Questions Are an Act of Faith

By: Jake
October 20, 2011

Recently I  read an excerpt from an interview with President Gordon B Hinckley. In it said the following:

RB: There does seem to be though an uncritical acceptance of a conformist style?

GBH: Uncritical? No. Not uncritical. People think in a very critical way before they come into this Church. When they come into this Church they’re expected to conform. And they find happiness in that conformity.

RB: But not allowed to question?

GBH: If what?

RB: They’re not allowed to question?

GBH: Oh they are allowed to question. Look – this Church came of intellectual dissent. We maintain the largest private university in America.

RB: And that continues to this day?

GBH: 27,000 students.

RB: And that dissent continues to that this day?

GBH: Oh absolutely, absolutely. We expect people to think for themselves. Now, if they get off and begin to fight the Church and that sort of thing as one or two do now and again, we simply disfellowship them and go our way.

I thought that this conversation was very interesting and raises a few issues about the role of critical thinking within the church. I found the first response that President Hinckley (GBH) gave particularly insightful. GBH states that critical thinking is only to be done before people join the church, what about those who are born members are they expected not to think critically? It seems to say that those who are born into the church are expected to conform, in contrast to thinking critically. What I want to do in this post is explore some of the themes that President Hinckley raises in his responses, namely: conformity, critical thinking, intellectual dissent, and free thinking and how they relate to faith and questioning.

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Both critical thinking and intellectual dissent seemed to be united by President Hinckley. He also fits them into a narrative of progression, the convert thinks critically and has intellectual dissent with their current position and then conforms to the new position presented to them, just as Joseph Smith had intellectual dissent initially but then started a church and his dissent was dissipated by conformity to this new revealed truth. The ability to criticise and dissent is then according to GBH a stage on progressing to a state of conformity and obedience. However, I don’t think that their is such a clear cut divide between the two. We do not have to suspend our critical thinking or our ability to have intellectual dissent in order to stand approved in the presence of God, nor to be obedient and conform. Indeed the president of the church John Taylor advocated the ability to think critically when he said that:

“I think a full, free talk is frequently of great use; we want nothing secret nor underhanded, and I for one want no association with things that cannot be talked about and will not bear investigation.” (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, Volume 20, Page 264.)

Taylor then is advocating an openness of discussion; a discussion in which nothing is hidden or kept secret. This lamentably is often not found within Mormon culture. It can seem as if there is a resistance to consider view points outside of the orthodoxy, or mainstream dogma. Taylor seems to suggest that if people disagree or have controversial viewpoints they should not be kept secret or spoken about in underhand manner, but be in an open forum for discussion. This for me shows the confidence he has in his views and an openness to change them in the light of new information and investigation. But an important question is why would anyone want to keep certain views, ideas, information hidden or private? There are many reasons that are given why Church history is hidden, and that certain views are not talked about, most often it is said that this is protect peoples faith, but what kind of faith is it, that we have that cannot bear to be questioned? George Albert Smith said that the faith that cannot be investigated is a very weak form of faith, this results in a cycle of eroding faith, as faith can only be strengthened and developed when it is tested and challenged, and the only way to do this is to question it, and examine it. If we restrict and protect our faith, we not only show we have a weak faith, but we keep it weak, because it is never tested by exposure to difficult questions. The result of this instead of increasing faith it creates an environment that doesn’t help develop faith as it never challenges it.

Another reason why people would want to squelch questions is that asking questions dissolves any illusion of certainty. It is difficult to claim that you are certain about something if there are still many questions about it. The result of lots of questioning can leave us with uncertainty and no conclusive answers. This can be a terrifying status to be in. However, the poet John Keats spoke about a principle called negative capability, which he claims was vital to people of genius, which was the ability to live in a state of uncertainty, to cope with the paradoxes and contradictions that we find in live, without retreating to satisfying falsehoods and self-deception about the paradoxes we encounter. The president of BYU once gave an address dealing with uncertainty and the need to be able to do it, in it he said that:

If we are not willing to grapple with the frustration that comes from facing bravely the uncertainties we encounter, we may never develop the kind of spiritual maturity that is necessary for our ultimate preparations.

