Asking and Answering Questions
Excerpts from a talk given by Scott Ferguson, Dept. of Religion, BYU-Idaho
The quality of our instruction can be measured by the level of inquiry it produces in our students. One way to measure the quality of inquiry is to observe the depth of the questions that flow from our teaching and assigned work. Knowledge gained through our own inquiry is more likely to facilitate understanding than learning not preceded with similar effort. Understanding born of inquiry generally produces longer-term growth. Learning that results from inquiry is not necessarily measured by having access to the right answer.
What is the value of knowing the right answers to the wrong questions? Rather it is recognizing the correct question to ask at the right time.
Richard Paul notes: “Every intellectual field is born out of a cluster of questions to which answers are either needed or highly desirable. Furthermore, every field of study stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously.”
Instructional models designed to inspire inquiry and questions are dependent on the exercise of students’ agency. Agency coupled with inquiry will always produce greater understanding. In inquiry-based instruction, a student’s inspired question becomes a summation of understanding as well as an invitation to expand understanding. I cannot expand that which I don’t understand in the first place.
All too often we want new knowledge without any effort on our part. This seems to be a universal characteristic of too many of our students. Perhaps we should share in the lesson Oliver Cowdery received from the Lord: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right … Now, if you had known this you could have translated” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8-10).
Oftentimes our present knowledge is biased with self-deceit, and challenging it can be difficult. I cannot even ask an inspired question until I possess enough information or willingness to challenge this safe, inside boundary. A person’s bias might be as simple as: “This information isn’t that important.” Or it might be more complex: “If idea x is true, then I must be wrong about y.” This, I believe, is one of the major duties I have as an instructor of the scriptures—motivate students to ponder and search the scriptures sincerely enough to willingly make adjustments as a result of inquiry.
At the moment my inquiry produces new and exciting questions — inspired questions — I am inviting new knowledge; I am willingly expanding When inquiring, we must discern the right questions. Learning how to ask and answer inspired questions at truly inspired moments enhances our students’ ability to become inquirers.
To the prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord said, “As often as you have inquired, I have given you knowledge.” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:14). If we are not actively seeking all knowledge, we become careless and casual in the inquiry process. Over time we become too much like the individual Winston Churchill spoke of when he said: “Occasionally he stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”5 Too many of our students have become casual truth seekers. I am fearful that Latter-day Saint culture has become one of talking, talking, and still more talking, but little or no inquiry.
An Impostor to Inquiry
The Book of Mormon provides a wonderful key to recognizing instruction born of the spirit (see also 1 Corinthians 2:10-14). The ideal teacher/learner relationship was described in this manner: “The priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal” (Alma 1:26). That is, equal in the process of inquiry, each is able to expand or stretch the boundaries of his or her learning according to the several abilities and desires for learning.
Let me suggest a workable approach that I have found.
- First, define what “true” means. What do you mean when you ask “is the church true?” or “is the Book of Mormon true”? You have to be more specific and have a definite question in mind. For example, is the story of the Book of Mormon factually true from a historical standpoint? Is the story of the translation of the Book of Mormon (Gold Plates, Urim & Thummim) true from a historical standpoint? Are the principles taught in the Book of Mormon really going to bring a person closer to God? Are there unique principles taught in the Book of Mormon that are not taught elsewhere, or same principles with a fresh perspective, or nothing new?
- Second, you have to study out the question to the best of your ability in your own mind and form a conclusion, a proposition, or a hypothesis.
- Third, you are now ready to take that proposition to the Lord: “Lord, I have asked this question, studied it out, and this is the best answer I can come up with. Is this answer correct?”
- Fourth, listen for the answer. It may come immediately. It make take a couple of tries. Sometimes, the Lord answers you before you even form the words in your mind. I sometimes get this, and by this, I know that I am really on to something.
- Fifth, the Spirit only bears witness to TRUTH. The Spirit testifies if something is true. The Spirit does not testify that something is false. If you bring a up a proposition that it false, you may receive a stupor of thought, which means you won’t be able to hold a clear thought in your mind, or you might even forget what you asked for. Or you might receive nothing. It is only if the proposition is true that you receive a confirmation.
- Sixth, what kind of confirmation? The burning in the bosom, or something stronger. This is not an emotion. This is a higher tone or vibration than an emotion. It is more like intuition. Joseph Smith said that you will feel intelligence flow into you. This has happened to me on occasion. I start getting all sorts of new ideas I never thought of before. I get different insights into my original question. I sometimes get the feeling that I could ask God any question at that particular moment and receive an answer.
- Seventh, God told Oliver Cowdery this same process, essentially. He said it was how the Spirit of Revelation works. He said this was the spirit by which Moses led the children of Israel. You may even feel the urge to write down your impressions, while you are feeling the spirit. If you do, then that’s the same process by which Joseph Smith, and other church leaders received revelation. Save what you receive. If it contains predictions, you may notice them being fulfilled in course of time.
- Eight, commit yourself to follow whatever answer you receive. You may ask a second time for confirmation, but don’t keep second-guessing your answer, and don’t ignore it. If you make a practice of non-commitment, the Spirit is grieved and will withdraw from you.
- Nine, if you receive a positive answer, probe a little to see whether the Spirit is confirming all of your answer, or just part of your answer. Sometimes, the Spirit may just tell you that you are getting warmer.
- Ten, in some traditions, the Holy Ghost is considered to be a female. I find it is helpful to consider her a female, and to court her as you would a female. You are on a date with her and you want to bring your best self and treat her with respect. In one Hebrew tradition, God is saying that he has to leave, but he will leave his (female) companion (the Spirit) behind, to remain with us, as an assurance that he will return.