prophet’s head streams the grace and light of heaven, not only into his soul, but also into the souls of his students. Next to the figure of the Prophet are inscribed the Lord’s words of commandment to learn, followed by his words of promise: “Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you. ” This is the best way to teach and learn.

When all the primary colors—red, blue, and yellow—are displayed in colored lights so that the colors overlap one another, the color at the very center of the overlap is not purple, but pure white. Perhaps as students and scholars join the blue world of the Church and the red world of education with a yellow world symbolizing a personal quest to sanctify themselves before the Lord, their bodies will be filled with the pure light of infinite comprehension—not a light reflecting the absence of color, but a light that reflects the combination of every color. By diligence and grace, the Lord’s process of learning expands rather than limits us, until, with minds single to God, we know every color and comprehend all things.


1. Arthur M. Abell, Talks with Great Composers (New York: Philosophical Library of New York, 1954), 5–6.

2. The Occasional Speeches of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, comp. Mark DeWolfe Howe (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962), 6–7.

3. Joseph S. Salemi, “Enduring the MLA Convention,” Measure, no. 116 (May 1993): 4.

4. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1891), 41.

5. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 150.