Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The forgotten art of asking questions

"Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, 'Why, why, why?' Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand."

Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle

I’ll be honest with you, I never actually read any Vonnegut. Its one of those things I’ve always wanted to do, like memorize some Shakespeare, but never got round to actually doing. However I once read an article about him and this quote was in it and I thought that was one of the truest things I had ever read. Questioning is in our nature, its something we are born with (and something parents work very hard to get out of us). I have always had a hard time buying into claims of comprehension, especially when it came to profoundly deep and mystic things like spirituality, God and the Bible. How can you possibly read Genesis, Job or even the Psalms and not have some very difficult questions in your mind? Yet in the modern day church we seem to have a processed, pre-packaged, microwave-ready answer to every hard question, every difficult passage. I have to confess though that I never found those to be very filling or nutritious. For all their promises, they never seemed to actually satisfy my questions even a little and so I am constantly amazed at how many people do claim to be utterly satisfied by them! It seems so unnatural, so surreal to take one of these glib, shallow answers and claim that it gives enough understanding to still the hunger of the hard question! Especially because a lot of the time this so called “understanding” is not really understanding at all, it’s more like escape. It really is like the bird landing or the tiger sleeping – its cessation, not fulfillment.

The general opinion among the atheists of the world is that Christians are not very intelligent people. I very much disagree with that but I can’t really blame them for thinking that. What other conclusion can you logically draw about a group of people who would willingly dismiss facts, evidence and even sometimes reality in favour of their faith? We sometimes act as if we have all the answers and have it all figured out but the (glaringly obvious) truth is that we don’t. Not even close. While we frequently accuse everyone else of blindly following the status quo we have made a virtue of blind obedience. We discourage too many questions and even vilify those who won’t stop asking them. But it was not always thus…

While the church may seem to have an issue with people asking questions, God never did. The Bible is filled with questions, hard questions. Just read Psalms, or Job, in fact read any part of it you’d like! People questioned people and most importantly they questioned God and the best part is God didn’t smite anyone for it! Why should He? God Himself seems to be awfully fond of asking questions too! See questions are so important and so good that I am tempted to call them holy. Seeing how God is fond of using them too I don’t think I would be that wrong to do so.

Of course we don’t think of questions that way. We act as if questions are a necessary nuisance, a hurdle we have to jump to access the information we want. So we tend to do it only if we have to, often content with letting someone else do the asking so that we may simply partake of the answer. We tend to discourage over-usage, because questions have this dark quality about them – they can be dangerous! They can take us places we weren’t planning on going, expose flaws, even go as far as to disrupt our way of life completely!! This fear is immensely silly of course, because those happen to be some of the best things about questions! We just forgot the art of the question. If you understand why it’s art, you’ll understand why it’s holy.

If questions were nothing but ways to get information, why would God – who is supposed to know everything already – ask so many questions? Questions can give you so much more than information if you let them. Questions can take you deeper, beyond knowledge and right into understanding. Wisdom even. They can keep us from stagnating in the shallowness and remind us of the riches and the mystery of life and everything in it. It can keep us from simply accepting the most obvious and show us level after level and facet after facet of the truth. The more we ask, the more we think, the more we are able to see. One of my favourite qualities personally is that questions break us right out of groupthink and allows us to be individuals, following our conscience in matters of importance. How many atrocities are committed by people who ask questions? How many by people who refuse to?

I don’t think questions are scary, I think people who never ask them are.

However, when it comes to the fine art of asking questions, just firing off questions like a four year old has about as much art to it as the finger-painting of a four year old. I was on a forum regarding the (never ending) Creationism vs Evolution debate and the creationist on the board was asking questions at 200 km/h – according to him his “pointed questions” were exposing all the weaknesses in the Theory of Evolution. It wasn’t. It was patently clear that he had no desire to learn or listen to anyone, he was just trying to sound smart – he ended up looking ignorant. There really is no point to asking questions if you aren’t planning on listening. If you want to see a good example of questions as an art form, look no further than Jesus. In church we are taught that Jesus is the One with the answers. However, when you read the Gospels it looks more like He was the One with the questions. Just look at how he responded – “Who gave you authority to teach?” His answer: “Who gave John the Baptist authority?” “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” His answer: “Who’s image is on this coin?” See what I mean about getting past the obvious? Simple yes or no questions may never take you where artful questions can. At times He may have seemed like Captain Obvious. He would go up to blind people or a lame man waiting for healing and ask “What do you want?” Scratch that, He seemed like Field Marshall Obvious! Of course He wasn’t. Because when you think about it, that is an immensely deep question to ask of anyone. I have been wondering about that question all week and I still don’t know how I would answer if He asked me

