Questions vs Answers
Of course you don’t understand it. If you understood it, it wouldn’t be what you’re looking for. It would just be one more thing you understand. James Finley
One of the significant points of distinction between Christianity and churchianity has to do with the degree to which one believes we can be certain about spiritual matters. I once heard a sermon with the title: God is not a question to be answered. The statement has a ring of truth to it. Knowing God is not a goal to be accomplished but an invitation to a never-ending exploration. In addition, there is an important distinction between intellectual knowing and experiential knowing. These types of knowing illustrate the difference between describing something and actually living through it; the difference between reading a love story and actually falling in love. Deep knowledge of God does not exist in the realm of the intellect. When we learn something by living it, there is no end to the learning. Our intellectual descriptions limit our knowledge to within certain, risk-controlled, well-defined and safe boundaries; our lived experiences, however, send us on unpredictable adventures filled with ups and downs, gains and losses, happy and sad feelings, all contained in moments of clarity interspersed with moments of perplexity. Lived experiences open one’s mind to new learning and change, not because one necessarily seeks new learning and change, but because one cannot help oneself from taking the path that leads there. Some say, and I believe, God draws us there. We follow not because it is easy or comfortable but because we cannot not go.
I believe one of the reasons some of the more fundamentalist churches are experiencing less of a loss of membership these days is that they are preaching answers instead of pondering questions. Many people, more so than in the past I think, expect answers and solutions to difficult issues. And they want them quickly so they can get on with their busy lives. In generations past, perhaps, people did not expect to find clear answers about who God is and how God interacts in their lives. Or the questions were asked rhetorically with no definitive answers expected. They understood, perhaps better than we, that life’s richest questions cannot be answered as if they were a math problem.
Some churches and church leaders who are quick and certain with answers to confounding biblical and spiritual questions appear to be thriving, even amidst the pandemic that has crippled many of the traditional denominations who were struggling even before COVID became a household term. It seems unacceptable to many folks that some questions have no answers, at least no answers that can be contained in words. Unanswered questions keep us seeking. Our intellectual constructs have no solid basis in reality. In that sense they are illusions – visions of a future state, perhaps, but illusions in the present moment.
One problem with being too firm in our certainty about God is that God’s story is still being written – by and through us and all other created beings. As such, some sentences end with a perpetual comma instead of a period, even as some stories are eternally open-ended. When the books deemed worthy of inclusion in the Bible were selected 1700 years ago, there was an assumed period placed at the end, as if God’s Word began and ended in those writings. In an ever-evolving world with a God still at work, who are we to claim final knowledge or certainty about anything? And yet, some churches do. And apparently some people crave such certainty, at least until it folds under the weight of their life experiences.
Author and retired psychotherapist James Finley explains (in today’s epigraph) that we do not understand that of which we seek. Once we understand something we cease seeking it. We close the book on that issue and move on with our lives. And that is exactly the problem with any theology of certainty, that once we feel we have the answers we seek we simply move on to something else. Once we think we know the right prayer to pray or gain certainty about how much money to give we stop seeking deeper answers. A good rule of thumb is that when the answers we receive do not raise an entirely new set of questions we have almost certainly received an inadequate answer or one that will prove temporary. Spiritual answers are best held lightly, with an openness to allowing our understanding to evolve.
Too many of us try to end our days with a period. Perhaps we should learn to settle for ending our days with a comma or, at worst, a semicolon. The story is never finished.
This is the 32nd in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.