Questioning is a big part of growing up, older, mature, and moving from one phase of life to another.
We all question: our parents, our governments, our teachers, our education, our values, etc…
Some of these topics come under scrutinity quicker than others, depending on your personality, what your life looks like and what you’ve been through.
If you got married at 21, it’s unlikely you’ll question singleness for more than six months, or if you do, it’ll be from a distant view point. It’s not wrong, it’s just the reality you live in.
Your insider knowledge of any matter changes the way you think about it.
No one can question your family the way you do for example.
Questioning, testing the things we believe, think, feel, is a normal part of life, and something we all go through, at different times of our existence.
The faith in question
I’ve never been one to not ask or challenge, which is probably why I’ve been told recently that I have a rebellious streak (it wasn’t meant in a negative way). I mentioned that to my parents and, to my surprise, it was my dad who said I was transparent rather than rebellious. I was surprised considering I drove him mad for a good few years with my runny mouth.
If questioning is healthy it isn’t necessarily welcomed. It’s often percieved as rebellion or antagonism and rarely as something to be engaged with, encouraged. At least not in the white, western culture I grew up in. People talked, argued and debated, but in-depth questioning wasn’t something that happened around the dinner table or at the church’s pulpit.
In my case, and that of a lot of my friends who grew up in church, questioning faith and spirituality is a wrestling that needs to happen but is often refrained from.
Religious upbringing comes with its lot of values: understanding of Good and Evil, community, support and many others. It can also come with its lot of bagage, abuse and heartache. Often it is both. For some of you, the negative has been so heavy a burden to bear, that to survive you had to push back, but it was not welcomed, or understood as your solution to keep your head above the water.
Drawing my own question marks
I am lucky enough (I often say this, because I know my reality is very different from a lot of people’s), that church has generally been a place to belong. Probably because of the absence of control in my uprbinging and the fact that I was happily following the rule book, because… it just worked for me. I fitted the dos and don’ts and it was all my choice. I wasn’t coerced into obedience, I was simply an opinionated “good girl” and happy to be so.
Not much has changed. Still opinionated, still fairly straight lace. Sort of.
But, in the last few years, I started to feel a little claustrophobic, stuck in the “house of God”, with no fresh air to breathe.
Questions started to unravel. I felt like I was biting the hand that fed me. It took me a while to engage with the questions and the doubts, because fear was looming over me. Disecting what had been the basis of my life since I was born did not feel gratifying, fun or even remotely enjoyable.
It tasted like betrayal to me, towards the church that I loved, my parents, who never tried to turn me into anything I wasn’t.
Why do it then?
Because, like Pandora’s box, I couldn’t put everything back in. I was unable to go back to 2005, when it all made sense and my confidence that everything would be as I believed was sky-high. I wish I could. Unchallenged world views are much more stable and comfortable. But I’ve got to work with what my thoughts, questions and doubts are now.
Some conversations I’ve had with friends who are on the “other side” have been very calming. They have gone through some serious questioning, they took a chance and listened to it and found peace and hope at the end of it. Like an older sibling who’s already jumped over the river, they are calling for me to leap too. They remind me that the current isn’t my enemy, I can swim anyway and I might just land on the bank. Either way, I will live.
Others have been worried about my worry. They asked questions such as “but you still believe?” What about______?”, defining in their own words, what the pillars of their faith are and, by extension, what the pillars of mine should be. I can hear in their words, the things I’ve thought and felt my whole life.
Some thought that, if our questions were the same, our conclusions would concur too. I don’t believe that this path of wrestling has yet a defined ending. Who knows where it’ll lead, and how different it might be from other people’s journeys?
And there were those who were concerned I might be “backsliding”. Losing my grip over faith. Going down a dangerous road. To label anyone anything is a danger to ostracise them. To call them backsliders alienates them, excludes them and pushes them out.
Though no one has been controlling or malicious, I have felt sometimes fearfulness at the questions I might ask. I have had to chose who I disclose what to. Sometimes I can’t handle a long theological conversation (though I love them) and other times it’s the person in front of me who doesn’t need it.
