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Theology of questions

Am I Question or Answer? (Part #9)

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Theology has been valued for the kinds of questions it raises -- especially about that which is held to be beyond human comprehension.

It could be argued that religion seeks to eliminate existential questions by providing absolute answers -- God as the answer -- as a final solution to humanity's condition. An implication is that such answers should be accepted unquestioningly -- or risk branding as an unbeliever. The question to which this condition gives rise concerns the adequacy of understanding of the extant answers offered by religion -- in the light of the 40 religiously inspired conflicts around the world at this time.

Religions and their interpreters may of course differ on this.

Judaism: In this case, as exemplified by Mordechai Gafni (On the Commandment to Question, Azure: Deprtment of Jewish Zionist Education, Summer 5756 / 1996):

The quest for a common spiritual language for Israeli society requires recognizing that questioning God is not a sign of anti-religion, but the peak of Jewish spirituality.... The classic understanding -- or rather, misunderstanding -- of the relationship between questions and answers in religious life is perhaps best expressed in the old adage, 'For the believer, no proof is necessary; for the non-believer, no proof will suffice.'... To have unwavering answers, on the other hand, is viewed as the epitome of the religious position. Yet on consideration, it becomes apparent that this understanding of the relationship between questions and answers is a caricature of religious truth, and a distortion of the Jewish sources.... To be wise is not to arrive at a place of no questions. A place of no questions is the lowest level.... To be wise is to know how to question from a place of deep relationship.

This understanding of Judaism is echoed by several authors:

  • Stephen Fried (The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader, 2002): "While its different branches have slightly different theology and observance, Judaism does not dictate belief. Its timeless appeal is as a religion of questions, not answers". [more]
  • Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks (Credo, The Times, May 1999): "Judaism is a religion of questions. The greatest prophets asked questions of God. The Book of Job, the most searching of all explorations of human suffering, is a book of questions asked by man, to which God replies with a string of questions of His own".

The fundamental role of interrogatives to Judaism is the theme of a study by Kenneth M. Craig, Jr. (Asking for Rhetoric: the Hebrew Bible's protean interrogative, 2005) who asks: "What is a question?" He describes a question as 'a special literary phenomenon. A question is an opening that seeks to be closed, and its rhetorical play derives from how it disposes its energies: how it invites opening, how it imposes closure'. He demonstrates the nuanced and multifaceted ways in which the Hebrew Bible's interrogatives function to advance the Bible's literary and ideological goals.

Judaism is notable in that in its annual family celebration of the Passover Seder, dating back over 3,400 years, four questions (Mah Nishtanah) are asked of the family by the youngest child who is able to do so. The answers are however known to others, but the basis of whatever wisdom there is in the meaning-purpose-significance etc of what Judaism is considered to be is acquired through the gate of questions. Each of the 4 questions raises a different issue of the what and why of redemption and salvation.

Christianity: From a Christian perspective, Hulbert L. Simpson (The Quenching Question, 1925) comments:

On the whole, however, it is good to keep asking questions, and it is highly important that people should always feel that they have the right to ask questions..... In no sphere of human thought and activity is this maxim more necessary of application than in the realm of religious experience.... the Church which asks no questions and permits none to be asked is preparing the way either for catastrophe or for stagnation.... If other questions are burning questions, this is the great quenching question. It silences all others, for it is itself the answer to everything. We all think that we have the right to make certain demands of Almighty God. We are ready with many questions, questions with a touch of complaint in them, with a note of self-excuse, with more than a hint of self-satisfaction. God is ready with His answer: "What think ye of Christ?" That is His Word, His last word. And silence falls at once upon all the questioners. After that, as we read, "no one ventured to ask Him any more questions." (Matthew. 22:46)

Unitarian Christians also stress the role of questions. While they accept many of the traditional church teachings, they believe that no doctrine is too sacred to be questioned. Their faith is 'a religion of questions and not answers'. [more]

Questions have a central role to play in parables, as noted by Peter Rhea Jones (Parables, Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991):

Attention to parable form also brings up the prominence of the question format, the refusal parables, and the place of direct discourse. Jesus intended to involve His hearers, and so He constructed many parables that amount to one big question. The parable of the servant and his wages moves by means of two questions (Luke 17:7-10). The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8) includes four questions. These interrogatives within parables often define a dilemma (Luke 12:20; Mark 12:9) or call for an agreeing nod in one area of life that carries over to another.

Islam: In an extract from his writings, Anwar Shaikh (Memorable Writings,, 2004) offers the following insights from an Islamic perspective:

Knowledge is the offspring of ignorance as existence is the child of nothingness.... Again, knowledge usually comes into being through curiosity which is represented by such inquisitive words as "how, why, what, where, when" etc. and many other interrogative forms. Such interrogatives are ambassadors of ignorance, yet they are the tools of enquiry leading to knowledge. If we know the answers we shall not use these words and other interrogative forms.

