By Rev. J.C. Austin – June 23, 2019
When we began telling people that my wife Tammy was pregnant with our son Liam, people began asking all kinds of questions, from close friends to total strangers. Some were polite and kind, while some felt a bit intrusive. But my favorite arose from time to time, usually from close friends. It was, simply, “what do you hope your child will be like?”
Now, that could be taken as intrusive from the wrong person, but from close friends, most of whom were already parents, it was a thoughtful question. The first time I was asked it, I considered it for a moment, and the right answer quickly came to me: “curious,” I responded. And it was the answer I gave ever since. I always wanted my child to be curious: to be interested in the world, the way it works and the way it doesn’t and the way it should or should not; to be interested in the people in it, and why they do what they do and think what they think. I resolved, before he was ever born, never to tell him to “stop asking so many questions” about anything, because I never wanted him to be afraid to learn, to admit he didn’t know something, or just to reign in his curiosity as not worth the risk.
After he was born, whether by nature or nurture or divine providence or all of the above, it turned out that I did have a very curious child. From his earliest days, he was relentlessly curious about what was going on around him and why. That was a real gift, but there were also times when I wished he would just be satisfied with an answer already.
I remember once when he was little, we had about a 20-minute conversation about putting bay leaves in a pasta sauce. Why are you putting that leaf in the food, Daddy? Well, it makes it taste better. Why? When you put it in the sauce, the leaf adds flavor to it. How? The heat from cooking makes the leaf release its flavors into the sauce. How? It’s a chemical reaction. What’s “chemical”? It’s sort of like the littlest parts of the leaf combine with the little parts of the other things and they make something different together. Like mud? Sort of. Can you eat the leaf? Not by itself. Then why can you eat the little parts of the leaf? Well, you can eat the leaf by itself, it just tastes bad. Why? And so on, and so on, and so on.
I don’t actually remember what was finally enough to satisfy his curiosity; I suspect it was something else that caught his attention and he began to focus on that. But even in the midst of this graduate-level seminar on the existential purpose of bay leaves, even in the midst of my own exhaustion with both the subject and his curiosity, I was still delighted about two things. First, that he had a curious mind and spirit, and that if I managed to cultivate that, he would eventually be curious about much more important things. And second, that our relationship was such that that we could share in his journeys of discovery together.
I think that sort of dynamic is what Jesus has in mind as he encourages his disciples and the crowd to inquire after God. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Too often this passage is interpreted in the sense of prayer requests. But if that’s the approach you take, then you immediately run smack into a brick wall of problems: “You said ask, and it will be given you, Jesus. So why didn’t you give me what I asked for?” Because this verse isn’t about prayer requests; it’s certainly not about Jesus promising that God will intervene in the ways that we want God to do if we simply ask for it.
We often assume it is about prayer requests because that’s the main thing we ask of God. We ask for healing, for reconciliation, for getting our basic needs met (“our daily bread,” as Jesus puts it when he is teaching the disciples about prayer), and so many other things. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. These teachings in our lesson this morning come towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest and most wide-ranging set of teachings in the gospels. In this case, Jesus is actually encouraging the disciples to ask questions of God, to seek out God’s truth and purpose and deepest meaning, to approach the door into God’s presence and ask to come in.
And more than that, he’s assuring them that if and when they do so, they will get a favorable response from God, the way that parents respond to requests from their children. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” Jesus says; “or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” Jesus is clearly being sarcastic here. The whole point is how ridiculous this scenario is; nobody tosses a snake at their kid if they ask for a fish for lunch!
And just in case people still weren’t following him, he explains his own punchline: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” If people come to God asking, seeking, knocking, is God going to respond with something useless or threatening? No, of course not; God will respond with grace and love and the sustenance that is needed, because that’s who and how God is. In other words, God delights in our curiosity and responds accordingly, because then we will learn to be curious about more and more important things, and then our relationship with God is such that God shares in the journey of discovery together with us.
