Faithful questioning: An interview with Matthew Lee Anderson

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Matthew Lee Anderson encourages Christians to ask difficult spiritual questions.

Matthew Lee Anderson encourages Christians to ask difficult spiritual questions.

Matthew Lee Anderson encourages Christians to ask difficult spiritual questions.

Asking honest, tough spiritual questions often makes Christians nervous, and many struggle to do it well. In The End of our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith, Matthew Lee Anderson probes what it means to ask better questions, and subsequently, to get better answers. He is the lead writer of Mere Orthodoxy and author of Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith, whose work has appeared in Christianity Today, The Washington Post, Relevant Magazine, and elsewhere. Here we talk about why some Christians are afraid of asking questions, how they can do it better, and what advice he has for the growing Reformed community he often runs with.

JM: Something important you’ve identified is that a lot of us are more comfortable with answers than we are with questions. Why do you think Christians might be afraid to ask questions of God and our faith?

MA: A lack of familiarity with the feeling of questions is one of the main reasons why we fear them. Answers provide a sense of security and stability for us, which is why they are so valuable. But questions unsettle us. They gnaw at us, and we often don’t know what to do with them or how to resolve them. The more we search and inquire, the more comfortable we’ll get with them.

But I also think that sometimes we’re afraid of where our questions might take us. Sometimes we know when we set out roughly where we’ll end up. But sometimes, we discover things along the way that force us to alter our course. When it comes to our faith in God, I think our fear of questioning is tied to our lack of confidence in Christianity’s truthfulness. Paradoxically, the more committed we are to the notion that Christianity is true the more freedom and confidence we will have to search and explore both the world and Christianity itself.

JM: Let’s say I’m studying Scripture in a small group Bible study, but it’s not going very deep. How do we begin to ask good questions of the text?

MA: My strategy has always been to listen more and read (and reread, and reread) the text again. The only way to get beneath the surface of the text is to let it get beneath the surface of your mind. The longer you marinate in the text, the more it will start to seem strange and the more questions you will have. As Chesterton once wrote, “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”

But you have to do that while you’re listening carefully to what people are saying, too, as they may be saying things that deserve close consideration or that might prompt your own questions for them. A lot of times, we say things in Bible studies without being clear or really understanding what we mean, only we’re so immersed in the language that we don’t notice it. Really attending carefully to what other people are saying can help us notice how often we let cliches or stock-phrases slide by, and we can begin to gently and graciously explore what other people think about the text. You’ve got to be friends to do that really well, though, or at least on your way to becoming friends.

JM: The two greatest commandments, said Jesus, are to love God and love people. Is there a way in which asking good questions can be a vehicle to loving people?

Image courtesy of Moody Publishers.

Image courtesy of Moody Publishers.

MA: Absolutely. Ambiguity is a haven and refuge for unnecessary hurt and pain. Sometimes when my wife and I fight, it’s not because we actually disagree about something. It’s simply that we haven’t clearly communicated with each other. Asking good questions in those moments helps us discover what’s really at stake so we can disagree well, or helps us discover that there really wasn’t a disagreement at all. Thinking and questioning well is a moral task, not only an intellectual one.

Additionally, fear trades on vagueness and uncertainty. Fear loves the shadows; it’s the light that it cannot stand. Questioning well means attempting to see, and that means bringing the light into the darkness and illuminating things that may be resistant to it. In the context of a friendship, for instance, exploring and inquiring communicates an care and desire to see the other person. Such a desire moves us beyond vague impressions or ambiguity, and will want to bring the unknown into the light. There’s a reason why many people feel most loved and cared for in the therapists’s or counselor’s office: few people ask us questions as well as they do, with the interest that they do. We should consider deprofessionalizing that task, though, and restore it to the context of friendship and mentorship where it originally belonged.

JM: Can you say something about the title of the book? Why The End of Exploring?

MA: The title is a line from a wonderful poem by T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, which really must be read. It has framed much of my experience of wonder, God, and time over the past decade. But abstracted from that context, the title has a double meaning for me: our exploring has an end, a purpose, a point. It is not directionless; it takes us somewhere, and the end for which we seek and inquire will determine how our path goes. But our exploring also has an stopping point, an end in the sense that we will one day lay our questions down when we find what we are looking for. The questions that we now have will be put to rest; but that end of our exploring is also a new beginning, and I suspect we shall then take up new questions that we cannot even imagine.

JM: Mark Galli has suggested that your book can “help us learn to ask the questions that lead to an increasingly mature and dynamic faith.” How do questions produce a fuller faith?

MA: The path between faith and understanding demands both obedience and inquiry. If Christianity is true, if it goes to the center of the universe and explains every stone and leaf the way we Christians think, then the more we search it out and explore it the more reasons we will have to be confident in that truth. Questioning isn’t simply an abstract academic exercise; it’s a form our pursuit of God takes, an expression of our desire and our love for him. It’s an act of submission, an expression of our desire to conform our mind to his. Such faithful obedience has a compounding effect; it grows even if we don’t feel like it.

JM: You run in circles with a lot of Reformed Christians, people who seem to me to have a lot of answers and not so many questions. What is your advice to those who hail from this community?

MA: My advice to them would be the same as to the progressive community or any other community: the abuse of a thing never invalidates the proper use of it. If questioning has been done badly, that is not a reason to not question at all. And if answers in the past have been shouted with certainty, that is not a reason to repudiate answers altogether. We reap what we sow. If we do not question well then those who follow behind will almost certainly question badly. And if we are not confidently proclaiming the shape of our faith, then our faith will be of little use to those who desperately need it.