When I was getting ready to leave on my mission, I asked the people who were participating in the Maxwell Institute Summer Scholars program with me for advice on books that I might consider taking with me to the mission field. I was worried that I would get bored with the approved missionary reading library and so I wanted some devotional material that I might find intellectually and spiritually stimulating. One of the books that were recommended to me was The Inexhaustible Gospel a collection of devotionals and speeches by Neal A. Maxwell. Most of those talks are available here.
That book served me well so well as a missionary. I found Elder Maxwell’s teachings on discipleship so inspiring. In Elder Maxwell I saw a fellow traveler, someone who was committed to the life of the mind and also to diligently following the Savior. Reading Elder Maxwell provided me the reassurance that I needed as a still recent convert that it was possible to be intellectually curious, academically engaged, and fully invested in Church service.
When I read and decided to sign the Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto a few weeks ago, Elder Maxwell’s words were what came to my mind. More than anyone else, Elder Maxwell defined for me what it means to be radically orthodox.
In a BYU Education Week talk entitled “The Inexhaustible Gospel,” Elder Maxwell spoke of “the vastness and preciousness of that enormous body of knowledge we call the gospel” as well as his “ever-growing excitement over it.” Elder Maxwell described the close relationship between “gaining knowledge and becoming more christlike.” These concepts were two sides of the same coin. “Thus, while we are saved no faster than we gain a certain type of knowledge, it is also the case, as Richard Bushman has observed, that we will gain knowledge no faster than we are saved.” The gospel was not only a course of knowledge but a pathway towards becoming like Christ. “So defined, the gospel is inexhaustible because there is not only so much to know, but also so much to become!”
Elder Maxwell explained that “Ultimate orthodoxy—and orthodoxy isn’t a popular word nowadays—is expressed in the Christlike life that involves both mind and behavior.” This type of orthodoxy involves both “perception and implementation” as “part of the same spiritual process.” Elder Maxwell put forward the example of the Savior. Even though the Savior had “the keenest of all intellects,” he nevertheless “leads by example and love” rather than “arrogance,” “vanity,” or “hypocrisy.”
We get into spiritual danger when we think we can “outgrow Christ’s example of knowing, behaving, and doing.” But “[b]rilliance, by itself, is not wholeness, nor happiness. Knowledge, if possessed for its own sake and unapplied, leaves one’s life unadorned.”
Elder Maxwell urged his listeners not to approach the Gospel narrowly or with a closed mind. Instead, members should seek learning both by study and by faith. And members should recognize that as we explore “this comprehensiveness and everlastingness, there will be some surprises. Our understanding of some things will be restructured and expanded, especially in the world to come[.]”
But Elder Maxwell nevertheless warned against study unmooored from Orthodox truth:
“How intellectually amazing the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is! The gospel is truly inexhaustible! It is marvelous! It is a wonder!
Yet orthodoxy is required to keep all these truths in essential balance. In orthodoxy lies real safety and real felicity! Flowing from orthodoxy is not only correctness but happiness. Orthodoxy is especially vital in a time of raging relativism and belching sensualism. The world’s morality is constantly being improvised. Some views are politically correct one day, but not another.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ gives our intellect grounding by focusing and channeling it on Jesus of Nazareth the Savior. “Ultimate wisdom enables us to see Jesus as the Light of the World, but, further, we also come to realize that it is by his light that we are to see everything else! The gospel’s bright and illuminating light thereby helps us see God, ourselves, others, the world, and the universe more correctly and more deeply. Indeed, as Paul declared, ‘in [Christ] all things hold together’” (RSV, Colossians 1:17).”
On other occasions, Elder Maxwell further defined his conception of orthodxy. In a talk urging members to avoid intellectual extremes, Elder Maxwell explained that “Orthodoxy ensures balance between the gospel’s powerful and correct principles. In the body of gospel doctrine, not only are justice and mercy ‘fitly joined together [for] effectual working,’ but so is everything else! (Eph. 4:16.) But the gospel’s principles do require synchronization. When pulled apart from each other or isolated, men’s interpretations and implementations of these doctrines may be wild.”
Elder Maxwll also linked the concept of orthodoxy closely to the need to be “settled” in the Gospel. In this respect he described orthodoxy as “emancipating and discovering.”
For me that is what the concept of “radical orthodoxy” ultimately stands for. It means being “settled” and firmly rooted in the Savior and in his eternal doctrines. Being firmly settled in the things that are not negotiable frees one up to engage in further intellectual exploration with confidence and conviction. It means that one is not tossed to and fro by trends and popular opinion. It is a firm foundation.
This kind of orthodoxy is not intellectually self-absorbed. It is not primarily concerned with boundary maintenance or seeking to tell others they are wrong. It is not defensive. Rather, it is humble and meek. It is focused on becoming more Christlike and in engaging others with charity, patience, temperance, and other Christlike virtues. These are the things that Elder Maxwell taught me through his sermons with such clarity and conviction while I served a mission. And those lessons are what led me to sign the Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto.