My Journey as a Scholar of Faith
Kenneth Solen is a retired professor of chemical engineering from Brigham Young University. In this interview, he discusses the integration of "spirit and reason" in his journey as an LDS scholar. Below is the transcript of the interview.
The question that I’m addressing is something about my journey as an LDS scholar. And the interesting thing about that term ‘LDS scholar’ is that is suggests there’s something unique about being an LDS scholar as opposed to some other. And there is. I think, as I would characterize that term, I see a combination of spirit and reason that make what we might call an ‘LDS scholar.'
Growing up Jewish but not religious
First of all, I didn’t know that such a thing could exist, earlier in my life. But it’s interesting that it was reason that introduced me to spirit. I grew up without any religion in my life at all—formally. My grandparents were all Russian Jews who immigrated here early twentieth century to avoid the pogroms—to escape the pogroms. They were very Fiddler on the Roof people—and they were—but there was no religion practiced in my home. We were a long way from any other Jewish community, so I grew up without ever going to formal church meetings, synagogue meetings, training, or any of that sort of thing. One set of grandparents whom I saw infrequently but maybe once or twice a year were closer to orthodox, and so I was exposed to Passover meal every year—things like that. But it really wasn’t part of me.
Reason leading toward spirit at Berkeley
As I attended my undergraduate university training in the sciences at the University of California–Berkeley (in the sixties, by the way), the things that I was learning about our universe, our physical world, and its genius, actually inspired me. And, in spite of the prevailing ideology of the day—which was that given enough time, anything will happen by chance—I just couldn’t accept that, and it seemed there was a genius behind our world, our universe. And I awakened to that as a beginning and said, ‘There’s something there.’ It was not a formal awakening, but it was reason leading me towards spirit. So that beginning.
Discovering the New Testament at Wisconsin–Madison
And graduate school—I met my wife, who was born and raised as a very devout Protestant. And she was—if they used the term ‘active’ as we use it, she was very active. She attended church every Sunday. Actually, most churches don’t require much more than that, but she did that and had gone to a parochial high school, and had paraphrased the entire Bible from Genesis 1 to Revelation. And was serious about it, and that was a surprise to me. So, I eventually ended up, as our relationship went further, taking lessons from her pastor there at the university in Madison, Wisconsin, and ended up also reading the New Testament for the first time. But, the things I learned were not connecting [in the mind]. Without the Restoration, there are huge holes in Christian doctrine. And I met wonderful people—they were wonderful people—they were very faithful people. But who, in my judgment, had to compartmentalize their life. Reason dictated most of their life. Spirit was something they alluded to and immersed themselves in for short periods of time every week, but they didn’t know how to bring them together because of the huge lapses in doctrinal issues that didn’t make sense. And so, spirit and reason seemed to be chasms apart. And yet, I had an experience with the New Testament that suggested by spirit that something happened 2,000 years ago.
Meeting Mormon missionaries
And so, there we were when the LDS missionaries knocked on our door, started to teach us—with great reluctance from my wife, by the way (and she admits that). But, one of the early discussions, which I don’t even remember, ended with the missionaries asking if I had any questions. Well, my experience with some of these big questions that I didn’t see answers to when I was being taught by my wife’s pastor was that in many cases he didn’t understand the question—in the sense that it didn’t need to make sense, so why was there a problem? And so, with these LDS missionaries asking, ‘Well, do you have any questions,’ I decided to see if this was going to be a fruitful relationship at all—and let’s start with one of those. And as I began to ask one of those major questions, one of those missionaries finished the question for me. And I was surprised, and I said, ‘Yeah, do you have an answer?’ He had told us earlier there were going to be seven discussions, and he said, ‘Yeah, but that’s not till the fifth discussion.’ And I almost threw him out the third-floor window.
That was the beginning of my sensing that these missionaries were more tuned-in to reason and spirit combined—that they were going to be able to answer questions, and they in fact eventually did. Would there be spirit? Would it only be reason? Well, we learned something about that as well. The two missionaries that ended up teaching us the most were a split between a stake missionary—a local family man in his late thirties, I would judge—and a full-time twenty-year-old missionary from Provo, Utah. And the stake missionary was an interesting, fairly intense brother, who was very knowledgeable and tried to—and successfully tried to—be very spiritual.
