Do we know what it means to question well?
We need not fear questions, but by the grace of God, we have the safety and security to rush headlong into them and find ourselves better for it on the other side.
Faith isn't the sort of thing that will endure as long as our eyes are closed. The opposite is the case: Faith helps us see, and that means not shrinking from the ambiguities and the difficulties that provoke our most profound questions.
In our embrace of questioning, we must learn to question well. In our uncertainty, we must not give up the task of walking worthy of the calling that Christ has placed upon us. For we have not yet reached the end of our exploring.
This book is written to aid you in faithfully questioning your foundations.
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About the Author
MATTHEW LEE ANDERSON is the Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy and is studying for an D.Phil. in Christian Ethics at Oxford University. He is the author of two books, and his written work has appeared at the Washington Post, CNN, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, The City, and various other places. He lives in Waco, Texas with his wife.
Read an Excerpt
The End of Our Exploring
A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith
By Matthew Lee Anderson, Brandon O'Brien
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2013 Matthew Lee Anderson
All rights reserved.
A Few Initial Thoughts about the Questioning Life
* * *
With what end in view do you again and again walk along difficult and laborious paths? — AUGUSTINE
I have never really doubted whether God exists. That may be the wrong sort of thing to admit at the opening of a book about questioning, but it's true. I have considered the arguments on each side and have done so with as much honesty as I can drum up. But those inquiries were mostly prompted by people around me—friends and family who stood at the water's edge of unbelief wondering whether they should attempt a swim. I looked along with them but found the prospect wanting. To me, that order and rationality are essential to the universe, rather than accidental, remains the most persuasive explanation.
But I have doubted whether God is good, and whether He will be good to me. The uncertainty has pressed on me, bending both soul and body beneath its weight. I have felt the terrors of His judgment and the horrors of His indifference. These moments were often accompanied by confrontations with my own sin, but other times they arose out of my frustrated sense of entitlement, which I experienced as rejection. These moments were "intellectual," but went deeper even than what we normally call "emotions." I felt as though my life depended upon finding satisfaction and that my bones would rot if there was no relief. "I would have despaired," the psalmist writes, "unless I had believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." When we consider the possibility that God will not be good to us, we stand on the precipice of despair and peer into the darkness below. To do so with a cool detachment that comes from treating the question as "merely academic" is to miss the point. To answer wrongly or not to be answered at all—on this nothing less than the universe depends.
Our anxieties sometimes shift, though. These days, I am more doubtful of seeing my own goodness in the land of the living than I am of seeing God's. He has already proven Himself in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is I who am in question. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" is the inquiry the ruler poses to Jesus. The question signals a profound uncertainty, a sense that we are responsible for our lives and their destinations. The moment we pose it, we move down a path of confronting our own incapacity to attain salvation, a path that takes us to the limits of our own holiness and places us in need of God's. The question itself reminds us that it is we who are under judgment, not God, and that all we do is only enough to place us in need of grace.
I mention these questions only because I have asked them at various points in my life and because we start from what we know. But not everyone's uncertainties have unsettled them to the degree that mine sometimes have. And it is quite possible that Socrates was wrong and maybe no one's should. The writer of Ecclesiastes, a friend to inquirers everywhere, knew that "in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow." Questions that grip us are rarely comfortable, which makes a life pursuing them seem strange to a people preoccupied with comfort and security. It's not easy to sell a tradition whose main representatives, like Solomon and Socrates, faced depression or involuntary death.
Instead, we often hurry through disruptions as though nothing of fundamental importance is at stake. When goodness is called into question, when we are confronted by a dilemma and can see no way through, when a choice between the comfort of silence and gently rebuking a friend lies before us—these are the moments when we are most tempted to retreat and avoid the pressing burden of the unknown. We are rarely in danger of examining to excess, especially when the subject is the shape of our own lives. The sports page and celebrity magazine captivate us and with a good deal less discomfort. Our tendency is to avoid, to inoculate ourselves against unsettling questions with an endless titillation of trivialities. It is better not to be disturbed or to disturb.
Even so, we cannot escape when the questions come upon us. Most of us don't start questioning by hunting for subjects to explore. We feel our questions the deepest when they come over us, slowly pressing upon us until they can no longer be ignored. The mother whose child insistently asks "Why?" may herself catch the habit. The man whose friend's marriage falls apart might be moved to consider his own. The student unable to respond to an argument may find herself stifling a nagging disquiet that all may not be well. Sometimes questions perturb us, which is a lovely and forgotten word: they fill us with an unsettled awareness that, despite their stable appearance, our lives are yet open before us.
