My son asks questions incessantly. He constantly wants to know what something is, or what something means, or what we’re doing tonight, or what the plans are for a week from Tuesday. Sometimes the questions are mundane, and sometimes they are innocently profound:
- “Who’s going to be at soccer practice?”
- “If I eat all my green beans, can I have a cookie?”
- “Daddy, are you free? Am I free? What does free mean?”
(He actually asked that last one when he was 3, in the car one evening when I was thoroughly unprepared for an existential crisis.) And don’t even get me started with 10 levels deep of the question “Why?” As every parent of small kids knows, incessant questions are an important part of how they learn and grow and discover their world.
The other night, my son asked some great questions as we were reading the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea:
- “Why do they call it the Red Sea? The sea isn’t red, it’s blue.”
- “How did God make the water separate?”
- “But why did God use the wind? Why didn’t God just use magic to part the waters?”
- “God and Jesus can’t be the same thing, can they? Things can’t be other things.”
(Kid, I have a Ph.D. in this stuff. I ain’t scared…bring it!)
I patiently responded to each question, fascinated by where the questions were taking his young mind. He understood that I am both a husband and a father, and he is both a son and a brother…and so perhaps Jesus can be both God and a human. He understood that I use tools to make things out of wood—I’m the one who drives a nail, but I use a hammer to do it…and in the same way God used the wind as a tool to drive back the waters of the Red Sea.
“So Daddy. It’s like when I play with my cars. I’m the one playing with them, but I use my hands to do it?”
Asking the right questions is important for adults just as it is for children. It’s the only way to learn, really. We must ask a lot of questions, and we must be sure we ask the right questions.
I came across some of my old teaching notes recently, and I was reminded of the importance of asking the right questions in some key Bible stories.
For instance, when we read the story of Cain and Abel, we are very tempted to ask why God accepted Abel’s offering but did not accept Cain’s (Genesis 4). Indeed, many biblical interpreters have gone round and round with this question over centuries. But I’m convinced that the most fruitful way to read this story is to recognize that Cain had to respond to his situation without knowing why…the crucial question in the story is not what gave rise to Cain’s circumstances, but whether or not he would live faithfully within those circumstances. The new question becomes: How can we live faithfully when things go wrong and we may never know why?
Or when we read the story of Joseph and his brothers, we see Joseph playing a cat-and-mouse game with them, accusing them of being spies, framing Benjamin for theft, threatening to make him a slave, all while keeping his identity hidden (Genesis 42-44). We are very tempted to ask what Joseph’s purpose was in treating his brothers this way—what was his hidden plan that would bring about forgiveness and reconciliation? So many biblical interpreters have addressed this question by assuming that Joseph had a well-defined, if unclear, motive. But I’m convinced that Joseph had no purpose in mind, and was just reacting to changing circumstances. Read in this way, the emotional and psychological labor of Joseph as he struggled to reintegrate his brothers into his life becomes clear. New questions emerge: What leads Joseph to forgive his brothers despite his struggle? How do the changing circumstances bring him around to forgiveness and a future in which he’s part of his family once more?
It’s amazing how simply changing the question you ask of a given Bible story—or in a given situation—can change your perspective and open up a new possibility for meaning and discovery.
That’s part of why I decided to try to hold together theology and physics, the Bible and space exploration. These represent huge sets of questions about our world and human life, about the present and the future, sets of questions that often are held apart at arms’ length rather than brought together. What might we learn, what new questions might we start to ask, if we bring them together?
We might learn something by asking new questions, like:
- What can the Copernican principle in science teach us about the idea of election in the Bible?
- How can the Bible’s understanding of the role of humans in God’s creation shape the way we extend our presence—and the presence of other species—beyond earth?
- How will the psalms, prayers, and worship traditions of the church help us make meaning of the wonders we find on other worlds, which bear the mark of the same Creator who made us?
- What new expressions of worship will come from those wonders and the things they teach us about God?
These questions and many others might well guide us to new insights and discoveries in science and space exploration, and they might well draw us deeper into the knowledge and love of God. I’m excited about them, because even if these don’t turn out to be the right questions, asking new questions in new ways is the only road to new knowledge.
When we finished our impromptu theology discussion, I put Caleb’s Bible story book back on his bookshelf.
“Caleb,” I said. “You ask really good questions. Never stop asking questions. Asking questions is important, because that’s how you learn. And some questions, the best ones, don’t have easy answers. You have to work for them, and sometimes you won’t find the answers at all. But those are usually the questions most worth asking.”