Living the Questions: Answers Just Get in the Way
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians who find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, in the questions than in the answers.
Presented: 10/23/2011
Author: Rev. Jeff Spencer
Scripture: John 18:33-38
John 19:8-9
Copyright: © 2011 by Rev. Jeff Spencer

Please see the sermon manuscript for citations of sources quoted or used.

 

  Did you hear about the dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac?  He sat up all night asking the universe, “Is there really a dog?”

            Most of us – probably all of us – live with questions.  Some are simply run-of-the-mill, day-to-day questions.  What’s my bank balance?  How do I get there?  What did you say? (which I suppose can be asked in two ways).

            Some are theological.  Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  And what does that really mean?  Was Jesus really human and divine?  And how does that work?  How about the Trinity – how does that work?  With all the different interpretations of scripture, which ones are we supposed to believe?

            Some of our questions are deeper yet, more profound. [i]   Is there really a God?  What really happens after we die?  Is heaven a place and where is it?  Will I really see my loved ones after I die?  What is the purpose of life?

            One of the things I noticed about today’s readings is that when Pilate speaks to Jesus, all he does is ask questions:
Are you the king of the Jews?
I am not a Jew, am I?
You’ve been handed over to me by your own leaders; what have you done?
So you are a king?
What is truth?
Where are you from?

            Do you notice that these questions, one after the next, keep going deeper, keep getting to the more profound?

            And then I noticed that Jesus doesn’t really answer Pilate’s questions.  He answers the first one with a question of his own.  He answers the next few with answers that end up changing the subject, so they don’t really answer the question.  And he doesn’t even answer the last two.  In fact, John reports on Jesus’ refusal to answer.

            It turns out that Jesus asks lots of questions, but he doesn’t answer many.  According to one source, [ii] Jesus asked 307 different questions in the gospels.  And Jesus was asked 183 questions.  But Jesus only directly answered 3.

            So I asked Jesus, “Why all the questions?”  And he answered, “Why shouldn’t I ask questions?”

            Have you had the experience of suddenly noticing things because you’ve started thinking about it?  I never noticed how many Camrys are on the road until I bought one.  Then they suddenly seemed to be everywhere.

            I was thinking about questions and I suddenly noticed people posting things about them on Facebook.  One was a picture of a chimp, hand on chin, seeming to have deep thoughts.  The picture’s caption read, “Intelligence: Not because you know everything without question, but rather because you question everything you think you know.” [iii]

            I decided to stream Star Trek: Deep Space 9 for some entertainment at home.  It’s my favorite series from the Star Trek franchise and I haven’t seen it in years.  So there I was, watching episode 1 of season 1, simultaneously checking email, when I thought, “Whoa!  That’s the point I want to make on Sunday.”

            Commander Sisko is explaining baseball to the wormhole aliens, and needs to explain that we experience time linearly, that we experience past, present, and future, and that the future is unknown to us.
Sisko:  The game wouldn’t be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.
WHA:  You value your ignorance of what is to come?
Sisko:  That may be the most important thing to understand about humans.  It is the unknown that defines our existence.  We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions.  We are explorers.  We explore our lives, day by day.  And we explore the galaxy trying to expand our knowledge.  And that is why I am here.… [iv]

            Our questions are important.  In fact, I’d say our questions are more important than our answers.  Now this poses a challenge because we crave answers.  We hunger for absolutes.  We want to believe that someday we will understand everything.  And the more anxious we are, the deeper the hunger, the greater the craving.  We search for the ultimate explanation.  Certainty feels comforting in uncomfortable times.

            That is why what Commander Sisko said is so important.  Because our questions push us to find answers, when we find answers, we also need to find new questions.  Thus, a cycle of growth continues.  This is particularly important in the realms of science.  Our questions move us to discoveries, and our discoveries move us to new questions.

            But in the realm of faith, what can we know for certain?  In the Christian tradition, all too often the word faith has been used to explain away something that no longer makes sense.  For example, “If the earth is only six thousand years old, how could there have been dinosaurs?” Answer: “We must have faith.”  When the idea of faith is used in this way, Christianity becomes more and more about accepting things that are less and less acceptable, of believing thing that are more and more unbelievable.  And this hurts Christianity.

            This past week I read two reports on a recent study about why young adults are leaving the church.  The study was conducted by the Barna Group, and it found six reasons why Millennials (young adults aged 18-29) leave the church: [v]

1.      a sense that young adults were receiving an unsatisfying or “shallow” version of Christianity,

2.      feelings that the church was overprotective,

3.      the perception of judgmental attitudes around sex and sexuality,

4.      the sense that Christianity was too exclusive,

5.      churches’ unfriendliness to members grappling with doubt,

6.      and finally, the tense relationship between Christianity and science.

            The last two of these reasons deal directly with what I’m talking about today.  In fact, all six of these reasons are being addressed in this sermon series.  Pastor Steve and I have been talking about what is distinctive about a church like ours, what is distinctive about a Progressive Christian congregation, and in the process we have unintentionally addressed – directly or indirectly – the objections Millennials have about Christianity.  And, as I said, I’m addressing their last two objections in today’s sermon.