Because my boat is rocking doesn’t mean that I should go around and agitate everyone else’s.
Most of the time it is an internal dialogue between me, the God I believe in and my various books (I love information overload, to the point of feeling sick: I remember reading about the rapture online, 10 years ago and having panic attacks, until my mum ordered me to stay away from the bloomin’ computer… overdoer, that’s what I am... )
Keep them hidden.
So this is where I am, along with others. We’ve grown up in a set of four walls, with a book to define our lives. We’ve sometimes not even really explored the world outside, afraid maybe, or assuming we didn’t need to. As we take steps out of the door, we wonder if leaving the walls for a bit (or longer) means throwing it all away.
But it doesn’t have to, if we don’t want it to.
I believe most of the people I’ve been around in my Christian life were never taught that to question is to be real, human, it is to engage and test the things of value we have been handed. To fear engaging with the process is also to be human.
Questions with no answers were rarely raised from the front. Few people ever disclosed their wrestling. It was something that needn’t be shown or broadcasted. It was, is, seen as dark, and kept private. And so every doubter and questionner feels lonely, never knowing they are not an exception.
Doubt used to be an evil spirit to be cast away and reason, the enemy of faith. But…
As Anne Lamott says:
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.
So I guess I’m right on the money…?
Faith is about mystery. We’ve been taught that Thomas was “the doubter” and therefore looked down on. But all the disciples doubted before him, when Mary reported the news. Somehow they manage to earn other titles “The One who Jesus loved “, or the “One who the church is built on”. Poor Thomas was labelled the skeptic, the doubter as if that were all he was. The one to never imitate or be inspired by. However, I don’t know about you, but I get Thomas : if a group of my friends told me that So-and-So, who died three days ago, was actually alive and appeared to them, how prompt would I actually be to believe them? What’s to criticize about that? If you look deep down in yourself, you’ll see, Thomas is just you, and me.
He was the one who was honest about his doubt, yet did not call the others crazy and He is the disciple who makes the most sense to me right now.
After all the bad press he received for the last 20 centuries, if we keep reading the story we can see: Jesus doesn’t rebuke him. He tells him that those who believe without seeing are blessed… and he is right, to not have questions hogging your mind is blissful. But he doesn’t rebuke Thomas. He answers him.
Puzzled mind and open hands.
What does God answering my questions mean? I’m not sure.
But having Faith isn’t about holding onto a set of belief and debating people into joining in. It isn’t about following a set of rules even though we keep proclaiming “it’s not about works“. It is not about defining who is “in” and who is “out”. It is not about certainty.
It’s about mystery and openness.
Being willing to have your convictions rocked and your worldview reshaped, it is to know that God goes beyond the limits we define.
It is about engaging, with your belief, with a wider world, with people who aren’t like you. To love another and see the face of God. (Victor Hugo)
As I’ve been going through this time of my life, where everything seems to have been thrown in the air and I’m unsure of where it’ll all fall back, I have observed that, in the Gospels (the books in the Bible that recount the life of Jesus) that people ask Jesus a lot of questions.
To be fair He speaks in parables, so it doesn’t necessarily help.
But they ask, often. And he answers, often, with a question.
(sorry I was gif deprived)
He engages them. He doesn’t make it easy, instead he gives them more food for thought.
One of my colleagues is a Rabbi and my favourite thing was when he came back from a meeting with his students and said
” It was a great day today, they argued with me.”
They argued ? So it was good?
I’d never heard a faith leader say that arguing was good before.
I was used to questions and arguments being seen as a slippery slope, a dangerous path to engage with that might lead to scepticism, doubt, and the “backsliding” phenomenon.
They argued because they were paying attention.
Questions are good if we know how to welcome them.
If we make them our enemy, they will eat us.
If we make them our foundation, they will shake us.
But if we make them an ally, a way to engage, to learn, to go in uncharted territory, if we transform them into fuel to explore, and embrace all the depth and the beauty they will help us discover, then we’ll see:
They might just be what we need to keep growing.
I want this to be true for me,
Just a thought,