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This highlights the fact that many are resistant to questioning because they do not have the courage to face the uncertainty that emerges when you start to question. What I think many fail to understand is that the ability to question and doubt is in fact an act of faith. As Lord Tennyson said ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.’ The active involvement of the mind that comes from doubting and questioning honestly and with a pure motive to discover and improve is faith promoting and an exercise of faith. It is a leap into the unknown. Perhaps this is what Moroni meant when he said that ‘ye receive no witness until after the trial [or testing] of your faith’ (Ether 12:6).

This role of doubt in faith can be seen within the great discourse on faith in the Book of Mormon where Alma says that ‘faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things’ and  ‘that if a man  know a thing he hath no cause to believe’ (Alma 32:18,21). Alma seems to be saying that we need to have doubt in order to believe and have faith. As Miguel de Unamuno said ‘Faith that does not doubt is dead faith.’ The reason why doubt adds a vitality to faith is that it stops it from stagnating into creedalism, articles of faith and repetitious phrases that are uttered without really considering what is being said. When people stop using their mind to question and raise doubts then their faith stops being the active and dynamic principle of faith. The type of faith that does not question is then an impoverished faith that is about as nourishing to the soul as a mcdonalds is to the body. The vitality that comes from active engagement of the mind through debate, discussion and dialogue gives more benefit then a simple assent to a prescribed position or belief. Too often then criticims, doubt and questioning are positioned as an opposition to faith and belief, the reality is that they are in fact a vital component of faith, for without it, our faith simply becomes dead and we stagnate and fail to really develop and progress.

It is for this reason that the discourse that quenches debate and discussion, and the ability to look critically at all points of view is undesirable. As it makes some areas into sacred cows, that are innefable and impervious to criticism or questioning. To hold church history, difficult doctrines and practices as outside of the realm of questioning is paramount to hypocrisy and means that we hinder our ability to actually have faith in them.

If the final word of the leadership is the end of the discussion then how are we meant to be able to develop the kind of faith without criticism and debate, for it is in the questioning that it really allows one to have faith and not a blind trust in the words of others.  Can we really conceive of a God that simply wants us to accept without intellectual dissent and questioning? The very narrative of the foundation of our church seems to contradict this mentality, for God only revealed himself to Joseph after questioning and dissent. Joseph Smith himself disagreed with such an approach he wanted all to have the liberty to think and believe as they chose. He taught that:

“If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.” History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498 [499] )

The prophet then did not want to compel anyone to not think, or follow uncritically but let them resolve upon it themselves. What happens too often is that the authority of the leaders is imposed upon us as members and we are told that we are to accept it as the final will of God, yet this I think is contrary to the economy of heaven. God does not impose himself or compel us to believe or think in any way, as to do so it would stop us being autonomous free individuals but simply slavish instruments to the will of men who lead the church. I have recently been impressed by this passage from Mikhail Bahuin:

In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others. (What is Authority? Mikhail Bakunin)

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This passage says that we should refer to the authority of our leaders, but that this should be a choice that we make after consideration. That the authority should not be imposed upon us, but that we must think for ourselves and consider alternatives in order to fully appreciate their authority and our acceptance of it. This is not to undermine or question them, it is possible to maintain respect and trust in the person, or people, it is not even to say that they are wrong but simply to have an independance of mind that allows us to make an informed decision in accepting their authority. This is much needed for as Bruce C Hafen, BYU president said:

We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction as they come to us. When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light. We should not be deceived by the clear-cut labels others may use to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear.

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21 Responses to Questions Are an Act of Faith

  1. J Madson on October 21, 2011 at 12:25 AM

    Great quote by a great anarchist thinker. These ideas on authority are very important. They also dovetail with d&c121 which argues that authority over another can only come through gentle persuasion and then that persons freely given consent. Anything more is dominion, satanic and amen to your authority.

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  2. Larrin on October 21, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way” ( Discourses of Brigham Young, 135)

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  3. Gary Bergera on October 21, 2011 at 9:02 AM

    I’ve come to view faith and skepticism as gifts from God. Each has its own place and role. Each is equally valuable and essential. And each is contigent on the other.

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  4. Cowboy on October 21, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    How much stock can we place into President Hinckley’s assessment of the convert? Consider the alternative to this question:

    RB: There does seem to be though an uncritical acceptance of a conformist style?