Combining faith and reason
So, one of the early discussions that we had was not actually among the lessons that they formally had from the mission president’s office, but was something he’d learned from his mission president, who was Alvin R. Dyer. It basically was based on Alma 32, and the missionaries explained what Alma was trying to teach about faith and reason and knowledge. As they did, of course they tried to explain what Alma was trying to describe when he described feeling spiritual responses. Of course, for those of us who had not had that kind of experience—at least identified—it was hard for me to separate that from—in fact, what I told them was, ‘It sounds like you’re trying to talk yourself into something.’ And they said, ‘No, it’s different.’
We went back and forth—we didn’t know they had a curfew. This discussion I think ended about one in the morning. Finally, the stake missionary (they’d realized we’d reached a point of no progress, and they decided it was time to leave)—and finally the stake missionary, who was very intense in the way that he also made his points (he’d always point his finger when there was something he really wanted me to pay attention to—us to pay attention to—my wife and I both). He said, ‘Okay, I can’t explain it to you, but the things that we tell you are going to seem strangely familiar, and you’re going to know that they’re true—you’re going to know it.’ And we said, ‘Yeah, yeah. Okay.’
The other part of that discussion I think I should mention was that, as part of Alma’s description of the Lord answering prayer, I had a response to that in my mind, which was ‘reason and spirit,’ because I had already experienced the fact that there were many religions in the world and doctrines and proponents and antagonists. And, especially if you don’t believe that your observations are going to be able to sort all of that out, I thought, ‘It makes sense that if there is a God’—and that’s the stage I was at at the time, formally—’If there is a god, and he really wants me to know something’—like he’s restored his church, like the missionaries were trying to tell us—’he would know that we couldn’t figure that out on our own, and that the only way we would know would be if he told us.’ That made sense. Kind of a combination of reason and spirit together. But the other reaction I had was, in my worldly point of view, it was preposterous to think that God would actually talk to man. I mean, they put people in jail or in asylums who say that. I didn’t think that was possible. But, nevertheless, we had that discussion, and it ended that night with that stake missionary making that promise.
Conducting Alma’s experiment
Then, as part of that, as we progressed through that, I and my wife both were given assignments by the missionaries—missionaries know how to do that: ‘Would you read these verses of scripture before we come next time?’ We were students—I was a graduate student and my wife was finishing her undergraduate program, and we would politely agree, at least in the moment, that we would try to do that.
The other thing they would ask us to do was to pray about it, and they’d taught us how to go through the steps of prayer. We reluctantly but positively did say yes we would do that. Especially since, I had this experience where I said, ‘You know, that makes sense, so if I’m going to conduct this experiment, I can’t say I know there would be answers—the results of the experiment—unless I conduct it.’ Reason and spirit. And so, we went on through these discussions, and the missionaries would ask each time, ‘Did you read the things we asked you to read? Did you pray about the things we asked you to pray about?’ The answer was usually no, we hadn’t done that. So I started feeling guilty.
One Saturday morning, I think, I felt sufficiently guilty to say, ‘All right, I promised I would read; I promised I would pray.’ I sat down and I began reading the Book of Mormon. Nephi, Chapter 1, verse 1: ‘I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents’ and on and on. And read for probably an hour and a half. I remember my wife as she’d been going about her various activities, walked by at one particular moment in our little third-floor apartment living room where I was sitting. I looked up at her from where I was sitting, and I said, ‘I don’t know what else is true, but that young man didn’t make up this book.’ But I didn’t think that much about that.
The other thing that happened during that time was that I did pray for the first time in my life. I waited till my wife wasn’t home—this was a very embarrassing and intimidating kind of experience—in fact so much so that we had two cats, and I even locked them out of the room. But I did offer a prayer, and it was probably one of the most sincere prayers I’ve ever offered. It was, basically, ‘Father in heaven,’—because that was what we were being taught to say—“’if you’re there and this is your church, I will do what you ask me to do.’ Nothing happened. Moroni didn’t appear in my bedroom. No light appeared. But I did have that experience while reading. But didn’t think that much more about it. And so the discussions came and went—until the night of the fifth discussion.