The provisional nature of "answers" to theological questiuons has been stressed by Nawab Sir Amin Jung Bahadur (Notes on Islam, 1922):

Now all thinking men of all ages of history have ever tried to understand Nature as a whole and to answer regarding her three important questions represented by three interrogatives... Broadly speaking, I may say that science (within its various departments called "Sciences") tries to answer the first question what, the question of as to facts of Nature. Philosophy tries to answer with the second question how, the question as to the explanation of Nature. Religion or Theology (which includes highest Poetry) tries to answer the third and last question why, the question as to the reason of Nature.... I have said that Science, Philosophy or Religion "tries to answer" and not "answers," because the answer of any of them can never be final or immutable. None of them can ever reach finality. As the experience of mankind grows continuously, the new acts or new facts or new phases of old facts are discovered in the course of time. Just as men have to adapt or adjust themselves to new facts (or to changes in old facts) or else die; so men's Science, Philosophy, and Theology have to adjust themselves to new facts or else become empty nothings

Buddhism: One commentator on Buddhism argues:

Other religions are full of answers, Buddhism is a religion of questions. Other religions claim to be an end, Buddhism is a path... The way of Buddhism... is to realize that all things in this world are evanescent and all the things we think are all-important are really illusionary. [more]

In the form of Zen, Buddhism clearly accords a special place to questions through the use of koans to challenge and reframe existing restrictive patterns of thinking. The classical Zen sequence of ox-herding images exemplifies the stages of spiritual exploration [more | more | more]. Such journeys might be understood as 9 ways of answering the question "who am I". All of them are partial and problematic. Each offers something to cling to -- a clinging which can inhibit further insight. All of the journeys are cyclic -- returning to the point of origin so classically indicated by the poet T S Eliot:

"We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring,
Will be to arrive where we started,
And know the place for the first time"
(Little Gidding, 1943).

Interfaith dialogue -- through question or answer: For the different religions, and especially for their practiioners, much depends on the certainty with which they relate to any answer. To what extent is the answer to existential religious questions "known" -- especially in ways that definitively exclude other, or subsequent, forms of knowing? To what extent is the challenge one of life-long learning without any emphasis on definitive closure that may later be discovered to have been premature? (Enhancing the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West metaphors, 2000; Musings on Information of Higher Quality, 1996). To what extent is "unknowing" tolerable -- or to be tolerated in others?

(Simplistic) Frequency Count of "Question" relative to "Answer"
(NB Does not take account of possibility of other question-words or signifiers of interrogation,
but includes English grammatical variants of the two terms: questioning, questions, etc.
No comparison between various English translations)
Concordance Question* Answer* %
Bible (King James version) 33 663 4.9
-- Old Testament (Christianity and Judaism) 5 396 1.3
-- New Testament (Christianity) 28 267 10.5
Nag Hammadi (Gnostic Collection) 10 9 111.1
Hinduism 62 64 96.9
-- Bhagavad Gita 0 4 0
-- Upanishads 55 49 112.2
-- Rig Veda 7 11 63.6
Buddhism 17 29 58.6
-- Gospel 15 22 68.2

-- Word 2 7 28.6
Islam Qur'an (Koran) 30 31 96.8

Given the claimed central role of questions by many religions, is religious conflict to be understood as conflict between questions or between answers? What, for example, is the status of each in the Middle East conflict sustained by interpretations of Judaism and Islam -- and Christianity? Do the parties meet in a cycle of violence with regard to their respective answers, their respective questions, or is the cycle of violence to be understood as a pattern of question and answer in which both are complicit? Is the new wall constructed by Israel an "answer" to the "question" posed by Palestinian suicide bombers? Is the challenge for religions that the questions with which they identify are to be understood as nested within answers that go unquestioned? Or is it the answers that are nested within questions that are readily forgotten? Consequentely, is the much debated "clash of civilizations" to be understood as a "clash of questions" or a "clash of answers"?

The nature of such "nesting" is clarified in a comment from a holistic mathematics perspective by Peter Collins (private communication):

Obviously from a linear perspective - where polar opposites are clearly separated - question and answer are seen in detached terms with definite type objective answers expected from questions posed by the subjective observer. And we see this somewhat closed approach to truth especially in the conventional scientific and mathematical approaches.

However at subtler levels of understanding (associated with advanced spiritual awareness) the relationship as between question and answer becomes more circular where within every partial answer (with a merely relative valdity) is born a more refined question (with again a merely limited contingent answer).

