Mankind has always sought answers; and religion, through its doctrines, has always been more than willing to supply them. But God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament repeatedly avoided giving direct answers. Instead, they answered questions with other questions, or with parables that suggested answers without being specific. The Bible is not a catechism: A catchism takes the form question, answer, question, answer.
From beginning to end, the Bible shows a God of Questions, not a God of Answers. Does He then bear some of the responsibility for there being so many doctrinal divisions? Could a doctrine be based on questions alone? Could a church function as effectively by questioning answers as it can by answering questions? Could a university base its existence on creating curious, creative minds that seek deep answers to life’s most perplexing questions, as much as it bases its existence on providing indoctrinating answers?
In the garden of Eden, God was deliberate, decisive, and directing. He created, day by day, with intention and deliberation:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:15-25)
God set the agenda for the garden, and He took deliberate action to implement His agenda. Man did not know he needed a helpmate, but God gave him one without so much as a by-your-leave. The fall of Man began with a question, put to Eve by the serpent:
“Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)
In essence, the serpent was asking: “Has God been clear and unambiguous?” Eve answered: “Yes.” But after the Fall, things changed rapidly:
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:8-13)
The Tree of Life is the Tree of Certainty, the Tree of Answers; while the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the Tree of Uncertainty, the Tree of Questions, the Tree of Discernment and Discrimination.
From this point on God’s Plan and his modus operandi seemed to change. He was no longer the God of Command and Instruction, but instead a God of Questions: “Where are you? Who told you you were naked? Did you eat the forbidden fruit?” and “What have you done?” Why did God not simply tell them He knew what they had done and that therefore they must die? Why all the questions? Why no mention of death?
The questions have never stopped coming ever since. In the story of life, God ask the questions. To Cain: “Why are you angry?” “Where is your brother?” “What have you done?” To Adam and Sarah: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” To Moses: “What is that in your hand?” To Gideon: “Have I not sent you?” To Isaiah: “Who will go? Who can I send?” To Jacob: “What is your name?” To Jonah: “Do you have reason to be angry?” To Job, who was threatening to sue Him in court for answers to his questions of life, God responded with 77 existential questions about Man’s standing before God, and his place in the universe. It goes on.
Jesus in the New Testament relied on questions even more than God in the Old Testament. His first recorded words formed a question:
When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48-49)
His last recorded words on the cross were also a question:
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46)
In the New Testament Jesus asked 307 questions, and was Himself asked 183 questions, of which He directly answered only eight. Is it not frustrating?
- Q: “Jesus, should we pay tax?”
A: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; render unto God the things that are God’s.”
- Q: “Jesus, who is my neighbor?”
A: “There was this guy walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he got mugged…”
In a world where knowledge is changing rapidly, the dataset from which we draw answers changes too. What we know about the Earth, our bodies, our universe, is accelerating. Even what we know about God seems to be constantly changing.
Buckminster Fuller noted that up to about the year 1900, human knowledge doubled about every 100 years, but by the end of World War 2, it was doubling every 25 years. Today it’s a little more complex. We recognize that different domains of knowledge accelerate at different rates. Nanotechnology knowledge, for example, doubles every two years. Clinical medical knowledge doubles every 18 months. The average doubling across all domains of human knowledge is 13 months. According to IBM, the buildup of the Internet of Things will lead to a doubling every 12 hours. How will answers keep up? How will answers change with the expansion of knowledge?
Is it possible that the end product of doctrinal discovery is not the destination, but, rather, the journey? Might it be that God, anticipating this explosion of knowledge, established that the basis for our knowledge of Him would rest in questions rather than in answers? Can doctrine, can our relationship with God, be built on a scaffolding of questions rather than a scaffolding of answers? Does eternal relevance rest in answers or questions, given how rapidly answers change and may become irrelevant, while the questions stay the same?
Donald: Would we be better people if the Bible gave us a set of direct answers? Would humankind have the capacity to agree on those answers? Some people claim they follow the Bible, independent of doctrine. The Ten Commandments are not questions. Even when we are given such direct commands, we can and do debate what was meant by each command.
Robin: God is not a dictator and He did not create robots. It was appropriate that Jesus was called “Rabbi” because God (therefore Jesus) has a teaching style. Teachers know that younger students need answers they can learn by rote, but older students need to be taught how to figure out answers on their own. For parents, there is a time to show children how to work through a problem and where to find answers, and a (later) time to let them work it out for themselves.
