“Living the Questions” is Great, But Not Enough

I like the phrase “living the questions.” I use it now and then, and so do a lot of other people. There’s even a book out there that’s got the phrase in the title.

I like the phrase because it encourages a “journey” mentality of spiritual growth rather than a “fortress” mentality. Some might think it’s just a wishy-washy rejection of “absolute truth” that throws everything up for grabs.

I disagree. I think it reflects a healthy realization that we are absolutely certain of far less than we think we are, that we walk by faith, not by sight. We are all on a journey of some sort, whether we realize it or not, and “living the questions” can help unmask false certainties.

Many are looking for communities of faith where they can find others who like living the questions, too, and won’t judge each other for doing so. In my world, at least, the questions people most often want to live in have to do with the Bible. They want to feel safe and be valued for wanting to interrogate the Bible that was packaged for them in their upbringing.

Older ways no longer have explanatory force for the world they live in, and the place to begin to work it out is to ask a lot of questions in a community of fellow journeyers and not feel the pressure of coming up with the “right” answer to make others happy.

Like I said, I’m down with all that, but….

If you’re really willing to ask the questions and live them, presumably the process of asking and living will bring some clarity and movement in your thinking. In other words, sooner or later you will have to start living the answers…

…answers you never expected, answers that in your former mindset you “knew” were wrong, answers that would shock others if they knew.

I know readers would be encouraged by hearing stories of others who have experienced a transition like this. Please feel free to post your thoughts.

[Note: If you think the idea of journeying, living the questions, or arriving at risky answers is wrong, stupid, self-absorbed, unorthodox, etc., you too should feel free to let us know--once. More than once is just badgering.]

  • Steve

    Hey Peter

    Personally, my faith is something that lies somewhere in the gap between hope and doubt, and I embrace them both equally.

    It is certain of nothing and hopeful of everything that is good.

    I might be wrong about some things, I might even be wrong about everything.

    But even if it turned out I was wrong, I would have no regrets that I have lived life looking for beauty and meaning in everything.

    Even if I was wrong, I would have no regrets that I held onto faith in a good God, a God that has inspired me to live my life as if it has purpose and be good to others.

    Ultimately doubt is a good thing and I don’t see the need for certainty in order to be able to live in accordance with what we hope is true.

  • http://evidence2hope.webs.com Graham

    I’ve been asking questions since before I became a Christian, I’ve been asking more since I become a Christian. Like Steve, I’ve been down some wrong paths but to know what’s right, you need to know what’s wrong and I know God is using these experiences, if not leading me, to help me gain more knowledge about him and how to live out what he wants me to…..though this blog has got me asking what that actually means

  • Steve

    A journey I took a few years ago that started with doubt, started with the question: “How is it fair that those who have never heard the gospel will face eternal conscious torment for their sin and not me?” That then lead me to thinking: “How is it fair that somebody that had only heard the gospel once but didn’t find it convincing because they had been brought up in another culture and had been lead to be convinced of an entirely different set of truths will face eternal conscious torment for their sin and not me?” That then lead me to thinking: “How is it fair that somebody who doesn’t believe in God because they just want to be intellectually honest with themselves – they don’t reject God, they’re simply open to being lead by the evidence will face eternal conscious torment for their sin and not me?”

    These questions lead me to molinism, which lead me to inclusivism, which lead me to Christian universalism (thanks to a light that was shone by Robin Parry – the evangelical universalist). I have since found a new confidence in God’s amazing love and a new passion for his kingdom.

    • http://evidence2hope.webs.com Graham

      That’s a great testimony Steve, it seems very similar to mine but I’ve never known what to call the places I arrived other than “well I’m here” lol

    • http://all-thought-is-practical.blogspot.com Scott Coulter

      What’s the connection between molinism and inclusivism?
      (Molinism = God had “middle knowledge” of all possible worlds, including the possible actions/responses of free agents and chose to actualize [create] this world–so that our actions are free but God is all-knowing and sovereign, or to put it another way, God knows how we will respond to what God does before God does it, but we’re still free in our responses; Inclusivism = people may be saved by the work of Christ, outside of the religion of Christianity)

      • Steve

        I’ll tell you the how it was explained to me. I now know that this is not the way molinism is intended to be used. I realise theologians came up with it to solve entirely different problems.

