Beyond Our Understanding? The Power of Questions

Having given an uncharacteristically straight answer to the Pharisees’ doctrinal questions by summarizing the law into “love God and love your neighbor,” Jesus questioned them in turn:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question: “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?” They said to Him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “Then how does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Until I put Your enemies beneath Your feet”’?
If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?” No one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question. (Matthew 22:41-46)

This illustrates the power of questions to change thinking, to stimulate thought, and to inform ideas. God’s questions are designed to change thinking about Him and about ourselves. Job’s view of God was too small, too restricted, too limited; while his view of himself was too expansive, too large, too inflated. This, it seems, is the chronic condition of fallen Mankind. We see neither God nor ourselves in the proper light. God’s questions are designed to expose both of these errors.

The question: “Where are you?” put to Adam in the garden of Eden was to show Adam that his view of God was too limited. God is of course everywhere, and cannot be hidden from. “Who told you you were naked?” starkly exposed Man’s limitations with regard to self-assessment. He asked Abraham and Sarah, who had a limited view of God: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” In asking Jacob his name, God was asking him to recognize his fallen condition and that despite his best efforts he would never overcome God in any contest. In asking Jonah: “Do you have a right to be angry?” God was asking if Jonah’s assessment of Nineveh was more accurate than His.

The Pharisees’ answer to Jesus’ question: “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?” was that he was the son of David. The answer expressed the idea that Christ was just like them, since they considered themselves to be the sons of David; that they were equal to Christ. They had too exalted a view of themselves and too limited a view of God.

This is the doctrinal deficiency we face: Too little God, too much of ourselves. Our view is that God is just like us, only smarter, bigger, faster, stronger. But He has white skin, white hair, two arms, two legs, a (very big) heart, speaks English of course… or He is dark-skinned and speaks isiZulu or Arabic if you are amaZulu or Arab, respectively.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

In this passage, and in His questions, God is pointing out the extreme, immeasurable, incomprehensible difference between us and Him. Doctrines are the set of beliefs and teachings that members of a faith group hold about themselves and about God. It seems that this is what God wants to change with questions.

We’ve studied the stages of faith: The self-centered, antisocial stage 1; the institutional stage 2, directed by authorities who have the answers; the sceptical stage 3, with questions such as “Are you sure…? Can you believe…? Is it really true…?”; and the transcendent stage 4, with its mystical view of God. It is remarkable that stage 2—scepticism and doubt—is most shunned by the church yet is most reflected in the questions of God.

As long as Man’s view of himself and of God goes unchallenged, he is in a position of erroneous certainty. We prefer error to uncertainty. We would always rather make something up than admit we don’t know it. God’s 77 thundering questions to Job established not only that it is OK not to know the answers but also that not knowing is not a barrier to full enlightenment and fulfillment. The lesson in Job seems to be that we have been too dependent upon answers, on knowing, on “truth,” on certainty. God wants us to be dependent on Him. He is the answer. Data are not the answer. Data changes, but God does not.

So what is the power of a question? Is it possible that learning can be centered on questions alone? Or does learning demand answers as well as questions? Are questions unnerving to those in stage 2 faith—that is, to most churchgoers? They turn to authority, which by definition has the answers we want. Wisdom comes from questions, from the ability to stimulate creative thought, to garner introspection, to point toward enlightenment. These are the outcome of good questions—the questions of God.

As Mankind demands more and more answers, as databases expand and more answers are available, should we expect more answers from God? Can our view of ourselves and our view of God be based on questions alone?

David: The thing that seemed to concern God about the Tower of Babel was that it would lead to some understanding of Him, hence the Babelonian diaspora that formed tribes and nations with different languages and cultures. Are we building a new and improved Babel v.2 by, in effect, reversing the diaspora, by means of automatic language translation technology and other technologies that together are coalescing us back into a unity? Will modern technology take us closer to God than the ancient technology of Babel v.1 did, before it was destroyed? Will God destroy Babel v.2? Does not the reason He gave for destroying Babel v.1 still apply, and is not Babel v.2 even more inimical to His will?

Alice: I think that confusion is mounting, and we are getting further away from becoming One.

David: I agree; but, to me, the rifts and confusion are temporary teething trouble which we will get over, eventually. If we don’t, we may destroy the planet. The Jehovah’s Witnesses see the growing confusion and violence as the start of Armageddon.

Jay: What if we do get over our teething troubles and coalesce around something that is great but not Good? Wasn’t that God’s concern with Babel? Historically, we seem to have been incapable of coalescing around a common good that aligns with the will of God. As technology continues to advance, the generations will indeed increasingly understand the world and be able to communicate with other cultures—we can already perceive a marked difference between the younger and older generations in that respect. But if that growing unity does not act in alignment with the will of God, there is indeed the potential for an Armageddon-like event. Will united humanity destroy itself, or will God forestall that, as he did in Babel?

David: There is certainly the potential for worldly mayhem, but I think (from my understanding of Scripture) that the unity God is concerned with is spiritual unity, not the United Nations. I myself have been more-or-less consciously trying to demonstrate the spiritual unity of Zen Buddhism, Daoism, and what I regard as true Christian theology (that is to say, the theology of Jesus as presented in the Gospels). I see nothing but good in such unity, certainly at the individual spiritual level. Yet the Babelonians apparently achieved such unity, and God did not like it, according to the Bible. To me, this leaves a gaping chasm of a question.