Plan of Salvation
The fifth discussion was about the Plan of Salvation. In those days the missionaries used flannel boards and paper pictures. Which I learned later they’d borrowed from a primary teacher who developed this system in Orem, Utah, in the ward I lived in—and I later called her to be my Relief Society president. (But, getting way ahead of myself.) The diagram that the missionaries developed as they told us about the Plan of Salvation was with a premortal world, and a veil of forgetfulness, and an earth, and a spirit world, and then three degrees of glory.
As my wife and I listened and watched and observed and participated to whatever degree—we read verses we were asked to read and so forth—during that whole time that evening, we both knew—knew—that what they were telling us was true, not like we were hearing it for the first time but that we were helping them practice. We didn’t say anything to each other. We didn’t say anything to them to indicate that; although, apparently the way we responded was enough of an indication that we learned later from the missionaries that after they walked out of our apartment door, they turned to each other and shook hands and floated to their car.
What’s the Catch?
But they didn’t challenge us to baptism that night. I believe that we would not have been ready. They came back and taught us the sixth discussion and then came back and taught us the seventh discussion. And then came back on a hot day for some lemonade and came back for another day to show us a filmstrip and came back to stand in front of our air conditioner and came back for every excuse they could think of to come back—and still didn’t challenge us to baptism.
One night, after this had been going on for a while, I said to my wife, ‘What are we going to do about these crazy Mormons? Because if this thing is true, it’s the biggest thing in the last 2,000 years. Why isn’t it on the six o’ clock news? Why isn’t it on the headlines of every major newspaper?’ When that’s not the case, there’s usually a catch. There’s got to be a catch. Well, I wonder who we could ask about whether there’s a catch. Well, we’ve got this Protestant minister that we knew, and in fact, he helped perform our wedding. (By that time, we’d been married for over a year.) And so, we’ll call this minister and ask him if there’s anything he knows that’s wrong with the Mormons.
Faith resonating in the mind and in the heart
Well, most Latter-day Saints are pretty aware of what kind of response I might have elicited. And fortunately the Lord was aware as well, because I picked up the phone, and I dialed the number. I got a teenage son on the phone who said his father was not home; no he didn’t know when he’d be back, but it was nine thirty at night or so, and clearly he wasn’t going to be out much later, and so I’d just call back. I hung up the phone. Before I even took my hand off the phone, our doorbell rang. Went down and answered the door—our front door was a stairway down—answered the door and there stood two missionaries.
They came in and sat down. We sat down. It was the night before my wife’s final exam, so she was still paging through her biochemistry notes. And they were asking such relevant questions as ‘How are you?’ [We said,] ‘We’re fine. How are you?’ Finally I said, ‘What can I do for you?’ The stake missionary raised his finger and said, ‘We don’t know why we’re here—you tell us.’ And the Spirit bore witness to me that this was not a forgery—this was not a dramatic play—that if this had been a test, they would have failed it—that is, if it had been an artificial test. But that this was who they were and that the Lord had sent them. So I told them why—and I knew at that moment. I knew why. I said, ‘I just made a phone call. That’s why you’re here.’ Then they proceeded to explain to both my wife and I what had happened the night of the fifth discussion—that we had received an answer to prayer. And that was the beginning of our journey as LDS scholars, and we did accept their challenge to baptism that night.
So that was the beginning of knowing, okay, reason—understanding the Plan of Salvation resonates both [in the mind] and [in the heart]. A God with a purpose resonates both [in the mind] and [in the heart]. So that was the beginning.
Praying about professor positions
The next chapter, I guess, in becoming LDS scholars was coming to BYU, because of all places on the earth, this is the perfect place to combine reason and spirit. I didn’t know that—I didn’t know that even after we joined the Church. We were sealed in one of the Provo temples the year after we joined the Church and did walk on the BYU campus, guided by that full-time missionary from Provo, Utah, who’d returned home. But hadn’t thought much about it since.