Anonymous: There is great value in working questions out inside, rather than taking ready-made answers from outside. I think God wants us to gain insight, and that cannot be wrong because we reach that point under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and God trusts the insight we gain. God provides understanding through the heart. Church provides other people’s insights, but they are not our own.
David: I struggle in understanding the role doctrine might play when all that matters is an internal relationship with God. The important questions are not to be asked of priests, pastors, or elders: They are questions we ask of God, as Jacob did. The Jews called Jesus “Rabbi” in the expectation that he would provide textbook—public—answers, but clearly He would not. So what then is the role of a teacher who does not provide answers? The Socratic method of teaching by asking questions works, as Jesus knew, but does it require some basis of knowledge to be able to frame the questions? As Jacob grew older, he accumulated more knowledge about life, and the knowledge led him to his questions and his (internal) struggle with God. There’s no place for doctrine in any of this, it seems to me.
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
The tricky question is: What is inspired Scriptural doctrine, versus Man’s own doctrine?
Don: Does the explosion of knowledge alter the answers? If the answer is: “Yes,” then I think we have a basis for redesigning the doctrinal paradigm. But If the answer is: “No—the answers stay the same forever and will never become irrelevant,” then it takes us down a different path.
Donald: We can see changes in church doctrine over the historical long term, but it’s harder to see them happening in real time and to predict what doctrine will be like in future generations. Does that mean we have lost our grip on principle, or does culture modify what we think we know? Is culture knowledge?
Anonymous: Unless we live a doctrine to the extent that it becomes part of our lifestyle, our daily living, it will remain just doctrine. But if we do incorporate it as part of our being, it is no longer just doctrine. Doctrines are given to people who get their information from outside of themselves. It is just literature to them; even the Bible. When we adopt a life that accords with God’s words, we do not need doctrine. The ten Commandments are not mere suggestions, not options. We either follow them as doctrines, because they are what the Bible says, and because we will not be good if we do not follow them, or we follow them because we are convinced, internally, of their relevance to our life. Once we have internalized them, we no longer need the Church or even the Bible to remind us of them.
Donald: It seems like a diet. If we just follow the book, it is just a diet. But if it becomes an ordinary part of our life, it becomes a principle, a lifestyle.
David: In that light, I can see (as Don has maintained all along) that Scripture can indeed be intensely relevant—not because church or preacher says so, but because it can be internalized and form a part of one’s being. A church and its preachers and its doctrines probably, then, are meaningful—to those who have internalized Scripture through a personal connection with God. But the connection with God must come first, it seems to me, logically. But the tradition is the opposite: We go to church to find God. But what joy must church and the Bible be to those who have found God!
Don: Could that be any church?
David: I think so.
Anonymous: The closet is the church.
David: As it was for Jacob, I believe, in his wrestling match with God.
Donald: We may be born or converted to a church. The latter occurs on the basis that one has found God and therefore comes to His house. But this does not follow for one born into a church. Does it?
Anonymous: It is deeper and better for those who have found God.
Robin: People may experience different kinds of conversion, depending on many factors besides being born into a church. Education, cultural, environmental factors all affect the conversion. But the key element in a true conversion seems to be a dramatic moment in which God speaks directly to them and leads them to turn inwards and away from the factors that shaped their lives before. For someone raised in a “good” church environment, conversion still needs a true self-recognition of one’s sinful nature, but it might be less dramatic than for someone from a “bad” environment.
David: That is exactly the experience that Jacob had. His struggle was with his true, sinful, self. The sudden recognition of that self comes as a deeply humiliating shock, as it did to Jacob when God asked him his name—which was a way of saying “Who are you really? He was converted into understanding his true self, and it is through that that a relationship with God is achieved.
Robin: He was no longer just the child of Isaac, but his own man.
Don: It is a call by God for introspection. That was the purpose of his questions to Adam and Eve: “Why are you hiding?—What have you done?” God calls for self-reflection and conversion of the inner wo/man, rather than for recognition of Himself. Jesus also asked questions that cause us to look inside our hearts. They are not simple questions. They are deep questions that cause us to look inwards, to examine ourselves. This perspective is quite different from the external doctrinal perspective, it seems to me.
