The Next Questians
Can you actually remember the first thought that came to you this morning during that first moment of consciousness? For most of us, we can’t recall. The day usually begins with a question like one of the following: “Where am I? What day is it? What time is it? How’s the weather? “ Yep, most days start with questions.
In the Bible, do you know what the first question God ever posed to man was? It’s “Where are you?”(1)
This question continues to ricochet through the corridors of time, penetrating the souls of all. The way I look at it, if the most frequent thing that registers with the human mind during that initial moment of conscious awakening everyday is a question, and the first question God ever posed to man continues to inhabit our existence several thousand years later, maybe questions are a lot more important in life that we give them credit for. Let me explain.
A Day Without Questions
It’s apparent to me that God created us with the capacity to consider, ponder, become perplexed, curious, and inquisitive, contemplate and question. Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and human beings no longer have the ability to question. Yep, your ability to inquire about anything would be absent. The human species would be instantaneously thrown into an even more serious state of tumultuous chaos. I tried it.
Have you seen the movie A Day Without A Mexicans? It was the brainchild of Sergio Arau that was released in May 2004. It’s a fantastic comedic satire about how the state of California would be paralyzed without Mexicans. Inspired by the film, I decided to experience A Day Without Questions. The only rule was that I was unable to consider, pose or respond to any question either audibly or intellectually. It started out badly and got worse. Before I shut off my reading light the night before this critical experiment began, I taped a sticky note to my alarm clock. It says, “No Questions.” The alarm woke me at 7:45AM. I see the note and am prepared to succeed with this important exercise in self-discipline. As I began to get dressed for work I caught myself wondering: “What color are these socks, dark blue or black? Oops! Strike one. That’s a question. Rushing to gather my stuff, I started looking around wondering, where are my car keys? Strike two. Driving to work, I go to the drive thru at Starbucks. Before I can blurt out my order, the voice on the other end says, “Welcome to Starbucks! What can I get for you today?” Aargh! I am forced to drive off with no coffee. Strike three. Upon arriving at work, somebody scoffs, “Hey Bill! Are you color blind? Nice socks man!” (One black, one blue, along with a red face to start the day). Now, I’ve publicly embarrassed myself. Strike four. Next, somebody says, “Bill, are you going to have that done by 9:30AM as we discussed yesterday? I’m unable to respond to their question so I just pretend I didn’t hear them. They storm off miffed. I can hear them mutter, “What’s up with him today?” I can’t respond to their confusion. I’ve hurt somebody’s feelings and I’ve only been at work three minutes. Strike five. I decide to cloister myself and simply get on-line and review the morning’s headlines. I’m doomed without the ability to be curious. Pursuing my interests and curiosity are forms of questions. Strike six. I head to the safety of the Men’s room. I lock myself in a stall. Standing there, I begin wondering, “What am I doing wrong?” Strike seven! I give up. It’s not even 9:00AM. I’m either a dismal, undisciplined failure or the results of the experiment simply support my hypothesis that questions and answers are inseparable to our existence. You try it. Let me know the results of your attempt to live a day without questions.
“Why are you so afraid?”
Frankly, the thought of an existence without the capacity to question frightens me. Life would be incredibly boring. Our interaction would be akin to a bunch of robots spewing statements at one another. I’m grateful that God created us with the ability to question. I think it’s a blessing.
In pondering this issue, I believe God created our capacity to question along with our desire for answers to things we are curious about for a reason: They’re essential. It’s kind of like a hot dog and mustard, a taco and salsa, teriyaki and chicken, or a Reuben sandwich and sauerkraut…they were simply made to go together. One without the other just doesn’t taste right. The question/answer capacity that we humans possess is an essential ingredient that adds tremendous flavor to the human experience. One without the other, well, it just tastes strange. It’s obvious that something’s missing.