        I was told that molinism is the view that God knows all possible decisions a person could make under different circumstances. Had their circumstances been the same as my own, God would know whether (given the same chances as me) they would either accept or reject him. As such it is possible that God uses this knowledge of things as the could have been to judge people, instead of judging them by actually took place.

        I didn’t stop long at this particular view before moving on.

        Inclusivism as I understood it was that people can come to the Father through the WAY OF Jesus even if they don’t know the name Jesus or the story of his crucifixion, they follow the same essential truths that he taught. – I moved on quickly from this view as well as I found the scriptural support for it to be lacking.

        I have since found strong scriptural backing for Christian universalism which is the view that hell is not a place of torment for the sake of punishment, but rather it is a process of purification and redemption leading to reconciliation with the God-head.

        There are many passages the support apocatastasis and Revelation itself speaks of a new Jerusalem where the gates are never shut. It also mentions the nations entering in through these gates whereas in a previous chapter the nations had been thrown into the lake of fire.

  • Randy

    Another area we have to think about is those , as you say “living the questions”, do they want to know the answers to those questions? Just a thought.

  • http://twitter.com/iamstillrob Rob Davis

    I think the rhetorical force of this post can be powerful, but I’m not so sure that there is such a strong dichotomy between the two. We really can’t avoid “living the answers” – if we tried to exist in a pure state of “living the questions,” we would die. Whatever we do, all day, every day, is evidence of which “answers” we are living. Maybe many of us are simply trying to say that we are open to the questions, rather than inflexible about whichever answers we are living…

  • T. J.

    This was a great post and really struck a chord with me, although I have ended up in a different place. About 4 years ago we switched to a more conservative church, a church that really “believes all that stuff” This caused me to start questioning my faith and this has led me down the path until now I believe there is probably a God, but that is about it. I don’t think He is involved in our world and I have no real beliefs in Christianity left. I believe prayer serves no purpose besides a placebo effect and community-building effect that I agree can be very powerful, but really only works if you believe it will work. I don’t really believe in free will anymore – I can’t see how free will could happen naturally, though I can’t really see how free will is possible even with a creation determined by God. I no longer believe I am a sinful person who cannot accomplish anything without God – I am just a regular person who sins and God cannot accomplish anything in this world apart from what people do. We can pray to God for a cure for cancer, but that cure is going to come from a scientist – you can say that God inspired that scientist, I can’t prove He didn’t, but no way is God going to zap away cancer, even though for a God as powerful as described in the Bible, it would be like snapping his fingers. Sorry, got off on a tangent there. My final point was, even though I have all these new outlooks and I am much happier now than I ever was as a Christian, I am still not really “living the answers”. I was a Christian for 40 years and it is hard to quit “cold turkey” I still go to church almost every week, although the sermon and bible readings increase my disbelief – they sound more and more like folktales and I find it hard to believe I actually thought some of those stories were true. I still read some Christian blogs, though I try to stick to the more liberal stuff. I even pray every night before I go to bed, but my prayer is mainly – “God, if you are there, please let me know, let me somehow recognize you in the world or in my life – I am here if you ever want to talk” – of course I never get any response. So I guess I am saying I am not quite ready yet to “live the answers”, still trying to give God one more chance before I go off on my own. I will probably keep straddling the fence, at least until my parents die. It would really break their hearts if they knew I was no longer a Christian, so I don’t mind keeping this up for a while longer.

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      Fish fingers and custard! That could have been me writing that!! Down to the not telling my folks. And almost 40 years too – 38.5.

      Thanks TJ!

    • Jason

      I echo what Klasie said. I could have written exactly what you expressed here. Still living within the conservative evangelical cultural milieu, being unable to pull myself away from it for various reasons, but becoming more and more convinced of its entire lack of credibility.

    • J. Collard

      I find myself in the same position… And I don’t know what to do with it. What do I do with this?

      • Joe

        J. Collard,
        I’d suggest: 1) be patient with yourself (avoid criticizing either yourself or others… everyone’s journey is different); 2) consider that God may be in this very process – urging you to draw closer to him as a result. After all, the goal is not to have faith in the Bible or in Christian doctrine, but faith (trust, humility, dependence) in God. The Bible itself seems to have plenty of examples of God using ‘less than religiously-approved’ methods to reach people. At any rate your doubt doesn’t anger or threaten God. Use it as a channel for pursuing him further. For new life to be born, something has to die. There really is nothing to fear.

