Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Posted on August 24, 2012

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I’ve been mulling for months what constitutes faithful questioning, unable to pin down what separates a search from a savaging of sacred things. For the most part, it seems a personal matter, floating along a spectrum of individual taste and preference, but there has been something elusive, teasing that there is some standard of differentiation.

While I’ve watched and sometimes participated in the debate in various venues about what constitutes an appropriate response to real life questions about God, I’ve never been comfortable evaluating someone else’s pattern, even to decide in my own mind whether or not their pattern is a “good” way to grow my own understanding. Hampered by my own dogged open-mindedness (that isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory or all-inclusive; it’s an intermittent weakness that often precludes decision-making), I’ve struggled to establish clear boundaries for myself or my children in the process of searching.

A conversation between my co-bloggers at Wheat & Tares crystalized the concept for me this morning. We have occasionally discussed the recent removal of “dislike” buttons, an option meant to allow commenters to express either approval (“like” buttons, which remain) or disapproval of other commenters’ thoughts. Several felt (and probably still do) that negative social pressures were appropriate feedback that kept the community within boundaries. This is an issue that has come up in another group, where some believe that the feedback of disapproval that we communicate to one another (say in our Sunday meetings) establishes social norms that help people behave in more appropriate ways – rather like commandments or laws do to encourage productive behavior – or protect vulnerable people from the appearance that inappropriate behavior will be accepted. Clearly, disapproval is a tool that either “side” of the issue feels comfortable with in specific circumstances.

There is a good deal of precedent for questioning, even wrestling with God. I’ve pondered the conversations Adam, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Nephi, Mormon, Mahonri, Job, Peter, Joseph Smith and others have recorded, and wondered about the conversations that prominent figures like Sarah, Hagar, Brigham Young, and many others might have had. Sometimes they are angry. Sometimes they are discouraged. Sometimes they are humbly reaching. I’ve had all of those conversations. Sometimes even the less “nice” ones have produced revelation. Why?

Former Pres. Beck taught clearly (as have many modern apostles) that questions precede revelation, but the same people who laud her often take issue with the questions presented by modern public figures in public venues, such as Joanna Brooks, Neylan McBaine, and some of the more insistent writers at blogs in the Bloggernacle. Clearly, it’s an issue with the manner in which questions are addressed, but what is the key to that manner being faithful and producing revelation instead of producing something destructive?

When we removed the “dislike” buttons it was because we felt that their use allowed people to simply and anonymously comment without giving clarity to their reaction. We felt that their removal would encourage people to make their point with some courage and clarity – to communicate better – and would remove the “throwing tomatoes” attitude that seemed to increase the antagonism generally. As it happened, the conversation has been more cordial and the ideas have been more clearly elucidated since we made the change. Making anonymous and nonspecific disapproval simple was not conducive to an open environment of exploration.

I tend to feel that anonymous or nonspecific disapproval is a fairly unproductive way to enforce social mores, because although it is effective at punishing, it is not effective at changing behavior. Our modern prison system is a study in ineffectiveness, with many programs experiencing a more than 70% recidivism rate, in part, I think, because our disapproval is anonymous and nonspecific and does not motivate to personal development and social integration.

And that was when it clicked for me. Agitation is public disapproval. It’s anonymous in that it is distanced from personal relationships with the people we agitate against, even if our name is plastered right along with our opinions. It’s nonspecific in that it frequently engages large groups of people with differing whole attitudes about the subject in a fight that is sometimes only speciously theirs. And in so doing, it becomes antagonistic instead of inquiring. The fight for “right” eclipses the search for truth. Many Mormons, in describing this phenomenon, simply call it “enmity.”

Inquiry is by its very nature incredibly humble and incredibly courageous. When we are truly searching, we have no preconceived notions about what we will find. We are willing to be changed by the search. Hence, when Joseph Smith read that God would give liberally “and upbraid not” he was motivated to search, seeking after the opportunity to be changed and made more wise, without being told he was stupid to not already know, with no particular expectation of how or when that would occur. There is no enmity in honest inquiry, either toward the data or other searchers.

This does not mean there are no standards, but the feeling of antagonism or disdain is often a personal response instead of an exploratory activity. We are acting instead of being acted upon when we eschew our emotional responses, whether we call them righteous indignation or not, to search for greater light and knowledge. We are not inquiring for personal aggrandizement or pushing positions “for the principle of the thing.” We are engaged in a search for a complex of truths simple and great enough to impart wisdom to us in macro as well as micro terms.

In light of this realization, I can judge for myself a faithful conversation. Anything can be questioned, if it is based on a genuinely open search for higher truth and if it is devoid of antagonism. If the questioner is willing to be told something he or she does not want to hear or doesn’t already know and willing to change his or her mind, then it is inquiry. If the questioner is acquiescing to God, then it is faithful. Inquiry that leads to revelation is specific and nested in a relationship with God and others.

I’m still left largely unable to look at someone else and determine whether they are engaging in antagonistic agitation or faithful inquiry, which is as I think it should be, but I am entirely empowered to determine whether it would be one or the other if I were doing it. I can know my own motivations, and the freedom (and commandment) to judge righteous judgment is completely within my power.

So, what do you think? Have I missed something? Inquiring minds want to know.

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