POSTED ON APRIL 13, 2011:
Some of the best questions go unanswered
A book came out recently that has started a firestorm among people in my religious circles. I was amazed at the blogospherical tirades that began even before the book hit the shelves. Scores of people weighed in their opinions, which ranged from glowing support to scathing condemnation. After reading the book, which I have come to realize several of its most opinionated dissenters have not, I was struck by something that has little to do with the author's subject matter: He truly asked some tough questions.
Questions. Interrogative sentences. They are likely the most persuasive word combinations in any language. Someone once said, "A good question is worth more than a thousand good answers."
Some questions are really penetrating, like, "Where do you see yourself and your family in five years and what's your plan to get there?"
Other questions carry with them the unavoidable awkward pause by the responder, like when someone asks, "Why has no one said anything about the five pounds I lost?"
Then there are the really difficult questions. I'm not talking about story problems in math class, either. Questions like I was asked the other day: "Why would God let him die in his 40s? His kids are still in High School. He gave of himself every day and he still had so much good to do. What good can come from this?"
I did not have a good answer for that one and I'm not sure I ever will.
Consider for a moment, if you will, a question about questions.
Are there some questions that are so good that to answer them unreservedly only cheapens their value? Questions, for example, that deal with human existence, life and death, and the nature of God. In my view, questions in these arenas are eternally important. At the same time, I have yet to hear a "definitive" answer on such subjects that truly captures the essence of the subject matter. It strikes me that nearly all of our answers are measurable, whereas many "ultimate questions" cannot possibly be measured by our understanding of dimensionality.
Some people seem to have all the answers. Or at least they think they do. In most cases, when it becomes abundantly clear that they aren't much more savvy than a consummate Wikipedia-junky, those who are asking the questions become convinced that there are no answers.
To be clear, I disagree wholeheartedly with that last statement. I do not join others who advocate some form of neo-agnosticism, where questions are pointless because one has decided that answers do not exist. I feel confident that every non-nonsensical question has an answer. I am also OK with the idea that many of those answers are not completely knowable. Not yet, anyway.
For many people, such an idea is the height of discouragement and futility. This type of thinking can lead to a nihilistic perspective on knowledge and truth that eventually says one of two things: 1) "You only think you know what you know," or 2) "You only know what you think you know." Some people might say both.
As with nearly all ideas and philosophies, this trap is nothing new. One may cite Descartes' epistemology, Kant's deontology, Kierkegaard's existentialism or Derrida's deconstructionism. Each one of these thinkers, in ways unique from the others, struggled with seemingly unanswerable questions by imploring "well-thinking" individuals to call standard and orthodox beliefs into question -- whether in the fields of religion, interpretation of history, philosophy, ethics or science.
Most often it seems that the purpose of such intellectual pursuits is to find the most correct way to live the human life in a healthy harmony with an ultimate reality. For some people this reality is deity or deities in some form. For others it is the natural world, which includes everything that exists within the realm of the physical universe. For still others the ultimate reality is something entirely unknown -- more like a presence whose shyness prevents it from ever revealing its true identity.
I choose to come at "ultimate questions" from a different point of view. What if the answers to such questions are only known by a Being whose complexity outweighs a measurable answer to an infinitesimal degree? Perhaps this is why Paul, who wrote the majority of the New Testament of the Bible, says, no one knows the "deep things of God" except for the one called the Spirit. The Spirit, who knows these things, helps God's people learn how to live in the midst of life's most debilitating challenges. Paul doesn't say that the Spirit answers every question. He says, simply, "What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us" (1 Corinthians 2:10-12).
In other words, Paul says the God who has made everything and is preparing something beyond imagination for His people in the life to come, helps people understand things according to His own terms. Paul then says that the person who does not have God's Spirit neither understands nor accepts the answers that God gives (v. 14). The bottom line is this: the Spirit reveals God's truth to those who want it. Those who don't want it wouldn't accept it anyway. We are left with choice of whether or not to believe the messages God delivers. In biblical terms, such trust is called pistis, or, "faith."
So one final question: Is God trustworthy? If so, then perhaps the "ultimate questions," in and of themselves, are an essential part of the journey towards knowing the true ultimate reality -- God Himself.
-(Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and Teaching Pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.)
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