Like all good rabbi’s, Jesus had the art of questions mastered. (As I understand it that was a major part of learning the Torah – learning how to ask questions.) Sadly though, we aren’t really trained in the art of questions these days. Still, I think a good first step to getting back there would be to let the questions back into our lives. Let them expose our weaknesses so that we may become stronger, let them expose our foolishness so that we may become wiser. Let them expand our horizons and make us wiser. We should let them take us out of the mundane and into the mystery.

Sure, doing this may stop us from living in the warm glow of relative ignorance. Questions can be scary. You might end up with more questions than answers. You may find out you don't really know as much as you thought. You may even have to start answering yourself and others with the dreaded "I don't know"... But if your faith can’t stand to be questioned, do you really have faith at all? If what you know cannot be questioned, how sure are you of what you know? If my visits to the surgery ward have taught me one thing it’s this: It’s far better to wake up screaming than not to wake up at all.


RandomSue said...

Beautifully written. Gives me much to ponder...which is the point I suppose. The best answer I have for the Jesus question is, freedom. I want true freedom in every way.

Eugene said...

What does true freedom in every way look like?

RandomSue said...

I actually considered editing my comment after I wrote those words.

For me, that is the biggest question of all.

GumbyTheCat said...

Most Christians ask plenty of questions when they read the Bible. Fundamentalists, however, don't. They have convinced themselves they have discernment, which when applied to biblical interpretation is a word that drives me crazy. This supremely arrogant attitude is what drives them to lash out at non-Christians and what they consider "cafeteria Christians" for the mortal sin of professing what a particular passage means to them. After all, literal interpretation of the Bible is a cornerstone of fundamentalism. However, in discussion forums, they always supply much interpretation of their own, interpretation that could not have possibly come from scripture! When normal people interpret the Bible, they arrive at that deeply personal interpretation after asking a lot of questions of both themselves and God. However, when a fundie does the exact same thing, it's not "interpretation", it's "discernment". This implies a special wisdom that only uber-Christians can achieve, and allows for no questioning. You can bet I go on the attack whenever I see the snotty "d-word" in a fundie's post!

Nice to have you back my friend.

TPluckyT said...

Years ago in high school I read most everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote . . . I don't remember that many details, but I do remember realizing that his Science Fiction made left me pondering life far more than many other writers.

Questioning is very healthy (as you've pointed out). I think one reason many people fall short in this area (including me) is because we are so dead set on sharing our own opinion on any given matter.

Eugene said...

Gumby I couldn't agree with you more on the whole "discernment" thing! Makes even the most cockamamie idea completely bulletproof because "God showed me".

Even though I focused on just the spiritual here I think this should be applied everywhere - we should question our pastors, our politicians, our reporters, the internet. I find that oftentimes I can be savvy in asking questions in one area but completely naive in another!

I'm not a big fan of the Iranian president, but after seeing this story behind the story regarding his statements about Israel I can't help but wonder how much important information is left behind in the editing room:

Anonymous said...

science is the art of asking questions... I'd have to say however you have come to understand exactly what people need to consider

Diarmuid said...

I'm a new reader on this site, and you seem to sum up so much of what I want to tell people. Thank you for your insightful and well written articles.
I ask a lot of questions, I always want to dig deeper and find out the true nature of things, but so many people think I'm dismissing their opinions or ideas when I question them; some people can become hostile they are so insulted! Does anyone else here find that to be the case? It is very disappointing that so few people try to understand the approach that I really only want to understand, not to tear them apart. =/


Eugene said...

Thanks Diarmuid I appreciate that! And no, not everyone is going to appreciate someone asking questions. Us humans prefer to surround ourselves with like minded opinions so it can be jarring when someone doesn't play by those rules. Good luck!