Living the questions  3

Christ indeed answers our questions; but he also questions our answers

Attributed to Rowan Williams in What Is A Rule of Life?

 

In my first post I tried to describe the faith journey that I am on; the journey into an experience of exile stimulated by changes in the world around me and consequent changes within me. I hinted that this is both an enriching and an unsettling journey.

Question the Answers by Walknboston CC BY 2.0
Question the Answers by Walknboston CC BY 2.0

If you had spoken to me several years ago I would have said that faith was about providing answers to very important questions: about God, about humanity, about who Christ is, about how we relate to God etc. I would have considered a faith that did not provide answers to be ‘woolly’, intellectually inadequate and without direction.

I have, however, now come to a different understanding of questions and answers. The problem with a focus on answers is with their finality. They give an impression of having arrived at the answer; that once the answer has been found we now possess the truth. There does not then seem to be much room for progression, nor any desire for movement. Not only does this not sit well in the current cultural climate, but, more seriously, it seems to leave no room for the mystery and incomprehensible nature of God.

Rowan Williams’ statement, ‘Christ indeed answers our questions; but he also questions our answers’ describes the paradox that I have come to live with. I am left asking if it possible to have a faith in which there is room for progression and movement, but is not woolly, intellectually inadequate and without direction?

As a companion of the Northumbria Community I have come to appreciate its emphasis on ‘living the questions’.

The best we can do is to talk about living the questions at the heart of our life as a response rather than an answer. Answers give finality whereas we want to convey life still being lived, discoveries yet to be made, exploration and adventure being real.

(from the article Mulling Over the Questions)

The questions that the Northumbria Community has chosen to live by are:

  • Who is it that you seek?
  • How then shall we live?
  • How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

 

Asking the right questions is an important skill. For example, a key element in any research project is to frame the research questions. These questions provide the framework for the research. They set the direction for the entire project and, amidst the vast amount of data that can be accumulated, ensure that the researchers keep focused and are not distracted by interesting but irrelevant information.

Similarly, I have found that the Northumbria Community’s questions can become the basis for a life of faith that is not woolly, intellectually inadequate or without direction. On the contrary, they can become the basis of a life long exploration and deepening understanding, in which each new insight is never the end of a process, but a milestone on the way to even more understanding. They also serve to maintain focus and direction on the journey.

 

Who is it that you seek?

Sherlock Holmes by HebiFot / CC0 Public Domain
Sherlock Holmes by HebiFot / CC0 Public Domain

This is a question that does have an answer. We are seeking God, through Jesus Christ.

Yet this is an answer that immediately raises other questions. Who is Jesus Christ? What is the connection or relationship between Jesus and God? Why Jesus and not one of the many other religious figures we could choose from?

At this point I find Leslie Newbigin’s description of ‘Christ as the clue’ helpful. He describes Christ as,the clue to history, its source and its goal’1 and after his first encounter with Christ, he writes of the cross,

I was sure that night, in a way I had never been before, that this was the clue that I must follow if I were to make any kind of sense of the world. From that moment I would always know how to take bearings when I was lost. I would know where to begin again when I had come to the end of all my own resources of understanding or courage.2

Newbigin is proposing that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus can be the foundation of an entire worldview, a way of understanding the world and, therefore, how to live appropriately within it.

The decision to take Christ as the clue is an act of personal commitment and involves an element of risk. It is similar to a detective who in light of the evidence must select a line of inquiry. In doing so she must commit resources that cannot then be assigned to other lines of inquiry. There may be various possible lines of inquiry, but at some point a decision must be made to commit to one, rather than the others. The detective will be aware of the other possible interpretations and be willing to present her reasons for following this particular line of inquiry.

Taking Christ as the clue, or as the foundation of a worldview, is an appropriate stance for an exile seeking to live faithfully. It is a statement about ‘absolute truth’, since if Christ is indeed the clue for understanding God, the world and myself, this must be true for all people. Yet stating it in this way recognises my personal commitment and that there are other ‘clues’ to which other people are equally committed in seeking to understand and live in the world. Thus, space is created for a dialogue in which the genuine truth claims of each other are neither disrespected nor diminished.

Although taking Christ as the clue is helpful, it is obviously not a fully adequate description of what it is to seek Christ. The most obvious difference is that seeking Christ is a personal relationship. Although a detective following a line of evidence is committed to that line, it is not the same commitment that is involved in a personal relationship. As soon as the balance of evidence shifts a detective will move to a new line inquiry. The commitment involved in a personal relationship is more demanding, particularly the commitment of faith as seen in scripture and in the history of the church. This is the personal commitment that continues to seek even when the evidence appears to be lacking, through the experience of the long dark night of the soul. As one person of faith facing personal and national disaster put it,

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

Habakuk 3:17-18

Asking ‘who is it that you seek?’ has led to affirming Christ as the clue to understanding the world. The next two questions, ‘how then shall we live?’ and ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’, look at some of the practical implications that lead on from this. They will be the subject of my next blog entry.

1Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1989), 123.

2Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda (Edinburgh: St Andrews Press, 1993), 11.

3 Comments

I find the description ‘of following Jesus as the line of inquiry’ really helpful. I think it accurately reflects the relationship I have with Jesus. Sometimes I am overwhelmingly convinced he is the truth and other times very much less so to the point where I doubt his existence. Yet I always return to the fact I have had so many clues and experiences that show me that he has been present in my life that ‘my faith’ continues.Thanks for this Peter.

All of us who have lived overseas have asked ourselves these 3 questions:
Who is it that you seek?
How then shall we live?
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Each of us when we return to our ‘homeland’ continue to ask the same 3 questions as we realise that the strange land is now applicable to the land of our birth. Various factors involved as we have changed as a result of our overseas experience and so has the homeland culture. Is exile a physical space, spiritual space or state of mind or combination of some or all components?

I was just looking yesterday at Paul’s contrasting use of the word ‘conform’ in Romans about being conformed to the image of the Son 8:29 (as opposed to being conformed to the world 12:2) – a transformational process that happens through the renewal of our minds (mercifully by the power of his indwelling Spirit).

Jesus asked so many questions during his years of ministry – not because he needed to know the answers but as a way of relating to people, challenging their conformity and bringing a renewed experience of truth. Because we live between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ I think we’ll always have an innate sense of exile and brokenness in this strange and fallen land.

Having lived through a season of complete hopelessness a few years ago, I had no sense that God was with me in the midst of ‘living with questions’ in ‘the dark night’. However, in the light of that experience, I have made many more discoveries and been greatly restored … but part of that journey too has been to come to a place of acceptance and letting go of the questions for which there have been no answers. Returning to Christ’s suffering on the cross became the bedrock of perspective which ultimately helped to restore my joyfulness in God my Saviour but that was by no means an instant solution so … we need to have hearts that listen to people’s questions.

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