The Art of Good Questions

11323364_350d294417In a recent interview late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien and musician Jack White discussed how their Catholic upbringings shaped how they accept praise. This topic quickly gave way to White discussing the importance of questioning one’s beliefs. He said to Conan,

“If you are raised in any kind of faith or beliefs or even political beliefs you get to a point where you are an adult and you have to assess how much of that you want to still exist in your brain and dictate how you live in your life. And religion is the toughest of all of those because if you really have questions that reach outside the bounds of the religion that you were raised in you’ve really got problems… You’ve got to determine, as you’re older what of those guilt trips or the lessons or anything that you learned that were beautiful or terrible. Which of it do you listen to and which of it do you keep going in your life.”

I do not know where Jack White stands with his Catholic upbringing or where this questioning has left his faith. White’s music is filled with Scriptural imagery and at one point he was enrolled to attend seminary, but backed out because they wouldn’t allow guitar amplifiers in the dorms. Regardless, White is right, there that there comes a point life and faith where the need to ask deep questions emerges.

Unsettling questions are not necessarily a bad thing. They can shepherd us on our spiritual journey, help make sense of the world and our role in it. This concept of good questions is the focal point of Matthew Lee Anderson’s book The End of Our Exploring. In this book Anderson asks, “What does a good question look like, what does it mean to ask good questions, and how does asking questions guide our spiritual exploration?” He explores how Christians should ask questions and how they should help others seek answers. Anderson argues that questioning is an integral aspect of faith, that  “A faith that is not oriented toward understanding is a faith in name only.”

So then what is a good question? According to Anderson good questions are questions that bring us closer to the image of God. They are questions that “demand inquiring in such a way that the inquiry leads ourselves and others into a deeper understanding of truth and into gratitude for the gracious kindness of God.” Questions bring us closer to God by challenging our presuppositions, by creating a tension between what we know currently and what is true. If our questions are aimed toward truth then we will gain true answers: Answers that will allow us to grow as people made in God’s image.

Nevertheless, there are times when questions can do more harm than good. The sources and quality of our questions affect the quality of the answers we receive. For example questions can carry a destructive agenda, or create problems if they are ripped out of the context of their original asking. These are questions that have no goal other than to ‘see through’ the subject at hand. C.S. Lewis pointed out the problem with these types of questions is that “the whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” There are times when these dangers are unbeknownst to us, so it is important to reflect on our questions before asking them.

A trustworthy and familiar community, a healthy context, is a key aspect of asking good questions. Anderson suggests that a small group at church is a prime example. The small group offers a close-knit community of trust,  “Where we [should] learn to be comfortable with not knowing what to say about Scripture rather than grabbing at the nearest clichés to get through it.” Pursing questioning is not best for the blog or conference setting, where self-absorption can prevent the asking of good questions. We need a local community of established relationships,  where a group who knows us can understand our motives and humble our intentions.

One of Anderson’s main points is that the Church has dropped the ball in terms of providing a place for honest questions. Instead of welcoming questions churches tend to bypass difficult issues and favor simple applications of Scripture. Skipping difficult questions creates toxic communal taboos. Thomas Merton writes of the danger of not asking necessary questions in his book No Man is an Island,

“Questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions – because they might turn out to have no answers. One of the moral diseases of the church comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask”

This is an important lesson. The avoidance of unsettling questioning is dangerous. If a community does not practice the act of questioning then any question can appear subversive and destructive. Defensiveness will become the only answer. Soon the all-encompassing Christian bubble emerges, a bubble that is prone to pop once it is exposed to any outside elements.

But more importantly Anderson stresses the discussion of one’s questions with people who may not agree you. He states, “Self-criticism in movements is a sign of health and confidence, when it is undertaken with a desire to understand and to grow.” The Church needs non-Christian friends to keep it on its toes. Non-Christian friends open a window to the actual needs of the neighbor and the culture at large.

For all of The End of Our Exploring’s good points I can’t help be feel that a person in the midst of severe questioning and doubt might feel like they have simply received a list of instructions—a step-by-step process for dealing with questions that come naturally to us. Anderson calls on us to reform our inquiries through “learning to ask questions along with Scripture,” which may be a great thing for someone learning how to question, but for those who have yet to have their questions answered it may seem patronizing. His recommendation to hold to the church’s liturgies and creeds throughout one’s questions may fall deaf on the ears of those questioning those liturgies.

However, the distinction that Anderson makes between doubt and questioning should be a comfort to those experiencing serious questions for the first time. He points out that doubt is a “state or condition, while questioning is a pursuit.” The two may seem similar but questioning comes from a place of faith albeit possibly a “faith in a minor key.” This difference reminded me of David Bazan’s album Curse your Branches—where he poses his own honest questions and doubts in his faith. On the title track Bazan sings,

“Oh, falling leaves should curse their branches for not letting them decide where they should fall and not letting them refuse to fall at all”

Here, Bazan gets at the frustration involved with the questioning that seems out of the individual’s control. We are not completely rational beings with the ability to pick and choose the things we question and feel. Questioning is natural and part of the journey of faith. When it does come it is best to address them honestly and seek how they can lead us into a deeper love for the truth and God.

Adam Thies is the Content and Program Coordinator at The Washington Institute. He comes to the DC area as part of The Fellows Program at The Falls Church Anglican.

Photo Creditmeg hourihan

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