THE ANATOMY OF QUESTIONING
What happens when we question? The practice is one of our most common ways of interacting with the world, yet its mechanics remain ambiguous. And despite a few millennia of asking questions, few philosophers have examined questioning directly.
When we assert something, we make a claim that may be true or false. We say that it is sunny outside with all the declarative confidence of people who have looked outside our window and seen the orb hanging in the blue. It's a trivial example, sure, and the more complicated the world gets, the more challenging such assertions become. But the grammar of the sentence, the indicative mood, is how we describe the world with the concepts we've inherited.
A question has a different nature, though, and constitutes a different relationship between us and the world before us. It points us toward the unknown rather than the known, drawing our attention toward some feature that is currently hidden to us. Behind the English "question" lies the Latin quaestio, which also connotes seeking out. In that sense, questions send our attention away from ourselves toward something else. They take us out on an adventure, even when we question ourselves. For by asking, "What is the character of my soul?" we must momentarily stand apart from ourselves in order to find out the answer.
Questioning is a form of our desire. Even while our inquiries often take an intellectual form, they come from wellsprings deeperthan the mind. We do not always choose our questions, any more than we choose our spouses. Our questions drag us about like chariots, which is precisely why letting them go can be so hard. They make us feel as though there is something incomplete that we desire to resolve. Our desire for satisfaction may be stronger or weaker, may intensify or wane, but it is always present.
We should think through this something that we feel is missing. Those who work with art sometimes speak of "negative space," or the area where something isn't. Consider the FedEx logo: the name of the company is spelled out in solid colors, which the eye detects instantly. But the space between the "E" and the "x" makes an arrow, to remind us of their purpose as a shipping company. Or rather, the "E" and the "x" leave an arrow out, imply an arrow that isn't there. It's hard to know which way to put it. For a long time, I never noticed it. After someone pointed it out, it became the only thing I could see.
But negative space isn't everywhere. Nor can we make negative space out of thin air, so to speak. I couldn't point to an empty glass cage and say it's where a lion isn't. It would remain an empty space, even if I attached an "artist's statement" to the contrary. Negative space takes its shape from the objects that surround it. We can only discern the missing arrow in the FedEx logo because the "E" and the "x" are present.
In a similar way, questioning draws our attention to the negative spaces of the world. We consistently encounter facts and experiences that we have to incorporate into our understanding for them to be meaningful. But what we encounter sometimes stretches our frameworks to the point of breaking them. This is particularly true when tragedy strikes. Our moral and political categories offered no meaningful explanation for the tragedy of 9/11. "How could this happen?" "What shall we call it?" "Who could do such a thing?" These and other questions forced themselves upon us and have only lost their force through the reassuring illusion of our security—and our own forgetfulness. But in those first days, we were confronted by a host of unknowns. The fragments of our knowledge about Al Qaeda, about our own security, about a suddenly unstable world left more negative spaces than they filled.
But we can only recognize gaps in our knowledge because we already know something. We ask if it is sunny outside because we know there is a sun, that it comes up, that we are inside and that there is an outside. All these claims are interconnected, and we may affirm them with different degrees of confidence. But they combine to shape the unknown about whether it will be cloudy or not today. They create a space that our inquiry attempts to fill. In the case of 9/11, our understanding of America's invulnerable security proved to have a massive hole, leaving us grasping to discern how and why the airplanes had been hijacked.
Consider one of the early responses to Jesus and His ministry. After He heals a blind and mute man in Matthew 12, the gaping crowd asks, "Can this be the Son of David?" The question is an important one, but so is what it presumes: the people already think they know (from the Old Testament) what it means to be the son of David. And they have their experience of Jesus and His power. What they don't have, the something that drives their wonder, is clarity about whether Jesus is the one who fits their expectations. They're exploring what's unknown to them, the negative space between the concept of the Messiah and the person of Jesus.
We associate questioning with youthfulness and for understandable reasons. Children are naturally inquisitive: they search and explore their surroundings with abandon. The university is, for many of us, one of the last seasons of intentional questioning. And these days, many young people broadcast their doubts, which I understand but try to avoid.
But if the young question most, the wise question best. The art of questioning takes a lifetime to perfect, for the most interesting questions flow from a deep well of insights. The more we understand, the more fine-grained our awareness of the negative spaces will be. The more we learn about the world, the more we will realize how much more there is to know, if we will only remember our ignorance and continue noticing the negative spaces. Those who have learned best and longest will explore hidden nooks and corners that those of us starting out cannot begin to imagine. The wise have seen negative spaces that only well-trained eyes are strong enough to detect.