Our ability to question is fundamental to our pilgrimage in life, as well as our faith journey. It provides us with the equipment to explore the God of More. Perhaps it’s indispensable to realizing His promise to reveal more of Himself to us. Unfortunately, most denominational Christian churches in the western, developed world claim to possess “the truth.” What “the truth” really turns out to be is “all the answers you require” conveniently packaged in a box of beliefs, creeds, rituals and statements of faith. The extent to which you can convince yourself and others (typically verbally) that you’ve digested this can of theology, is granted to you as “faith.” You may have successfully completed several milestone rituals during this process like a public confession of your faith, baptism in water, membership classes in a church, seminars, a mission vacation, or various roles within an established church. Your ability to become deceptively content with what you think you know is considered to be a sign of maturity. You have reached the stage of having unquestionably become a Christian. For the most part, you possess all the answers you think you need to know, and are prepared to share those answers with those you interact with. However, as Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor suggest, “Sometimes what we think we know becomes an obstacle to the truth. This applies to the truths of our faiths as well as our faiths themselves.”(2)
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with developing an approach to life based upon certain principles, beliefs, routines, reference points, attitudes and practices. My point is that when we arrive at a place where we proudly exclaim, “That’s it! That’s all there is!” we’re in trouble. As Brian McLaren writes, “The desire for specifics is certainly natural, and there’s quite a market for it. It’s the unknown that frightens us.”(3) My Question is: What are we so afraid of and why?
Needless to say, Christianity is presently navigating some rather tumultuous times in the western, developed world. It reminds me of the passage in Matthew chapter 8 where the storm comes up on the lake and the disciples think their boat is going to capsize and they’re on the verge of drowning. They awaken Jesus, who responds with the first question I can find Him posing in the book of Matthew: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”(4)
I believe we are afraid of questioning the state of our individual and collective Christian beliefs and practices. Questioning takes courage, effort, time. It requires one to become vulnerable, humble and deliberate. As George Barna states, “Questioning what we do, who we are, how we minister, and what we stand for is not a hallmark of fear and weakness; it is a sign of wisdom, courage and hope.”(5)
I sure hope so.
The Hard Questions
Let’s return to the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis for a moment. God has just posed his first question to man, “Where are you?” Adam’s reply to God is pregnant with pertinent meaning. He says, “I heard you in the Garden and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”(6) I am absolutely convinced that the fall of man, as it is so often characterized, has absolutely nothing to do with Eve’s first bite of the forbidden fruit. I believe it has everything to do with Adam’s response to God’s first question of man. Adam’s answer was lame. It was dishonest. It was a response based in fear. It is the first recorded instance of a disease that man continues to be infected with. Henri Nouwen captures the essence of this point when he says, “One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.”(7)
Adam was attempting to hide in the shadows of “the pale light of an insufficient answer.” God would have none of it. The rest, as they say, is history. Adam had the opportunity to behave quite differently. What if Adam’s actions in the garden had gone this way: “God, I’m right here. (Adam’s on his knees in the middle of the Garden, head in hands with tears of remorse streaming down his face). I have disobeyed you. I am ashamed of my stupidity and disobedience. I am terrified of the thought that I may now be somehow separated from You. I’m afraid of the possible consequences. Please forgive me! What must I do to restore your confidence in me and insure the ongoing relationship You intended us to have? What have I done?”
Unfortunately, Adam’s behavior, his answer to God’s question, actually mocked God. He was unable or unwilling to ask the tough questions. Instead, he attempted to hunker down in the pale light of an insufficient answer. Unfortunately, man continues to succumb to the same posture that Adam modeled. Twenty-first century Christians continue to do the same. We relentlessly grip the inadequate answer. Perhaps, we need to assume a new posture, as characterized by Leonard Sweet: “To receive all that God wants to give requires we release those things that we grip (and that are, remember, gripping us) and open our hands to receive what God wants to give.”(8) What we need to break our grip on the handful of rock solid answers we clutch are some hard questions. As Brian Mclaren says, “In tens of thousands of heartbreaking ways, the secret message of Christ has been mocked by the behavior of those who bear His name. This is why we must ask ourselves the hard questions.”(9)
What are some of the hard questions about Christianity and living as a disciple of Jesus Christ? Here are a few I’ve come up with:
“The way to Christian growth is often to allow oneself to be puzzled and startled by new apparent complexity. There is great simplicity at the heart of this picture, and to us strange and perhaps even repellent, first century ways of thinking that characterized Jesus. Is it after all Jesus we want to discover and follow, or would we prefer an idol of our own making?”(10)
If you’re like me, you are asked about your faith, beliefs, and/or religious affiliation, by a wide variety of people, in a number of different social settings. I’m tired of answering their questions with, “I’m a Christian, but…” After the “but,” I attempt to go on to enlighten the inquirer about my spiritual beliefs, my relationship with Jesus, and the way I live my life. By this time, their eyes are usually looking around for a way to escape, or their head falls to examine the tops of their shoes. They are prisoners of the definition they have adopted about what I’m going to say before I get it out of my mouth. They cram me in a box right along with everybody else. I instantaneously become “one of those.” I placed myself at an immediate and distinct disadvantage by using the Christian label. I have also done Jesus a disservice. It doesn’t matter what I say, the “Christian” label I innocently uttered has overshadowed anything I can share with them that actually reflects my faith journey, and my Guide. Actually, they’re not listening. My dilemma is quite common today. People are yearning for a different label to apply to their Christian faith rather than the traditional one that is infected with all sorts of attitudinal, experiential and socio-political baggage. “Christian” doesn’t work anymore in the postmodern, western, developed world. The term has become irretrievably corrupted. Are we willing to accept that fact and move beyond it? Why not?