Donald: The AA’s 12-Step program focuses on personal introspection, too. In contrast, Weightwatchers focuses on points, collected by buying Weightwatchers’ products. We tend to much prefer the latter approach to the former. It is prepackaged, convenient, ready to go. We would rather pay others to take care of our issues.
Anonymous: And this gives external entities, from Weightwatchers to religious organizations, more control over individual lives. Churches control their followers by giving them rules and question/answer catechisms. Thought is discouraged. This is the opposite of what God intended for us. He gave us intelligent minds by which to think and question and grow as individuals. It is nowhere more clear than in the story of Adam and Eve that knowledge acquired from an external source is destructive to our growth with God, yet our appetite for knowledge is voracious so we look to churches to provide it. This diametrically opposite to what God intended, it seems to me. God wants to free our minds, but Satan wants to control them. We must look for the truth, for the answers to our questions, inside ourselves.
David: It seems to me vital to this discussion that we differentiate between worldly knowledge—the stuff that is accumulating at an exponential rate—and divine knowledge, which is complete and unchanging. Questions about my chances of dying from cancer, how cancer works, what therapies will cure it, etc., have different answers today than they had 100 or even 20 years ago, and will have different answers again, maybe in as few as five years hence. So the explosion of knowledge does make a difference in our daily, worldly, lives. It is life-changing.
It may be, though, that accumulating worldly knowledge can change our spiritual lives as well. As Anon has suggested, a truly fulfilled spiritual life depends on self-knowledge. It seems to me that scientific knowledge (no matter that it is ephemeral, that it may be true today but false tomorrow) can change the way we think about ourselves. Think of all the “coming out” that occurred a decade or more ago when scientific and even genetic explanations for homosexuality were added to the knowledge base. Was this not an example of worldly knowledge perhaps influencing self-knowledge, at least in some individuals?
Self-knowledge itself is not worldly knowledge about how the world works or how we work at the anatomical, genetic, and other physical and psychological levels. It is not about how people behave: It is about how we, our individual selves, behave and think and function. Age plays a role, in that we are bound to get to know ourselves better over time (as Jacob did). This has not changed, I believe, since humanity first appeared on Earth, and will not have changed by the time humanity last appears on Earth. We have a great deal more scientific, worldly knowledge than our ancestors, but I know my true self no better than Socrates knew his true self (probably worse).
In His “Render unto Caesar” response, did Jesus betray some testy frustration at the questioner’s failure to grasp the difference in the two types of question? “What have taxes got to do with your relationship with God?” I seem to hear Him saying. That which is Caesar’s can change when a new Caesar takes over, but that which is God’s never changes.
Don: Next week we will consider the components of a “good” or “important” question.
Donald: The existential questions have not changed. But the answers, provided by doctrines, have.
Dr. Singh: The Holy Spirit provides answers and direction, through prayer.
Donald: We celebrate the acquisition of worldly knowledge with elaborate, dressy graduation ceremonies at university.
Don: The knowledge rooted in doctrine is not internal knowledge. It seems to me that external knowledge is a flimsy foundation for doctrine, since it changes. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a doctrine forbidding blood transfusions. But science seems set on providing an artificial blood substitute that would do the essential job of maintaining a supply of oxygen to the organs and tissues. When artificial blood is approved by the FDA, as it probably will be one day, how might that affect the JW doctrine? Will it become invalid and be changed? Will disease-free pork cells cloned in a sterile lab to form a chop be acceptable to Moslems? A shrimp grown in a petri dish to Buddhists?
So many doctrinal points regarding food and drink and medicine and so on are based on the shifting sands of knowledge concerning them.
David: I think the JW leadership in Bethel will certainly debate the issue of artificial blood transfusion and revise (or not) their doctrine. The result will be binding on every Witness. Will the JW parents of a child about to die in the emergency room if not transfused look—truly look—inside themselves for the answers, or will they look only as far as the doctrine? Most will turn to their doctrine. To me, that is a problem; to them, it is the answer.
The Watchtower magazine reflects the JW’s careful monitoring of science and its adjustment to new knowledge. It seems to me their solution is to spin the science as much as possible to make it fit the doctrine, rather than change the doctrine to fit the new knowledge.
Donald: The Amish simply stopped time.