Michael Austin is Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of English at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, a member of the Dialogue Board of Directors, and a friend of the blog.
“CHRISTIANA began to knock . . . she knocked and knocked again. But instead of any that answered, they all thought that they heard as if a dog came barking upon them. A dog, and a great one too; and this made the women and children afraid. Nor durst they for awhile to knock any more, for fear the mastiff should fly upon them. . . . . Knock they durst not, for fear of the dog; go back they durst not, for fear that the keeper of that gate should espy them as they so went, and should be offended with them. At last they thought of knocking again, and knocked more vehemently than they did at the first. Then said the keeper of the gate, “Who is there?
—John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part II
Even by the standards of 1678, the first volume of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is hostile to women. When the hero, Christian, discovers that he is among the elect, he turns his back on his wife and sets out to find salvation on his own. Though The Pilgrim’s Progress book went on to become the bestselling book of the century (and of the next two centuries after that), readers expressed great dismay over the fate of Christian’s wife.
But Bunyan changed his mind. Six years later he wrote a sequel, Pilgrim’s Progress Part II, chronicling the salvation journey of Christiana. Unlike Christian, who experiences an irresistible call to grace, Christiana sets out with her children to find salvation without an invitation. When she comes to the gate that begins the journey, she is denied entrance. So she knocks. When nobody answers, she knocks again. And she keeps knocking harder and harder until she is finally admitted. In the terms of Bunyan’s theology, she wills her own election because she refuses to take no for an answer.
The scriptures are full of people knocking on God’s door until they are answered: Jacob wrestles with the angel (Genesis 32: 23-32), Zipporah talks God out of killing Moses (Exodus 4:18-31), Enos prays until God blesses his people (Enos 1). God expects us to ask for stuff, and he “giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not” (James 1:5). It is never wrong to ask God a question. We can always knock at the gate.
This is even true when God says no. The Book of Job (about which I have recently written at some length) is the story of a man who believes that he has been treated unfairly by God. He complains bitterly about God’s injustice and demands that God answer his questions. His friends—we call them “the Comforters”—turn against him. They accuse him of blasphemy and defend the justice of God in the most vigorous terms possible. In their defense of the God, they turn away from their friend.
When God finally does answer Job, we discover that Job has been wrong all along. He was not being punished; he was simply working with an inadequate definition of justice. God explains this to Job, and Job accepts the answer. And then God does something remarkable. He rebukes His staunchest defenders (Job 42:7). They, not Job, are the ones who misunderstood God—even though they were unwavering in His defense. God didn’t need their help to win an argument; He needed them to comfort their struggling friend.
This is all a roundabout way of saying some things about the Ordain Women movement and about the news that its leader, Kate Kelly, has been summoned to a disciplinary council to answer charges of apostasy.
The Ordain Women movement has been knocking at the gate for some time, often loudly and not always with the deference that Latter-day Saints expect towards their leaders. But they have also raised issues of real concern to thousands of women in the Church. They are asking questions in public that have been asked politely in private for many years—only to be dismissed at the local level by priesthood holders who imagine that they know what is best for the sisters.
According to LDS theology, the answers to these questions can only be revealed through prophets of the Church, to whom they have no direct line of communication. That is why they knock. It is the only line of communication open to them for talking to the people they need to talk to.
Let me be very clear here. I do not know if women will ever be ordained to the priesthood. It seems very possible to me that the male-only priesthood in the LDS Church is an artifact of nineteenth century, when just about every religious organization had a male-only priesthood. But that is my human perspective. I acknowledge that there could be fundamental universal laws in play that make female ordination a cosmic impossibility. Like Job, I lack the perspective to understand everything that God does.
But I do know that we are allowed to ask him why He does things. And we are allowed to ask Him to change His mind. Like Christiana, we can knock until our fingers are bloody, and we can cry until our voices are raw. God can handle it. He will either open the door or he won’t, but He is not diminished by our requests. Those who are knocking at the gate have taken upon themselves the difficult and necessary task of wrestling with an angel. It is an ancient and honorable occupation that sometimes works out and sometimes does not. But, on balance, it has caused the arc of history to bend a bit more quickly towards justice.
Gate knocking and angel wrestling are tough jobs. Those of us on the sidelines have it much easier. All we have to do is decide what kind of Comforters we are going to be. We can be like Job’s Comforters and criticize the knockers, telling ourselves that, in doing so, we are defending God from those who would disrespect Him and disrupt His church. But we should keep in mind that God saved his harshest rebukes for those who invoked their religion against their suffering friend.