A faith of sacred questions

It seems to be a perverse law of reality that the more ultimate and urgent a question is to human existence, the less we can hope to have an answer. Stuck without answers, we are forced into different forms of faith, which include:

  • Tradition — accepting answers provided by trusted others from the past or present and actively cultivating belief.
  • Speculation — experimenting with possible answers and adhering to the ones that seem best to believe.
  • Practicality — rejecting such questions and living strictly within the limits of mundane truths which can be answered.
  • Distraction — suppressing the urgency of ultimate questions by redirecting, distorting or dulling attention.
  • Quietism — declaring ultimate unknowns to be unknowable, and therefore less a matter of questions to ask and answer than mysteries to contemplate.
  • Mysticism — abandoning metaphysical speculation and instead meditating on symbols  that relate us to realities beyond form and knowledge. 
  • Nihilism — taking the painful unknowability of our most urgent questions as a test of the integrity and courage of our intellectual conscience to refuse to resolve what cannot be resolved.

Another response takes the unanswerability of ultimate questions as a moral clue, a suggestion that here answers are not the answer.

The crucial shift required for this alternative response is rethinking the relationship between questions and answers. Normally, answers alone are seen as having positive value, and the value of questions are entirely bound up with their role in production of answers. Questions are just perceptible holes or defects in our knowledge, and the posing of questions is just requesting more or better answers.

But this view is not the only possible one, and it may just be a stale habit that has gone too long without being challenged. In fact, questions are the furthest thing from mere absence of answer. A question is an active kind of receptivity, guided by a strong intuition of relevance, and it might even be questions that invest truths with intellectual life.

It has been argued that understanding any truth consists in grasping the question implied in its assertion. Misunderstandings occur when truth are taken as answers to the wrong questions. And confusion is failing to find any question the truth might answer.

It is also true that when a person plunged into a disorienting problematic situation, an inability to form clear questions far more painful than simply lacking answers, and that gaining clarity into one’s questions alleviates this pain more than acquiring new factual information, unless the facts reveal the real question at hand.

Dignifying questions with value and positive existence makes possible new forms of faith, oriented less toward having factual answers than toward asking good questions in a good way for good reasons.

If questions are capable of infusing truths with living meaning, can questions do the same for other kinds of relationships? How about relationships between people (who, after all, are irreducible to knowledge)? How about relationships between people and this inexhaustibly surprising reality we inhabit together?

Is it possible that unanswerable questions might help us understand that knower-known is not the right relationship in every kind of situations? Here questions seem to urge us to know-toward, understand-toward instead of comprehending — to touch with the fingertips of our understanding instead of reflexively gripping everything in the fists of our cognition. This way of approaching reality places faith in questions as sacred.

1 thought on “A faith of sacred questions

  1. The inspiration of this post was a debate that broke out at Shabbat dinner on whether Judaism supports belief in an afterlife. My argument was that the distinctively Jewish feature of such theories is that they are treated as debatable matters and that the positions taken before during and after the debate are entirely secondary to Jewish practice. I didn’t bring it up, but I should have added that Jewish practice very much includes the practice of debating (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/machloket).

    Witness this lesson for Jewish schoolkids: https://elmad.pardes.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Machloket-lshem-shamayim-for-Lesson-Plan.pdf

    This is why I am both slightly shaken but also flattered to hear that one of my in-laws said he always suspected I was Jewish because I “argue like a Jew.” It might be the most ominous honor I’ve received so far this year.

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