Living with the questions.

My colleague, Lina Toth, has written a challenging piece on about the tasks of theological education in increasingly secular contexts.

It’s a valuable piece, but I am especially interested in this affirmation:

“During their theological studies, students may not find the certainty and clarity they may have hoped for, but hopefully they can learn something much more vital: to live with the questions and bring them, honestly as well as prayerfully, into their academic work as well as ministry undertakings.”

Living with questions. This idea led me back to my own study of “the God who asks questions.”

I have published articles and book chapters about the questions God asks and from that the idea of a ‘divine conversation,’ where God invites us to engage with, explore and posit responses to fundamental life issues – existential questions.

I wrote a blog about this back in 2006 but wanted to add a bit more to those thoughts.

Lina’s idea of “living with questions” invites us to think about how we live with uncertainty, doubt, ambiguity, even fear and anxiety.

One of the most immediate options, taken by many people, is to withdraw from the scene. Drop the subject. Think about something else or turn to a different system, topic or religious framework.

Many people have turned from what they experience as the lifeless inadequacy of much Western Christian thinking to various other forms of spirituality, sometimes influenced by Eastern religions, such as forms of Buddhism.

Interestingly, ecumenical theologian, the late Langdon Gilkey, once observed that many who did this in his context, Chicago, were not doing so for reasons of doctrine or beliefs but in search of a sense of community.

People may give up. But others do not so much give up as draw a line in the sand and affirm some definitive stance, often called orthodox or traditional or fundamental. For them, too, the question is closed. There is a definite answer.

Frequently, these traditions are as little as some decades old, in contrast to the Christian and biblical traditions of 3,000 to 4,000 years.

Some people are satisfied with this position. Others claim to be but seem so insecure in it they spend their entire lives attacking anyone of a different stance – intellectually attacking but sometimes also physically.

Then, another option is to hold the questions open and actively explore and engage with them. This is what I think it means to “live with” them.

It is not a matter of assuming there is no answer or nothing to be known here. There is so much to be known that it can’t be closed off and left with a definitive form of words or ideas.

Faith, here, is not so much about content of beliefs as it is about an honest, open inquiry, and that is more than an intellectual exercise.

Such faith needs the courage to change, to be open to different moral and personal challenges.

This matters! These questions are about whatever our life on earth is about. These are existential issues of life and meaning.

Living with the questions is, thus, a matter of profound challenge and, therefore, it needs companions. One cannot do all this alone.

Theological education is best undertaken with others, in an environment that is safe and open.

The security necessary is the safety of being able to voice out loud questions and possible consequences, personal, moral and relational.

It means the radical freedom for those questions: an openness to be questioned and to question oneself and others.

It requires also an openness to the insights others offer – and here I think it is immensely valuable when theological study is undertaken within an ecumenical context, where there is a respectful diversity.

We have gained so much from the shift to ecumenicity in many theological schools – something we need more and more to maintain and develop.

Living with questions, then, is the very lifeblood of faith and theological education in this time. I am very grateful for Lina Toth’s contribution.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Rees’ blog, To Be Frank. It is used with permission.

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