I think that I love questions…
I am a biblical scholar by training. I went to university at 26 because, having worked for nearly 8 years in churches I had a whole host of questions about theology that the people around me really found awkward. So awkward in fact that my boss at what we used to call ‘parachurch organisations’ took me into his office and said that not only were my questions bothering others but “wouldn’t your life be easier if you didn’t ask so many questions and were happy with the simple answers?” I cried all the way home from that meeting. It felt like someone had shut me into a box and sat on the lid.
I do believe he thought he was being helpful. I was young and passionate and it was the 90’s. In our organisation women in ministry was a contentious issue and I think gender had a lot to do with his advice and gentle reprimands – I was not an easy, neat and tidy person to have around and I was not a quiet woman asking for her place at the table quietly. I, rather, didn’t understand there was politics around my place and so was loud and blundering and passionate. (I still don’t think he was right as I doubt he told young men to be less than they were for the sake of others, but I am now more aware of what I may have looked like to him). The ‘others’ I was bothering were mainly people who had differing views to me but were less extrovert. I’d been told that on Monday mornings we had ‘hard questions’ sessions and anything was allowed. So I asked anything and I pushed to the limits of my own intellect and inquisitive nature. Particularly about places where our practice or theology didn’t match the Bible. I had a deep desire to be ‘Biblically sound’ (a term I now question in itself – irony) and I wanted to know answers and I didn’t want to be fobbed off with what I could see were thin paper answers over deep cracks.
What should have happened in that meeting? I should have been told what I have learnt through my own pain and growth – questioning is a pastoral issue as well as an intellectual one, and it must be handled with care; care for those around you, and care for oneself.
So I took myself off to university. And at university I was utterly blessed to be taught by two women who were passionately intellectual, fiercely themselves, and graciously pastoral. The Rev Dr Ann Jeffers and Dr Bridget Gilfillan Upton did the opposite of my boss. They challenged me to poke further into the questions I had. They told me my questions were normal. But most importantly they taught me that tension – between what I know now and what I’m learning; between what I believe and what I’m experiencing – is not only normal, but a thing to be treasured rather than solved. They told me it was totally ok to walk in tension, and that holding two differing answers for a while was a gift not a problem. They allowed me space to be both a person of faith and of doubt. Some of you may never had needed that, but having been put in a box that didn’t fit for so long I needed space. They knew my questions were a pastoral issue about how to be myself as much as they were genuine queries about theology.
I found solace in the academic side of those questions. For me academia is life giving because it allowed me a place to question and hold the tension, while carrying on day to day with my faith. I learnt in those years that research and learning are expansive – they twist and wind around before blooming into a position. I learnt that it was ok to follow the twisting and winding for a while before changing my core beliefs – I learnt to hold the tension. I learnt to recognise when I needed to take my learning back to my heart and let it change my religious position – its when it starts to feel like my spiritual pants are too tight!
The bible has always been a passion of mine. When i discovered the academic pursuit of Biblical studies I was over joyed. Here was a space in which none of my questions were outlawed, and where two thousand years worth of scholars had trod before me and not felt they couldn’t also follow Jesus. Oh, plenty of Biblical scholars don’t follow Jesus or have lost faith, but only the same amount as lose faith studying anything or going through life in general. Trust me, you don’t lose faith through study, you merely find out that your faith was not quite what you thought it was. Sadly many people aren’t taught what I was. They are taught that if they cant find the answer quickly then its blind adherence to the Bible or academic study of it. But, as I said, I was lucky and I learnt what I try to pass on whenever i am in a church setting – questioning the Bible, questioning theology IS the history of the church. One does not have to choose between the Bible as a thing you love, the living word in your life, and the questions that bother you about it. If faith is living, then it grows and changes, expands and contracts with us as we grow and change, as our lives expand and contract.
What I love about pursuing my subject is the tension between what I think I know and what I’m learning and what I have experienced.
What I love about teaching is that my two mentors taught me to be challenging to my students intellect and gentle with their lives and I get to pass that on. You see, questioning is a pastoral issue. We question because we encounter a problem (not always in life maybe just in our thoughts) and we need to solve it one way or another. One way is to quiet it with a repetition of what we already believe. Another way is to push in to the tension. I want to say we should always push in but the pastor in me knows that sometimes a wound needs to heal a bit first. Sometimes you need gentleness because just ripping that band aid off too early will open a bigger wound and cause a bigger problem.
I’ve rarely had a first year student ask me a purely intellectual question. I’ve learnt now that if someone asks something its because there heart is hurting a little by the tension they find themselves in, or something has happened in their life that this touches on. I learnt in youth work that if a young person asked about ghosts to be wary about being flippant, more often than not someone had just died. Questions come from the heart of us. We should cherish them. But they can be painful. Questioning is a pastoral issue.
We walk a fine line between being gentle with our questions and becoming fundamentalist in our avoidance of tension in our faith. For example the Bible has issues. We cannot pretend that they aren’t there by merely repeating the phrase ‘the bible is the living word of God’. There are inconsistencies, there is violence, there is gender discrimination. These aren’t hard to find. But the choice is not ‘say the Bible has no issues and never ask again’ vs ‘throw it away entirely it clearly is just lies’. Rather there are myriad ways to investigate for ourselves what the Bible is in our lives, what it means, what we think ‘truth’ is, what we think the phrase ‘the word of God’ means….and then to live with that book of books while we investigate.
I didn’t go to university until I was 26, 13 years after I became a follower of Christ. Whatever I learnt there doesn’t undo that 13 years of relationship with the Bible, God and my faith. That isn’t a choice I have to make. I get to choose to live in the tension. I have learnt that God is with us there also. I learnt that it would be strange if my relationship with the Bible and God were they same now as when I was 13.
Sometimes stepping out of the question and sitting in just faith is also the best place to be. Neither constant questioning nor constant unwavering surety is more holy – God is surely big enough to allow us to be in both. The history of theology and church life shows us this more than anything. To question is a gift. To not question is a gift. Tension is a gift.
I love questions….But maybe I dont