Now, three years after that, we were finishing a postdoctoral position and wondering what we should do next, and BYU is not in my mind at all. Yet, for various reasons, knelt one early morning and asked the Lord where he wanted me to go—because my conversion was at the point that I wanted to be where He wanted me to be.
And, one of those defining moments—I don’t pretend that this happens often—but one of those defining moments: I very distinctly heard or felt the voice of the Lord say, ‘BYU,’ and I was both shocked because I hadn’t considered it and contemplative about the possibility. And struggled with it because we loved doing missionary work by that time and had some positive experiences doing missionary work. Had friends join the Church or become reactivated because—well, not because but certainly in association with our getting to know them and sharing our testimonies with them and encouraging them.
So, coming to Utah and working at BYU wasn’t what was on our mind at first. But, as I prayed about it more and thought about it more, the possibilities began to develop in my mind where I began to understand why the Lord might want me to come here. And, not knowing exactly what the climate was like here—but knowing how I might feel working for the Lord rather than for any other employer sounded like a great idea. The only problem was I knew that now, and the Lord knew that, but BYU didn’t know that.
Calling the BYU Department of Chemical Engineering
I picked up the phone in the middle of the summer of 1976, called down to the university, had learned they had a chemical engineering department, so I asked for that department. Secretary answered the phone (a young lady that I still remember), and I asked her what the name of the department chair was. And she told me, and I said, ‘By any chance, could he talk to me on the phone?’ And she said, ‘Yes, just a minute.’
About thirty seconds later, a voice came on the phone, and I explained to him who I was and that I was looking for a job. And he began to ask me questions about where I’d gone to college, both undergraduate and graduate school, and who I’d worked for in my graduate work, and what my research interests were, and all these different questions. And while I was answering all of those, I’m thinking to myself, ‘He’s got to think I’m some sort of crazy person, because you don’t apply for a job this way.’ But when we finished the question–answer part of the discussion, he paused for a moment, and he said, ‘It’s really funny that you should call right now. We just made a decision that we wanted to hire somebody in your research area.’ And, three months later I was here. And that’s fast for BYU.
First BYU university conference
So, that was the beginning, again, of spirit and reason coming together here. But, I think I began to understand that opportunity first when I attended my very first university conference that fall of 1976. I had been at two major universities for my own education and in a postdoctoral situation. And in none of them was there really a preponderance of spirit in classroom or otherwise. In fact, in the postdoctoral position I’d been in, there had been some rather uncomfortable and undesirable kinds of elements in the relationships with some manipulation and backbiting and those kinds of things.
And so coming from that postdoctoral experience and now walking into the Marriott Center with 2-3,000 people, all employees of the university—faculty, staff, administrators—and we began with an LDS hymn and a prayer, and it felt very different and very good. And I began to sense that this is the place where we do the work of the university, but we do it in the context and under the banner and under the influence of the spirit. Of course, I learned more later about Karl G. Maeser, and Brigham Young saying to Brother Maeser, ‘Don’t even teach the multiplication tables without the Spirit.’ So, that was my introduction to spirit and reason coming together at BYU, and the beginning of that chapter of my LDS scholar journey.
Spirit and reason as a researcher
So, how does that play—how did it play for me? It played in a couple of arenas here. One had to do with my research activities and my research interactions, not only with students, but with colleagues, and just the struggles of doing experimental work, and publishing papers, getting grants. And, of course, one element of that, which I don’t believe is totally unique to BYU, but good people everywhere I think are benefitted by the light of Christ. I think our Father in Heaven illuminates our efforts if we’re doing things that furthers his purposes, even if we don’t know we are. And, I can say that there were times when I felt that I was being aided in my work, and I was grateful for that. That certainly is one component of being an LDS scholar.
Spirit and reason as a colleague
But one that I thought was maybe even more interesting was—like in any professional area, there’s a community. One has colleagues, and it can be in any kind of professional area, whether it be blue collar or white collar or whatever—you have a community of colleagues with whom you associate. And, you have the opportunity in that community to influence your colleagues because you’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They soon come to know that—in fact, as Latter-day Saints, we try to make sure they know that.
