Religious Growth: A Fourth “R” in Higher Education

Viewed educationally, our religion, more specifically our religious growth, may be called the fourth R, along with the traditional three in education, for it determines in the long run what we do with those other R’s of reading and ’riting and ’rithmetic—the attitudes and objectives we bring to those basic skills as we set about using them in our daily lives. As important as those skills are in themselves is the spirit in which we use them; and our faith, our church, our religion help us grow in spirit.

Robert Frost has defined religion as “a straining of the spirit to a wisdom beyond wisdom.” It is a wisdom we hope all learning leads to. It is a concern with ultimate things, and the way we view ultimates has a bearing on everything that is immediate. The gospel, consciously or unconsciously, permeates our daily lives, affects our choices, orders our values, guides our decisions, influences others. It is as pervasive as breath itself, as Frost suggests in a remarkable poem called “Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight” in which he suggests how spirit and matter, the religious and the scientific explanations of life, are intertwined:

When I spread out my hand here today,
I catch no more than a ray
To feel of between thumb and fingers;
No lasting effect of it lingers.
There was one time and only the one
When dust really took in the sun
And from that one intake of fire
All creatures still warmly suspire.
And if men have watched a long time
And never seen sun-smitten slime
Again come to life and crawl off,
We must not be too ready to scoff.
God once declared He was true
And then took the veil and withdrew,
And remember how final a hush
Then descended of old on the bush.
God once spoke to people by name.
The sun once imparted its flame.
One impulse persists as our breath;
The other persists as our faith.

(From The Poetry of Robert Frost. edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1928, 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Copyright © 1956 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers.)

To those of our faith, God speaketh, not spake, his creation a daily continuing miracle, his purpose a guiding light for the Church, his will the source of ongoing inspiration, as the scripture insures us.

“Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7.)

Only a religious contemplation can enable our imaginations to grapple with the miracle of earth: “Our rotary island loaded with predatory life, and more drenched with blood than any mutinied ship, scuds through space with unimaginable speed and turns alternate cheeks to the reverberation of a blazing world 90 million miles away.” In such a description, poetry or religious awe (and they are very close) heightens science. The miracle of sight, of hearing, of voice, of memory, reason, and reproduction that is ours is enough to produce religious wonder while stimulating belief in our Maker.

As children we tend to form our view of religion and to develop our understanding of life and self almost effortlessly, indeed, sometimes unconsciously. We are more often than not the product of the home, its practices and ceremonies, and of the conversations and conduct of our family and friends, our immediate environment. Such beliefs, practices, and impressions unexamined can make doctrines and basic principles appear innate. We begin to examine our assumptions consciously and to sort out the permanent and universal from the incidental and local as we move into our adolescence and then into adulthood. It can be a painful process, putting great strain both on parents and their offspring. What you as a maturing person may consider growth, your parents may take as defection; what you may choose to challenge may be taken by your parents as an answer rather than as a question.

Growth can sometimes be painful. One problem for parents is how to guide sons and daughters from childhood to adulthood within the framework of the gospel. If church is perceived only as a social institution, a manipulation toward comfort and security, it fails our most fundamental wants. One problem for children is how to move into a new level of awareness and understanding without a loss of old and proven values and without a traumatic conflict of loyalties.

In the educational process, growth is both accelerated and intensified, and the change that occurs in persons sometimes becomes acute and critical. Students study the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions and survive them as history itself has done. Student sons and daughters and their parents are at times equally disturbed and owe each other patience as they move through successive intellectual discoveries and emotional adjustments. It’s a question of maintaining equilibrium, of moving forward as we did when we first learned how to walk, planting one foot firmly in front of the other but sometimes swaying perilously between steps. You young people at this stage should be concerned less with becoming moral agents than with feeling responsible as you translate your new thoughts into new patterns of conduct.

The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life. (See 2 Cor. 3:6.) Consider some possible questions you and your parents might ask yourselves during your spiritual growing pains at school. And remember, in a complicated world it is not enough simply to say, “Be good,” or “Live your religion,” although that helps. The good is not often enough clearly drawn, but is frequently ambiguous: the choice is seldom between what is clearly good and clearly bad, but more often between two goods, each with its claims. Education, both on the campus and, I am sure, in the seminaries and institutes, is concerned with such ambiguity without ever doubting the value of making distinctions, however difficult this process may be. To Emerson reliance on God and self-reliance were synonymous. In a world as miraculous as ours, this is often true. Religious truth is a sure guide to self-direction. The striving for perfection that is the hallmark of Mormon thought admonishes us to be about that business in small and practical ways, by getting the daily lesson in history and literature and philosophy and science. We are invited to question all assumptions, examine all ideas. “The glory of God is intelligence.” And for what other purpose do we exercise our free agency? Understanding flows from uncertainty as strength is yielded up from adversity.

Much that passes for education, of course, is not education at all but ritual. “The fact is that we are being educated when we know it least. We learn simply by the exposure of living, and what we learn most natively is the tradition in which we live.” The religious dimension is an inseparable part of our tradition. No “higher” learning is conceivable without the discipline of faith, a discipline devoted to searching out and testing value and first principles as other disciplines search out and test empirical fact. Religion is not a “gimmick,” no trusty golf club to turn to only when you’re in the rough. It is a daily companion and critic asking us to take off our blinders rather than putting them on, daring us to confront often-hard realities, like the great question of suffering in the world.

If education is a matter of self-realization and man is the image of God, then how important the gospel is in moulding that self. To the timid, the self is a refuge, a retreat from the world; to the bold, the self is a strategy to engage it. The great safeguard of one’s image of himself is his own society, which warms him like a womb, reflects him like a mirror, reassures his sense of identity. Seminary and institute activity serve such a purpose; and thank God for them! At the same time they should encourage you to venture out in your search for other self-potentials: to venture outside one’s closed society is to move past the Gate of Hercules with the Greeks, past the Azores with Columbus—it is a risk, an adventure, a risk and adventure best undertaken as a spiritual quest because it involves ultimate issues. We have to venture outward into experience; then the outward experience brings us back into a new self-knowledge. That is the essence of education, best undertaken with a companion called faith.

Hope is the anchor of life. Religious hope is that and also the wind and the sail.

To live the gospel of Jesus Christ is to take great joy in life itself, indeed, to revel in the prospect of eternal life, for it was the fact of Christ’s life that gave us ours—immortality as a gift and life eternal as a promise if we would but live the gospel. Harry Emerson Fosdick has said, “The steady discipline of intimate friendship with Jesus results in men becoming like him.” And what was He that we should wish to become like him?

He was and is our Elder Brother, our Savior, our Redeemer. He alone stands at the center of humanity. His was the absolute and perfect life, and yet so simple was the style of life and so enduring his teachings that in our own lives it is never irrelevant or irreverent to ponder how the literal Son of God would have lived our problem, our temptation or opportunity. And with every step we take in his footsteps, we abandon a doubt and gain a truth, thus fulfilling in our own lives the purpose both of our existence and of Christ’s birth.

But lofty truths ought not to obscure simple Christian principles: the principles of living honest lives, of sharing with others, of loving one another, of goodly works and useful work, of strength in adversity, of courage in temptation, of faith when in doubt, of mercy, charity, and humility. Christ showed us the way by example, taught us by precept and parable. How beautifully simple was the language of Jesus. How powerful and enduring, and we should remember that it was not the grandeur of Rome that lasted but the inner simplicity of Christ’s teaching that has endured.