Given all that, it’s rather astonishing that there’s a whole stream of Christian theology that argues that asking questions of or about God is inherently a lack of faith rather than an act of faith; and yet there is. Christian fundamentalism arose in the early 20th century as a reaction of those who felt threatened by the rise of scientific reasoning and modern culture and theology. The word “fundamentalism” comes from the landmark book defining this school of thought which was called The Fundamentals, and argued that there was a set of Christian doctrines that is “fundamental” to the Christian faith, and that as such they must be accepted without question or qualification.
Chief among these doctrines, of course, was that the Bible is not only inspired by the Holy Spirit in the writing, reading, preaching, and hearing of Scripture (which is just classic Christian theology), but that every word and sentence is literally true and without any conflict or error. If there appears to be any mistake or contradiction, it was argued, it was probably due to human misunderstanding, and if that wasn’t the case, then it must be an error made in the copying process from what were called the “original autographs” of Scripture, the actual original pages that the Scriptures were first written down upon (which, of course, disappeared many centuries if not millennia ago). While this approach to both Scripture in particular and Christian faith in general sees itself as conservative, it is actually a rather radical innovation in Christian thought that is also only about 100-150 years old, and it was developed because essentially people were afraid of too many questions.
Which, ironically, makes it also quite un-Biblical, in its insistence that we should accept the “fundamentals” of Christian faith without question. Because the Bible is filled almost to bursting with questions about who God is, what God is up do, and why God does what God does or doesn’t do what we think or want God to do. Abraham and Moses both have whole arguments with God about the future of the Hebrew people, which they both win, convincing God to change God’s mind!
Even a cursory read of the Psalms reveals scores of searching, demanding questions: how long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long shall the wicked exult? And as for Jesus: well, nobody loves a question more than Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself asks 307 questions in the Gospel accounts, which is almost twice as many as he is asked! And of the 183 questions he was asked, he didn’t directly answer many of them, and he often responded with a question of his own.
Why would he do this? Partially, that was part of the rabbinic teaching tradition that he was familiar with, but that in and of itself tells you something important: this is Jesus’ style of teaching, and it’s a tradition that is far more interested in getting people to actively pursue truth rather than merely submit to it; to seek after the truth with curiosity and passion and maybe even some trepidation, because any encounter with the truth, and especially God’s truth, is likely to surprise us in some way. Which is part of the point: inquiring leads to learning, and learning always involves a certain degree of surprise and even mystery in terms of what we discover, if we’re asking good questions.
Ironically, when we focus on getting the answers we want instead of asking the questions we need, we often are led away from truth instead of towards it. The U.S. poet Billy Collins has a wonderful poem about inquiring about truth in poetry that is based on his teaching experiences. It is called, fittingly, “Introduction to Poetry,” and it contrasts how he wants his students to approach their inquiry vs. how they usually do it. I’ve often said it’s one of the best descriptions of how we should inquire about God in Scripture vs. how we often treat Scripture instead. Just substitute “Scripture” for the word “poem” as I read it and you’ll see what I mean. He says:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Sometimes having an inquiring faith does feel like walking into a dark room and feeling the walls for a light switch. And that can be frustrating, or even scary. Which is why we pray a Prayer of Illumination in Presbyterian worship in every service before any Scripture is read or preached on; we are asking the Holy Spirit to illumine our faith journey, to light our way into God’s truth, because we can’t find it on our own.
And there are probably times we wish that could make Scripture or even God to just spill the beans and tell us what we want to hear already. But as with most forced confessions, that’s exactly what we get if we do that: what we want to hear, which rarely has much of anything to do with the truth we actually seek.
An inquiring faith, on the other hand, understands the truth of another poet, e.e. cummings, who said, “always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” And so our calling as disciples is to always, always, ask more and more beautiful questions, both more and more of them and questions that are more and more beautiful, understanding that to do so is both faithfully inquiring and inquiringly faithful.
And it is to know that, in so doing, we will not only receive more beautiful and faithful answers, but in the process we are more faithfully following and trusting the one who promised, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.