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:
- In my ministry do I build bridges between people or construct barriers, by reinforcing old prejudices or creating qualitative classes of people?
- Do I strengthen or weaken a basic sense of trust and relatedness to people?
- Do I encourage and promote other people’s personal responsibility; or do I block it, because I find it personally threatening?
- Do I oversimplify the human situation or do I help people deal with life’s often tangled complexity?
- Do I encourage intellectual honesty and stimulate interest in learning and exploring?
- 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?
- In what I say and in my own behavior, do I emphasis love, compassion, and growth? Or do I promote fear and anxiety?
- Do I cry and laugh easily?
- 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:
- If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matthew 5:46)
- If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? (Matthew 5:47)
- 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)
- Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? (Matthew 9:4)
- Do you believe that I am able to do this? (Matthew 9:28)
- What did you go out into the desert to see? (Matthew 11:7)
- 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)
- Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? (Matthew 12:48)
- Why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:31)
- Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3)