Question-shaped faith

February 1, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 3
Troy Watson |

Seven years ago one of my professors suggested our class watch the television series LOST to better understand life in postmodernity. I followed up on the homework assignment and my wife and I became fans of the show immediately. (It did go downhill after the first two seasons unfortunately.) LOST takes place on a mysterious island where strangers are stranded and forced to survive together. Although the events are routinely preposterous the storylines are fascinating in that they continue to raise questions about what’s really going on. Every answer the show provides raises five more questions. For me this is what following the way of Jesus is like.

I realize for millions of Christians, Jesus is the answer. I know many people (from addicts to academics to refugees of war) who have found Jesus to be the answer to life’s problems and pain in a very real, existential and practical way. My own parents were radically transformed thirty-six years ago as a result of meeting the risen Christ. Jesus was and is the answer for them and they continue to grow today as a result of their faith.  

I, too, have experienced the transformative power of the gospel and have found no matter what life throws at me, I inevitably find myself responding to Jesus the way Peter did when Jesus asked him if he too would abandon him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Yet I confess my Christian faith raises more questions than answers. For me Jesus is the question more than the answer. Jesus is the ultimate paradox and enigma that shapes my life. I also believe it is because of this that Jesus continues to so profoundly influence and inform my life.

Author and lecturer Sam Keen writes, “Questioning is not something we do but something we are. . . . What makes me Sam Keen rather than Rupert Murdoch are the questions that shape my life. . . . Nothing shapes our lives so much as the questions we ask, refuse to ask, or never dream of asking.”

This is as true for churches as it is for individuals. A community built upon shared answers might be efficient but it is bound to be more stagnant and superficial. My closest friendships are not with people who share my answers and beliefs, but with people who are passionate about the same questions. Because they don’t have the same answers they challenge my assumptions, expand my tunnel vision and help me keep growing. They help me see God is “always still bigger yet.”

Religious institutions tend to discourage questioning for many reasons. One is control. Noam Chomsky writes, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” This is what static doctrine does.

Another reason is fear—that people will lose their faith if they start questioning. It is ironic that Jesus taught almost exclusively using questions and confusing short stories that raised questions. It is sad that many churches today equate faithfulness with holding onto “approved” answers and inadvertently undermine the sacredness and necessity of questioning for spiritual development. Consequently many Christians are moving outside the church to explore their questions.

However, I think the main reason many churches avoid potentially divisive questions is for the sake of keeping the peace. Many church members secretly question the assumed answers of their church but for the sake of community keep their mouths shut. Canadian band Arcade Fire sings, “All the kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes. But they bow down to him anyway; it’s better than being alone.” If we believe our common answers are what hold us together, it is no wonder we dare not question them, at least not publically.

But what if it is God that holds us together—not our answers about God? What if we truly believed infinite God is always beyond our finite answers anyway? What if churches made our genuine questions about God, life, and meaning a significant part of the shared substance that holds us together as community? Might we be more healthy, honest and humble in the long run?

This of course will bring a greater challenge: respecting the answers that have nurtured our faith and relationships with God for generations while creating safe environments for questioning them.

Troy Watson is leader of a question-shaped faith community in St. Catharines

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Troy Watson has given us another interesting and clear exposition of our contemporary ‘postmodern’ ethos. In some part I know that this is perhaps the only way to reach a whole new generation of people—both those burned-out on conventional church and those who have never been a part of an ecclesiastical community. But I’m still left wondering how deep all this rhetoric really is. Is a questioning church real the new unquestionable answer for today?

From my experience in searching both the new alternative churches and old ‘fundamentalist’ churches, I found it to be a deep irony that the more conservative, deep-rooted traditional churches are more at ease with real questions than the newer ‘postmodern’ ones. I have found a deeper patience to actually wrestle with issues and to follow the questions to where ever they lead (Socrates)—even if to real answers—in the traditional churches. Perhaps this is because more is at stake in a church that holds the both/and proposition of following a God that makes room for both questions and answers. On the flip side, communities like the one Troy evinces seem to give lip-service to humility and openness, but in practice this can tend toward another form of arrogance and closed-mindedness. From my experience, this is certainly not intentional, but it is the logical fallout from trying to maneuver out from under poorly communicated traditions, from exposing areas of deficiency but lacking the resources to put something firmer in its place, and from just being historically and theologically illiterate. In the end it appears to be a swinging in the dark, labeling things ‘institutional’ expecting that this will mean something isn’t really enough.

I am very grateful for trailblazers like Troy. But what I’m really looking for is someone who can think outside the “thinking outside of the box” box—getting beyond the hip and enlightened heights, and back down to substance and reality.

I love questions—I perhaps ask more than my share—but let’s make sure that we’re not faking suspended judgments just to buy us more time to get what we really want: peace of mind and peace between each other. Peace is a gift when it comes, but a false or cheap peace is dangerous.

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