Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Unrighteous Questions

As I am certain my parents would attest, I am big on asking questions. Even now, I have little shame in probing into the how and why of everything from human motivation to scientific knowledge, though I would hope I've developed a little more tact than I once had.

It is my parents' fault, of course. One of my earliest memories is, as a 3-year-old in Sunbeam class at church, sharing what I heard in Church that day only to have my dad ask me why I believed it. Because of that gift of a questioning spirit, at eight years old I was fully prepared with a testimony of the truthfulness of Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon, and the story of Joseph Smith's vision. I had actually read that book myself and prayed as he did.

That is a gift that every parent should try to give their children. I only hope that I do half as well as my parents did with me.

That burning need to understand, to experience and know things for myself, is a huge part of what draws me to internet discussions. There are fewer social courtesies online, things can be discussed that many people would hesitate to share in person. My beliefs are questioned and challenged, and I thrive on that.

Questions help me delve more deeply into myself, help me reach out to my God more fully. They keep me from ever being satisfied with what I know and who I am.

There is a darker side to questioning, however, which I am beginning to see more clearly. I have learned that there is a righteous and unrighteous way to question, a way that brings me closer to God and a way that divides us.

We see examples of those who use questions as divisive weapons in the Book of Mormon and the New Testament. These are people who ask questions, not to learn or figure things out for themselves, but because they believe they already have the answers. They don't want to learn, they want to teach, and they aren't happy with any result but the one that agrees with them. As a debate tactic, it is highly effective. Divide your audience and conquer them. But it is not constructive questioning.

Anytime you share your honest beliefs and faith with someone, especially in an online and public forum, it is important to learn how to tell the difference.

The tactic is not evil by itself. It can be used to help someone make leaps in understanding and overcome faulty assumptions. But it can also be used to try to establish the superiority of one person over another, or to sow seeds of self-doubt. I've had teachers like this, teachers who ask questions in order to make students feel stupid rather than to invite them to think. However, I've also had teachers who are masters at question-based learning, and these teachers engage me completely in the topic at hand. They help me feel enriched rather than diminished. They teach me to be smarter.

There are a few questions* I can ask myself to test whether or not I am questioning (or being questioned) righteously, or with the intent to harm.
  1. Is the questioner patient for the answer?
  2. Are they listening to the answerer?
  3. Am I feeling enriched and curious, or do I feel smug as an asker, or as an answerer, defeated and confused?
  4. Is the other person truly looking for understanding, or are they wanting validation for already formed opinions?
  5. For gospel-centric discussions, is the Spirit present? Are these questions inviting me towards God, or pulling me away?
If, by asking the above questions, I begin to realize that I or another person is perhaps engaging in discussion out of the wrong motivations, I find it best to withdraw immediately (with an apology, if I'm the offending party.) There is nothing to be gained from contentious discussion. It doesn't stop me from questioning. It just stops me from questioning there and in that way.

After all, before every dream or passionate belief, there is a question.

*I like to call these metaquestions. ;)


  1. Excellent distinction, SilverRain - and, as I'm sure you know, one of the tricky issues is that indivudals can use both types of questioning methods in the same conversation - and both can be used by people with whom I agree and with whom I disagree. It's really easy to see "good questioning" from those with whom I agree and "bad questioning" from those with whom I disagree - and it's much harder to see when the roles get reversed.

    Also, as you said, there are "leading questions" that aren't "bad questions" - and that makes it even more important to not judge the questioner too quickly or harshly or stereotypically.

    It's not an easy task, but it's a noble and worthwhile effort.

  2. If we're not careful this concept can become just another psychological defense, another way to close our minds and cover our eyes and ears. Also different readers have different levels of understanding, curiosity and heartiness so one reader's unrighteous might easily be another's great question.

    How about a few real life bloggernacle examples of these righteous and unrighteous ways to ask questions, particularly the unrighteous ways?

  3. Thank you, Ray. I think that everyone who questions at all has the ability or tendency to fall into either path of questioning. With that in mind, I think you're right. It is most important to judge a particular situation over the questioner as a person. One of my linked examples was Zeezrom, who began asking to entrap and ended up asking in earnest. The power of the Spirit to open hearts and change minds is a beautiful thing.

    Howard, if you would like to discuss specifics, go ahead. Please just keep the commenting policy (at the bottom of the page) in mind and refrain from name-calling or inflammatory language. Thank you.

  4. SR thank you for the offer but I was asking you for some examples so I could better undrestand what you mean.

  5. I really have no interest in either calling out individuals or in reading Bloggernacle posts with the intent of finding someone to judge.

    My thought processes tend more towards observing patterns of behavior and trying to make sure my own behavior is what I would like it to be, rather than monitoring others.

    So I'm sorry, but you'll have to come up with your own examples and decide for yourself which category the questioning falls into.

  6. I think it's also a matter of personality, where we will find these questions, as was hinted at earlier. My oldest daughter used to question me by making statements and then looking at me to see what I would say. It was my habit to turn all questions back on her and ask what she thought, and she really wanted the answers, not the thought process, so she turned it on me. I still turned it back to her by asking her if that was what she really thought and why. She tends to be, as an adult, very comfortable with adversarial-type conversations because she views statements as inherently asking questions and expects a dialogue to occur. I'm a more sensitive person (even after all those years with her!) and I tend to assume that when another adult makes a statement, they have thoughtfully considered the implications and believe it is wise and good, and I'm less likely to engage them in a debate about it than to simply state my thoughts from my own perspective. I seldom change my mind in a debate, but afterward, because I need time to process it. To someone else, each of us would appear to handle debate quite differently, and would ask different kinds of questions. It helps to keep that in mind when we talk to one another. Excellent post. I really enjoyed your thoughts.

  7. Oh, yes, Bonnie! I have that stereotypically Expressive trait of being like a bulldog in conversation, then pondering it afterwards and coming up with this new great opinion change without remembering exactly who started it for me.

    Annoying for all those who are more analytical and thoughtful, I'm ashamed to say.


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