In fact, that was very much true in my professional scholarly interaction with my colleagues. Even if I didn’t mention it to them, the fact that I was from Brigham Young University spoke volumes. If there was any question, it often led to a colleague asking me, ‘Well then, are you a Mormon?’ I could reply in the affirmative, and that would sometimes lead to discussions that would allow me to share as much as the situation allowed. So that was a very positive part of being an LDS scholar—is that I’m a scholar who has faith.
And there were other wonderful colleagues who had faith as well, even if not LDS. I found that in some group settings, often when I would make a comment that drew upon the spiritual part of my being, one or two of my colleagues of faith would chime in with their agreement and their support, and their gratitude that I spoke up. So, that’s certainly a gratifying part of the journey as an LDS scholar.
Spirit and reason as a teacher
That was, as I said, gratifying. But, I think where I found the journey to be the most impactful for me on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis was in my interactions with my students, and in the teaching component in what we do here. One of the reasons for that is I sensed very early, partly because of the story of how we had come to come here—but also in my very first interactions with students—I sensed that BYU students are, and I’m going to say hungry, for examples of how you can be an educated, successful professional, and whatever that meant because of the choice of major and journey that they were on—and at the same time a faithful Latter-day Saint. How do you combine faith and reason? I believe that LDS BYU students really want examples of that in their lives and are looking for it—and that they come to BYU for a number of reasons, and that that’s one of them . I felt like that was part of my mission for coming here. And, so that’s been part of my journey.
The way I’ve tried to fulfill that mission, both collectively and individually is that, well, collectively in the classroom, first of all, by the way I treated the students. I tried to represent someone who is a Latter-day Saint in I hope deed as well as word. And that I treated them not only cordially but with charity—and that with my policies I erred on the side of charity. But that also, when we had a moment in class, whether prompted by something we were talking about in class, or simply because there were a few extra minutes at the end of what I wanted to talk about before the bell had rung, I would say something to them about the gospel—I would share a spiritual thought, an encouragement.
I didn’t—at first I thought I might try to connect it with whatever we’d been talking about—but I found I didn’t need to. I could say, ‘Before you go, I’ve just been thinking about you , and thinking about something I feel strongly about. Can I share it with you?’ And I found from the very beginning, students were very grateful for that. That collective effort was appreciated and was effective for them, as many expressed that ‘That really helped me. I really needed to hear that. And I needed to hear it from you.’
The other thing that I felt was part of that mission to help them bring faith and reason together was to come to know them personally. So, starting very early in my tenure here, I began learning my students’ names. Even before we had the university providing picture class rolls for us, I would take pictures of the students on the first day of class. They probably thought that I was lining them up for some sort of criminal investigation, but I learned their names, and they appreciated that very much.
That led to being able to talk to them more personally, and I learned a little bit about them and had them fill out information sheets and found out where they were from and where they’d gone on their missions and other things they were interested in. Sometimes they would ask questions of me on their personal information sheet, and I would refer to it. That was a wonderful beginning to friendships that led to students more than a few times coming to my office to talk, even when it wasn’t about the class, and asking my advice for a concern. And that has led to some wonderful experiences.
The opportunity sometimes would come because I had asked a student who was struggling to come in to talk to me. I could provide some support, some help, not only in the way of counsel, but even in marshaling university resources when that was merited—to the counseling center or other places—and could get involved in helping them when they struggled. Sometimes it was even more personal and short-term than that. A very treasured opportunity was some of those moments when a student asked me for a priesthood blessing. I felt honored to give that priesthood blessing, and felt like it was once again bringing together what was in the world’s terms academic and reason with spirit—and that they’re not separable.
Influencing future faculty
It’s been very gratifying. Among the gratifying elements of this journey have been a number of circumstances in which some of my former students have come back to the university as new faculty members. I’ve been very pleased that they have expressed to me their desire and have shown to me by example that they want to do some of the same things that they learned from me about how they treat students here at BYU. So, those are some of the elements of being an LDS scholar in my take on that term and in my application of the concept.