  • Judy S-N

    I like the quote, but I really only like it in its original context. Apart from that I think it can become a vapid justification of inaction and lack of taking a stand:

    “I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
    Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
    in Letters to a Young Poet

    I think many people today, as in Rilke’s day, felt the need, the compulsion, to have their questions answered, as if *not* having them answered either impaired their ability to live or indicated something negative about their diligence in searching for truth. The need to “have it all figured out” is something I have struggled with. But the bigger idea in the full quote, or at least what I have taken away, is that answers, if we arrive at them, are a gift of grace. There are answers one comes to that cannot be got at by any amount of effort and digging but only by letting go and allowing life to happen. Stand in the tension of unknowing. And “Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

  • Dan Hauge

    Thanks–I’ve always been frustrated with the phrase, for precisely the reasons you give here. Yes, our life of faith is filled with questions and ambiguities. All too often I feel like the phrase is used reflexively, to avoid the work of actually thinking and sorting through what we do actually believe about something (whether it lines up with ‘orthodoxy’ or not)

  • arty

    You guys know any practicing Catholics? That’s a reason why Catholics don’t really talk about “getting saved”. They tend to emphasize a “journey” point of view, the inherent mysteriousness of God, and the value of mystery as such. Maybe it’s time to quit reinventing the wheel and cross the Tiber. :-)

  • rvs

    I teach a class in logic; my friends find this ironic. I sometimes accuse students of the death-by-questions fallacy, which bears a family resemblance to the vicious infinite regress. I, too, have found the “living the questions” mantra to be highly useful at times, but I also like those times in which spiritually mature, thoughtful Christians completely disagree with each other on important matters. Those earnest disagreements are teacherly, and Christendom is big enough for earnest disagreements; my hope is that more Christians will learn to live in the bigger kingdom, the body of Christ, and not the clique in the nightclub’s VIP room.

  • https://theway21stcentury.wordpress.com/ unkleE

    I have been a believer for 50 years, and it has certainly been a journey. As a young believer I was thinking about evangelism, Billy Graham style, when the thought occurred to me: “Jesus wasn’t a very good evangelist” in comparison. I knew that thought must be wrong, so it started me on a journey of understanding Jesus in his historical context. That led to questioning many things – exclusivism, everlasting punishment, the killings in the OT, the importance of social justice in the kingdom of God, how we do evangelism, etc – and reviewing Biblical teaching on these matters.

    I am happy to say that my faith in Jesus is as strong as ever, though I express it somewhat differently now, and I am still involved in apologetics, evangelism, disciple-making and social justice. I appreciate this blog because it helps me get information on some of these questions. Best wishes and thanks.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I wonder if faith is sometimes too much to ask of us, straight up. Beginning to act on the basic commands of God that we can understand is at least within our capability. The Bible is full of them, and Christians as well as those thinking about Christianity should probably begin with those of Christ. If we act on these because they come from Christ, and in the spirit of a seeker of faith, we can then depend on the Spirit of Christ, whom he has sent, to give us faith. We can then use this faith, and our growing obedience to make further progress in faith. So, beginning with obedience may be more sensible, and more doable, than beginning with faith, which we don’t inherently have in any case. We need both John 3:36 as well as John 3:16. We also need James 2:14-17 to get faith and works right and 1Jn. 3:17-18 to sort out love and action.

    It is also interesting to note that Abram was first asked to obey (go from your home). He was not first commanded to ‘have faith’. “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.” Gen 12:4. And Zephaniah makes it quite clear that it is the obedient who have taken steps toward righteousness. “Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger.” Zeph 2:3

    From the Catholic perspective, this is beautifully summed up by the author of the blog “Making All Things New” at: http://wordincarnate.wordpress.com/2008/08/12/to-believe-is-to-obey/

    For a post-modern (post-conservative?) perspective on the same thing see:

  • Frederick

    Yes, the feeling heart has a question which must be satisfied.
    Without that satisfaction – which is necessarily Spiritual in nature, there is no authentic human life.
    You cannot be sane if you think and act on the presumption that there is only flesh, only the usual life as defined by the naive “realism” of society at large.
    Such thinking and action is not enough.
    There is Something which you are not accounting for, even while you mumble about Jesus and the “God” of the Bible.
    Be open to Whatever That Is.
    But how?
    A living source of freely given Divine Grace is the only cure.
    Paul told us that the letter, or the always thinking mind and its never-ending “problem” to be solved, always kills the Living Spirit – even instantaneously.

