QUESTIONING IS A VIRTUE


Almost fifty years ago, a young fellow from Michigan went to study theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. His academic advisor was Edward Schillebeeckx, the well-known Dominican theologian. Schillebeeckx was masterful; but he gave the young man many headaches and some sleepless nights.

Thanks to Schillebeeckx, I began to question my belief in God, my undersigning of Jesus Christ, my understanding of divine revelation, my ministerial career, and my own identity as a person. I walked out of his classes each week with more questions than answers. One day, after class, I confronted Schillebeeckx and told him that, thanks to him, I was questioning everything! He chuckled and said: “Then perhaps I am a good teacher. Now you must be a good critical-thinking student and pursue the answers.” For me that was a moment of grace. I gradually began to realize that questioning is a virtue.

Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I learned from Schillebeeckx, and many others over the years, that far too often unexamined belief, sanctifies ignorance and leads people astray. We read distorted-religion stories in the news each day: Islamic fundamentalists in Syria, doing God’s will, raping and decapitating “infidels;” Roman Catholic bishops in Nigeria, safeguarding Catholic belief by condemning homosexuality and supporting Nigerian legislation criminalizing it; and in Kenya Roman Catholic bishops telling their people to boycott immunizing children against polio. The bishops, in their consecrated ignorance, argue that the polio vaccines were secretly designed to stop Kenyans from being able to have babies. They said similar things when the government began a campaign to immunize people against tetanus. Not so holy ignorance really.

Is something true because people believe it, want to believe it, or have vested interests in believing it? I ask this question about contemporary church leaders but also about contemporary politicians with presidential ambitions.

Far too often, people who reject critical thinking become slaves to their own unreflected conformity and then endeavor to en-slave others.

Slaves don’t ask questions……Slaves to the church consider it their duty to NOT ASK those questions that might give the church or church leaders “a bad name.” For decades, slaves to the church (bishops, priests, lay institutional administrators) refused to acknowledge and effectively deal with clerical sexual abuse. Other slaves to ecclesiastical conformity refuse to question the church’s official opposition to women’s ordination, finding it more comfortable and more secure to not rock the ecclesiastical boat.

Many people, who are slaves to power and position, are unable or unwilling to ask the questions that might render themselves powerless. One evening, after dinner, a bishop friend and I were talking about religious experiences. I asked my friend (he is still a friend and now an archbishop) “when was the last time you really felt close to God?” At first he didn’t respond; but I asked him again with honest sincerity. He thought. His eyes began to water a bit. Then he looked at me and said: “forty years ago when I was a newly ordained priest. I was in love with God.”  “And today?” I said. He thought for a while then rather sadly said: “Everything has changed…I owe my soul to the company store.”

Questions…….for church leadership men and women:

  1. In my ministry do I build bridges between people or construct barriers, by reinforcing old prejudices or creating qualitative classes of people?
  1. Do I strengthen or weaken a basic sense of trust and relatedness to people?
  1. Do I encourage and promote other people’s personal responsibility; or do I block it, because I find it personally threatening?
  1. Do I oversimplify the human situation or do I help people deal with life’s often tangled complexity?
  1. Do I encourage intellectual honesty and stimulate interest in learning and exploring?
  1. In what I say and do as a church leader, is my primary concern surface behavior — good PR packaging for the church — or the underlying welfare and health of the people to whom I minister?
  1. In what I say and in my own behavior, do I emphasis love, compassion, and growth? Or do I promote fear and anxiety?
  1. Do I cry and laugh easily?
  1. Can I ask for personal forgiveness when I fail; and can I forgive others unconditionally?

Questioning is a virtue. It opens us to authentic life and genuine Christian belief.

Jesus of Nazareth of course was a good questioner. Just a few examples from the Gospel According to Matthew:

  1. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matthew 5:46)
  2. If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? (Matthew 5:47)
  3. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
  4. Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? (Matthew 9:4)
  5. Do you believe that I am able to do this? (Matthew 9:28)
  6. What did you go out into the desert to see? (Matthew 11:7)
  7. If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?  (Matthew 12:11)
  8. Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? (Matthew 12:48)
  9. Why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:31)
  10. Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3)

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12 thoughts on “QUESTIONING IS A VIRTUE

  1. Jack, well done again. Kinda puts context to where I am on my journey these days. Lately in my homilies for some reason I have been urging folks to question everything, and said that Jesus was not the answer to our questions but the source or reason for our questioning. I know my preaching is controversial, and I am doing my own questioning.

    While I feel for your friend who owes his soul to the company store, I am thankful for my “independence” from the company store, and still wonder what I am supposed to do with it. I have a sense that by circuit riding I am continuing to enable a system that only wants to perpetuate itself at the expense of the folks in the pews, good folks who don’t seem to question anything, led by good pastors who have to depend on the company store for support and job security. I find it hard to refuse to help a pastor who asks me to cover masses, etc. I think a lot of them are overworked and even beaten down so they don’t have energy to do anything beyond maintaining the status quo. Then there are others who think the whole situation is just rosey.

    I would love to find perhaps an intentional eucharistic community that is doing its own questioning. I’m getting tired, and I know I am not alone. Back to questioning . . .

  2. Right on target. I identified so profoundly with what you wrote. The story of the archbishop is so sad but so easy to understand.

  3. Excellent, well said and thought-provoking. Too often, I think, “owing one’s soul to the company store” comes from a balancing act that tipped too far off to one side.

  4. […] Almost fifty years ago, a young fellow from Michigan went to study theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. His academic advisor was Edward Schillebeeckx, the well-known Dominican theologian. Schillebeeckx was masterful; but he gave the young man many headaches and some sleepless nights. (To continue reading, click here.) […]

  5. Thank you for the insights. I agree, questioning is most certainly needed in our lives. It can lead to better things and further enlightenment. However, it can lead to pain. Why? Because the establishment, those of authority may not like the questions as it may upset the “unequilibrium” they have created and one in which they are comfortable with. Pray first with your questions, ask for guidance from those you believe in.

    Here is a question I would like to ask, If a woman came today with “Jesus Christ like” abilities, those of Saint Francis, Saint Clara of Assisi, would she be accepted?

    My answer is probably not. But I would like to hear from you all. Thank you.

    And not only to Christians, Jews, and Muslims but also to Buddhists, Hindu’s and Native Americans. That is simply the way it is, thousands of years we have been led to believe it is men in religion and spiritualism and not women. It is not only the Catholic church where women are not equal, I even put this question to the Dalai Lama.

    Yet in our prays, Hail Mother Mary, we are praying to Her to be with us at the time of our death. I do understand but certainly don’t agree.

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