IMAGINING AND THE VALUE OF QUESTIONS
What shall we say about Job, the most famous of the Bible's questioners? Having lost everything, he bitterly laments his state while fending off the bad advice from friends that he should confess his wrongdoing. Job's sense of injustice reveals itself in his pointed questioning of God about his sorrows. "Does it seem to you good to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the designs of the wicked? Have you eyes of flesh? Do you see as man sees?" But his inquiries are never answered; instead, they are subverted and chastened. God speaks from the whirlwind and returns to Job a barrage of His own questions that expose Job's limited power and understanding. While Job asks God whether He has the eyes of a man, God retorts by wondering whether Job has the eyes of God.
G. K. Chesterton famously wrote of that conclusion that the "riddles of God are more satisfying than the answers of man," and there's something to his point. Certainly the riddles of the book of Job are more satisfying than most interpretations of it. God throws His questions about like lightning and thunder, with a sarcastic bite that is terrifying: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
The effect of God's response is impossible to summarize. To simply say, as I did above, that God transcends our understanding reduces the point to banality and keeps us at a safe distance from its power. God's questions are invitations to explore the gap between God and creation from within. When God asks, "Have you entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?" there is no doubt about the answer. But by using questions, God invites Job to look at creation as He does so Job can see the gap for himself. God's questions are a form of saying "come and see," rather than a didactic exposition on the nature of God's uniqueness and incomprehensibility.
God's questions help Job reimagine his world in order to more clearly see his place within it, a place that is surrounded by a host of unknowns. They take Job beyond staring into the void and keep him from losing himself amidst a sea of negations or denials.
Job is taken beyond simply loving the "negative spaces" for their own sake. Each time he is confronted by a question, he comes face-to-face with God. Job has not "entered into the springs of the sea," but in recognizing this gap in his knowledge Job is confronted by the one who has. The questions themselves help Job understand himself and God more clearly—himself in the light of God—which is why Job will respond to God that he has now seen Him face-to-face.
It is through imaginative deliberation that we are able to make sense of God's questions. What does it mean for Job to "walk in the recesses of the deep"? Understanding the question depends upon conceiving its terms, which takes us beyond the naked confrontation with an abstract question and into the act of exploring and searching out. We imagine a world that both explains the question and might provide an answer—much like we do when looking for the right piece for our puzzle. We look at both our existing picture and the pieces before us and turn and test each possibility to discern how and where they belong. The question opens a "negative space" before us—but as we search out its meaning, the negative space both illuminates and clarifies everything else, helping us to see.
THE BEGINNING OF OUR QUESTIONS
Where do questions come from? That's an odd way of putting it, I realize, but the impulse to inquire about the world is an odd phenomenon. We feel the presence of unknowns; we notice the negative spaces. And we set about exploring because we feel, however opaquely, that what we discover will be good. We believe that our finding will be better than for the unknown to remain unknown, that our apprehending the truth will somehow make us whole. The good and the true go together. As theologian Thomas Aquinas put it, "truth is something good, otherwise it would not be desirable; and good is something true, otherwise it would not be intelligible." When we relate to the unknown, though, goodness goes before and beyond the truth. Our belief that the truth will be good even when we don't know it moves us to search and inquire. Why would we search out the world if we did not think that what we find would be better for us? The love of goodness precedes our knowledge and stands beneath and within all of our exploring.
Because questioning is a form that our love takes, it is a practice that demands more of us than our intellects. In a passage that has become something of an anthem for younger Christians eager to embrace a questioning life, poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes:
You're so young, so far from any beginning; I should like to ask you, dear sir, as well as I can, to show patience towards everything in your heart that has not been resolved and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like sealed rooms and books written in a language that is very foreign. Do not hunt for the answers just now—they cannot be given to you because you cannot live them. What matters is that you live everything. And you must now live the questions. One day perhaps you will gradually and imperceptibly live your way into the answer.
Questioning well is not a task to be marked off in our plan for self-improvement. It has no formula to apply, no technique that can be mastered. It is a form of life, a practice that encompasses and entangles our hearts, minds, and bodies. Which means that we will live ourselves into the answers only if we live the questions well, orienting them around the good and the true that are revealed in the person of Jesus.
