David Hayward’s earliest memory of himself as an artist is the reaction he got for his Sunday school drawing of Israel crossing the Red Sea. David sketched the scene from the Egyptians’ point of view—in graphic detail. “There were blood and bubbles and beasts and brine because their death had to be a horrible one,” he recalls in his book Questions Are the Answer.
David’s sketch didn’t sit well with his priest or teacher. “I recall the look on their faces,” he writes. “I was being analyzed and I knew it.”
That didn’t stop David from drawing—then or now. But the sense you’re being scrutinized, evaluated, measured up—that sort of thing stays with you. “I continue drawing what I want,” David writes, “but under constant fear of it or me being analyzed.”
The fear of not measuring up, of saying the wrong thing, or asking the wrong question… it’s paralyzing. I’ve had this blog for eight years, but it took me almost four to work up the nerve to share anything I wrote with people I actually knew. I was afraid. Afraid they might not like the questions I was asking. Afraid it might get me into trouble with some of my Christian friends or coworkers.
For most of my career, my livelihood has depended on other Christians. I’ve only ever worked for evangelical organizations, many of whom require you to sign a statement of faith or conform to a code of conduct.
And that’s OK. No one forced me to work for these organizations. Having a shared set of beliefs or values isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Besides, compared to some, I’ve had it pretty easy. I’ve never been fired for something I said or wrote. (Though I’ve landed in hot water on one or two occasions.) I’ve never been scrutinized or marginalized because of my skin color or gender or orientation.
Some people aren’t merely punished for asking questions; they’re not even allowed in the door.
David Hayward’s journey and mine are different in some respects. He left the ministry and the institutional church—a journey he describes in Questions Are the Answer. I’m still there. I still draw strength from its creeds and sacraments. I still want to be part of a community that unites around certain shared convictions—namely, that there was a man called Jesus who conquered death and invites us to join him in making all things new.
But the church has burned out and chewed up far too many people, for asking the “wrong” kinds of questions, or because they were the “wrong” kinds of people.
We do it because we’re afraid. We’re afraid someone might ask a question we don’t have a good answer to. We’re afraid we might come into contact with someone whose very existence challenges our tidy, narrow view of the world. We’re afraid that if we let that happen, we might start asking the wrong questions too.
So we spend our lives on the defensive. As David writes,
My life used to be characterized by standing firm on certain beliefs that I would defend like my castle from all attacks. It really was living life from a defensive posture.
I was the same way. And one thing I’ve learned is that living from a defensive posture is exhausting.
“People deserve the right to question,” David writes. Not just by themselves, on their own. “But also within the communities of which they choose to be members.”
Questioning can be a vital part of our development. Maybe one reason spiritual formation has stagnated in the evangelical church (and it has) is because we don’t know how to ask, much less handle, good questions. David argues in Questions Are the Answer that a progression from simple, closed-ended questions to more open-ended inquiry is one sign of maturing spirituality. But he writes, quoting José Saramago, that “the church’s specialty has always been the neutralization of the overly curious mind.”
What if churches became the kind of place that welcomed—even celebrated—people’s questions? Not because we’ve forsaken a common identity, but because we recognize the beauty of inquiry and mystery?
If we’re going to be more than just “spiritual consumers looking for anything to substantiate our egos and sense of separateness,” we must open ourselves to other people’s questions—and our own. We shouldn’t hesitate to overturn every rock (to paraphrase Jay Kesler) out of fear that something might jump out from underneath and eat God.
Curiosity, wonder, inquiry, and even doubt—these might do wonders for the church and for the broken, battered people who comprise it.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of David’s book. I was not compensated for this post, nor was I required to write a review (positive or otherwise) in exchange for my copy.
5 thoughts on “People deserve the right to question”
The ability to question–and even an atmosphere that encourages questions–is one of the reasons I’m a part of the Episcopal church. The difference is life changing and faith building.
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That’s a big part of what drew me as well…
I became a Christian at 19. I didn’t start questioning God until my first daughter gave birth. When I saw how much she suffered through 27 hours of labor, I thought of all the women in the world who died in childbirth. Luckily, she had a cesarian section, but without that she and the baby would have died.
From that day on I questioned the love of God. I quit praying. I had to figure this thing out. So, I got every book I could find on God and suffering and why he allows it. It took five years, but I finally understood as much as I could about it. I came back to God and I’m glad I did. The books I read were by C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey, among others.
As for the Egyptians, they had plenty of warning from God to let the people go but they insisted on chasing Israel. The other nations God wiped out were doing horrible things you can read about in the Bible, history and archeology books. They burned their children alive to their gods. They were kidnappers and slavers. Sodom was so bad, people had been begging God to do something about them.
I think it is good to ask questions. God says, “Let us reason together.” If we want to know what God is truly like, we can find out. Never believe what someone else tells you about God. Search for yourself. I don’t believe there is an everlasting hell. This is a diabolical teaching about God and the judgement. God wouldn’t keep people in everlasting pain. Even human beings wouldn’t do that to each other. “You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the LORD of hosts. Mal. 4:3 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” Mal. 4:1
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I went through a similar period where I deeply questioned God’s love. (And I still have questions sometimes, if I’m honest.) What I love about your story is that you let the questions linger. You spent five years exploring them. You didn’t rush to easy answers just to settle your mind. I think we need to cultivate a greater willingness to let the questions linger, to sit with them for a while and not try to force an easy payoff.
Thank you for sharing a part of your story!
One thing that was absolutely horrible about my exodus from evangelicalism was the feeling that I couldn’t talk about what I was thinking… to *anyone*. Not to my church, because they’d have handed down pat answers that I already knew. Nothing they could have said to me would have revolutionized my thinking because I grew up with those answers. And after 27+ years of trying to believe them, they were no longer working for me. No matter how hard I tried.
And I couldn’t ask my family, because they were in the camp of my church, and if you pushed a question far enough, it always came down to, “Well, God said…” Which is really unhelpful when what you need is an actual answer.
And I couldn’t ask my boyfriend, because he was agnostic, which is fine, but generally unhelpful when your questions are of a theological nature. The best he could have done would be to hug me and say, “It doesn’t really matter anyway.” But it DID.
And I had so many questions. “If God made science and science and the Bible don’t match up, in which direction did God lie?” (I’ve mostly resolved that one, but it was a huge problem for a long time.)
“If God is just, how is it that he’s put people in positions where they literally cannot be obedient to him and then punishes them for it?”
“How is hell just for both Hitler and a five-year-old?”
“If God’s love is based on what we do, doesn’t that make him a terrible father?”
“How do we know the Bible is true? No really, HOW DO WE KNOW? Don’t give me that inerrancy thing; that’s not helpful because I know better.”
The more I dug the more questions I had, and the more questions I had the less I felt like I belonged anywhere.
And then I found the Episcopal church, and they’re like “Hey! You’re totally welcome here!” No questions asked. No judgement. No doctrinal test. Just rest. Peace. Sometimes believing, sometimes going through the motions. And gradually, it’s allowed my faith to sort itself out a bit, and there are glimmers of hope.
What I think the church needs to realize as a whole is that giving people pat answers doesn’t eliminate doubt. It just stuffs it down. People need safe spaces to not only ask questions but to explore them.