Ian Paul describes a seminar he ran aimed at helping church members engage with difficult questions.
At our church weekend away last weekend, I ran two seminars on how we engage with difficult questions about faith. The blurb for the sessions said:
One of the things that keeps us quiet about our faith is a fear of the questions that might follow. Can you prove the existence of God? Why is there suffering? Christians are no better than other people! This seminar is a chance to ask the questions that you always wanted to explore – for the sake of others or even for your own understanding. We will have open conversation about the most pressing of these.
So the focus was both on questions we find challenging for ourselves as well as questions that others ask us. I introduced the session by asking two questions of my own.
First, do we see questions as friends or enemies of faith? For some people, if faith is about being confident of truth, then there is a temptation to think that questions are a problem. And for some churches, in an age of scepticism, there is sometimes the suggestion that we need to be more definite about what we believe in a way which can discourage honest exploration. The problem with both these proposals is that asking questions is a primary way in which we learn. It is illustrated by the poem of Rudyard Kipling:
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
It is no wonder, then, that much of Jesus’ teaching is either in answer to questions or arise from questions he himself poses.
how do we view those who ask us questions?
That leads to the second issue. If we see questions as potential friends that can help us to learn, how do we view those who ask us questions? Even though they sometimes are presented as sharp challenges to our faith, if Paul is right that "our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world" (Ephesians 6:12) then the questions are as much a challenge to those asking as we who are trying to answer. Our opponent is not the person, but the forces of scepticism, cynicism, ignorance and worldview that give rise to the question. This means that, instead of responding by feeling threatened, or defensive, or challenged and wanting to offer a trite response, denial or avoidance, we could see the questioner as a partner with us in exploring the question and learning from the process of answering – if the question is genuine.
So what questions were asked? The seminar ran twice, so there were two groups of questions.
- David was flawed yet God used him. Is the Bible similarly flawed yet God can use it?
- If I lose my faith is there a way back?
- What is the unforgiveable sin?
- Is there anything positive in suffering?
- Can you talk about God without referring to the Bible – since non-believers don’t give the Bible any importance?
- Were people who ‘fall away’ really Christians in the first place?
- How do we make sense of unanswered prayer?
- If the creation narratives are true, where did all the other people come from who married Adam and Eve’s children (same with Noah’s family)?
- How does the Virgin Birth make Jesus sinless, since he still had human DNA?
- Is work of value in itself, other than as an opportunity to share our faith with others?
- Does God really need us, or could he do his work without us?
- How could God create us and give us genuine free will?
- Do non-believers really go to hell?
- How do we make sense of people who predict when Jesus will return?
- Why would a loving God give us free will to allow us to choose the wrong destiny?
- What about the issues around sexuality?
- If God has a plan for our lives, do we really have free will?
- Is the New Testament reliable?
- Can people only be saved after Jesus came? What about those who came before? And those who haven’t heard?
- The problem of suffering
- What do we do with the violence we find in the Old Testament?
- And how do we make sense of violence in Christian history?
- Is the promise of the land to Israel everlasting?
- If unity matters, why is there so much schism in the church?
- Why does God allow evil?
- Are all religions the same?
- Are science and religion compatible?
- Can you prove God?
- Are heaven and hell real?
Does anything strike you about these questions? Are there any surprises? These are my observations.
First, there is no shortage of questions! We are a church with a reasonable emphasis on exploration and with a commitment to teaching within our preaching, and with a structure of small groups. Yet people continue to have questions they want to ask. Some of these questions might look naive to anyone who has explored theology in any depth – but giving permission to ask the questions will unearth what is really on people’s minds.
how well do we connect with the great traditions in Christian thinking?
Secondly, this list includes some of the most profound and intractable questions which have challenged the greatest minds in history. There was some relief in the groups when I pointed out that other people had asked these questions before, so they weren’t alone in wrestling with them, and had thought, discussed and written at length about them. This in turn raises the question of how well we are connecting with the great traditions in Christian thinking.
Thirdly, this strongly suggests that faith is not about having all one’s questions neatly answered and tied up. I don’t expect to have all my questions answered by the time I reach the end of my earthly life, and I am confident that is true for all of us!
Fourthly, both groups included a good number of students, male and female – yet the one person who mentioned sexuality (with a sigh) was a middle-aged man. This was a small confirmation of my impression from other evidence: issues of sexuality are not the actual questions which are barriers to faith. It is the big, well-tried questions about the nature of God’s involvement in the world which are the ones that need exploration.
In our session, we then explored two kinds of questions. The first was around the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible, and it seems to me that there are three strands to this.
The first is whether the Bible is itself internally consistent – is it full of contradictions? This has been expressed recently in relation to the death of Judas, where Matthew and Luke (in Acts) have two apparently conflicting accounts.
A second concern is whether the Bible conflicts with other evidence of the world it describes. The classic questions here are about the exodus and the fall of Jericho, and a recent question has been the depiction of life in Genesis – could Abraham have used camels?
A third concern is whether the Bible offers a plausible ethic, not least in relation to violence in the Old Testament.
ask why this matters to the questioner
In discussing these questions, the first response is to ask why this matters to the questioner. If a credible answer is offered or found together, will that make a difference? This separates the real questions from the smokescreens. Assuming that the question is genuine, this kind of issue will need some careful exploration (what does the text of the Bible actually say?) as well as some information. These questions are difficult to answer without doing some further study.
But some of these issues are of quite a different kind. The question of suffering looks very different to someone who has experienced genuine pain and hardship compared with someone for whom it is more theoretical. It involves not just the question of suffering itself, but issues around the nature and action of God. If God is loving, why does he let people suffer at all? This is a highly personal (rather than philosophical) question; if I love my children, will I protect them from all suffering? And if God is powerful, why doesn’t he prevent evil? It is here worth engaging in a thought experiment; what would the world look like if God intervened to prevent all evil? Could I do anything meaningful? How evil is evil?
Our personal relationship with the questions matters in both instances, but in the second kind of question, a supportive relationship is crucial – and could in fact be a significant part of the answer to the question. It is as we stand in solidarity with those who are facing suffering and grief that we become our own answers.
offering the right mix of certainty and openness
That leaves a final challenge for every church: where is the safe place where these kinds of questions can be explored? Providing a safe place means offering the right mix of certainty and openness. Kipling’s poem about his Six Honest Serving Men has a second half:
I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small –
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
To ask questions relentlessly, and never offer any certainties or answers, is at least as bad as offering nothing but certainties.
I was encouraged to reflect that a good number of my blog posts do address many of these questions. Here is a sample [plus all the links in the text above. Ed.].
© 2016 Ian Paul