The Questions We Are Not Allowed to Ask
It seems like a lot of my blogs start with, “I listened to a podcast the other day…” and this one is no different. I listened to a podcast the other day in which Krista Tippet interviewed Anand Giridharadas about the nature of the capitalist market. In it, Giridharadas said that we’re allowed to ask rich people to give more, but we’re not allowed to ask rich people to take less.
And that got me thinking about the questions we are not allowed to ask.
QUESTIONS AND FAITH
As I listened to a sermon once from a preacher with whom I have deep disagreement, the thought occurred to me: what separates me from this preacher is not our answers, but our questions. We ask vastly different questions about God, the Bible, and what it means to follow Jesus.
Questions are the trailhead for our spiritual path, so they can send us to very different places. That means faith is defined more by the questions we ask than the answers we find.
THE QUESTIONS JESUS ASKED
Questions are one of the main things that got Jesus into trouble.
He asked some directly, like why is it okay to pull a donkey out of a pit on the sabbath but not heal someone of their disease? Once at a dinner party he asked the host why he only invited rich people who could pay him back, and asked the guests why they all fought for the seat of honor around the table.
He asked other questions indirectly, forcing them through his actions. Like the time he drove money changers and those selling sacrificial animals out of the Temple for exploiting the poor during the celebration of a Holy Day. He forced the question, “Are we a people of justice or not?”
Jesus most often turned to questions to call out the religious leaders. They were constantly looking for a way to bait him into a trap, but his response almost always came in the form of a question that left them dumbfounded and all the more furious.
YOU CAN’T ASK THAT
Today’s public Christian leaders get into trouble for the questions they ask, too.
Rob Bell wrote a book once that pointed out the inconsistency of what the Bible says about hades/Gehanna/Sheol and the way we talk about hell, and he was forever cast out of the evangelical world.
The same thing happened to Tony Campolo when he questioned the church’s treatment of LGBT+ persons.
Same with Derek Webb - former lead singer of Christian group Caedmon’s Call - when he started questioning, among other things, the theology of predestination.
What questions are off-limits in the community with which you worship? You might think, “No questions are off-limits at my church. We aren’t afraid of the Truth.”
Yes you are.
I say that with absolute confidence because everybody is afraid of it. I am. You are. Your mom is. Your neighbor is. Your pastor is. Your Sunday School teacher is. We are all afraid to ask certain questions for fear of where it might lead and what it might reveal.
Here are a few of the questions I keep buried in my own thoughts:
Is there really a heaven or did we just make it up because our minds refuse to entertain the dark and hopeless possibility that this life is all we get?
Is the Bible really “inspired” by God or is it just a collection of stories that a particular group of people throughout history told about the god they happened to worship, which was sometimes similar to and sometimes slightly different from other gods, and their stories lasted because they figured out how to keep it evolving in order to survive?
Why do we read the first 11 chapters of Genesis as literal stories when they are so clearly mythical by design? There’s a talking snake, for crying out loud!
I say I believe at the end of all things heaven and earth will come together and form a new creation. But I believe that because of what it says in Revelation, and Revelation is pretty clearly not to be read literally. It’s also got a lot of overlap with prophetic books in the Old Testament, meaning John could have just written something he already believed based on his background as an Israelite. So, are heaven and earth really coming together, or was that just flowery language to encourage people suffering persecution for their faith?
Is there really an evil creature called Satan, or is it a fictional character invented to keep people submissive and obedient to a particular form of religion? After all, sociologists say every civilization requires a Satan-like figure to survive.
Same question, only about hell.
I’ve never experienced a church - including churches where I was among the leadership - where questions like these are normal or even acceptable. To ask them is to prove oneself faithless or, worse, liberal!
If by some chance they do get asked, they are usually presented with predetermined conclusions. You can ask the question about the existence of heaven, but the answer is most certainly going to be “Yes, heaven is real, and it’s exactly what we think it is.”
THE QUESTIONS WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO ASK ARE THE QUESTIONS THAT DEFINE US
Our faith can be defined easily enough by our answers to common questions:
What is the Bible?
What is ‘salvation’ and how does one know when they have obtained it?
What is the Church and what does it mean to belong to it?
But, if you want to get down to what Nacho Libre calls the nitty-gritty, you should pay attention to the questions no one is asking, and then ask yourself why.
When we muster up the courage to pull that thread, our faith can go to some scary places, but that’s when it finally gets real.