Ultimately of course - in the union of pure spiritual awareness - question and answer are likewise fully united with the pure desire for spiritual meaning (as question) now inseparable from the equally (pure) spiritual experience of such meaning (as answer). However in the realm of phenomena in dynamic interactive terms, only limited questions - with respect to true holistic meaning - can be asked, which in turn are necessarily associated with limited answers. However this growing appreciation of phenomenal limitation is still vitally necessary as a preparation for the experience of what is absolute in spititual terms.

One way of looking at the gradual unfolding stages of development would be in terms of unanswered questions arising from earlier stages. So the very attempt to answer the questions (posed in terms of the understanding an earlier stage) inevitably raises new questions requiring progression to a more advanced stage in search of appropriate answers. Indeed with the ultimate attainment of true spiritual union all these stages themselves are seen as merely relative phenomenal expressions of such absolute meaning. Though in terms of linear stages of (conventional) scientific appreciation, questions are posed in the expectation of corresponding answers, this is not strictly true at the "higher" stages of spiritual development.

Indeed in the Christian mystical tradition a sharp divide has often been drawn as between illuminative and purgative stages. The illuminative in this context largely provide answers (in terms of spiritual meaning). However the purgative largely pose deeper questions (which can remain unanswered for some considerable period of time). This is especially true in terms of the Dark Night of the Soul (i.e. dark night of the spirit) which leads to extreme existential anguish in the profound desire for a spiritual meaning (which remains unanswered in actual experience). [cf An Integral Mathematical Stage Model of Perspectives]

God as a question?: Perhaps the more fundamental theological question could be framed as: Is God a question or an answer -- both or neither? In settings providing for oracular communication with divinity, why is it that the communication may take the form of a puzzling pattern of allusions, even a riddle? Is the cognitive challenge to be understood in terms of the existential quality of questions?

"In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God" (John 1:1)

-- but was the Word a question?

If indeed "man" was made in the image of God, should "he" then be understood as a question? Is it indeed a question that "man" most fundamentally shares with God? Did God put "man" on Earth to explore certainty, rather than uncertainty? Is the dynamic between Adam and Eve to be understood in terms of that between question and answer -- with Satan exemplifying doubt and uncertainty? Is the struggle between questions and answers to be compared with the archetypal struggle between good and evil?

With respect to "God as question":

  • Kenneth W. Phifer (Coping with God, 2001) offers the reflection: "If God is not present, if God is absent, if God is silent, where else is it possible to seek God except in the silence and the absence. God as question will appear there very visibly, very actively, very engaged. One way to cope with God the Question is in silence. A second way is in appreciation.... God as Question can bring out the best in us, even in awful situations. As long as that is what we do, we are coping well with God. "
  • Mark W. Speeks (The Spirit of Anglicanism): "What we do, therefore, is seek to always ask questions without expecting answers. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1997) described God as 'the primordial ground and abyss of all reality' and as 'ineffable darkness'. He concluded that with the insight that 'revelation... is really the presence of God as question, not as answer'. Anglicanism concerns itself with the presence of God as a question".

Earlier, Karl Rahner (Grace in Freedom, 1969) responded to the case of "the so-called believer who regards God as a question which he has long settled to his own satisfaction":

Precisely this is why "God" is not just any word, but the word, in which language -- that is the self-statement of world and existence -- apprehends itself in its ground.... The God of the philosophers is no "Father", but the incomprehensible ground of all reality which escapes every comprehensive notion because he is a radical mystery. This is always only the beyond, the inaccessibly distant horizon bounding the small sphere we are able to measure. He certainly exists for us also in this way, as the unanswered question that makes possible any answerable one, as the distance which makes room for our never-ending journey in thought and deed.

As noted by Joas Adiprsetya (Karl Rahner, 2005):

For Rahner the fact that Christianity can be the answer requires that we do theology. Moreover, the encounter between the question and the answer is made possible by understanding God's revelation as the 'point of mediation' between both [Rahner, 1978]. To some extent, Rahner's approach is similar to Tillich's method of correlation, which interrelates 'existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence' [Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology. Vol. I: Reason and Revelation -- Being and God, 1950] [more]. Yet, as Fiorenza suggests, the difference between them is that of 'a Catholic sacramental vision of the world as graced … and a Lutheran vision that is sensitive to the ambiguities and sinfulness of the human condition' [In: James C. Livingstone, et al. Modern Christian Theology. Vol. II: The Twentieth Century, 2000].

Living in the question can seem counterintuitive to anyone who expects and even demands answers. Our society highly values people who are good at analyzing and figuring things out. Science has made a religion of it.... We should allow for the growth that comes from living with a question without requiring an answer.
Tom Gilbert (Living in the Question, July 2004)

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