Jay: A unity around Good would seem ideal and unproblematic. The big question, to me, is: Even with the best of intentions, is humanity truly capable of unifying around Good? The potential may grow in line with technological advances, but even so, can humanity and its institutions maintain a unitary capital-T Truth, a divine Goodness, or is that only attainable at the individual level? Is it inherent to coalescing into organized institutions—organizing and defining and identifying ourselves as members of a group—that we water down, or divert, or otherwise interfere with our individual alignment with the will of God?

Don: The natural tendency of Mankind is to view God in a too-limited way and to view ourselves in a too-expansive way. God’s questions emphasize this. Is that compatible with coalescing around Goodness?

David: I think we will find out, because I see evidence of the coalescing taking place. So to me the question is: Will God tolerate it? Why would He not tolerate it in the Babelonians?

Jay: As we approach a better understanding of God as a unified spiritual force, will we be able to focus on the target—Good (by which I mean grace, love, forgiveness, and so on—the essence of God)? Are we not prone to fooling ourselves into believing that we can maintain that focus, that it is the factor motivating their joining together, as at Babel? We want to be closer to heaven, to have a better connection with God, so let’s get together to make it happen. Is it a trap to think a corporation, an institution, can achieve this for us? Or is it achievable only by the individual?

David: God does not seem to mind when individuals achieve enlightenment. Historical accounts of sages tend not to end in tragedy (Jesus is arguably an exception).

Don: Job is an example of that. Even with the best of intentions, it seems that the inclination to weaponize even goodness is strong in fallen humanity. Is the inclination amplified in a corporate setting?

Chris: Goodness cannot be obtained where there is evil. Goodness can and historically has often been twisted, with results that are evil even though the intent might have been good. The church has committed horrific acts while thinking it was doing good, doing the right thing. The only place where Goodness can obtain is where evil does not exist; that is to say, in the new heaven and the new earth.

David: This may be discouraging for the institution, but not for the individual who achieves an appreciation of the wholeness of God and accepts the wholeness. But the individual cannot perceive that wholeness, cannot reach that appreciation, by cobbling God together from bits and pieces, as institutions have done. This surely is a key message from Job. He did not—could not—give a detailed description of his enlightened perception, but clearly he was satisfied. He accepted God and accepted that God was unknowable; and that was quite enough. That was all he needed to know.

Chris: When we can accept our individual limitations—that we cannot be perfect and always good—it is comforting to know there is someone else we can rely on. That someone is God, the embodiment of goodness and love. Knowing this helps me to try to be a better person. In a corporate setting, the individual can get lost. But the corporate body has value and I think it is possible to retain one’s individuality as part of a corporate body.

Dr. Singh: The children of Man are so full of pride and vainglory, magnifying their own strength and wisdom. It is necessary for God to ask questions and to disappoint their goals. Because God wants us to depend on Him, the source of everything. He showed His love for us through the infinite sacrifice of Christ and through faith in His name. The sons of Adam became the sons of God.

Don: It is remarkable that religion deals in answers, while God deals in questions.

Robin: To the extent we have answers, it is because God has provided them, not because we have figured them out on our own.

Don: Yet He provided very few for Job.

Robin: His answer was “Trust me, even though you can’t understand.”

Don: Can we learn from questions alone, or are at least some answers necessary?

Jay: It depends on whether the subject is learnable or not. The essence of God and His will is beyond learning. When we ask God: “Who are You?” we could not possibly understand the answer even if He provided it. But answers to questions such as: “What is the sum of 2 plus 2?” are comprehensible and therefore learnable.

If we could learn God as we learn arithmetic there would be no need for faith, because by definition faith depends on the unknowable. Institutions dilute the need for faith by providing a corporate cloak of answers. A transcendent God requires faith so strong that a smidgen would be enough to move a mountain.

It’s curious that although we align with God most closely as individuals, we tend to run away from that personal alignment. Stage 2 people see it as a slippery slope—as a shirking of corporate responsibility by stage 3 and 4 people who don’t want to follow the rules; people who would rather trust their inherently biased individual relationship with God than one mediated by the institution so that they can feel more comfortable in their sin. They are using their own measuring stick, and we can’t have that. As fallen Man, we are suspicious of any individual relationship with God.

Don: Stage 4 faith involves a personal relationship and is independent of the corporate relationship.

David: But as Chris said, the individual tends to get lost within the corporate church. Does God get lost there also? An individualized God may have dangers but cannot be lost within the confines of the closet.

Chris: The questions of Jesus make us look internally, at ourselves; not externally, not at what is happening with others. We may get lost in the institution because the focus is external, guided by rules. We are more likely to become judgmental of others instead of examining ourselves, which I think the questions of Jesus guide us toward. But self-appraisal is a dangerous business: There is dirty laundry we don’t even want to acknowledge.

Anonymous: If we were true seekers, we might learn better from questions. But if we are indifferent to learning, questions won’t achieve anything. Job was a seeker. He wanted answers, and finally he got questions, through which—as a true seeker—he learned. His friends were not true seekers; they simply dumped their answers on Job. God did not even bother to communicate with them. Questions make sense to people who really want to know, because they open doors to possible answers. Non-seekers do not feel this stimulus from questions.

David: Job had good reasons to ask questions; his friends did not. His life was in ruins; theirs were not. He faced an existential crisis; they did not. We look down on Job’s friends, and Scripture even has God disdaining them, but what did they do wrong? They had no reason to seek the Truth because what they took to be Truth was working just fine for them. Job was practically forced to become a seeker.

Does God really care one way or the other? I suspect it is acceptable to Him whether we feel compelled to ask questions or are content with such answers we feel we already have. Christianity teaches that we will be saved through the grace of God, either way. Questions may be necessary for enlightenment, but is enlightenment necessary for salvation?

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