The hologram of a dead scientist stands before the detective investigating his death. It is only programmed to respond to the right questions. When the right questions are asked, it replies “that is the right question.” This annoying plot drive technique is used in the film I, Robot starring Will Smith. The scientist begins a “trail of bread crumbs” for the detective to follow. The detective seeks answers only to questions dubbed as “the right question” by the hologram. Life would be simpler if we knew which questions to ask. But we don’t always see the problem.
The Big Questions
Christian theology is all about questions. History shows this approach was given to us by the ancient Israelites. The question in Jewish theology is the beginning of discussion. “What should one do when…” is the beginning of many moral and legal questions about the commandments. In other words, “how is the torah applied here” is the question of living out the covenant with God.
Christians begin with the big question. Acts begins with a description of Luke. It is a project that meant to demonstrate what “Jesus did and taught.” English translations do not reverse the order of what Jesus did and taught. There is something about doing involved here. After all, some one of our ancient leaders named the book Acts. The big question involves actions. It is repeated in many ways. But the best example is that of the jailer in the 16th chapter who asks, “What must I do to be saved?”
There are many questions that derive from this one.
- Saved from what?
- Saved for what?
- Who is doing the saving?
- Why is this salvation offered?
- What does this salvation point toward?
Questions Are Important
Answers bring more questions. American revolutionary Thomas Paine asked where is the justice in punishing the innocent for the guilty. Good question. It derives from the answer St. Anselm gave regarding the need to “restore divine honor.” Unfortunately, too many Christians over the centuries since then have considered Paine’s question a threat. All the question does is point out how unsatisfactory St. Anselm’s answer is. But, for many, it is viewed as a threat to salvation itself.
Protestant Christians in the United States are often surprised to learn that Jewish people are not seeking salvation. If Jewish people use the term at all, it has a different meaning. Christians wish to have eternal fellowship with the Triune God. Jewish people are not looking for that. Neither are Muslims. Western scholars use the word “salvation” mistakenly to translate the goals of the religions of the Far East and the Indian subcontinent. The question of “what must I do to be saved” is basic to Christian teaching. We mistakenly take it for granted that other religious traditions are asking the same question.
Religious questions get us outside of ourselves. The chaplain of a major private university was asked to hold an ecumenical worship time. She produced a bulletin with an “order of worship.” A rabbi looking at his copy said, “This is very Christian and very White.” The chaplain did what all Christian pastors do. She organized everything as a church would. There is no shame in that. But she acted on assumptions about what constituted worship.
Christians change the question from “what must I do to be saved” to “what must you do to be saved?” We call it evangelism. It is prevalent in Christian thinking. We view any religious instruction to be proselytizing. Evangelicals, complaining about teaching Islamic beliefs in social studies classes, assume it is intended to convert students. They are making the complaint nonreligious people make about teaching the Bible in school.
Being locked inside our own heads or groups is much more problematic. There is a reductionist error that takes place.
Questions And “Going to Heaven”
People talk to their pastors about “going to Heaven.” I want to stop conversations there and ask, “why do you want to go to Heaven?” I suspect much of the time the answer is “because I don’t want to go to Hell.” In other words, they hope to avoid the alternative. I assume though many lay people have more positive reasons. But the view that there are only two choices and we want to avoid one is unsatisfying.
Being unsatisfied is the beginning of a proper question. “What does going to Heaven mean?” People who never consider the question ought to be looking for an answer. We should not throw out the Big Question, though. Paul’s answer is simple, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Luke does not show the jailer asking, “who is Jesus?” He does not need to. Luke says he told his friend “Theophilus” already. Luke says much in that answer. Once people believe, they should continue consulting his earlier book to remember what Jesus said to do.
Faith For Answers
You can count on two things in a Will Smith film. One is that he is playing a character that has a real, and sometimes heartbreaking, difference in his life. The other is that somewhere in the film he will utter the words, “Oh, HELL no.” I have not been disappointed yet.
Faith requires a risk that there are answers to the big questions. We don’t have faith in our present answers. We have faith that answers are available and achievable. But, we should ask the right questions.