Thursday, January 26, 2017

Better Questions

I was born with a question formed on my lips.

Being a questioner has made life both harder and far more interesting. Having grown up in The Church, I first heard the Bible before I could read the Bible. Both at home and at church, I was taught Bible stories and, for as long as I could remember, I found myself perplexed by the story that unfolded. My early questions were:

Why would God create that tree in the first place if He knew Adam and Eve were going to eat from it?
Why didn't he cast Satan to an uninhabited planet instead of Earth?
After Cain kills Abel, why is Cain afraid that others will want to take his life, too? Where did those people come from?
Did God have parents? Then where did He come from?

Both my mother and my Sunday School teachers began to grow tired of my questions, either out of an inability to answer them or because it took time to do so, and they often grew impatient with me asking them. As I have written before, this made me believe that there was something wrong with asking questions in the first place and I began to internalize them, causing me to often (and to this day) feel isolated from the very church I am supposed to feel a part of. It's also the reason why I, as a parent, have been open to hold my own kids' questions and, when I taught Sunday School myself, took each child's questions seriously and never dismissed inquiry.

But why has The Church so often been either dismissive or fearful of those who question when it is clearly a part of the scriptures?

In the Old Testament, there are many figures of the faith who questioned - and questioned God.

Abraham asked, "Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?"
Moses asked, "O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people?"
The prophet Jeremiah asked, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?"
And then there's the book of Job, which asks the hardest and most penetrating of questions about the nature of human suffering.

Unlike Christianity, Judaism has an entire tradition of questioning. The She'elot Uteshuvot, a classic work of rabbinical literature, literally means "questions and replies."  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote, "In the yeshiva, the home of traditional Talmudic learning, the highest compliment a teacher can give a student is 'You raise a good objection'."  Part of rabbinical training is knowing the scriptures so well that when the rabbi asks the student a question, the student responds with their own question that not only shows they understand the rabbi's question, but that they can expand on it with an insightful and thought-provoking question of their own.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have all the answers."

In Judaism, they even have three types of questioning:
1. Chokhmah (wisdom): this is scientific, historical or sociological inquiry
2. Questions about the Torah
3. Prophetic - questions about justice

And we have to understand that Christ was raised in this very tradition and used it in his own ministry. Jesus often responded to questions with his own:

When the rich young ruler asks, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus asks, "Why do you call me good?"
When Pharisees ask about paying taxes, Jesus takes a coin and asks, "Whose portrait is this?"

Or Jesus starts off with his own question of, "Who do you say that I am?"

They understood that questions are not only healthy but necessary to faith. Questions that are asked because one genuinely wants to learn helps one to grow. These are not questions meant to reject or ridicule, dismiss or doubt, but to go deeper than the mere surface of things.

To ask a question is to trust that there is an answer, that there is meaning to everything.

Science also understands this. Asking questions is the single most important habit for scientists, inventors and innovators. All great scientific thought started with the childlike question of, "Why?"
Sir Isaac Newton asked, "Why does an apple fall from a tree but why does the moon not fall into the Earth?"
Albert Einstein asked, "What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?"

Breakthroughs often come from such deep questioning and thinking. In science, they believe that questions are more important that answers because, if one formulates the right question, then the answer either becomes obvious or can be worked out. Science encourages questioning and knows that to be inquisitive is to expand scientific thought and theories.  Thomas Louis Berger said, "The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge."

Children are filled with questions, which is why, in part, I believe Christ told us to become as little children or that such is the kingdom of heaven.

Who fears questions?

Dictators and authoritarian figures, of which God is neither. God will not get knocked off His throne by our asking; though we may very well get knocked off our own preconceptions and misconceptions by His answer. Don't believe me? Just look at Job. How do you respond when God asks if you were there at the beginning of all creation? Humbling is putting it mildly.

Too often we falsely believe that scriptures were given to us so that we would have all the answers, but I believe it was given to us so that we might formulate better questions. Questions that shape our daily lives and how we respond to the world and to others. "Am I my brother's keeper?" "Am I a good Samaritan?"

To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but a lack of depth.

Yes, questions make many uncomfortable, but Christ showed us that faith is never meant to be comfortable. We are never meant to be settled and sure, but constantly striving and struggling and wrestling towards that Divine Mystery.

"I wish," Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, "that we worried more about asking the right questions instead of being so hung up on finding answers."

And I heartily agree. Good questions, better questions, not only "disturb" our "universe" (to quote L'Engle) but it also expands it for us because they make us thing grander, larger, more about the very nature of our Creator and why we were created.  When we do, we will find that, most often, that instead of watching our faith crumble beneath the questions, it becomes magnified by the sheer grandness and grandeur of a God who is bigger than our thoughts and the very universes that we know so very little about.

God does not fear my questions, which is why He often has them in the Bible. He welcomes the spiritual audacity to ask. Why? Because what parent doesn't welcome their children's curiosity when they ask us about ourselves? I love to hear my boys questions about what they heard in church or read in the Bible because it means they are thinking about it and not just ignoring or accepting it mentally without understanding. They are asking, "Who is this God we serve? What does this God want for me? How am I supposed to live my life? How am I to treat others?" Questions are a part of real spiritual maturity. It is growing into the faith.

That is why I pray, for them and for myself, that each day provides the opportunity to form better questions.

1 comment:

  1. Elliott, I'm exactly the opposite of you: I was a very compliant kid who just accepted what I was told. I turned into a questioner later in life, and I'm glad I eventually did. I agree with you about how great it is when our kids question. I remember my daughter coming tearfully to me after a talk with her youth leader, to ask me about hell: was she going there? were her friends going there? etc. (If a teen is afraid of hell after a talk with her youth leader, that's a problem, but that's an issue for another day). After I reassured her about God's love and mercy and told her that there were many different views within Christianity about afterlife issues, I suggested she read Love Wins for Teens (I knew it was in our local library). She said, "But [youth leader's name] doesn't like Rob Bell!" I told her that her youth leader didn't have to approve what she read and that she was always free to explore and question. If you're not questioning, you're not learning and growing.