  • Banner

    Like most of you I’ve had periods in my life of both faith and doubt. I prefer faith. When I’m going through times of doubt I find myself in a very dark and lonely place. It’s not that I think of God as Santa Clause and he is going to grant me a wish ever now and then. He has not always made the path easy. But there is something within my very being that cries out to him, even in the doubt. I really don’t consider myself blind or ignorant. I don’t fear science, in fact I see it as an avenue to God. I deeply regret the conflict that seems to be in so many minds ( both sides of the issue). I often wish my faith were stronger.

  • Jill

    This post speaks to me and makes me ponder my own situation. In many ways I have been living the questions for a number of years now. But living the answers – that is more of a struggle for me.

    My story in a nutshell: I was born into a catholic family. My parents had a born again experience when I was young, left the RCC and became members of a conservative Baptist church (very anti-Catholic), where I was raised. My husband and I were both practicing Baptists, but as a result of us living the questions, so to speak, we ended up attending a mainline protestant church. Then, about five years ago, my husband converted to Catholicism. I did not. We currently attend a mainline church as a family with our two young kids, and occasionally go to Mass with my husband. There has been some family turmoil with regard to my parents and the catholic church.

    With regard to asking the questions/living the answers, it’s like my husband and I are opposites. His asking the questions led him into the Roman Catholic Church, and he really didn’t seem to struggle too much with his decision. His faith and belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is really what was the cornerstone for him going in. Many other things about the church he likes and appreciates but on some issues he is not completely on the same page. He doesn’t sweat it, so to speak. He seems at peace.

    I, on the other hand, am in a different place. I ask questions, wrestle and struggle with them over and over. I think in some ways I want answers to questions that only God knows the answer to (for example I struggle with teachings about hell). In many ways I am and have been drawn to the Catholic Church. I have read books, was in an RCIA group for a time, met recently with a priest (who was very loving and pastoral and very much encouraged me as I ask questions on my journey). That’s where I’m at right now.

    Perhaps moving on to the place you are being led to and living the answers, doesn’t always mean you feel like you have all of the answers. At least you are moving forward in faith, and hopefully in humbleness and love.

  • peteenns

    Thank you all for your comments. Each is worthy of engagement, and I suspect the further down the road we go the more these stories would find deeper areas of convergence. It is a tricky thing, this faith, isn’t it?

  • Eric

    I have been following Jesus for 14 years now and have been a Bible teacher for the past 6 or so. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered I didn’t really know as much as I thought I did. And it took a Jewish theologian to show me. I read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “God in Search of Man”. After that I was okay with mystery. I&I also challenged the prism through which i read and interpret scripture. There are several other events and books that led me to where I am today, but suffice to say, Jesus is more real to me today than he ever was before and I’m far certain of less. I just love him and want to become more and more like him…despite what questions or answers I might have.

  • James

    I’m thankful for a Christian environment where I’ve been able to question as much as I like, share my misgivings and still be loved–though some members of my family fondly call me heretic. My community is shaped by certain traditions, let say, I’ve learned to walk quasi-comfortably within because I haven’t experienced any better. There are some areas of uncertainty we don’t talk much about–we live the questions and call it mystery. In the long run, I’d like to say I’m working (along with many others) to see certain questions produce fairly radical andswers for the good of evangelicalism and the world. This means I have to be willing to live the answers first on a very personal level.

  • EricG

    I have been a”live the questions” sort of person in the past, but at this point I don’t see faith as related to “questions and answers.” I view faith as a sort of trust that is experientially lived out, rather than as an intellectual puzzle or even existential crisis I have to resolve. I find the questions interesting, and don’t stop thinking about them, but they don’t really relate to whether I have faith – my faith does not depend on Biblical interpretation and other issues like that that people question. I view it much as Bev Mitchell describes above – I start with enough trust in Christian practices and the church to engage them, and faith grows from experiencing God in those practices. I also question the suggestion that we must live out the “answers” to have faith, to the extent that means we have to come up with answers eventually. Mother Theresa seemed to have doubts throughout, but expressed faith in her commitment to her vocation and compassion toward others. She didn’t seem to have to “answer” her deep doubts.

  • Duke

    I am in the same boat with TJ and Klasie. Over a period of about 20 years I have been asking the questions, but have found the answers given by Christianity to be less and less convincing. This despite receiving an M. Div from a college that would be considered to be on the far left of the evangelical spectrum. I feel like I am a Christian agnostic or atheist, still keeping a toe in the Christian pool, but not really believing it. In some ways it is intellectually freeing, but in other ways it is unsettling leaving over 40 years of belief and up-bringing behind.

  • http://facebook.com/priceofdiscernment David M

    I don’t know where to begin or where to end, but being raised Mormon, I wasn’t encouraged to ask a lot of questions, especially out of their realm of orthodoxy. After leaving the church, I decided to become a Christian, and even still… I tried to make everything fit nice and neat into my Protestant, pseudo-dispensationalistic box. Now, I’m wrestling with a lot of questions, but I’ve recognized that having Jesus as my foundation is better than having no questions at all. Maybe I’m not sure how to reconcile the OT/NT in light of God’s violence, nor do I know if evolution and creationism are compatible, but knowing that the Gospel IS good news and God IS for us? That’s enough for me.

  • Joe

    This is a very helpful post, Pete, and I really appreciate the comments. On my journey, I’ve moved from ‘I know all the answers’ to ‘The questions are a lot more fun, and offer the potential for growth that plain certainty doesn’t.’ But I now believe that you’re right in terms of the limits of ‘living the questions.’ One common way in which evangelical Christians ‘push the mystery button’ so to speak has to do with depictions of God’s anger in Scripture. Isn’t God love? How could he destroy and punish? My biblical hermeneutics have changed, because as a parent, I simply reject the notion that – since God’s love is higher than ours (we can’t understand it) – violence and love are somehow compatible. If there is any meaning in ascribing the term ‘love’ to God, it can only be a greater quality of love than ours, not lesser. The depiction of God in bringing about the Genesis flood simply is not consistent with the full expression of God in Christ. I’m done doing hermeneutical gymnastics to get around the problem. Love is love, period. It always demonstrates grace; it never endorses violence. Insofar as our understanding of God will always be incomplete, I feel quite comfortable ‘erring’ on the side of grace when it comes to understanding God’s character. If that requires a changed understanding of Scripture, so be it.

  • Anon

    I am by no way there, but something that is freeing to me is to try and leave my 20th and 21st century mindset when i read the Bible. Abraham didn’t have a computer, Internet, or phone. Heck, he didn’t even have books. People in Jesus’ time probably rarely saw a scroll. I have been shaped by my culture so much. People like Abraham basically woke up in the morning, struggled throughout the day, and went to bed, glad he didnt get eaten by an animal that day. World civilization has just been a brutal slog.

    No blog to consult, no commentary to refer to. Just a guy, living in a gory society attempting to relate to this God he could not see. That’s a far cry from the 40 Days of Purpose, or the Left Behind Series. But that is the perspective that most of civilization lived with. David of course had scrolls and scribes. His subjects did not. They just shoveled slop all day and then went to bed, thinking about their Creator. Why do I want so much more?

    Like I said, I don’t know where this will take me, but I hope that stripping out our 21st century interpretations will help me better relate to this God who created me and sustains the universe.

  • http://undeception.com Steve Douglas

    Exactly, Pete. My own blog had a very long period of extolling the virtues of doubt as I wrestled with and ultimately embraced it. But then the dust settled and I grew tired of that topic. Not that I changed my mind on it, but I began to realize that recognizing uncertainty and asking intractable questions is different than darting around the sunshine to get a closer view of the shadows. I can’t live like that; I’ve got to live in hope.

    Incidentally, have you heard about the upcoming book edited by Joel Watts and Travis Milam called From Faith to Fear? My contribution is specifically devoted to this topic.

  • Pingback: saturday surfin’ | Jessica Clemmer

  • Pingback: Sunday Best: Long Distance Relationships, God & Downton Abbey, Tim Keller

  • Adam

    T.J., Klasie, and Jason,
    Just wanted to respond that there are plenty of people who don’t follow the evangelical cultural milieu who still follow Jesus, people who approach Scripture mindfully, rather than dogmatically, yet also trust in God, people who don’t think of Christianity like there parents do, but are nonetheless faithful. If your prayer at night is ‘let me know, but i’m still uncertain’, you find yourself right in line with Abraham, Moses, David, a mute boys father (mark 9:24), and perhaps Jesus himself (luke 22.42). As play theologian, David Miller, put it, “belief that is not matured by doubt is not true faith.” Please don’t let cultural evangelical Christianity, which often wrongly puts faith beyond doubt, hinder your search for God. After all, I think this is what Peter’s post is all about. Peace.