Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Someone stopped me on the street a couple of weeks ago. The conversation went something like this:
“You’re the guy who writes those columns about religion in the paper, aren’t you?”
“Yes I am.”
“Well, I just loved your columns, but I can’t read them anymore.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“My pastor told me that you were teaching wrong doctrine and I should stop reading them.”
After a few moments of silence, I asked, “How do you feel about that?”
“I don’t really understand. I loved what you were writing, and I miss reading it, and I don’t really think you are teaching something wrong, but well … I have to listen to my pastor, don’t you think? He knows better than me.”
A few more moments of silence. “What I think is that God gave each of us a brain so we can think about things, and I believe you are quite capable of making up your own mind. I never told the people in my church what they could and could not read. In fact, I encouraged them to think for themselves, because it’s good to hear different opinions, and to ask as many questions as we can.”
She shook her head, a little sadly I thought, as she said, “Well, I don’t know …”
And I said, “I know it’s hard to go against your pastor, so I wish you God’s blessing as you think about these things.”
She walked away a little wistfully.
I keep reflecting on that encounter. It makes me both sad and angry. I’m sad because here is a pastor who is called to be a leader, who is called to help people think for themselves about their faith and who God is calling them to be. Instead, he binds them up so that their world becomes smaller, more confined, less open to the wonder of exploration and discovery.
I’m angry about it because the church has done this very thing for too many centuries. They have done whatever they could to keep people in line. They have claimed to have the truth, and people had to believe what the priests and leaders said. Five hundred years ago, they did it with trials by fire, executions, and excommunication (which meant not only ensuring that people could no longer attend church, but that they lost their community, because other people would no longer be with them). Today the various churches do it by trying to tell folks that there is only one way of thinking, one way of believing, one way of relating to God, one way of being a faithful follower of Jesus.
Bollocks, I say.
One of my favourite ways of thinking about Christian faith is to say, “Faith is not so much about finding the right answers; faith is about learning to ask the right questions.”
In the 1980s, a campaign used bumper stickers and billboards to proclaim proudly, “Jesus is the Answer!” I understand what was behind that, but it seems to me to be such a limited kind of approach. It reminds me of a joke about a minister telling a children’s story, in which she asked the kids, “I have something in mind that is small, has a bushy tail, and stores nuts for the winter. What do you think it is?” A smart young boy raises his hand and says, “It sure sounds like a squirrel to me, but I bet you think it’s Jesus!”
The church needs to learn not just to honour questions, but to actively welcome a questioning attitude. I believe that when we ask questions, we grow.
So many people are afraid to ask questions. They think it makes them look dumb. Many churches actively discourage it because asking questions indicates a lack of faith. Too many folks have been taught that questions are a sign of doubt, of not believing enough.
I disagree. Questions are not the opposite of faith. There are all kinds of deep and profound questions which prompt us to think more deeply.
What is life’s purpose? Imagine spending some time with a group of people talking about that!
Does God exist? And if God does exist, and if God is supposed to be so good, why do so many innocent people suffer so tragically in this world?
Why do people treat each other as badly as we so often seem to do? Why is it that in the midst of terrible human tragedies, some people are busy trying to figure out how they can use the situation to their benefit? Why do they use the opportunity to steal, vandalize, brutalize others? Why do so many oppress those who are different — gays and lesbians, Muslims, people of colour, or different in some other way?
Why does evil seem to work so well for some people? Why does it seem that people who take shortcuts are so successful?
We find questions like these throughout the Bible. Asking them is a sign of the deepest faithfulness. Asking such questions—about God, about our faith, about our lack of faith, about why people relate to each other the way we do—is crucial to the life of faith. We need to nurture an environment in which questions are invited, encouraged, embraced, welcomed, for as we ask them, we open ourselves to growth and transformation.
Voltaire once said that we ought to judge a person by the questions they ask rather than by the answers they give, because asking the right question is the answer. I think he’s right.
As I said before, faith is not so much about finding the right answers; faith is about learning to ask the right questions. Questioning does not show that we lack intelligence. Rather, questioning is evidence of a curious and lively mind which seeks to know more.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook