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An Academic and Religious Identity

Latter-day Saint graduate students in the humanities merge their academic discipline with their faith.

Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understand the challenge of participating actively in scholarly fields and holding fast to their faith. Latter-day Saint graduate students in the humanities are frequently confronted with theories that can, on the surface, appear to undermine belief. To support these students, BYU hosted Defining and Refining the Scholar of Faith: A Workshop for LDS Scholars in the Humanities, an annual summer workshop sponsored by the College of Humanities.

The Humanities and Belief Website describes the workshop as an investigation of scholarship that addresses the challenges to belief in humanities programs and provides pathways through, rather than around, those challenges. Twelve students came to participate from universities as far flung as North Texas, South Dakota, and Oxford.

BYU faculty focused on showing students examples of faithful scholars and discussing how to integrate belief and academic research. Professor George Handley, one of the founders of the event and professor of interdisciplinary humanities, says, “People who want to integrate faith and intellect are remarkable and the Church needs them, the humanities need them, and we want to help them thrive, not just survive.”

Associate Dean Corry Cropper (French) says that to blend these two worlds, “You have to take a postsecularist look at all elements of the humanities. We look not just at the craft which created something lovely but toward the enchantment and faith that that object inspires.” He also implored the attendees to remember, “It’s okay to let faith influence your scholarship.”

Meeting both mentors and peers who share values was a highlight for the attending graduate students, who are in the religious minority once they leave Utah. Attendee Sylvia Cutler, who received a master's in English from BYU and is currently working toward her PhD in English literature at Johns Hopkins University, says, “The most beneficial part of this conference for me was cultivating a new network of academic friends. Transitioning to graduate school as a Latter-day Saint can feel incredibly isolating. It was healing to talk with like-minded scholars with similar backgrounds to my own and hear how they navigated the difficult terrain of embodying an academic and religious identity. I hope other young scholars in my position will continue to have this experience open to them.”

Associate Professor Trent Hickman (English) summed up the conference when he said, “For me, my faith is something that has grown up organically around events both inside and outside academia and is not something separate from my academic studies. It’s just part of who I am. I hope that these students can see that one doesn’t have to separate the two worlds but can have them coexist comfortably.”