I find it fascinating that I unintentionally developed an audible mechanism when people inquired about my faith. I kept hearing myself say, “I’m a Christian, but…” This response is one I guess I developed because I realized that my Christian faith has been hijacked by people who claim to have boxed up Christianity in the U.S. in a socio-politically useful dichotomy. As Sojourners Managing Editor and theologian Jim Wallis writes, “This is a call for people of faith everywhere to stand up and let their faith be heard. This is not a call to be just concerned, or just a little worried, or even just alarmed. This is a call for clear speech and courageous action. This is a call to take back our faith, and in the words of the prophet Micah, “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”(11) It’s time to move beyond being the ‘but’ in response to somebody else’s stuff.
I am going to give you a gift today. Many of you reading this article have yearned for: Permission. From now on, if your experience is anything like mine, when people ask you about your faith, you can respond, “I’m a Questian!” Of course, they’ll look at you dumbfounded so be prepared to spell Questian. They’ll still be perplexed so tell them “I’m a follower of Jesus on a quest. A Christ led human whose beliefs about God are not neatly packaged in a box that somebody else confined God to, or defined God as. I believe in the God of More. My spiritual faith is being formed and reformed. I’m on a journey exploring the wonderful, awe-inspiring transformation only He can accomplish, when we pursue him outside somebody else’s box.” Do you think Jesus really cares what you call your faith in Him? (My New Testament reads that He is always more concerned about loving behavior than labels. Frankly, I’d go so far as to suggest that Jesus was and is the Great label stripper). Does dropping Christ from the label of your spiritual beliefs suggest that you are somehow abandoning Jesus? Does the thought of doing so engender guilt within you? Instead of answering somebody’s question about your faith affiliation with the quip, “I’m a Christian,” which may end the conversation before it starts, maybe we should reconsider the response we so readily provide. If you respond to an inquirers question with either “I’m a Christian, or I’m a Questian,” which response do you think will engender the curiosity of the inquirer and provide you with a less biased basis upon which to have a fruitful, authentic dialogue? I suggest to you that a ‘Questian’ is a bridge builder to new frontiers whereas a ‘Christian’ has become a negative, widely held, deeply embedded social stereotype from which we must emerge.
Imagine what churches might be called: First Questian, Second Questian, Eastside Questians, Assembly of Questians, Questians Aplenty, Southern Questians, Free Questians, Calvary Questians or Just Questians. Imagine the inviting slogans that might bring people together like: “Questians Gathered Here – Got one? Join us!” “Looking for Answers? We’ve Got Questians!” “No Dumb Questians Here.” “Questians – Everyday 6:30PM.” It’s a marketing executives dream! It’s attractive. It’s inclusive. It’s descriptive. It’s who we are created to become. It’s what the journey is all about. It’s time to move beyond the confines of the Christian label and embrace all The God of More has in store for us. This movement will require shedding unnecessary baggage. It’s a fundamental issue that contains an essential question that we don’t discuss with one another. There are shades of shame, sorrow, guilt and remorse associated with this issue. It’s the unspoken question. We contemplate this question in shadowy conversations within the privacy of our souls. It’s time to pull up the shades and let the light shine in on this issue. Lesslie Newbigin captures the essence of my point when he says, “Eagerness to listen, to learn, to receive even what is new and strange will be the mark of one who knows the word of Jesus: “All that the Father has is mine.”(12) Let’s get this question out in the open and make it a part of the mainstream dialogue shall we?
But what? As Leonard Sweet says, “Christianity in the west was built by adventurers; it is being lost by back-covering, back-scratching look-alikes.”(13) Maybe it’s time to get off our butts.
