The Art of Questioning
I have started thinking about the art of questioning.
As with most everything, there is a right way and then there is a counterfeit way. In addition, there is also the factor of timing. There is a healthy time to ask questions and there are times to focus more on answers or maybe living out what we have been learning instead of stalling with excessive and debilitating questions and feeding our doubts.
Some children have their questions suppressed for most of the childhood. Are these the ones who end up trying to force answers on everyone else when they become older? I grew up in a religious environment where it seemed that the only questions that were welcome were the ones that fit perfectly the stock answers that were already on file with the church. As a result I began to notice that in our attempts to gain converts to our religion we were attempting to convince 'unbelievers' that they needed to ask only the questions we wanted them to ask that would fit perfectly with the stock answers that were already scripted into our agenda. Yet the discrepancy between the questions people on the street were asking never seemed to fit into the list of answers we insisted were right and even required.
How well I recall the many times when I dared to ask questions that kept rising up inside of me only to be met with either irrelevant stock answers that I already had learned, or I was shamed into silence because everyone knew the answers were not easily available. The unspoken rule was that you were only to ask the questions that you already knew those in authority could answer easily. Anything else might make the leaders look weak or inadequate and that was not acceptable. But this atmosphere of limited questioning was very dissatisfying and as a result many of my friends later abandoned religion because it refused to honestly address the real questions of life that religion simply failed to acknowledge.
I recall sitting through many boring Sabbath School classes in my academy years wishing for the time to pass more quickly as a teacher plodded through the quarterly questions and answers. Then one day I had a bright idea that might allow our minds to remain a little more awake; I would think of questions that would disturb the status quo but not so out of line as to be suppressed altogether. From that time on I began thinking at little more outside the box and as a result not only me but others in the required class appreciated the chance to at least escape the boredom of a non-thinking, non-discussion required time period. But more importantly, I began to realize that it was important to begin thinking for myself instead of just mindlessly absorbing whatever was handed to me predigested by others.
There are children whose questions are met with excitement and anticipation and sometimes even with joy. This encourages more questions as they come to learn that questions can deepen attachments to the community around them and enhance their own ability to grow in understanding and skill. In asking questions they come to learn that they can feel respected and even honored for trying to think more clearly for themselves. They can also learn to be respectful of others in the way they question while at the same time probing deeper to discover even more exciting questions as their breadth of understanding and awareness of reality increases. This is how God designed for us to grow and thrive and connect in a satisfying way that can bond us into the fabric of a larger community around us through love and trust.
But other children's questions are met with antagonism, shame or even rebukes. In such situations questions that challenge others to think are sometimes met with anger, for anger is a common reaction when someone senses they may not have a good answer but are to ashamed themselves to admit it. By reacting in anger we are really trying to shift our fears and shame over to the questioner to suppress their desire for better answers, for we fear that if someone knows more than we do we may then feel humiliated for not knowing the right answers.
In such repressive environments children may come to assume that asking questions, at least questions on certain topics, is viewed as evil or rebellious. Sometimes a questioner is made to feel stupid, like they are supposed to already know the answer to their question. Others questioners feel so insecure to begin with that they are afraid not to ask questions, for they doubt their own competence or ability to think for themselves so they feel compelled to always defer to others by asking questions even when the answers may be obvious before the question is even asked. These kind of unthinking questions reveal more about a person's lack of self-esteem and fear of feeling shame than about their intelligence. Other times when they ask questions they likely could figure out if they first thought things through using the information readily available to them, they are met with disdain that tends to reinforce their inner belief that they really are stupid and do not deserve to be seen as able and competent thinkers.
Questions can either be a sign of healthy and eager desires for growth or can be signals that a person is deeply damaged and afraid to think for themselves. How can one tell the difference between the two?
Healthy questioning is linked closely to curiosity. Curiosity can also be a healthy tool for development and maturity or can get one into serious problems if the mind or spirit is imbalanced. If part of a person's makeup has been seriously damaged or suppressed, the imbalance created can cause that person to be so ignorant of certain things that the curiosity to learn about those things may come to be viewed as sordid or perverted. Many times the shame attached to certain activities or people can become a powerful deterrent to asking questions for fear of being overwhelmed with the potential shame of talking about those things. Yet the need to be educated in those areas persists and so the way forward becomes very confusing.
Shame is possibly one of the biggest factors in shaping and steering our lives. Yet shame is also one of the most invisible elements that may surround and envelope us while we fail to identify its presence or effect on us. Shame is like a chameleon that can make us think our problem is something else or internal worthlessness when in reality it is shame itself that is distorting our entire perception of reality. Shame may be one of the leading inhibitors for questions which in turn means that shame inhibits advancement in maturity.
Questions are vital for growing. If we are to ever grow intellectually and emotionally, one of the best ways is to interact with others through questions and answers. Feeling free to ask questions is vital for mental and emotional growth and the same is even more true in the spiritual realm. Yet when it comes to spiritual matters and learning the truth about God, it seems this arena is more antagonistic toward honest questioning than any other subject.
The best teachers are not those who have the most information or can provide the most knowledge, but rather the most effective teachers are those who have a delightful ability to arouse an intense desire to discover answers to compelling questions teased out by the questions and comments of the teacher. A stimulating teacher therefore is not one who pushes information into students heads but rather one who arouses a sense of hunger for better explanations and a burning desire to discover new answers. As the student becomes aware of their lack, their thirst for right information and knowledge intensifies; then the teacher guides and trains the students in how to find available resources to satisfy those cravings.
