To paraphrase, he told us that sometimes change can't begin until people realize there is even a question to be asked. He spoke of the Iowa Constitution's inclusion of equality in 1857 and explained that the state's original laws were created within the limited experience and perspective of the time. Since that time, people have petitioned the courts to question existing laws or social norms and the courts have responded by revisiting the language of the constitution.
The language of the constitution never changed, but the court's ability to understand a broader, more inclusive definition of equality did. Changes came gradually and decisions were not always popular, but the key was providing a system where questions could be safely and sincerely asked.
These changes could not have happened if passionate, engaged individuals had not questioned the status quo and petitioned the courts to to ask questions they may not have realized needed to be asked. These individuals worked within the system and their questions brought new understanding of cultural and legal interpretations of constitutional language. Consequently, practices and laws were adapted to meet this enlightened standard of equality.
Over the past few weeks, the importance of creating an environment where questions can be safely and sincerely asked has resonated with me. I've considered how this applies to my home life, thinking of how often my children ask a questions that surprise me, challenge the way I view the world, or cause me to reconsider my way of viewing a situation. I've thought of online political debates, often full of statements and opinions, but stymied by a lack of openness to sincere questions and a lost ability to even formulate them.
Most of all, I've considered this idea in relation to religious discourse. I've pondered my belief in a God who expects us to sincerely ponder, ask, and petition, and the necessity of a religious environment that creates a safe place for questions that can lead to enhanced understanding. In my mind, a strong and vibrant religious community celebrates differences, welcomes questions, and recognizes that practices, policies, and social norms can be changed without alternating the language or intent of basic doctrines.
My personal religious community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), sometimes referred to as Mormon, has a fascinating history of individuals who petitioned God with questions others may not have realized needed to be asked. Ours is a history of questions, pleadings, and petitions before the Lord. Mormonism is a story of renegades and pioneers, questioning the status quo, and turning to God to seek revelation to address new questions. If you participate in some of our current religious discourse, however, you might see a disconnect with our history.
In 1923, Elder Stephen L Richards said the following at the 102nd General Conference: "First, I hold
that it is entirely compatible with the genius of the Church to change its procedure and interpretations as changes in thought, education and environment of people from time to time seem to warrant, provided, of course, that no violence is done to the elemental concepts of truth which lie at the basis of our work. I would not discard a practice merely because it is old. Indeed, I believe that one of the tests of worth is the test of time. But on the other hand, I would not hang on to a practice or conception after it has outlived its usefulness in a new and ever-changing and better- informed world." (1)
As faithful members have earnestly prayed over the years, they have received revelation that you could say has created a bottom-up effect. These individuals asked God questions close to their hearts, shared their concerns, and proposed changes. Through this process, they received inspiration and revelation to use their talents to promote change and improvement in the structure of the church, cultural emphasis, and programs. (2)
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Unfortunately, these members can not knock directly on the prophet's door with their questions and
ideas. Sometimes, just as happened in the lower courts of Iowa, local leaders aren't ready to hear their questions. Leaders, comfortable as things are or focused on their own questions, may not have the vocabulary or impetus to ask these questions of God on their own. After prayerful consideration of how to appropriately petition leaders with their concerns, some individuals have organized to bring their questions forward in a calm, respectful manner. These are thoughtful, passionate individuals who have faithfully pondered and prayed. They do not bring their questions lightly and they do so at a personal cost. Some of these faithful members are part of a group called Ordain Women.
I've been shocked and saddened, although not surprised, by some of the unkind and cruel comments made against Ordain Women as they've publicized their efforts to reach like-minded members in a worldwide church. Blogs, comments, and Facebook posts have included calls to repentance, name calling, dismissive comments, condescending and sexist language, and requests for them to leave the church if they don't like how things stand. I find this discourse so discouraging on many levels. Most importantly, I'm afraid they'll take the call to leave seriously and our faith community will suffer for the loss of their faith, passion, and commitment.
Elder Richards addressed the dangers of this type of reaction to questions we might not think/want to ask ourselves: "I fear dictatorial dogmatism, rigidity of procedure and intolerance even more than I fear cigarettes, cards, and other devices the adversary may use to nullify faith and kill religion. Fanaticism and bigotry have been the deadly enemies of true religion in the long past. They have made it forbidding, shut it up in cold grey walls of monastery and nunnery, out of sunlight and fragrance of the growing world. They have garbed it in black and then in white, when in truth it is neither black nor white, any more than life is black or white, for religion is life abundant, glowing life, with all its shades, colors and hues, as the children of men reflect in the patterns of their lives the radiance of the Holy Spirit in varying degrees. " (1)
Ordination may not be the immediate or even eventual outcome of the petition from this group, but I think it is essential that individuals who ask new questions are not silenced, belittled, or shamed. I believe our religious community's response to questions such as these, and the petitioners' response in turn, speak to our readiness to receive increased understanding of truth and enhance our religious experience.
If the LDS Church is to remain alive with revelation and continue as a vibrant, growing, world-wide church for all, we have to open ourselves to sincere discourse. Just because something doesn't burn within you as a question, this does not mean it shouldn't be asked, isn't important, or is dangerous. We cannot be so ingrained in our ideology, cultural norms, or comfort zone that we can't hear or derisively dismiss important questions that are not personally on our minds or hearts.