The sort of questions that we can live arise when we linger over our lives, when we patiently and deliberately peer into unknown corners with the boundless, childlike energy of those eager to discover what all shall be. They bubble up from our communities and the challenges we face to live well within them. They land in front of us, when societies move away from convictions they once took for granted. Marriage, monogamy, the need for two parents—these are no longer assumed as they once were. We take up our questions when we are taken up by them. The inquiries that we make reveal ourselves and our commitments, for as expressions of our loves they signify what we care most about.
This is why questions rise to the surface during seasons of suffering, even if the suffering is not our own. Pain renders the world's goodness questionable. It shocks us out of our complacent attachment to the blessings of comfort and prosperity. It reopens the universe to us, casting a shadow over our lives and the goodness we had wrongly "taken for granted." When we see the reason for our pain, when we are finally given the meaning—the satisfaction will be a joy beyond words, a peace beyond understanding. But until then, the questions that grip us demonstrate the nature of our hearts and our fundamental need for the purification of our desires.
Excerpted from The End of Our Exploring by Matthew Lee Anderson, Brandon O'Brien. Copyright © 2013 Matthew Lee Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A BeginningChapter One: A Few Initial Thoughts about the Questioning LifeChapter Two: When the Questions Are Not NeutralChapter Three: On Doubt and What Doubt Isn'tChapter Four: What Counts as Satisfaction?Chapter Five: The World and Our Questions of ItChapter Six: The Liberation of QuestioningChapter Seven: Communities of InquiryChapter Eight: Friendship, Disagreement, and Our Fundamental CommitmentsChapter Nine: How to Ask a Good QuestionChapter Ten: The End of Our ExploringAppendix One: How Not to Lose Your Faith in a Christian CollegeAppendix Two: Loving Those Who LeaveConfession of Gratitude What’s Next?
What People are Saying About This
Doubt has become very popular in the last few years. Many times though, doubt never takes the doubter anywhere for answers. Matt shows us how to question well and actually let our doubts take us to God.Darrin Patrick, Lead Pastor of The Journey St. Louis, author of For the City and Church Planter
I wish I had read this book a long time ago! Learning to question well is one of the most important things we can teach young people to do. I will be recommending this book to the many young people I work with every day.Sean McDowell, educator, speaker, author of Apologetics for a New Generation
Finally a book that encourages us to doubt our doubts! Well, not exactly, but Anderson does a good job of discerning the various types of questions and doubt we experience. The goal is not to celebrate doubt but to help us learn to ask the questions that lead to an increasingly mature and dynamic faith. Mark Galli, Editor of Christianity Today
Never mind the hand-wringing about “young evangelicals.” Read Matthew Lee Anderson and you’ll feel much better.John Wilson, Editor of Books & Culture
This is a personal, extended meditation on the question, which is to say that it does not try to be hip or current in any way whatsoever. This very quality, its calm, patient perusing, yields the gifts that the book will give to the reader who pushes through the first question ("why should I read this?") and simply decides to go exploring with Matt.Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, author of The World Is Not Ours to Save and Brand Jesus
Christians are often accused of being unwilling to ask the hard questions. Matthew Anderson not only embraces asking the hard questions as core to the Christian life, but equipsthe reader with the tools necessary to effectively engage in this practice in a manner that refines our ability to think, understand, and live for the gospel. Paul Spears, Director of Torrey Honors Institute, Biola
In a world where "dialogue" and "conversation" are buzzwords but rarely well practiced, and where doubt and questioning seem to be more about a scene than a search for truth, Matthew Lee Anderson's The End of Our Exploring comes as a breath of fresh air. Clearheaded, personal, witty and wise, Anderson's book presents a sensible framework for epistemology that is sorely needed today. Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity and Gray Matters
Over the years, I’ve realized that my wisest, most interesting, most enjoyable friends share at least one common trait: they all ask good questions. They’re curious, open-hearted, aware of all the vistas they haven’t yet explored, seeking out truth, goodness, and beauty in places they haven’t yet discovered. Matthew Lee Anderson’s new book explains why I find this trait so attractive in my friends (hint: it’s the virtue of hope), and he explains how I can cultivate that quality for myself while avoiding its pitfalls. After closing his book, I’m better equipped to heed Jesus’ simple command, “Ask.”Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting
In The End of Our Exploring, Matt Lee Anderson recovers a lost art—that of questioning well. If you have questions about faith, life, or pain, then this book will equip you to ask questions to challenge and guide you. He describes how questioning can be a pathway to beauty, love, and redemption. Relevant and engaging, Anderson’s work has personally changed the way I ask questions. Peter Greer, President and CEO of HOPE International, author of The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good
