Humans are innately curious creatures. I don’t mean ‘curious’ in the sense that we are odd or unusual (though a solid argument could be made in defense of this definition), but ‘curious’ in the sense that every one of us seems to be born with an infinite capacity to question. In fact, as children, we question nearly everything we encounter: “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do ants have six legs?” “Why do I need to clean up my room?”
As adults, we try to answer these questions the best we are able given a child’s (and sometimes our own) limited understanding of the concepts of light refraction, genetics, and hygiene. We diligently repeat the mantra “there are no stupid questions” – if only to remind ourselves not to get too terribly annoyed at the young minds who are never fully satisfied by our replies. Yet in spite of such ardent repetition, I must admit that I’m not wholly convinced of the mantra’s truthfulness.
I once sat in a college class during which the question “When is the final due?” was asked no fewer than twelve times. (Yes, I was keeping count.) By the last time the question was asked, I was pretty firmly convinced that common knowledge was wrong. There are stupid questions… or at least questions that have already been answered with such clarity and precision that there shouldn’t be a need to ask them again. To do so is to waste time and energy that could be better used elsewhere.
That said, there are far more wrong questions than there are stupid ones. Fans of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” will be familiar with this concept. After 7.5 billion years of tedious calculations, the galactic supercomputer “Deep Thought” finally reveals that “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.” When the philosophers gather around to ponder the cryptic declaration, Deep Though suggests that their difficulty in interpreting its meaning stems from the fact that they didn’t actually know what the question was to begin with. And so, they construct an even more powerful supercomputer (Earth) to calculate the ultimate question for which 42 is the ultimate answer.
Absurdities aside, the truth is that the first question we ask often times isn’t the correct one. While known primarily for the automobile company which bears his name, Sakichi Toyoda is also known in the business world for his development of “The 5 Why’s” – a methodology intended to help questioners get to the real root of the problems they encounter and arrive at long-term sustainable solutions. Toyoda argued that this could be accomplished by asking the question “why?” five times. (This does, in fact, imply that our children have it right: “why” is the ultimate question.)
Used in the appropriate context, Toyoda’s “5 Why’s” are quite useful. They can, however, backfire when the question isn’t asked in the right way. I recently attempted to utilize this technique in a situation in which I had not clarified what I was doing or my attitude towards it. Though I did get much of the information I needed, it was quite clear that I was the only one truly enjoying the dialogue. (My mistake.) Clearly, there is more to being a good questioner than just asking the right question – we must also ask it in the right way.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to participate in a survey of PC(USA) pastors. After answering some demographic information, I was asked about my work: “Is it stressful?” “How often do you feel emotionally drained?” “Are you in good health?” This was followed by a battery of questions concerning my personal political and theological perspectives and then a series of enquiries regarding which hot-button topics I felt I should or shouldn’t address with my congregation.
Some of the questions were a bit obscure in their phrasing and, after having indicated that I felt no need to preach on several issues which (in my opinion) are serious societal concerns, I couldn’t help wondering what context would be supplied by the interpreters after the fact. Will they recognize that I don’t feel a need to preach on a topic when my congregation has already communicated a clear understanding of Christ’s call to us in that regard? Or will they assume that I choose not to preach on certain issues I feel strongly about because I’m afraid of splitting the church? Will they understand that contextually, some issues of great national concern simply aren’t the most pressing issues for us locally? Or will they think I’m encouraging isolationism because I try to develop sermons that I believe are immediately relevant to most of my parishioners? I really don’t know, but this brings us to the most important aspect of being a good questioner – developing context through relationship.
You can ask the right question. You can ask it in the right way. But if you lack the context of relationship, the answer and its meaning will be difficult to decipher. Discernment is an iterative process. And that’s why listening is so important. Identifying God’s call both individually and corporately requires that we dig deep to understand call and context, to find the roots of what holds us back and what helps us grow. This can only happen when we listen carefully to God and to one another.
One of my pastoral mentors once told me that when it comes to conflicting views, I haven’t earned the right to express my own opinion until I can restate my opponent’s opinion with such clarity and accuracy that they would reply “I have nothing to add.” While I strongly discourage an attitude which views others within the congregation as ‘opponents,’ the core concept behind this advice is a good one – whatever the issue or opportunity, conflict or challenge, ask until you understand.