On Asking Questions and Having Answers

A friend of mine often says, “I am tired of the people who think that they have all the answers. I think it is more important to ask the right questions, than to have the answers.’

When I hear him say this, something in me reacts against what he is saying, so I thought it would be worth exploring the issue to see if there is any light to be shed on the subject.

The context of this conversation has a piece of history. My friend’s early history is in the Diocese of Sydney and this form of so called ‘Evangelical’ Christianity has a stance toward the Faith which looks like they are saying ‘We have the answers.’ If you look at the reflection from a couple of weeks ago you can see the kinds of ‘answers’ that this kind of Christianity thinks that it has and expects people sign up to, like “The divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” So in this case I asked “Yes, but what about the role of the Spirit in matters of faith and conduct? What about the role of interpretation in Scripture? Who has that right and what is a correct interpretation?” “Can all scripture be harmonised, or are there multiple witnesses to Christ which are not able to be harmonised without damage to one or other of them?” On it goes. For the people who wrote this document, the answers to these questions are already decided, but more, the raising of these questions in itself is seen as a sign of unfaithfulness, and a signal that one does not belong to their group.

This kind of ‘answer’ represents a kind of ‘closing down’ of any issue. The aim of this process is not to answer a question, but to decide, by testing a person’s answers, who is in and who is out of the group. In the asking of questions, I am trying to keep issues and membership of groups open. That for me is one difference. I think that my friend is saying “I am trying to be open and to embrace as much and as many people as I can. I see this other group as being closed, and as excluding many for the sake of knowing who is ‘in their group.’

The process of ‘fixing answers’ also has to do with the very acknowledging of another persons being. I remember the first meeting of a ‘Gospel Reflection’ group that we started. Each person said in turn what they hoped to get out of the group. One person said ‘Well, I’ve come with a lot of questions.’ Before I could say ‘That’s interesting. What kinds of questions do you want to ask?’, another member of the group said ‘Yes but Jesus is the answer to every question.’ This ‘answer’ had the same effect as the ‘answer’ above. It closed down the speaker, denying their reality, and tried to replace it with the reality of the other person.

Now to say ‘I am more interested in questions than answers’ is itself an answer. I want to say (another answer!) that the first response to anyone ought to be one of openness and acknowledgement. Here I agree with my friends answer, that openness and questions are more important than answers per se. That feeling of acknowledgement is what we are meant to get in the first year of life: a sense that the universe acknowledges our being and will respond faithfully to us. To have ‘answers’ that prematurely close down questions, that do not acknowledge the being of another who is opening themselves up in the form of questioning, does violence to the mystery of loving relationship.

Here is another story that I find helpful. In the Anglican lectionary, there are a lot of readings throughout the year that touch on many aspects of Christian life. As a priest, I was finding that from week to week the theme would shift from one thing to another, but they were so big, these themes, that no sooner had we begun to explore one of them, then we’d be moving onto the next, with the result that nothing was explored in depth, and people could avoid doing anything in the knowledge that ‘Next week there will be something else from up front.’ With such a multitude of themes it was hard for me to offer any genuine support to those who wanted to explore the faith. So I decided to limit the themes on which I concentrated. I thought “The baptismal life is about ‘Dying-Entombment-Rising.’ “ “Maybe if I concentrate on this process then we will have a chance to explore it in may different places in life.” Now this is not a bad kernel of what the Gospel is about, but it is by no means the only legitimate form of expressing the faith. It is ‘an answer’ but not necessarily ‘the only answer.’ But in committing myself to this way of presenting the Gospel and in inviting others on a journey of dying-entombment-rising, I was making a commitment to something while being aware that the thing to which I was committed was not the whole answer, but enough of a one with which to make a start.

I do not think it is possible to run a Church on questions alone. (Here is another ‘answer’) I think I need the confidence to commit myself to some things and to pursue them. This involves a commitment to being open, and to helping people to ask their questions. This involves helping people (including myself) to be committed to the journey with Christ, and to seeing where it takes us. There is a difference between having answers, and needing to be committed to something.

One does not need all the answers before one is committed. In fact, unless I have some answers that inform my commitments, other people are going to make commitments for me. Answers may be provisional, but I cannot avoid making commitments, however unsure I am.

The other thing that I like about the ‘dying-entombment-rising’ metaphor is that it allows for different phases in life. There are ways of being faithful that involve dying to old thoughts and habits. There are periods of uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ where one has to trust God for the process, and there are times of new life and growth where one can flow into the world in new life and confidence: times of commitment and activity. Not everyone is at the same place at the same time. The process of making people ‘sign up to’ a set of answers denies this process of being in Christ. But this does not mean either that I want to privilege ’letting go’ and ‘not knowing’ over ‘commitment and confidently flowing into life.’

What is important to me (another answer) is that I am committed to accompanying everyone on their faith journey if they will have me, and that I will be able to be a good companion in times of letting go, times of not knowing and in times of new life, where I have decided on a thing or two on which I can base my commitments.

For me this is the difference between being a ‘Church’ where we act as a group of disciples on ‘the Way’ together, and a ‘store-front for a doctrine’ where what is important is the assent to a given, pre-determined set of answers.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Religion and Society, Weekly Reflections at St. John's Montreux and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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