On Questioning

In Rabbinic tradition, Noah is considered the lesser – if not the least – of the Patriarchs. Unlike fathers Abraham and Jacob, Noah did not argue with God. When faced with God’s declaration of the impending destruction of all life through the Flood, Noah was obedient and preached to the people, warning them of the imminence of God’s wrath. But he did not, like Abraham when contemplating the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, attempt to persuade God to forgo such a drastic, horrific plan.

For the rabbis, then, part of righteousness comes from dialogue with God. Noah was righteous, yes. But the better part of valor – the proof of the truly great – is in challenging God; in wrestling like Jacob and the angel until we may claim our blessing (Genesis 32:24-32). Although we are to be obedient, we are not to be unquestioning. On the contrary, God wishes us to respond. No human question could upset the Divine; it is questions that bring us closer to Him.

The inherent rightness in questioning God is further illustrated in the life of Moses. When he becomes tired and overburdened by the demands of shepherding an entire people from Egypt to Canaan, he turns to God and complains at some length, even begging God to kill him. God suggests that he call counselors, leading to the first Council of the Seventy:

And Moses said unto the Lord, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?  Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? … I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness. And the Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them,; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone. (Numbers 11:9-17, KJV, emphasis added.)

Asking questions is not an exclusively male prerogative either. When the children of Israel settled in the land of Canaan and began apportioning the land, they determined that it would be inherited patrilineally (from father to son) according to each tribe. This way the geographical tribal borders would stay intact throughout generations. Yet a man named Zelophehad had only daughters, and they became concerned about their ability to claim their family land given the lack of a male heir. They asked Moses, and Moses asked God. It was determined that the daughers of Zelophehad had an inheritance of their own in the land of Israel:

Then came the daughters of Zelophehad … of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph: and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Our father died in the wilderness…. and had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father. And Moses brought their cause before the LORD. And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying, The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. (Numbers 27:1 – 9, KJV)

This, then, is a God who demands obedience, yes – but also a persuadable God, a God who seeks relationality. It is not merely that we are allowed to ask, and it shall be given; knock, and it shall be opened (Matt 7:7) – it is that God wishes us to ask. It is the asking, as we Mormons teach, that led Joseph Smith to his role in the restoration of the modern Church.

It is for this reason that I am consistently surprised by the backlash against questioning and debating within Mormon subculture. Especially, it seems, when addressing issues relating to the role of women, gender roles generally, and the nature of the priesthood, there is a rather consistent overtone of orthodoxy that implies both that questions should not be asked, and that the righteous are those who are content with the status quo. I would argue, on the contrary, that within our tradition – within our very oldest traditions and up through the restoration – there is a constant, even urgent, demand to question, and to question consistently; to wrestle with our own angels until the morning (that is my favorite Genesis tale). I would argue further that it is not clear that because one person is all right with the status quo that means that everyone should be. On the contrary, the notion that questioning itself, or the feeling that some change is needed, is somehow apostate seems counter to nearly every one of our stories of origin.


  1. Fabulous post! Just truly fabulous. I want to shout this from the rooftops!

    Re: your question of why the backlash against questioning, my opinion is that people fight questioning because feel they have something to lose. It’s more than just mundane resistance to change, it’s fear that change will take something important away from them. That thing could be male privilege, or enjoyment of being on a pedestal, or having to give up all sorts of dearly held false beliefs, the most pernicious of which is that if one part of the Church changes (i.e. wasn’t really true) then the whole thing is thrown into question.

    This is the inverse of something I know I’ve been taught at church which is that if the Book of Mormon is true (and it has to be because of x, y, z) then the whole church has to be true (i.e. perfect and beyond criticism). That’s a false and manipulative kind of logic, but I think some believers resort to it as a desperate ploy to convince their loved ones. Why they can’t trust the spirit to touch hearts and minds and resort to manipulative reasoning instead is beyond me.

  2. This is really beautiful. Thank you.

    I do think the rather sanitized versions of church history and doctrine that appear in the manuals can encourage this sort of resistance to questioning. A lot of the material seems to be written in a way that implies that all of the answers are not only known, but they’re all found right here in convenient bound form. But maybe these are more of a symptom of a collective distrust of doubting and discussing, than a cause.

    I do wonder if part of the reason so many members favor strict adherence to status quo is just that it’s so much easier. Dogma, whether right or wrong, is at least straightforward and clear, and is less cognitively taxing than exploring nuance and alternatives. Just guesses, though–I really wish I understood this cultural (is it cultural?) resistance to questioning, though, because it’s caused me so much personal pain over the many years of my church activity. I appear congenitally programmed to ask questions, and I sometimes get tired of feeling judged by fellow church-goers.

    Thanks again for the post!

  3. Excellent points, Galdralag. I have figured that the modern Church emphasizes no questioning because it makes the organization easier to manage. But I don’t really have anything to back that up. 🙂

  4. Good points, all. We also want to measure our own righteousness, and only if there are indubitably correct, unchanging answers to our questions are we able to embrace such answers in order to bask in our rightness.

