I’ve always preferred questions over answers. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in short, I like questions better than answers because they open up rather than shut down; they invite instead of foreclose. And as it turns out, the deepest answers are the ones that invite further questions: e=MC2. Jesus is Lord. The first is perhaps the most profound answer to one of the most profound questions about the nature of existence: How does nature work? The second is the most profound answer to the most profound question about existence itself: Does life have meaning beyond itself? In each case, the answer is stranger and more mysterious than the question, and compared to each other, the second answer is infinitely more profound – and mysterious – than the first.
Of course, some questions need to be answered: What is the bearing weight of an arch? How long is it to Seattle? Is there a cure? Do you love me? But there are some questions that, by their very nature, cannot (and, really, should not) be answered definitively: Is there a God? What is the nature of evil? What happens after we die? Faith entails doubt. As Flannery O’Connor once said (and I’ve repeated many times), “Faith is not certainty. Faith is trust.”
I popped open my “To Read” file this morning and read an article by Lucy Bryan entitled “The Weight And Wonder Of Everything We Do Not Know.” In it, she writes of her profound doubts about the reality of the claims of the Christian faith. She grew up as a Christian, though from what little she tells us about that experience, I can surmise that it was a more traditionally conservative Christian upbringing. How can I tell? Because she equates faith with certainty. That’s always the dead giveaway, and from my experience, such an equation rarely turns out well. She writes,
In my early twenties, I caught a Christian in a position of authority stealing, and then I endured his threats and verbal abuse for more than a year. The husband I supported through divinity school divorced me and left the faith. I watched my father die an excruciating death, but religion did little to alleviate his physical agony or existential dread. And the deeper I got into my education, the more intellectual hang-ups I developed. I came to see Christianity and its holy book as products of particular historical, political, and social contexts. I developed a nuanced morality and conception of justice that sometimes clash with church doctrines. And my fascination with science has made it hard to believe in a spiritual realm for which there is no empirical evidence.
Note the reasons for her growing disbelief:
~ someone close to her had betrayed her;
~her father had died an excruciating death and her faith “did little to alleviate his… agony;”
~as she got deeper into her education, she realized that Christianity and the bible were ~“products of particular historical, political, and social contexts;”
and her fascination with science made it harder to believe in things that have no empirical evidence.
In my own family and faith traditions, none of those things would be reasons to abandon the faith. Indeed, they would have been – and are – part and parcel of an informed faith. God does not insulate us from betrayal, and our faith in God does not lessen the agony of disease or death (though one would hope her faith might have helped her father’s “existential dread”… was he not a believer himself? Or did she believe that her prayers had that kind of power?). Nor does our trust of scripture negate the very obvious fact that it is a product of “particular historical, political, and social contexts.” It is not only those things, of course, but it is at least those things.
It seems she was raised with a faith that was all about answers, and which had very little room for questions. So once she grew up and started asking questions about her existence and the veracity of the claims of the faith she’d been raised in, as almost all people must, she naturally assumed that such questions and doubts removed her from the community of saints and the fellowship of believers. Because she was no longer certain and because she had doubts and questions, she was, she assumed, no longer a Christian. How incredibly sad… and tragically unnecessary.
After more searching, Ms. Bryan was finally able to give her existential position a name (having a name for what she was experiencing was surprisingly important to her): she was a Quester, a term coined by the social psychologist Daniel Batson in an article published in 1976 to indicate a person’s particular orientation toward religion. Batson was ostensibly trying to find a middle road between the two generally accepted orientations that had dominated the socio-religious landscape up to that point: that people are religious either because they are looking for a “master-motive” that gives them an “ultimate source of significance,” or because they are looking for “solace, security, status, or community.” What about truth? Wasn’t anyone looking for the truth prior to 1976? Batson discovered a third group who didn’t fit either description but instead viewed religion as “an endless process of probing and questioning generated by the tensions, contradictions, and tragedies in their own lives and in society.”
I don’t know about Mr. Batson nor Ms. Bryan, but my faith and inclinations toward a religious outlook would fit all three descriptions. My faith does, indeed, provide not only a “master-motive” for what I do but also provides a master-narrative for how I understand history, my own and the world’s. It also, from time to time, provides me with solace and community (not so sure about security or status). But finally, and equally important, my Christian faith is, as it turns out, “an endless process of probing and questioning generated by the tensions, contradictions, and tragedies” in my own life and in the larger life of society. Turns out, I’m a quester, too. Turns out, all true believers are. “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”
Ms. Bryan ends her article where, alas, she should’ve begun: “I now recognize that I haven’t been cast out of certainty; rather, I’ve been drawn into mystery.” Almost to a word, this was my exhortation to my students on the first day of class in my Intro to the Christian faith course I taught each semester for nearly 20 years. I told them that at the end of this class, I wanted them to leave with more questions but also deeper convictions, and that the two did not cancel each other out. They ratified each other. Indeed, there was a symbiotic tension inherent in the Christian pilgrimage between faith and doubt, convictions and questions, and a healthy faith admitted such a symbiosis, even encouraged it. I’m just sorry that Ms. Bryan was not raised with the same sense of what faith entails. I suspect that if she had, she might not find herself in the place she is. Or, perhaps, she would, but she would know that that place is the place of many, many fellow pilgrims as they work their salvation out with fear and trembling.
As a wise man (Frederick Buechner) once wrote, “God saves his deepest silences for his saints.” Amen. And again, I say “Amen.” After all, didn't even Jesus end his first life with a question? "My God. My God. Why have you abandoned me?"
Quest on, fellow believer. Quest-ion.