For years, Matt has challenged me to ask the right questions. This practice has deepened my love for God and the Gospel and greatly helped me approach the countless nuances of both ministry and personal life. He has eloquently captured the essence of this helpful practice in The End of Our Exploring. As usual, Matt is brilliantly engaging and humbly transparent as he illuminates the importance of thoughtful exploration and the dangers of asking the wrong questions. I highly recommend everyone reads this book.Stephen Miller, worship leader, author of Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars
Matt Anderson has questions. But he also has answers. But he also has questions about those answers, and answers about where our questions come from, where they take us, what they reveal and conceal, how they work, what kind of people we questioners are, and what our questioning is for. Open your mind for this book the way you would open your hands for a gift, so you can grab onto something solid at last.Fred Sanders, Associate Professor of Theology, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola
A thought-provoking, question-stirring book that opens the windows of the mind and allows fresh air to blow through our debates and discourse. You may never look at a question the same way again.Trevin Wax, Managing editor of The Gospel Project, author of Clear Winter Nights, Gospel Centered Teaching, and Counterfeit Gospels
Matt Anderson excels at asking good questions. In this book, he thanks several people who he says are responsible for teaching him to question well. I'm glad they did. Matt understands and describes in this book how faith can be big enough for doubt, and how questions are better than answers sometimes. Even more important, Matt understands - unlike many in his generation - that the goal of questioning is truth, or more accurately the God who is Truth and is big enough for our questions.John Stonestreet, speaker and author for Breakpoint and Summit Ministries
Matthew Lee Anderson challenges us to examine the heart behind our inquiries and embrace the God-glorifying design of asking questions—to see them as opportunities to edify and encourage, to grow in our faith. The End of Our Exploring is a wonderful gift to readers of all stripes; I can’t recommend it highly enough.Aaron Armstrong, author of Contend and Awaiting a Savior
Anderson's style exhibits a tenderness for his subject and his reader that can only have come from the constant practice of his book's ideals. He isn't shouting, "Question! Discuss!" like many contemporary reformers do. Rather, he invites the church to ask questions using a tone that fits with question-asking – that is, he invites us with patience, love, good faith, and wonder.Peter David Gross, Executive Director of Wheatstone Ministries, editor of The Examined Life
Does it matter how we question? Do purposes inhere in our explorations? Matt Anderson makes the case that there are wise and foolish ways to question. With wit and deft prose Anderson ably guides the reader on a journey, illumined by a constellation of thinkers like Chesterton, Lewis, Blake and Augustine, and thereby enriches our own explorations.Glenn Lucke, Docent Group
Matt Anderson book is asking all the right questions about questioning. But this book is neither a detached academic exploration of various forms of questioning nor an angsty defense of the glories of doubt. Instead, Anderson begins rightly with the questions God asks of us and then proceeds to offer us a clear and compelling vision of how to question well over a lifetime. My only question is, Why did someone not write something this important sooner?John Dyer, Executive Director of Communications and Educational Technology, Dallas Theological Seminary, author of From the Garden to the City
The End of Our Exploring is a book questioning our questions, taking us through our doubts and struggles to a richer faith. Matthew Lee Anderson brings his needed perspective into the idea that we can and should question well. For those wondering where their questions fit in a life of faith The End of Our Exploring is a can't-miss book.Tyler Braun, author of Why Holiness Matters: We've Lost Our Way—But We Can Find it Again
The End of Our Exploring by Matthew Lee Anderson is smart, challenging, and personal. This book will change the way you question, which is to say it will change the way you think about life, faith, and everything in between.Scott McClellan, author of Tell Me a Story
With delightful and at times lyrical prose, Anderson argues that faith is not opposed to asking hard questions about life and reality, but in fact that good inquiry strengthens faith and leads to a deeper trust in God. And the more we understand and trust God, the more meaningful life becomes. By providing a theology and roadmap to questioning, Anderson has done the church and the academy a huge favor. Jim Belcher, author of In Search of Deep Faith
Matthew Lee Anderson is one of the brightest people I know, and when he speaks, I listen. In The End of Our Exploring, he tackles our deepest faith questions and doubts head on. Read it and you'll doubtlessly be challenged.Jonathan Merritt, author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars
Matthew Lee Anderson gets a lot of answers wrong. But, the questions he asks are the right ones. In thisbook, Anderson examines the all too often overlooked art of asking and pursuing good questions. If you want to be challenged to think (and ultimately live) more deeply, this book should be well worn and marked up on your shelf. Timothy King, Sojourners, Chief Strategy and Program Officer