Luciano de la Rosa, Adobe Stock
Some renowned intellects who assenting to religious truth claims too publicly because, quite understandably, such disclosures might be viewed negatively by peers within their own academic disciplines.

Editor's note: This commentary by Hal Boyd is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. The author’s views are his own.

Anxiety, it’s said, lives in the space between alternatives.

In his 1844 work "The Concept of Anxiety," the 19th-century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard characterizes Adam and Eve’s rendezvous with the forbidden fruit as mankind’s first encounter with anxiety.

Before sin itself, Adam and Eve face the garden’s disquieting question — to eat or not to eat.

It doesn’t require Nick Carraway’s observational gifts to see that the contemporary Latter-day Saint intelligentsia faces its own kind of anxiety — one formed in the social cross currents between the academy and what St. Augustine called the city of God.

I’ve met, for example, renowned intellects who fear assenting to religious truth claims too publicly because, quite understandably, such disclosures might be viewed negatively by peers within their own academic disciplines. Similar circumstances exist, no doubt, within other professions and contexts.

But now, it appears, a cadre of Latter-day Saint academics and institutions are taking a different tack. They are carving out a space — an intellectual locus amoenus of sorts — in which the head and heart can flourish together.

The Wheatley Institution (full disclosure: I’m a Wheatley fellow) and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, both at Brigham Young University, as well as the John A. Widtsoe Foundation at the University of Southern California, are supporting scholars who don’t sidestep or collapse the apparent tensions between faith and reason; but rather, these scholars aim to embrace and bridge them.

As someone who admires the immense social contributions of the academy (I’ve written a book in support of higher education) it pains me that in some circles espousing a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, or the miraculous origins of the Book of Mormon, could jeopardize one’s status in the proverbial faculty lounge.

And yet, those who welcome the friction — and, indeed, the anxiety — without abandoning belief are on a path toward becoming what Kierkegaard dubs the “knight of faith.”

Huddling together earlier this month at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City, scholars and donors affiliated with the Widtsoe Foundation couldn’t help but trot out the phrase “disciple-scholar” in connection with the foundation’s name sake, John A. Widtsoe.

An apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a noted scientist-academician, Widtsoe personified this marriage of the life of the mind and the life of the spirit. And the Widtsoe Foundation is now hoping his legacy is not lost. They are seeking financial backing to pursue an ambitious archival project of gathering, preserving and digitizing not just Widtsoe’s papers, but also those of his like-minded contemporaries — James E. Talmage, B.H. Roberts, Susa Young Gates and others — each of whom similarly wedded faith and fidelity to intellectual pursuits.

But christening modern knights of faith is as much about safeguarding the memory of past chivalry as it is about equipping fresh cavalry.

In a remarkable address delivered late last year, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, reminded an audience at Brigham Young University that it was Elder Neal A. Maxwell who gave us the phrase disciple-scholar.

“Though I have spoken of the disciple-scholar,” Elder Maxwell said, “in the end all the hyphenated words come off. We are finally disciples — men and women of Christ.” In Kierkegaardian parlance, we become knights of faith.

32 comments on this story

To this, Elder Holland added, “the wonderful thing with Neal (and the thing I want for us) is that it didn’t have to come down to a choice between intellect and spirit. In a consecrated soul … they would be aligned beautifully, a perfect fit, a precise overlay.”

It's a timely message for the religious cognoscenti of all stripes. But, it's worth asking, what if it did come down to a choice?

For some, such a decision would surely be Abrahamic. There might first be some fear, perhaps even some trembling and anxiety, but, in the end, for Kierkegaard’s knights, there would emerge a transcendent form of faith.

Correction: A previous version misspelled the name of a Latter-day Saint apostle as John A. Widstoe. The correct spelling is Widtsoe.