Criticism and Conformity

I recently read an excerpt from an interview with President Gordon B Hinckley. In it is the following:

RB: There does seem to be though an uncritical acceptance of a conformist style?

GBH: Uncritical? No. Not uncritical. People think in a very critical way before they come into this Church. When they come into this Church they’re expected to conform. And they find happiness in that conformity.

RB: But not allowed to question?

GBH: If what?

RB: They’re not allowed to question?

GBH: Oh they are allowed to question. Look – this Church came of intellectual dissent. We maintain the largest private university in America.
RB: And that continues to this day?

GBH: 27,000 students.

RB: And that dissent continues to that this day?

GBH: Oh absolutely, absolutely. We expect people to think for themselves. Now, if they get off and begin to fight the Church and that sort of thing as one or two do now and again, we simply disfellowship them and go our way.

I thought that this conversation was very interesting and raises a few issues about the role of critical thinking within the church. I found the first response that President Hinckley (GBH) gave particularly insightful. GBH states that critical thinking is only to be done before people join the church, what about those who are born members? It seems to say that those who are born into the church are expected to conform, in contrast to thinking critically. This is a very neat stratagy to use, as it prevents people leaving the church as they are never told to think critically about it and hence can never doubt it. What I want to do in this post is explore some of the themes that President Hinckley raises in his responses, namely: conformity, critical thinking, intellectual dissent, and free thinking.

Both critical thinking and intellectual dissent seemed to be united by President Hinckley. He also fits them into a narrative of progression, the convert thinks critically and then conforms; Joseph Smith had intellectual dissent but then started a church and his dissent was dissipated. The ability to criticise and dissent is then according to GBH a stage on progressing to a state of conformity and obedience. However, I don’t think that their is such a clear cut divide between the two, that we do not have to suspend our critical thinking or our ability to have intellectual dissent in order to stand approved in the presence of God, nor to be obedient and conform. Indeed the president of the church John Taylor advocated the ability to think critically when he said that:

“I think a full, free talk is frequently of great use; we want nothing secret nor underhanded, and I for one want no association with things that cannot be talked about and will not bear investigation.” (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, Volume 20, Page 264.)

Taylor then is advocating an openness of discussion; a discussion in which nothing is hidden or kept secret. This however is not what is often found within Mormon culture, there is a resistance to consider view points outside of the orthodoxy, or mainstream dogma. This ties in with intellectual dissent. Taylor seems to suggest that if people disagree or have controversial viewpoints they should not be kept secret or spoken about in underhand manner, but be in an open forum for discussion. This for me shows the confidence he has in his views and an openness to change them in the light of new information and investigation. But an important question is why would anyone want to keep certain views, ideas, information hidden or private? There are many reasons that are given why Church history is hidden, and that certain views are not talked about, most often it is said that this is protect peoples faith, but what kind of faith is it, that we have that cannot bear to be questioned? George Albert Smith said that the faith that cannot be investigated is a very weak form of faith, this results in a cycle of eroding faith, as faith can only be strengthened and developed when it is tested and challenged, and the only way to do this is to question it, and examine it. If we restrict and protect our faith, we not only show we have a weak faith, but we keep it weak, because it is never tested by exposure to difficult questions, it never gets stronger. We then have a culture which claims to be faith promoting, but creates an environment that doesn’t help develop faith as it never challenges it.

Another reason why people would want to quench questions is that it dissolves any notion of certainty. It is difficult to claim that you are certain about something if there are many questions about it. I shall neglect a discussion on the absurdity of the idea of certainty and how any claims to certainty are dillusional for the meantime but focus on the uncertainty that comes from doubt and questioning. It is difficult to deal with uncertainty and questions certainly bring this. This is not a bad thing though. The poet John Keats spoke about a principle called negative capability, which he claims was vital to people of genius, which was the ability to live in a state of uncertainty, to cope with the paradoxes and contradictions that we find in live, without retreating to satisfying falsehoods and self-deception about the paradoxes we encounter. The president of BYU once gave an address dealing with uncertainty and the need to be able to do it, in it he said that:

If we are not willing to grapple with the frustration that comes from facing bravely the uncertainties we encounter, we may never develop the kind of spiritual maturity that is necessary for our ultimate preparations.

This highlights the fact that many are resistant to questioning because they do not have the courage to face the uncertainty that emerges when you start to question. What I think many fail to understand is that the ability to question and doubt is in fact an act of faith. As Lord Tennyson said ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.’ The active involvement of the mind that comes from doubting and questioning honestly and with a pure motive to discover and improve is faith promoting and is a exercise in faith, it is a leap into the unknown. Perhaps this is what Moroni meant when he said that ‘ye receive no witness until after the trial [or testing] of your faith’ (Ether 12:6). That the testing of our faith is experiences that cause us to question and put our faith into action.

