Catechism, that time-honored system for the study of Christian doctrine, was not a practice I encountered in the church of my childhood. I knew the word only from the books I loved more than any others: ones set in olden times when children were to be seen but not heard and Sundays were for endless sermons, hard wooden pews, and long afternoons devoted to quiet reflection.
The question-and-answer format of traditional catechism has been used by Christians for centuries to instruct children and new converts in the fundamentals of the faith, but I was not one of those children. That may be why I persisted so long in believing that these traditional questions and answers were as limiting as whale-boned corsets and as tedious as hooking a row of pearly buttons on a 19th-century boot.
An excellent question is like an invitation to play.
Parenting four children has changed my view of many things I once called monotonous. From chore charts to early bedtimes, practices that formerly spelled boredom now provide freedom. They are the walls and fences that allow our family life to thrive. When I reached, in some desperation, for the catechism of the denomination in which we are raising our children, I found a practice that was anything but joyless. Instead, asking these ancient questions during our post-supper family devotions has felt like falling into a clear pool: The bottom is there, in the form of printed answers, and we push our feet against it, yet somehow we are prompted to swim and spin and swirl. An excellent question is like an invitation to play.
Yet some questions carry us toward the murky edges of our certainty, and I am more afraid of my uncertainty than I knew. “Why?” is the hardest question of all, and it is the question children love more than any other. I may introduce the printed questions of our catechism each evening, but, for my kids, the tidy questions and answers in our prayer book are only the starting gate in a wild, unmapped escapade. I sometimes wonder if they care as much about the answers as they seem to care about making their mother uncomfortable. My youngest child, at 4 years old, does not even pretend to wait for an answer. One why tumbles out upon another why with hardly a heartbeat between.
Ask and Know
There is no hierarchy in children’s curiosity. Why is the sky blue? is followed by Why didn’t God heal grandma? They cannot know that the first question only makes me feel tired, but the second touches my deepest insecurities.
Children ask questions indiscriminately because they are unaware of the danger. They do not yet know what is at stake. But we, their elders, know. We understand that lives are built on assumptions, each one stacked on top of another like so many well-mortared bricks. Wouldn’t it be foolish to ask a question that threatens the walls within which we have constructed our lives? Only a child would attempt such a thing. And only a child would relish the questions so much she would forget to listen for the answer.
“Why?” is the hardest question of all, and it is the question children love more than any other.
Jesus told us we must become like children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. Could part of this childlike faith be an aversion to easy answers? In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes, “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.” It is this urgency to know that fuels every young child’s questioning. The world is big and children have such limited experience. Why, why, why is the sound of their first encounters with creation. The word why may be a child’s first prayer.
Though I am reluctant to follow their example, my children are teaching me how to pray in this way. Lately, I have dived right on in to a few of those perennial questions Christians have debated for centuries. Years ago, I pushed them aside, having efficiently labeled them “unanswerable.” But my children ask supposedly “unanswerable” questions every day. What stops me from doing the same?
There are also aspects of my Christian faith that seem to me so sacrosanct that I’ve never dared to approach them with any question at all. On these issues, I have long preferred a trite or partial understanding to the wild unknown of questions leading on to further questions. I have always assumed that if I let myself begin questioning, I would become like the foolish woman who tears down her house with her own two hands (Prov. 14:1). Perhaps some questions are foolish and others, wise?
Jesus was asked many different questions during His public ministry. In fact, much of His teaching as recorded in the four gospels was prompted by those questions. When asked why John’s disciples fasted but His own did not, Jesus named Himself the bridegroom and foretold His return to heaven (Mark 2:18-20). The rich young ruler asked a question so important that it is recorded in three gospels: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17; Matt. 19:16; Luke 18:18). And when a scribe asked a question and then responded wisely to the Lord’s answer, Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
But some questions reveal how very far from that kingdom we are. Certain Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (v. 14). Questions like this were an attempt to discredit Jesus and His ministry. Some of our own questions may be little better. In this case, it isn’t the question that matters so much as our motive in asking. We can ask because we long for wisdom and because we want to better know the source of all wisdom, or we can ask in an attempt to manipulate or test God. Some of our questions may be no more than contemporary echoes of the Pharisees and Sadducees who demanded a sign from heaven (Matt. 16:1).
Live the Questions
Perhaps the questions themselves matter less than I have supposed. Within the safety net of our catechism, I’ve learned that the point of asking more and better and ever more puzzling questions is not necessarily to find an answer. Lewis is right that the puzzling elements of our faith conceal a buried treasure of knowledge or wisdom. And those are certainly two fruits of seeking well. But fruit comes in season, and if we ask difficult questions, we must often live through long periods with no answer. In fact, this is another form of buried treasure. Daring to ask the questions that make us uncomfortable stretches us to walk faithfully even when we doubt or feel unsure. That kind of faithfulness is never easy, but it can move us to lean more heavily on the One whom we profess to follow.
Jesus memorably asked the most difficult question of all. Near His moment of death on the cross, He cried out a question that seemed to shake the foundation of the world like an earthquake: “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (Matt. 27:46). The child’s innocence and the adult’s experience meet in one terrible, world-shattering question. It is a question so vital that both Matthew and Mark record the words in the very language Jesus used. Though the New Testament writers record no answer from heaven, Jesus seems, somehow, to have found one. His final words are: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” words that suggest a oneness between Father and Son no unanswered question could destroy (Luke 23:46).
Daring to ask the questions that make us uncomfortable stretches us to walk faithfully even when we doubt or feel unsure.
Should we, like Jesus, ask God our hardest questions? The poet Rainer Maria Rilke is well remembered for the advice he gave a younger poet: “I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue … Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” To live the questions is not to suppose that answers are unimportant or that they cannot be found. Rather, to live the questions is to live in relationship with God the way a young child lives with her parents. I give my children everything I believe they need, but I am sure they do not need today the answer to every question that they ask.
Yet we should ask. It is as necessary for our development as it is for the growth of a child. If questions can be a form of prayer, then they should be a part of our communication with our heavenly Father. Even the terrible question asked by Jesus on the cross was a quotation from the prayer book of God’s people. “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” is the opening line of Psalm 22, in which a cry of anguish is folded within a song of praise.
That may be the key to asking dangerous questions without endangering the foundations of our faith. We can, like the psalmist, envelop our questions in humility and gratitude and praise. The psalms ask many of the most difficult questions: God, where are You? Have You abandoned me? Why are You silent? Will You save me? Yet these terrible questions never lead to bitterness. They lead, always, to God. Those who ask questions are called seekers, but asking questions can also make us followers. Questions draw our eyes toward heaven, and questions wrapped in praise and gratitude prompt our feet to move toward heaven. In his novel Till We Have Faces, Lewis writes, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” Indeed, God is not only our Savior; He Himself is the answer to everything we ask. “I am the Light of the world,” Jesus told us. “He who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12). Our best questions acknowledge this darkness, then turn us toward the Light.