Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thinking critically--and why we must

A few weeks back, I made a comment on my Facebook status about how much I enjoyed teaching my Sunday School kids—thus grooming a new generation of Mormons with critical thinking skills, unafraid to ask questions. A good friend of mine (and non-member) sent me a message in private: “Mitch, I think if you teach Mormons to have critical thinking skills, there will be no more Mormons.”

Her message to me was tongue-in-cheek, but she raises a valid—and alarming—point.

As a collective, we Mormons are very good at following: We follow the direction of our church leaders. We follow in the footsteps of our forefathers and ancestors, and go on missions. We follow (or try to) the commandments of God. And all of those things, are, to a point—very good things. But where does following become dangerous, and cross the line from doing what is right to eliminating our free agency?

While following wise counsel is always a good thing, questioning counsel is equally a good thing. After all, our Father gave us intellects to help us discern what is right, and quite frankly, I think we disappoint Him when we fail to use them. Moreover, I don’t think our Father or our Savior are ever offended when we question their counsel to us—whether that counsel comes through the church general authorities, or whether that comes to us individually as personal guidance.

Truth is not offended at scrutiny—truth welcomes scrutiny. Truth welcomes thoughtful, provocative questions that seek to deepen our knowledge and understanding of what we think we’re hearing. For truth has nothing to hide—and it is through scrutiny and questioning that the veracity of any position becomes known to us all.

Conversely, deception loathes scrutiny. Deception discourages intellectual debate, and does its best to quell critical thought and inspire a blind following—through bullying, through threatening, and through group peer pressure. For like truth, it is through scrutiny that fraud is exposed—and its betrayal and dupery become clear.

When we follow blindly, we risk tossing aside our agency entirely—which flies in the face of what Christ’s ministry was all about. If we think about the invitation of Christ, it was just that—an invitation: “Ask it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened unto you.” What Christ’s gospel is not, is a mandate—at no time during Christ’s ministry did he demand we follow him blindly—he offered us a choice.

If we think about our entire mortal existence here, it is a plan based entirely on choice. The Great War in Heaven was fought specifically around this very issue. On the one hand, one plan proposed we have a life of agency, be free to question our direction, and have the freedom to choose whether we wish to follow our Savior, or choose another path.

On the other hand, we had a plan presented that stripped us of our agency—of our ability to question—and compelled us to obey, but promised we would all return to our Father. We, as Mormons, know who proposed that second plan—and we voted before this existence to follow the first plan—Christ’s plan.

I think we need to proceed with extreme caution when we’re faced with any situation—regardless of the source—that discourages us from using the critical thinking skills we’ve each been blessed with. Whenever something changes Christ’s invitation from, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” to the mandate, “Behold, I stand at the door with a battering ram, and if you don’t obey you will be castigated and punished,” our guards should be raised. This sounds alarmingly like the plan we rejected so very long ago.

I remember back when the battle for Proposition 8 was waging hard here in California. One of the ads for this campaign told us that President Thomas Monson believed that marriage between those of the same gender was wrong. It showed images of heterosexual families praying together, and playing together. It ended with this question: “Will you stand with the Prophet?”

My response to this question—and any other that seeks to diminish my God-given critical thinking skills is this: I will stand with my Savior.

With whom will you stand?


  1. Excellent post. Welcome to the blogosphere. I have been asking some similar questions lately.

  2. Thanks, Kiley! Glad to have an ally in asking the right questions. It takes courage, but I don't think our Savior's ministry was based on anything but. He Himself was questioned his entire life--and never balked. I think we owe it to Him--and to His work--to continue to questions things, both for our benefit and the benefit of others!

  3. Another great post, Mitch! Thanks for reminding us that one of the reasons were are here is to question. "Be unafraid of new ideas for they are as steppingstones to progress. You will, of course, respect the opinions of others but be unafraid to dissent--if you are informed.... Only error needs to fear freedom of expression." - Hugh B. Brown

  4. Just found your blog. Great post! It brings to mind a scripture that is often used in another context for other purposes: “Behold, you have not understood …. You must study it out in your mind.” D&C 9:7-8

  5. That's one of my faves, Invictus! Good tie in--and thanks for reading!

  6. Mitch, I have been sitting for the past hour maybe, reading your blog. You write wonderfully. You say so much of what I am thinking and feeling, but don't quite know how to say it. Thank you for being who you are. Thank you for blogging. I look forward to reading more.

  7. Wendy, thank you. Your sweet, kind words mean more to me in this moment than I can eloquently express. It's been a rough past couple of days, and your words helped lift me up--thank you for having the courage to be a tool in the hands of our Savior to do that. My humble gratitude is yours, my friend.

  8. I echo Wendy in that I have been sitting here for an hour or so reading your blog. You truly have a gift to express what so many of us cannot seem to put words to. You have given a voice to many of the thoughts that have swirled in my head in the last few years. I absolutely stand by you in that we need to teach our children to ask questions, to not be afraid to stand by what they feel, and to pray to know truth. As a single mother of three girls, and a primary teacher of ten-year-olds, I find opportunities every day and every class time to ask thought provoking questions, to teach the children in my sphere of influence that not only is it okay to ask questions, but it is vital to know the why of what we believe--whether that is beliefs about God or the world around us. I applaud you for standing for what you believe and inspiring others to make changes in their own spheres of influence, for that is how we change the world. I am going to link to your blog, and I look forward to reading more from you in the future. Thank you, Mitch.