This role of doubt in faith can be seen within the great discourse on faith in the Book of Mormon where Alma says that ‘faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things’ and  ‘that if a man  know a thing he hath no cause to believe’ (Alma 32:18,21). Alma seems to be saying that we need to have doubt in order to believe and have faith. As Miguel de Unamuno said ‘Faith that does not doubt is dead faith.’ The reason why doubt adds a vitality to faith is that it stops it from stagnating into creedalism, articles of faith and repetitious phrases that are uttered without really considering what is being said. When people stop using their mind to question and raise doubts then their faith stops being the active and dynamic principle of faith, but rather it becomes belief, and then is not them thinking for themselves but relying on the thinking of others. The type of faith that does not question is then an impoverished faith that is about as nourishing to the soul as a mcdonalds is to the body. The vitality that comes from active engagement of the mind through debate, discussion and dialogue gives more benefit then a simple assent to a prescribed position or belief. Too often then criticims, doubt and questioning are positioned as an opposition to faith and belief, the reality is that they are in fact a vital component of faith, for without it, our faith simply becomes dead and we stagnate and fail to really develop and progress.

It is for this reason that the discourse that quenches debate and discussion, and the ability to look critically at all points of few. To not make some into scared cows, that are innefable and impervious to criticism, means that we hinder our ability to actually have faith in them, we end up instead becoming stupified unthinking drones that follow them out of conditioning rather then a active faith and real trust in them. This is why views such as the following which was taught in 1945 and is often repeated by fanatical ultraconservatives are so dangerous:

When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.

This was principle was also taught by Ezra Taft Benson in his highly controversial talk ‘Fourteen Fundamentals to following the prophet‘ which has been criticised, and when Benson gave it was rebuked by the prophet at the time Spencer W. Kimball for its ultraconservative views and its promotion if the approach of unthinking as promoted in the above excerpt from a 1945 teaching manual. This then seems to undermine the whole concept of freedom of thought and ability to think criticallly which I have argued is neccessary for spiritual maturity and a vibrant faith. Thankfully the passage quoted has been dropped from usage by the church leadership who published a letter to distance themselves from such an radical and extreme fundamentalist view, yet, it does still appear from fanatics who utter the mantra ‘follow the brethren’ and make their life motto to follow every jot and tittle that they dictate. It is my hope that such unthinking mentalities will decline further, that each of us will question to some degree and develop a vibrant faith that comes out from it.

If the final word of the leadership is the end of the discussion then how are we meant to be able to develop the kind of faith without criticism and debate, for it is in the questioning that it really allows one to have faith and not a blind trust in the words of others.  Can we really conceive of a God that simply wants us to accept without intellectual dissent and questioning? The very narrative of the foundation of our church seems to contradict this mentality, for God only revealed himself to Joseph after questioning and dissent. Joseph Smith himself disagreed with such an approach he wanted all to have the liberty to think and believe as they chose. He taught that:

“If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.” History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498 [499] )

The prophet then did not want to compel anyone to not think, or follow uncritically but let them resolve upon it themselves. What happens to often is that the authority of the leaders is imposed upon us as members and we are told that we are to accept it as the final will of God, yet this I think is contrary to the economy of heaven, God does not impose himself or compel us to believe or think in any way, as to do so it would stop us being autonomous free individuals but simply slavish instruments to the will of men who lead the church. I have recently been impressed by this passage from Mikhail Bahuin:

In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others. (What is Authority? Mikhail Bakunin)

This passage says that we should refer to the authority of our leaders, but that this should be a chose that we make after consideration. That the authority should not be imposed upon us, but that we must think for ourselves and consider alternatives in order to fully appreciate their authority. This is not to undermine or question them, it is possible to maintain respect and trust in the person, or people, it is not even to say that they are wrong but simply to have an independance of mind that allows us to make an informed decision. This is much needed for as Bruce C Hafen, BYU president said:

We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction as they come to us. When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light. We should not be deceived by the clear-cut labels others may use to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear.

This entry was published on June 21, 2011 at 11:30 am and is filed under Conformity, Critical, Doubt, Freedom of Thought, Intellectual, Liberty, Mormon, Questioning. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Criticism and Conformity

  1. Pingback: If I Were In Charge: Expand the Meaning of “I’m A Mormon” | Wheat and Tares

  2. This was principle was also taught by Ezra Taft Benson in his highly controversial talk ‘Fourteen Fundamentals to following the prophet‘ which has been criticised, and when Benson gave it was rebuked by the prophet at the time Spencer W. Kimball for its ultraconservative views and its promotion if the approach of unthinking as promoted in the above excerpt from a 1945 teaching manual

    I followed your link, and the quote at the link simply says that President Kimball was concerned that the talk might be misunderstood, not that he rebuked Benson for giving it, or that he disagreed with the content. Fears that a talk might be misunderstood or abused does not equate to a “rebuke.” Please don’t extrapolate beyond what we actually know.

    In addition, the talk was reprinted in the Ensign as the First Presidency message within a year of its delivery. I think that’s fairly compelling evidence that it was endorsed by President Kimball, even if he had fears about people misunderstanding it. I recommend you source check and don’t make claims beyond what the sources actually say.

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