There are very few words by which I claim to live. But these, offered by Hugh B. Brown in what must have been a moment of absolute God-given clarity, serve as the closest thing to a credo I maintain:
“More thinking is the antidote for […] wrong thinking.”
Perhaps the sentiment is best understood in context. In professing the importance of an engaged mind, President Brown simultaneously acknowledged this risk of deep thinking: “one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong.” He then offered the above assurance, that if we persist through wrong thinking with more thinking, eventually we’ll get it right.
Rarely have I needed that wisdom so much as the first time I left home. At fifteen, I managed my way into a New England prep school I had no business attending. Neither my pedigree nor my parents’ bank account could explain my presence there. And my academic record wasn’t impressive enough to compensate for either shortcoming. If asked to wager, I’d say it was my admissions interview that made me a contender. My interviewer—who, by critical fortune, was also the school’s Head of Financial Aid—took a liking to me, advocated for me, and subsequently got me near-full financial assistance. So, to boarding school I went.
If I didn’t know I was out of my league before arriving, I learned as much during orientation when a fellow sophomore rubbed her aching throat and said, “Ugh, my trachea!” That strange moment was a catalyst for one of the most important decisions in my personal development. There I was, a kid raised on orange Tang and classic rock, surrounded by classmates who’d clearly done nothing but dab their mouth with a cloth napkin and ask to be excused so they could study scientific charts of their anatomy. The desire to belong apparently knowing no exception, I found myself tempted to pretend I was one of them. Until it occurred to me 1) nobody should be ashamed of Queen, and 2) if I were willing to let my ignorance show and ask enough questions, I might graduate with an honest-to-goodness education. Maybe even some legitimacy! Having stores of unfounded confidence (thank you, Mom), I chose to become a questioner.
Despite all the good which has come from that decision, I have hesitated to be a questioner in some contexts, especially within my religion. Among my biggest worries is that searching for answers to difficult doctrinal questions, or questions concerning certain religious practices, might undo me. I have feared the answers might be too complicated or too painful. Or all-consuming. Or devastatingly inadequate. And if I couldn’t land on satisfactory answers, what then?
My guess is we both know some fear is justified.
Not all questions are answerable in this life, not even all the important ones. And not all available answers are easy to swallow.
There are several people I love, whose minds and characters I respect, who have summoned the courage to ask the hard questions and subsequently left their faith. Risk has a hand in the pursuit of knowledge.
I have chosen to ask the questions anyway. There are many reasons why, but I’ve found these most compelling: I believe a stunted mind stunts one’s utility to God, that an uneducated faith is a fragile faith, and that God wants us to be critical consumers of information. In his memoir, President Brown wrote:
It has been my experience that as I “drive [my] faith down through that surface soil,” whatever “wrong thinking” I encounter can be corrected by “more thinking.” And, for me, the majority of that thinking occurs while asking productive questions. I’ve marked up the margins of books and filled notebooks with hows and whys, what-ifs and if-thens. I’ve asked these questions aloud to those whose intellect and judgment I admire. I’ve placed them before God. In all of this, I have felt Him championing and assisting me as I examine error and get closer to truth, not merely making allowances for my questions because I am weak or incomplete, but showing the pleasure of an Inventor whose creation is acting according to its design.
This kind of questioning has brought me ideas and knowledge I could not have obtained by merely evaluating information already in my possession or even by acquiring new information (though each is crucial to the searching process). I believe God is particularly willing to reward those who do not seek merely to accept truth, but who seek to discern and earn a conviction of that truth. I believe it is a risk He intended us to take so we could become more like Him, and I believe there is always hope for those who persist.
If you are unsure of important spiritual matters, please know you’re not the only classic rock kid at boarding school. I’m still that kid, just more willing to own it. Each of us, by intention, is a student and not a master. Knowing this has made all the difference for me. And just as my school peers turned out to be far more relatable than I first imagined, I have found such to be the case in every group of which I’ve been a part. If you can muster the courage to let your ignorance show and ask your questions aloud, my guess is you’ll find an unexpected number of allies, not the least of which will be your Father in Heaven.
Small Seed Copy Editor: Megan Grant
Janna is a foodie, a lover of all things New England, and mother of three precocious children. She and her family reside near Washington, D.C. where she studies the social sciences and teaches a class to women in her congregation.