Having titled this blog “the Agnostic Gospel”, it should come as no surprise that questions play a pivotal role in my spiritual life — and that I’m rarely even concerned with their answers.
Why? the best question
As distinct religious denominations show, the answers we obtain in life will radically differ; our questions, however, are generally the same. We each have the innate ability to question everything, from absolute core foundations of our systems of beliefs, to whether we want ice cream or waffles for dessert (better question: why not both?).
Questions are universal, and that is both their beauty and their unifying power. Questioning is central to the theology that shapes religions, and is essential to the process of science and democracy in the secular world.
No matter our goals and no matter our answers, we hold our heaviest questions in common. Agnosticism, in a sense, is simply this practice of questioning… and as such, it can be a part of any religious or secular tradition (just ask Bertrand Russell).
Unfortunately, the fundamentalists of my youth — all quite good and beautiful people, truly (especially if they’re reading this) — had a shaky relationship with questions. Particularly when you questioned, well… the fundamentals.
Questioning the meaning of a particular passage of scripture was generally good, because it simply meant you had to study more and pray harder. But questioning the use of scripture as a foundation for religious legalism… not so much. That was considered less a question, and more a complete and utter Satanic deception.
In my early teens, I was confused about the apparent New Testament contradiction between James and Paul regarding faith (whether faith alone had purpose, if not accompanied by good deeds). So, I asked a question. The response I received was to research the original Greek New Testament, check all the possible translations of those terms, read the context of the verses around them, and… you know, pray on it.
Now, I honestly find that response quite beautiful (except the phrase pray on it, oh God, I hate it). It was a meaningful, as it was a call to action. The Bible is the absolute foundation for fundamentalist Christian beliefs — the Word of GOD and GOD Himself, according to John — so the the response to my question about it was, essentially, to question God more.
So, I did. I pulled out a Greek reference dictionary and a couple of other translations. I poured over the scriptures. I memorized the entire books of Romans and James, like a fucking boss. I prayed on it, around it, and all over it. My friends called me jesus boy.
Say what you will about that, but to me, it was a process of love. By questioning God, I gained the desire to study God more, through his Word and through his presence in prayer. It was beautiful to ask such good questions because it was a way to be with God. It was a process of stillness, reverence, and joy. And yet, it did not produce any answers.
Did I need them? I had assumed that their must be an answer to that question that contained an explicit religious command about the nature of moral law. I had assumed the process of study would be worthless if it could not determine an answer dictating the moral behavior of myself and others. I did not need to make that assumption. And I see no evidence that James or Paul made that assumption, either.
Could their be a benefit to a question, even to a faith, without an answer?
Of course, all of this details the process of asking a good question. Most questions weren’t… and unfortunately, most of the emotional and spiritual pain I live through daily came from the responses I received from asking them. And for being immensely shamed for even asking.
I will spend a lifetime trying to patiently and lovingly inform the people in my life how what they saw as a process of love is also capable of irreparable harm and unnecessary indoctrination. I seek no revenge on these people, and not even an apology: righteous wrath is fundamentalist concept I simply don’t adhere to anymore. All I desire is to inform good-meaning people that their good intentions can have traumatic consequences — and as an adult child of that trauma, I simply want to allow the discussion.
Our questions must be allowed, and must all be acceptable. We must all be strong enough to hear them, process them, and respond to them without offense. We must all be strong enough to hear how our actions have affected others — not to feel ashamed, but to reconsider and alter our own behavior. Each and every one of us. Me, especially.
You can choose to favor the questions over the answers. You can allow your questions to open you up to God, to the Universe, and — more importantly — the world of real people around you. People that deserve your empathy far more than your judgment. People that do not need your petty answers, and will not be saved nor condemned by them.
Do not rob yourself or your beautiful children of this precious gift. For their sake, take the time now to consider how much of what you believe simply does not matter. Do not demand answers where no answers are needed. It can destroy people. It very nearly destroyed me.
If you want answers and expect to find them, you will. But learning to be comfortable with questions grants you calmness in uncertainty, and helps to embrace the great mysteries of the divine. It will allow peace to exude through you, to them, to “Him”, to whomever.
To me, that is the quintessence of faith. And perhaps even evangelism… but that’s a topic for another post.