Monday, August 25, 2014

Questions versus Answers (What Makes for Healthy Religious Faith?)

In the movie, Bridge to Terabithia (based on the book by Katherine Paterson), ten-year-old Jess Aarons has his sense of what is just, fair, and real turned upside down by a free-spirited ten-year-old girl named Leslie Burke. An old dilapidated tree house in the woods adjoining their houses serves as home base into the enchanted kingdom of Terabithia.  

One Friday they are rained out and cannot enter their imaginative world. Jess complains about Saturday’s chores and church on Sunday. Leslie asks Jess if she can come to church with him. Jess feels certain Leslie will hate church, but he takes her along anyway.

On the ride home in the back of the truck Leslie, who had never been to church before, says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting isn’t it? . . . It’s really kind of a beautiful story.” May Belle, Jess’ younger sister, interjects, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary! Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

Jess retorts, ‘May Belle’s right. It’s because we're all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.” Leslie questions that part of the story, “You really think that’s true?” “It’s in the Bible,” Jess replies. Leslie, in a puzzled and questioning tone says, “You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle jumps in, “You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie.” “Why?” asks Leslie. “Cause if you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.”

Leslie is shocked by such a dreadful image of God. She asks May Belle for her source, but May Belle can’t come up with chapter and verse. May Belle turns to Jess, who can’t quote the Scripture either, but knows that it is somewhere in the Bible. “Well,” Leslie comments, “I don’t think so. I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this” (Leslie raises her arms to include the sky, trees, and the whole creation).

This creative little girl calls into question Jess and May Belle’s exclusive and mean-spirited version of the Christian story that paints God in not so pretty colors. Leslie saw “the whole Jesus thing” with a different set of eyes than that of Jess and May Belle. 

In the above scene, I see Leslie functioning as a personification of the kind of religious faith that is more about asking the right questions than finding the right answers. Right answers are certainly important in mathematics, medicine, engineering, and other similar endeavors, but not so much in religion. A dynamic, transformative relationship with God raises far more questions than answers. And far too often, for those whose concern is with right answers, a bad answer will generally take precedence over no answer.

Popular author and minister Philip Gulley says that when he was nineteen, he went into a Bible book store and bought a book titled, “God’s Answer for Everything.” The book worked well for about a week, then a friend he worked with was killed in a terrible accident. The book’s explanation of heaven didn’t include his friend. Nor did the minister who preached his friend’s funeral, but the minister did say that Gulley could go to heaven if he believed and did what he told him to believe and do. Gulley says, “That was my first inkling that religion disliked questions so much, it would prefer bad answers over no answers.”

Healthy religion welcomes the questions and is content to live with the questions. If healthy religion is sitting on a park bench, and a lively question walks up and sits down, healthy religion is content to let that question sit there and talk all it wants. Healthy religion does not try to silence the question or send the question off to hook up with the first good-looking answer that walks by (thanks to Gulley for this analogy).

In fact, healthy religion enjoys having the question around, because it stimulates thought, evokes constructive spiritual experiences, and moves those who entertain it into a wider and deeper faith. Good questions expand our vision and our understanding of what is true and real.

In the movie, The Truman Show, Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey) lives in an artificially contrived world. The entire town is dedicated to a continually running TV show about Truman’s life, and everyone except Truman knows this. But then Truman  begins to intuit that there must be “more” and tries to break free from his small world. The powers that be do their best to keep him confined, closed in, locked down, for the pleasure of their viewing audience and all the amenities that affords the people in power. Eventually, however, Truman faces his fears, pushes the limits, and escapes into the larger world of reality to the demise of the Truman show.

Answer-based faith tries to keep us enclosed in its little world much the way the dominant powers sought to contain Truman; it’s about control, certainty, and predictability. Healthy religious faith opens us to mystery and inspires us to push against the limits of our particular faith tradition in order to explore the largeness and vastness that is the Divine.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr likes to distinguish between moralism and mysticism. Moralism is about saying pledges, earning badges, enforcing purity laws, believing dogmatic certainties, and running endlessly on a treadmill of meritocracy that distributes rewards and punishments based on one’s performance. Mysticism (the experience of communion with Ultimate Reality) is about discovering who you already are—a beloved daughter and son of God, and falling in love with a Lover whose grace is inexhaustible and whose love knows no bounds. The honest pursuit of truth rooted in wise questions (not right answers) almost always leads to mysticism.

A focus on correct information and right answers fosters pride and exclusiveness, claiming God’s blessing for one’s own group or community. Whereas an emphasis on good questions tends to nurture a larger sense of belonging that inevitably ignites and fans a greater humility, inclusivity, and compassion.

What do you think God prefers? Right answers, which quite naturally lead to dogmatism, moralism, exceptionalism, and elitism. Or wise questions, which evoke wonder, mystery, compassion, and a wider belonging and a deeper connection to the Really Real.  

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