    Hypothetical GBH: Absolutely. It is expected that when members join, they leave their critical faculties at the door and focus on conforming to the Mormon lifestyle.

    Even if the hypothetical here were true, your not going to get any religious leader to say that. Not if they want respect and to continue growing in convert baptisms anyway. However, the implication is there. I to find it instructive that Hinckley’s qualification for critical inquiry rested with the convert at the point of “coming into the Church”. The time to ask those critical questions is during the missionary discussions. Once you enter, conformity is where “happiness” is found. The proof is in the pudding – when was the last time a critical issue was discussed openly in a critical way during sacrament meeting, or gospel doctrine, or Priesthood or Relief Society. On occassion when the issues are brought up, we immediately go into quality control, so the conversation doesn’t last.

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  5. Jeff Spector on October 21, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    I also consider doubt as a great gift to help me in my faith journey. I am not afraid to re-considr my belifs at any time. It is healthy. And I di think that Jake makes an excellent point that those who fear doubt are just afraid to confront it and reaffirm their beliefs.

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  6. Jake on October 21, 2011 at 5:54 PM

    Cowboy,

    I think it would be great if that was what he had said. Imagine if missionaries as part of their lessons said: make the most of thinking critically about the church as once you take the plunge then its time to take the critical hat of and start conforming.

    That said, at least in my sunday school classes (perhaps this is the influence of being the teacher) controversial points are brought up and discussed. I encourage the class to think critically about the church, scriptures and our leaders. I think the ones who enjoy the class the most are the members of the bishopric, ironically.

    Jeff,

    I think what I wonder about most is the source of that fear. I don’t think it is justified but I do wonder what causes it, as that is key to being to help in some small way to quench that irrational (in my view) fear.

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  7. prometheus on October 21, 2011 at 9:01 PM

    Seriously, Jake, this should be in the Ensign, or read over the pulpit, or something. I loved it.

    “I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”

    This is so interesting to me – the implications of lifting people up *in their own way* if we cannot *persuade* them of a better way are enormous.

    I think that the fear of not knowing is a huge issue, not just in the church, but in life in general. We want the *right* answer, we want clear-cut good guys and bad guys, we want surety from our political leaders. Embracing a lack of certainty, grappling with ambiguity – these can be frightening to many people.

    I think that there is a continuum of enjoyment of novelty among people, much as there is of risk, and other characteristics. Either extreme is going to cause issues with objective and critical thought.

    Really excellent post – thanks for sharing it!

    (And the graphics were priceless!)

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  8. Cowboy on October 22, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    “make the most of thinking critically about the church as once you take the plunge then its time to take the critical hat of and start conforming.”

    Jake, that takes the cake for a list of bad suggestions. What if a convert is presented with new information? Should they refuse to consider it now because they have already taken the plunge? How about this – If the Church is true it will withstand criticism. Therefore, members should constantly be willing to evaluate their faith in the context of new insights, perspective, etc.

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  9. Jeff Spector on October 22, 2011 at 11:12 AM

    Jake,

    “I think what I wonder about most is the source of that fear.”

    I think the source of that fear is that they might have a crisis of faith if they question or doubt too much.

    Rather than using it as a reenforcement, they are afraid of being unconvinced.

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  10. Miri on October 22, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    I don’t know where to go after reading things like this. I love Jake’s post, and so many of the comments. This is obviously a serious issue, and I feel like we all have a pretty good understanding of the fact that the ones who condemn dissent, who refuse to question and lable anyone who does apostate, are the ones who are wrong. It’s obvious–it’s been supported by countless former church leaders, not to mention common sense.

    But the fact remains that questioning puts you outside the pack. The church does not accept questioning, on the local level (in the way members of your ward respond to your dissent) or at the top level (where scholars are excommunicated because their findings “damage members’ testimonies”).

    So my question is… is it possible for the church to even be true, when the current version of it seems to be founded on deception and control of its members? This is basically what everything boils down to for me right now and I have not been able to answer that question, nor do I know how to. I feel like this kind of article is supposed to be encouraging to the dissenters, to support us and let us know that there is nothing wrong with our questioning. But for me they just reinforce the fact that the church says there is.