Yeah, I know…I’ve taken too much of your time writing an article of this length. However, it represents a fraction of the time, and number of issues I’ve contemplated as part of the process in becoming a dyed in the wool Questian. I don’t pretend to know or understand it all. It’s not like this is the final word on this issue or anything like that. As Brian McLaren points out, “There’s nothing more common than some religious kook claiming to have the final word.”(14)
At this juncture, you might be thinking that all this is actually some sly attempt at being silly or cute. I can assure you that I have rarely written anything that resonates with the depth of sincerity that motivated my heart to author this article. You may have concluded, “So what? What’s in a name or label anyhow? Who cares what emerging Christians call themselves?” For those in this camp, I would urge you to read this article again. It matters. Big time. This article is not a veiled attempt at some form of conversion. It’s an upfront, in-your-face call for, to use Reggie McNeal’s term, deconversion.(15) McNeal challenges us to rethink the way we think about Christianity, to subject ourselves to deprogramming, to intentionally disentangle ourselves from all that restrains us from becoming the movement, led and empowered by the love of Jesus. I’m on board with that.
I’ll begin to conclude with the words of author Russell Rathbun. He writes:
“I used to be so rock-solid sure; I used to misunderstand so much. And I used to preach that misunderstanding, preach it hard like my rock of faith. I used to pound that misunderstanding hard until other people believed it. I used to be so sure. Now I preach questions and a little faith. And reaching out to take the steady hand of Jesus, and reaching out to steady someone else. And forgiveness. I preach forgiveness. I do this not for any credit in heaven or for an eternal reward, but because this is how I try to live my life. I try to have a little faith and two outstretched hands. A little faith and two outstretched hands.”(16)
Did this article strike you as heretical? Maybe…maybe not. Listen to Burke and Taylor: “First, everyone should be a heretic. Our times demand it. These are not times for conventional wisdom. New ideas for new times are needed now. All around us imaginative people are rethinking and re-imagining the possibilities of what it means to be human.”(17) This article is simply some food for thought about what it means to be a ‘Christian,’ and the possibility for becoming a Questian.
It’s time to become God’s real people, who:
1 Genesis 3:9 – NIV
5 Barna, George The Second Coming of the Church – A Blueprint for Survival, Word Publishing, Nashville, TN Copyright © 1998 by George Barna, p. 28
6 Genesis 3: 10 – NIV
7 Merton, Thomas No Man Is An Island, Published by Barnes & Noble, Inc. New York, New York by arrangement with Harcourt, Inc., Copyright © 1955 by The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Copyright renewed 1983 by the Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust, p. xiii.
8 Sweet, Leonard I. SoulSalsa – 17 Surprising Steps For Godly Living In The 21st Century, Zondervan Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2000 by Leonard I. Sweet, p. 101.
9 McLaren, Brian The Secret Message of Jesus-Uncovering The Truth That Could Change Everything, W Publishing Group-A Division of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Copyright © 2006 by Brian D. McLaren, p. 154.
10 Wright, N.T. The Challenge of Jesus – Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, InterVarsity Press Downers Grove, IL Copyright © 1999 by N.T. Wright, p. 93
12 Newbigin, Lesslie The Open Secret – An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Copyright © 1978, 1995 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 2nd Edition p. 183.
13 Sweet, Leonard I. SoulSalsa – 17 Surprising Steps For Godly Living In The 21st Century, Zondervan Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2000 by Leonard I. Sweet, p. 32
14 McLaren, Brian The Secret Message of Jesus-Uncovering The Truth That Could Change Everything, W Publishing Group-A Division of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Copyright © 2006 by Brian D. McLaren, p. XIV.
15 McNeal, Reggie The Present Future- Six Tough Questions For The Church, Published by Jossey-Bass – San Francisco, CA, A Wiley Imprint, Copyright © 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, p. 11.
16 Rathbun, Russell Post-Rapture Radio – Lost Writings From A Failed Revolution, Copyright © 2005 by Russell Rathbun, JOSSEY-BASS Publishers, A Wiley Imprint, p. 165
17 Burke, Spencer and Taylor, Barry A Heretics Guide to Eternity, Copyright © 2006 by Spencer Burke. JOSSEY-BASS Publishers, A Wiley Imprint, p. 225 (This citation is from a pre-publication copy of this book. The citation may differ in the published version of the book.).