  5. Galdralag, this was really great! I also found the comments very interesting. The anti-questioning bias is one that I typically, though not always, have experienced at church.

    I agree with Emily U that on some level, perhaps subconscious or at least not thought out, people are afraid they will lose something. My sense is that the last point is the most common, i.e., the fear that questioning will lead to discovering things that will lead them out of the Church, and so they don’t even want to go there. I think this could be mitigated if we backed off of the all-or-nothing view of Church truthfulness (truthiness?).

    One thing that I’d add to Laura’s comment is that not only does the presentation of history and doctrine make it seem that all the answers are known, but also that they have never changed–they were always known and they were always what they are today. We don’t spend much time discussing why women don’t annoint and bless other women, or why the temple ceremony changed, or why the blacks didn’t have the priesthood, etc. When these things are presented, it sometimes seems as if a different past did not exist. Perhaps that simplifies things for the Church and the manual makers, but I’m skeptical that it will keep people in the Church, now that it is so easy to learn how things were different in the past.

    I would also add that I believe questioning is looked down upon because it is linked to doubt, and we hear scriptural-based talks from GAs that are critical of doubt, and therefore critical of questioning. We are told that doubt is the opposite of faith. “Doubt not, but be believing.” I don’t think it makes sense to interpret it as, “Don’t ask any difficult question,” but it seems like we have to fight against the tide of the many scriptures and GA talks to claim that questioning is important, even though it is shown throughout the scriptures as well.

  6. Great points! I think that questioning is not only good, but the actual foundation of testimony – that one can’t be had without questioning and asking first.

  7. This is just one of the reasons the Old Testament is my favorite book of scripture, far and away. I like the idea of a God who is accountable, not impervious in his perfect wholly otherness, to our moral reasoning.

    And really, how can you not just love a story about a prophet with the audacity to make melodramatic, emotionally manipulative speeches to God (if you’re gonna treat me like that, you may as well just kill me!) getting a positive response?

  8. Just my opinion, but it seems to me that some kinds of questioning is encouraged. I think that teachers take the materials they are given and either prepare or they don’t.If they adequately prepared they can allow people to ask questions and discuss issues. If they don’t prepare they don’t ask questions and they don’t want anyone else to either. So lets say its because of the correlation program.

  9. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m on my way out of the church (a full blown NOM at this point). I’m not an enemy of the church by any stretch but I was searching the web and stumbled upon this post. I must say that if the OP’s opinion of questioning and doubt was a church wide norm, I would feel like there was a place for me in it still. As it stands, I’ve been told I’m a cage rattler, that I don’t fit under the tent of mormonism (by my bishop no less), and that I’m an apostate (that one hurts a little).

    It still stings a bit to hear that sort of thing and I’ll admit I’m no longer orthodox/prax so there is probably some truth to those accusations in a way. I find Mike C’s previous comment spot on. Its very difficult to keep a questioning mind and maintain active curiosity in the face of so many GA talks that vilify doubt and by extension, the doubter.

    My opinion is that faith simply does not exist without doubt. It seems simple in my mind that doubt and questioning is imperative to a church that in my understanding was founded upon dissent form the status quo. Apparently I’m wrong?

    If NOMish peeps aren’t welcome here I apologize and please feel free to remove my comment! I didn’t read the posting guidelines but will do so now!

  10. We welcome respectful comments from across the spectrum (I’m out of the church, myself), Head of Shiz, and I share your discouragement. Great points. I think there’s a tendency among the orthodox not just to believe the church’s claims, but to believe they are manifestly, obviously true; people who doubt any part of them are therefore willfully sinning. (This doesn’t position the church well to thrive in a pluralistic climate.) We also don’t have a good narrative for committed members asking questions because they’re curious, not because they’re traitors to truth (for intellectual questions), nor for people using conscience to evaluate what they’re told (for ethical questions).

  11. Head of Shiz, thanks for your insights. I agree that it can be very discouraging at times. I sometimes wonder how much of doubt is just part of our personality. That is, I wonder if some of us are just more comfortable with uncertainty, shades of gray, questions, etc., while others prefer surety, black-and-white, clear answers, etc. In other words, is some of that just hard wired in us?

    The problem is, for people like you and me, that the main current of 21st century Mormonism is dominated by the latter type of personality. I wonder if we had lived in Joseph Smith’s time that we would have felt more at home and accepted in early Mormonism because of our questioning natures, whereas those who wanted more surety wouldn’t have been attracted by JS and instead would have stayed with the more conventional Christian churches.

  12. As to questioning, at the highpoint of our LDS learning ritual, after all is said, God simply asks us what we desire. This is always the question between lovers. That is why we had and will have councils in heaven. What do we want to do next? That’s the questioning that will apparently always be in front of us as our eternal lives continue together.

  13. Mike C.

    I recently read a very good book on politics and nuro-biology titled “the Republican Brain” that does talk about how “liberal” and “conservative” brains are different in exactly the way you posit.

    Another thing to look into is Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations . He has a realy good TED talk that deplores the mental divide.


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