The class was filled with restless teenagers, most of whom I could tell from their jaded body language had little interest in engaging the topic I was assigned to teach on the New Testament. This was many years ago, and at the time, I was a young teacher with a Master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies and a sincere passion for sharing with teenagers insights from the Bible. Yet no one, from my perspective, seemed at all interested in what I had to offer that day. And then, an unusually squirrely teenage boy slowly raised his hand and asked a question.
I no longer recall what it was that he asked, but I’ll never forget the boy’s staggered response to the fact that I was visibly pleased, and sincerely praised him in front of his peers for coming to class with such a fascinating theological question. “Really?!!,” the student responded with obvious surprise, “because I asked my Mom that same question last night and she got mad at me for questioning the Church!!”
I was shocked!! In hindsight, I obviously have no idea how the conversation between this young man and his mother actually took place, and as a general rule, when it comes to teenagers and their perceptions, I’m typically willing to give adults the benefit of the doubt, but unfortunately, from what I’ve witnessed, this perspective that the young man connected with his mother’s attitude towards questioning religious issues is not unique within Mormonism.
What is it about our cultural tradition that often leaves Latter-day Saints with the impression that it is not only wrong to question our theology, but that doubts in any form concerning such issues as the historicity of scripture, the veracity of the Restoration, the counsel and/or policy of our Church leaders, or any other religious topic are a result of sin? For some reason, it seems to me that many of us have bought into the notion that it is immoral to question, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
We ought not treat each other (or even ourselves for that matter) as sinners when we doubt. Ironically, we can contrast this approach, whereby we rebuke the questioner for his or her lack of faith with the nature of God as defined in the very biblical passage that sparked the Restoration: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not” (James 1:5). Amongst other things, this famous scriptural line suggests that God will not “upbraid” or “scold” the questioner, and for good reason, for certainly, questioning is an essential part of spiritual and intellectual maturity.
If the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants teach us anything, it is the power of a good question. Many of these revelations came as a result of theological questions or concerns Joseph Smith developed while working his way through the Bible. Rather than a sign of sin, a questioning mind should be recognized for what it truly is, a desire to obtain truth, and the pursuit of truth (to the extent that we as human beings can obtain it) is a profound spiritual quest for “whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit” (D&C 84: 45).
This concept was understood by one of the greatest questioning minds Mormonism has ever produced, Elder B.H Roberts. In his own writings, intended to inspire people to think critically on religious matters, Elder Roberts expressed the importance of questioning with these words:
“Mental laziness is the vice of men, especially with reference to divine things. Men seem to think that because inspiration and revelation are factors in connection with the things of God, therefore the pain and stress of mental effort are not required; that by some means these elements act somewhat as Elijah’s ravens and feed us without effort on our part. To escape this effort, this mental stress to know the things that are, men raise all too readily the ancient bar-“Thus far shalt thou come, but no farther.” Man cannot hope to understand the things of God, they plead, or penetrate those things which he has left shrouded in mystery. “Be thou content with the simple faith that accepts without question. To believe, and accept the ordinances, and then live the moral law will doubtless bring men unto salvation; why then should man strive and trouble himself to understand? Much study is still a weariness of the flesh.” So men reason; and just now it is much in fashion to laud “the simple faith;” which is content to believe without understanding, or even without much effort to understand. And doubtless many good people regard this course as indicative of reverence-this plea in bar of effort- “thus far and no farther.”…This sort of “reverence” is easily simulated, and is of such flattering unction, and so pleasant to follow- “soul take thine ease”- that without question it is very often simulated; and falls into the same category as the simulated humility couched in “I don’t know,” which so often really means “I don’t care, and do not intend to trouble myself to find out.” Elder B.H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course of Theology, vol. V (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1912), pg. v.
True reverence, as Elder Roberts recognized, is not a lack of questioning. True reverence of the type Elder Roberts envisioned involves serious study, pondering, and inquiry.
Admittedly, as those who have devoted themselves to this course recognize, there are problems in Church history. There are traditional assumptions regarding the development of scriptural texts that under serious academic scrutiny cannot be sustained as correct. There are problematic historical, cultural, political, and even theological views that over the years have been expressed by well-meaning Church leaders. Questioning these matters with a critical mind, however, is not a sin, nor should the doubter who struggles with inconsistencies within Mormonism be perceived as a sinner.
The inconsistencies are real and ought not to be figuratively swept under the proverbial rug, for in reality, thinking critically over contradictions within Mormon history, scriptures, or theology can lead the questioner to greater truth. According to the Lectures on Faith, Jesus Christ himself “was exposed to more powerful contradictions than any man can be” (Lectures Faith 5:2). And to quote LDS scripture, “art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8).
So what is the believer to do with doubts?
Continue to ponder and think critically, for one, while at the same time, recognizing the spiritual validity of one famous Book of Mormon metaphor regarding the notion of faith. Despite its inconsistencies, if practicing Mormonism and believing in its theological constructs (even with its contradictions) leads the doubter to feel happy, then he or she must needs say that Mormonism is a good seed; that living life as a Latter-day Saint is a good thing.
Yet no matter where the believer ends up landing in his or her spiritual journey, questioning is an essential component in the life of a mature thinker and should not be treated, nor interpreted as sin.