Why Is It…?: The Value of Answered Questions vs. Unquestioned Acceptance

I am an inquisitive person. I want to know things. I want to know why things happen. I want to know how things work. I like to think, although thinking has gotten me into trouble on occasion. I like learning. Even at my age, I am constantly learning. I hope I never stop.

So why is it that others don’t do those things—ask questions, seek objective answers—especially in the realm of faith? Why can’t people question the status quo and challenge the system without being threatened? Questioning is not the same thing as apostasy. In fact, questioning is scripturally approved, because it leads to truth.

How do I know this? I am drawn to the story of Thomas in those dark days after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ followers were continuing to meet, perhaps to commiserate, perhaps to encourage each other on the first day of the week. Thomas was not present at the meeting where Jesus first made his presence and continued life known to the disciples. They told him the news, but he refused to believe it without proof. When he was gathered together with the others on the next meeting day, Jesus appeared and challenged him to touch the wounds and believe. I do not believe that Jesus condemned his action. If he had, he probably would not have acquiesced to the request for proof. After all, if a man was not willing to believe the corroborated testimony of his peers, men he had known and worked and studied with for years, what would that say about his intellectual honesty?

Perhaps Jesus realized how incredible this claim of resurrection might be. Of course, Thomas knew the Old Testament record, how Elijah had raised the widow’s son in I Kings 17. But like other cases in the New Testament, that took an external agent to channel the power of resurrection. But here was Jesus, known to have died and been buried, and without a visible external agent, without someone to speak or lay hands on the body or pray for reanimation, here he was alive again.

Some might see Jesus’ comment about those being blessed that had believed without proof as being superior to Thomas’ need for physical evidence. Those Jesus pronounced blessings on would include, I suppose, us as believers, because the only proof we have is the testimony of scripture that we accept as substantiating the story, and that provides the foundation for our faith.

Later in the apostolic period, Paul tells the Thessalonians in chapter 5, verse 21-22 of his first letter, “20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good.”

“Test everything.” That does not mean try to find a way to merely poke holes in a doctrine, nor does it mean to blindly, mindlessly accept all teaching. No, with respect to prophecy—which we might extend to teaching—we are not to despise it, but test it. To test or prove is to observe and consider objectively, as did the Berean hearers, who searched the scriptures to determine if what Paul taught was true based upon scriptural evidence.

But is there anything truly objective in religion? We often talk about and encourage study, but is that study in an objective sense? Too often, the study that is encouraged is merely the rehearsal of the doctrine of the particular group with which one is affiliated. In fact, in many instances, it is possible that objective questioning may be actively discouraged, because it may lead to rejection of the group’s accepted teaching.    

So what happens if a person objectively studies and finds the position of his or her faith tradition to be wrong? There are several possibilities. One may be that this person quietly remains in submission to the group’s standards, seeming to be a satisfied participant, while inwardly he remains miserable. Another possibility is that she speaks out and is castigated for her heretical candor. A third possibility for such people is that they decide that they can no longer remain true to themselves and what they have determined to be true and stay with that group.

There are probably elements of every group, evangelical or otherwise, that looks at any such defection with derision. The group will try to badger the seeker into returning. There may be little consideration that this decision was reached with thought and care, and since the heretic has departed from the group’s dogmas, there is little effort to hear the arguments and genuinely study to know if this person’s conclusions are true or right.

That is perhaps the most ironic part of the progression: the one who has objectively studied beyond the limits of his group’s teachings is not met with the spirit of God’s invitation to Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “Come let us reason together.” It is more like “You have left the only true path or position on this topic, and you stand condemned for departing.” There is no real offer of objective study. There is only condemnation.

Perhaps the most dangerous example of this is found when one questions something like the method by which the group determines authority. In the churches of Christ, that method has been, since the 19th century, a method known as Command, Example, Necessary Inference, and Silence, or CENI-S, for short. If a person has examined this fourfold pattern and found it to be based not wholly on scripture, but largely on human reasoning, that person is considered to be in error. The establishment will brook no question contrary to the pattern, and will refuse to even consider if they are possibly in the wrong. To question CENI-S is to question the infallibility of scripture. To reduce the list by one or two allows too much liberty. Freedom is erroneously equated with anarchy, and that simply is not true. The other illogical conclusion is that greater freedom is found in greater bondage to tradition. Such paradoxical conclusions are far from scripture.

When a person reaches a point where “pattern” no longer means specific regulations with respect to organization but an example of how to live, his religion changes from one of fear for getting something wrong to one of joy for making something right. The life of faith is more expressed in action toward others and forward thinking, not focusing on questionable minutiae. As long as we argue and quibble over the correct interpretation of a single word, we are not doing the good that we are expected to do. In Matthew’s record, Jesus twice quoted Hosea when he charged the Pharisees with finding out what God meant when he said that he desired mercy—a word that is often associated with the concept of “steadfast love”—rather than sacrifice. I’ve thought about what that means. Maybe it suggests that if people would only do the good toward others that they were expected to do there would be no need for sacrifice. Maybe he meant that if your heart is seeing to the good of others, you won’t have time to sin. Mercy looks outward and forward. Sacrifice looks inward and back.

Too often today, people are caught up in getting the “sacrifice” just right, whatever they perceive that sacrifice to be. They lose sight of the fact that there was one perfect sacrifice, and we accept that and honor it by means of emulating the one who willingly laid down his life. In trying to get the “organization” of the church right, we forget what the function of that collective body of believers was really meant to do: build each other up and look out for each other, body, mind and soul. The attention we pay to the qualifications of elders and deacons often fails to really address what those recognized as such actually were and are expected to do. In trying to reconstruct the form of worship, that form is elevated above the function of the gathering. The expression of joy and gratitude succumbs to the fear of a spiritually fatal ceremonial misstep, and the exercise is relegated to checking off the parts rather than experiencing the whole. In trying to identify those with whom we fellowship, we apply honorifics of “Bro.” and “Sis.” as titles, but fail to recognize the people for what they really are: adopted siblings sharing the care, love and grace of a common father.

Maybe people don’t ask questions because it’s easier to just accept what someone else tells them. But when we start seeing a chain of acceptance we may also see a chain of misunderstanding. Life is too short to blindly follow and not enthusiastically, emphatically know. To be a believer does not have to mean gullibility. Belief is stronger if it is built on investigation and questioning. The basics of “who, what, when, and where” are easier to tackle. But to answer “why and how” can take a lifetime, or maybe even more. But that’s okay in the long run. Eternity may just be long enough to find and savor those answers.