            The problem is that faith is too often confused with belief.  The two are really quite different.  Belief is about mental assent.  I believe these things; I give my mental assent to these propositions.  I can believe that the world is flat or I can believe that the word is round.  Now, it turns out that there’s scientific evidence that the world is round, but I can still believe, I can still give my mental assent to the proposition, that the world is flat.  It would be foolish for me to do so, but I could do it.

            I can believe that God is real or I can believe that God is not real.  Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to prove or disprove the existence of God, so my belief in the existence of God seems to be a matter of faith.

            The difference between belief and faith however can be seen in this example.  I may believe that God is real, but still have no relationship with God.  Faith draws me into relationship.  Faith is about fidelity, faithfulness in my relationship with God  Faith is about trust, the way one’s faith in one’s spouse includes trusting one’s spouse.

            Zen philosopher Alan Watts wrote, “Belief … is the insistence that the truth is what one would ‘lief’ or wish [it] to be …  Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.  Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown.  Belief clings, but faith let’s go … faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.” [vi]

            Because progressive Christians focus on faith rather than belief, doubt is not only acceptable, it is, at some level, expected.  When we live with our questions, sometimes those questions are expressions of our doubts, they are questions about our beliefs.  And progressive Christians value the questioning of beliefs.

            Take, for instance, our approach to scripture.  “It may give comfort to some to assume that with ‘correct’ reading of their Bible they can find the ultimate answers.  But modern scholarship has demonstrated that our beloved scriptures are culturally and socially bound to an era.  We now ‘know’ that the earth is not flat and that it is wrong to own another human being, for example even though our scripture might suggest something different.” [vii]

            We cannot find the ultimate answers in the Bible.  But the scriptures are a powerful tool – and have been for humanity throughout scripture’s history – when they have been used to provide the ultimate questions.  “It can be easily argued that the human struggle with those questions, especially those about our treatment of others, has had an incredibly positive influence on the human condition throughout history.” [viii]

            So Jesus rarely gave a straight answer to a straight question.  If fact, he often answered questions with questions or he told a puzzling story.  Even though they probably thought a direct answer would be most helpful, Jesus put his questioners in a position of having to think for themselves.  Rather than offering his disciples answers to life’s most perplexing problems, Jesus introduced them to deeper and deeper levels of ambiguity.

            Consider the sayings of Jesus collected in the chapters in Matthew’s gospel, the section we call “the Sermon on the Mount.”  Here we find Jesus confronting his disciples with contradictions.  “He told them that nothing in the law could be changed, not the tiniest letter or the stroke of a letter.  Nevertheless, he also taught them to question some of the most basic principles of the law, such as the rules concerning murder, adultery, retribution, alms giving, and prayer.” [ix]

            Why didn’t Jesus provide straight answers?  One reason is probably because answers provide a false sense of confidence and security.  And in providing false confidence and security, they become barriers to an awareness of God.  Answers can even become substitutes for God.

            Catholic author Richard Rohr writes, “In general, we can see that Jesus’ style is almost exactly the opposite of modern televangelism or even the mainline church approach of ‘Dear Abby’ bits of inspiring advice and workable solutions for daily living.  Jesus is too much the Jewish prophet to merely stabilize the status quo with platitudes.” [x]

            Jesus is not a giver of advice.  He doesn’t give us a neat list of ten ways to be closer to God.  He does not provide easy answers.  Instead he asks hard questions.  In that he is more like the Zen master who asks questions to take us beyond the obvious to something deeper.

            “Easy answers can give us a sense of finality.  By entertaining hard questions God has a chance to change us.” [xi]

            Living with our questions may be more stressful and less settling than deluding ourselves with what we think are the “right” answers, but it is a more faithful way to live.  And I’ll tell you, I think we will find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, in the questions than in the answers.

Amen.



ENDNOTES
[i] These questions are adapted from questions I collected at the Niles Discovery Church Daytime Women’s Fellowship meeting on 17 October 2011.

[ii] UCC’s Stillspeaking Daily Devotional email, Martin B. Copenhaver, “Jesus Is the Question,” dated 24 July 2011.

[iv] From the first episode, “Emissary,” of the TV Series Star Trek: Deep Space 9, transcribed by me on 19 October 2011.

[v] Amelia, Public Religion Research Institute, “Millennials Leave Their Churches Over Science, Lesbian & Gay Issues,” http://publicreligion.org/2011/10/millennials-leave-their-churches-over-science-lesbian-gay-issues/ (22 October 2011).

[vi] Quoted without further attribution or citation in ProgressiveChristianity.org, “The 8 Points: Point6 - Study Guide,” http://tcpc.org/about/point6_study.cfm (19 October 2011).

[vii] ProgressiveChristianity.org, op. cit.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Quoted by Copenhaver, op. cit.

[xi] Ibid.

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