By Stephen Marshall-Ward
I have been thinking a lot lately about the concepts of learning and questioning. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about what it really means to explore and question ideas and teachings we have always accepted. The traditional fundamentalist, evangelical, and more orthodox churches in America hold a basic teaching that it is wrong to ask questions. To many of these groups it considered sinful to study and learn beyond what is already known and accepted as truth.
I think back to when I was at a Southern Baptist Seminary doing Ph.D. work for the first time. I was called in and told I didn’t make a very good Southern Baptist because I asked too many questions. I was on a quest to learn and understand, to make sense of everything. But so much of what we were studying wasn't making sense to me. So I asked questions. And the questions I asked pushed the boundaries of accepted teachings. As a result, I was no longer welcome. Soon after this meeting my time at that Southern Baptist institution ended. They recommended I try Presbyterianism because they thought I might be happier there -- a suggestion that was, at the very least, interesting. Though I did try the Presbyterian path for the next six years, the memory of that recommendation still makes me laugh.
I was talking to a wonderful friend this past week about her church Bible study group and how she is beginning to question a lot of things and how the other members of the group might think. She believes they most likely would disagree with her desire to seek information outside their circle of existence. She is questioning and they might find that threatening. That goes right along with what I was always taught growing up: that you should never read books or listen to people outside of your circle of shared belief.
Before I left the Southern Baptist Institution I asked the question, “So, what do you expect me to do at the Ph.D level if I don’t understand something? I shouldn’t ask? I shouldn’t inquire?” and they said, “No, you are here to learn from those who are appointed by God to teach you.” This was the same thing we were told at Bob Jones University.
I remember the day clearly. I was sitting in a chapel service where Dr. Jones was preaching. He was upset at the students for having a debate between students in the dorms between Calvinism and Arminianism. He made it very clear that such debates among students are inappropriate and even sinful because our only job as students is to learn from “God’s appointed instructors.” I remember my knuckles turning white holding onto the arms of my seat in the chapel. All I wanted to do was get up and scream at him, run out, and never come back. At the time I felt that path wasn't an option for me. So I held onto my seat. I think about what I would do in that same circumstance today. I would not hesitate to stand up and make it very clear that he has no right to tell us who God has appointed to teach us. I would emphatically explain how good teaching actually creates the opportunity to ask question.
So I offer the question, “Is questioning dangerous?” I would say yes, to some extent it is dangerous -- maybe risky is a better word. But I think the alternative -- the way I grew up and was expected to “learn” -- is significantly more dangerous.
Questioning is risky because you are opening yourself up to all sorts of options. Maybe that is why God gave us minds capable of learning.
There are little pieces of truth everywhere. I think the greater good is to discover truth and to find truth. It’s like sifting for gold. You have to go through a lot of material to find the nugget of truth. And no matter who's teaching it, there is usually a lot of useless material amongst the truth. I think it is incredibly valuable to have an open mind for learning so we can become better people. We learn from each other. I have always thought it was incredibly presumptuous to suppose that somehow we have a corner on truth. My understanding is limited to my experience and I have only been here for about half of a century. There are so many people who have been here much longer and who have experienced things I never will.
The friend in the Bible study recently lost her husband. Previously, she thought she knew what women went through when they lose their husbands. Now that she has gone through it herself, she realizes she had no idea what that experience was really like. Now she realizes that anyone who has not gone through that experience cannot fully know what it is like. She realizes there are many things in life she has not gone through -- that she can’t pretend to understand. She has to depend on someone else to help her understand. She has to open her mind and heart to understand them, even though it is outside of her comfort zone. I think questioning comes from just such a desire to understand. Such a posture for learning opens up worlds of truth we wouldn’t otherwise know.
Do we want to have our lives confined to the accepted experiences of those who are “to be trusted” or do we want to understand more and more about life, experience, relationship, and truth? Dangerous or not, I choose the latter.
This concept of learning and opening ourselves up to learning is a theme that keeps emerging out of the concert we are doing on October 29th: “Reformed and Reforming: The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.” It is about the Reformation, and a posture of reformation is a posture of learning.
Through this concert, we will challenge the Church to continue learning and never suppose that it has reached a complete understanding. The Church as an institution and we as individuals need to be constantly reforming and therefore constantly questioning and learning.