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  11. Miri on October 22, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    Please excuse the typos.

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  12. Jake on October 22, 2011 at 1:19 PM

    Prometheus (nice name btw),

    I fear if I submitted it to the ensign I would be flagged up by the strengthening the church commitee for the diabolical sin of encouraging freedom of thought and questioning. I agree however that it would be amazing if there were more talks in the church publications/church along these lines.

    I had missed the implications of that statement about lifting them up in their own way. If only more people internalised that, as its saying if you don’t believe you then I am going to help build your faith and believes and support you. Its a very ecumenical statement.

    You’re also right to point out that this need for certainty transcends religion. We want a one true political system, a clear answer to the problems we face. Its easy to forget that these things aren’t monopolised in one area.

    Cowboy,

    Alas, the sarcasm that was intended in my comments was missed in the digital translation process. Needless to say I agree fully with you, it would be a terrible idea. I like this statement: “members should constantly be willing to evaluate their faith in the context of new insights, and perspective.” The problem is that to revise beliefs in light of new evidence is to admit that your current views are partly wrong, mistaken or not fully developed. So pride in some extent is a reason why we fear doubt and questioning as we don’t like to concede our own inadequacies in views.

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  13. Jake on October 22, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    Miri,

    “So my question is… is it possible for the church to even be true, when the current version of it seems to be founded on deception and control of its members?”

    One of the great skills I have learned in my studies is that part of the skill is asking the right questions. It seems to be that asking if the church is true is a nonsensical question. The church as an institution was built and maintained by men, men who have been inspired by God to varying degrees in this, but nevertheless still men. To ask if the church true is as much sense then as asking if the government is true? or asking if the police force, scouts, the CIA, the bridge building appreciation society, or any other group is true? The fact is that they exist they can’t be true or false. Like all of these they are a mixture of good and bad inside of them, the question that I would ask instead is does it help me to get closer to God? Does God speak to me through it? I would say as well I don’t think they are intentional deceptive, yes the current version is not perfect, but that’s to be expected, after all this isn’t Zion.

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  14. Miri on October 22, 2011 at 2:07 PM

    Your response doesn’t address my actual question, though. Incidentally, I agree with you about the semantics; I was just using a phrase I’ve grown up my entire life hearing, and have never stopped to realize that it’s a stupid phrase that doesn’t actually mean anything.) But surely you understood my intent?

    The church makes a lot of very specific claims, the most relevant of which are about its authority from God and the doctrine about salvation requiring specific ordinances. Whether or not these claims are true is an important question, even though there doesn’t seem to be a way to absolutely know. But the truthfulness of the second claim depends on that of the first claim–and what I’m asking is, is it possible that this religious organization was instituted by God and is actually currently guided by him, when so many aspects of it contradict themselves, honesty is discouraged, and so many damaging things are taught as a matter of course?

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  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 22, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    Miri, the Church remains in the culture, though I would note that some things that some see as damaging, others see as healing, which creates a number of issues, of itself.

    In addition, if, as Fire Tag and others have discussed, the spiritual realities are like quantum entities, then apparent contradictions are the way reality is much like waves/particles and light).

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  16. Sentient Meat on October 22, 2011 at 10:38 PM

    Another crucial claim which The Church makes: if you feel a burning in your bosom after you pray earnestly (i.e. with great emotional investment), then The Church must be true. No recognition that feelings of conviction or witness — archetypal burning in the bosom — can be spoofed. Or have a different interpretation.

    I believe in spiritual experiences, but I believe they are upwellings of emotion. I do not believe the Church’s interpretation of my feelings.

    Feelings about mentally posed questions are too easily spoofed, too fallible to form a basis for fundamental beliefs about the nature of Reality. I don’t think it’s prudent to believe in any church which demonizes “questioning” or claims that any positive feelings after prayer are a confirmation of its special claims to speak exclusively for the Ultimate.

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  17. Jake on October 23, 2011 at 11:12 AM

    Miri,

    Your right I didn’t address fully your question. Partly, as I wanted some clarification as to what the intent of your question is or tease apart the crux of it. Partly, because I don’t have a real answer myself to that question.