By empowering students to know how or where to find answers for themselves instead of training them to be dependent on their teachers for answers, effective teachers provide a kind of education that will be more useful far past the school experience. It is not the information gained during that time that is most important but rather the skills and self-discipline acquired to know how to ask questions and then how to leverage those questions to move forward in healthy personal and group development.
There seems to be a dearth of this kind of healthy teaching today. There are also many things that work to block growth such as prejudice, fear, shame or guilt. Parents often block their children from being able to grow in maturity because they themselves are not matured so the parents begin to feel threatened when their children need to exceed their parents in knowledge or maturity. When this takes place, threatened parents often tend to suppress questions by their children for fear of being seen as inadequate to address their children's need to grow. Because the parents may fear being shamed if they cannot answer all their children's questions or feel they may lose control over their children, they often resort to suppression of questioning or anger, thus damaging another generation by attaching shame, fear and guilt to the very act of asking questions.
This is all too common in religion especially. Questioning is often not welcome when it comes to the practice of many religions. As a result, those who want to keep asking questions may come to assume that the only way to maintain integrity is to abandon religion altogether so they can feel free to ask real questions without being shamed or censured. But what they don't realize is that religion as it is usually practiced is not the truth about how God relates to us, so they end up rejecting God as they spurn religion. Yet God has never been the problem, for God invites questions and loves to interact with His children to encourage growth and expansion of reasoning powers in healthy dialog and questioning.
Religion often feels threatened by questions because the answers many times relied on to maintain forms of religion have failed to be challenged or updated through healthy examination. When information or tradition feels immune to questions or close reexamination, then they quickly become tyrannical obstacles to true spiritual and mental growth. Without openness to honest questioning, it is impossible to discover real truth and the mind becomes narrow and bigoted as it fills with all sorts of forced explanations that don't make sense to the honest questioning newcomer.
In reaction to the many abuses by tradition and religion, many assume that God is like the narrow thinking of those in these systems and so decide to look for other places to find truth. By distancing themselves from the only Source of all knowledge and truth while trying to discover what can only make sense when viewed from God's perspective, they come to idolize their own inadequate power of reason as the ultimate god to honor and respect and value. But what many fail to take into account is the factor of sin and its debilitating effect on the human brain and spirit, for sin has so damaged and distorted our ability to connect the dots of reality that given over to our own efforts we will never be able to arrive at fully correct or complete answers to life's questions. That is not to say that we cannot discover many truths on our own, only that the truths that we do discover can never be fully assembled to find the complete and original design as created by the Originator of all things.
God has been so slandered and misrepresented, especially by religious people and those claiming to represent Him, that great amounts of shame and inhibition has become attached to His reputation causing many to be afraid to ask serious questions about life or spiritual realities or even what God is actually like. What we need is a willingness to challenge all of these assumptions and to break through the barriers that inhibit us from asking the tough questions in order to discover the real truth that can liberate us from our fears and shame and lies that are suffocating our minds and spirit.
There is a kind of questioning that is debilitating and can lead to self-defeat. It is often touted as superior knowledge. Sometimes it is referred to as higher criticism, yet too often the criticism part takes precedence and defeats what is thought to be higher making it actually a means to destroy our ability to find the kind of truth that can set us free.
Questions that are motivated by resentment, arrogance or defensive selfishness reveal a spirit that is a counterfeit of healthy questioning. When the one asking questions has a bitter spirit, that attitude acts as a poison that infects not only their own heart but the spirits of many around them. They think themselves superior to others and feel they are liberated and free to question anything, yet the fact that they are unwilling to honestly and humble open their minds to simple answers when they are revealed shows that they are not asking in integrity but rather are manipulating questions in ways to denigrate or dispute any who see things differently than they.
Cynical questioners are playing the shame game and try to use shame to manipulate others into thinking they have superior wisdom because they can ask questions that are hard to address. In reality many questions are not honest, for the questioner is often unwilling to consider clues or principles that if taken into account could assist them in finding the answers they need. I have noticed that many like to appear superior by asking lots of tough questions but have little interest in examining offered suggestions that address their questions. To humble themselves to accept an answer might be to lose their leverage and power to intimidate others through their questions, and they are also afraid they might have to change if they embraced the answers that come.
I can now see more clearly how both fear and shame work to intimidate either asking questions to begin with or block skeptical questioners from absorbing healthy answers when they are offered. Questioning can either be a means for growth or an inhibitor to growth; it is all dependent on the spirit of the person asking the questions. Thus it comes back to a root issue that determines almost everything important in life – the condition of the spirit in a person.
The apostle John told us that we are to test every spirit. I have noticed over the years that we often like to test and prove every fact while largely ignoring the condition of a person's spirit, especially our own. Yet a person may have all sorts of facts incorrect and still be in a much better condition with a right spirit than those who have amassed enormous amounts of provable answers but cling to a spirit that is bitter or proud and selfish. This is why the core issue of sin is not about a lack of right answers or information but is much more related to the selfishness of the human heart. As long as selfishness is allowed to be the controlling factor in our lives, no amount of questioning will help us escape it. On the other hand, when we allow the Spirit of God to convert our spirit, teach us humility and we begin to live in honesty and openness to the truth, our lives can become a symphony of give and take through questions and answers and we will experience a growing interdependence with those around us who are also growing in grace and in an intimate knowledge of the One who designed us all this way.