    The way in which I reconcile the contradictions, and the imperfections is that I think God does the best with what he’s got. He can only do as much as the materials he has to work with allow him to, and for the most part he will let them use their agency as he isn’t going to violate their divine gift to act for themselves. And the materials he works with are human so they contradict themselves, struggle to admit they are wrong, and do/teach some things that are downright, in my opinion, damaging to others. I guess as well I don’t really see any problems that aren’t found with prophets and religious communities in the old testament and new testament.

    Sentient Meat, I agree with you about the burning in the bosom. I am always uncomfortable when they use that line of reasoning to establish the truthfullness of things. They can be spoofed, self-induced, faked and so on. I don’t think the church demonises thinking, I did a post a while back about a fireside Elder Bednar gave where he encouraged questioning.

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  18. Cowboy on October 23, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Jake:

    The best part about online communcation is that all too often sarcasm is lost on the reciever, so jerks like me take the opportunity to cast stones. Sorry for the misunderstanding and the arrogant reply.

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  19. Cowboy on October 23, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    I think we should ask how the Church approves of questioning. I really don’t think that they do, quite frankly. We have a number of talks that suggest otherwise, but that’s because the Church is really only interested in controlling what it can control. So, are members “allowed” to question? Of course, afterall how could the Church even address this – particularly if the membership confines their questioning to only themselves or a very small few others? Does the Church allow open questioning, say in Sunday School or PH/RS? No, not really. They take the stance that it is “okay to question”, but not to “destroy” or otherwise harm others of “weak” testimony. Of course this drastically limits the effectiveness of quality questioning because we are not free to gain insight from others (Unless we are promoting the pro case). Could they stop us from questioning at the individual level? No, so they say “questioning is fine”. Can they impede us at the group level? Yes, whereas “harming faith” is not fine. I would argue that this stance makes any argument that the Church “tolerates” questioning, nothing more than an attractive veneer.

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  20. Heber13 on October 25, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    #19 Cowboy: “I would argue that this stance makes any argument that the Church “tolerates” questioning, nothing more than an attractive veneer.”

    I agree with you Cowboy. I sometimes sense it is changing some, but really hard to tell for sure. I think the vision of a Zion, with a people of one heart and one mind, is the valued vision people embrace…not the creative thinking culture.

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  21. Cowboy on October 25, 2011 at 2:25 PM

    “I think the vision of a Zion, with a people of one heart and one mind, is the valued vision people embrace…not the creative thinking culture.”

    This is a difficult issue to tackle because it requires those on the outside to make inferences they are not wholly justified in making, while encouraging those on the inside justify the situation according to their own fancy. If I were to argue that the Church somehow institutionalizes a form of groupthink, those who object to that allegation are going to respond that I am naive. That any apparent consensus on ideals is a natural outgrowth of spiritually enhanced critical thinking skills that logically lead to the same conclusions. Can I argue against this empirically? Not really, at least not without quitting my job and devoting more effort than is reasonable.

    The same arguments come through when the Mormon philosophers do the compare and contrast of consecration vs communism/socialism. Consecration, they argue, is a free-market capitalist economy where a pure people manage to distribute wealth equitably, efficiently, and somehow non-compulsory. This inspite of some rather disturbing scriptures which explicitly demonstrate the nature of force and central planning intended in consecration.

    So it is with the ideals characterized by the city of Enoch, or the society described at the beginning of 4th Nephi. “They were of one hear, and one mind”, “they held all things in common”, “there were no poor among them”, they break into socio-economic “-ites” classes. We like to idealize ourselves sometimes with these fairy tales. We try and insist there really are 14 Million Mormons out there, each who have had a “witness” of the spirit. “Mormons don’t follow the Prophet blindly, we each have a personal conviction that he is the Prophet, and his direction comes from God”.

    Perhaps the vision of “Zion” is a shared value, but the true nature of “one heart and one mind” is still quite uncertain. Even if we can settle is the intended idea, it is an uphill battle to suggest that such a thing could truly be accomplished among the human civilizations. These are in fact the primary issues that political and economic philosophers have been exploring for centuries. Our great American Experiment was that a “free-society” (largely free anyway) could actually survive and thrive without imploding to where we would eat each other.

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