The End of our Exploring: Announcing Matt’s new book on Questioning

What does it mean to ask a question? 

That’s a funny way of putting it, isn’t it?  I mean, it seems perfectly obvious:  people want to find something out, so they make an inquiry.  What else could a question mean, if it’s more than that?

It’s pretty popular these days to say that Christians ought to ask the Hard. Questions.  And for good reason:  it’s true.   There are challenges that deserve serious attention, questions that we should carefully consider.  Faith isn’t the sort of thing that will endure as long as our eyes are closed.  The opposite, in fact:  faith helps us see, and that means not shrinking from the ambiguities and the difficulties that provoke our most profound questions.

I’m a fan of questioning.  In fact, I have been ever since I entered the Torrey Honors Institute, a place where questioning is treasured more than anywhere else I know.  My education was built on the notion not only that we need not fear questions, but that by the grace of God we had the safety and security to rush headlong into them and find ourselves better for it on the other side.

Writers are witnessesThe past decade of my life I have, in one form or another, continued that process of inquiry and exploration and discovery.  This little corner of the internet has played a key role in that, as my own questions have often played out in various ways through my writings here.  I can’t claim to have always had the right sort of disposition about my inquiries.  (And all his friends and his spouse said “Amen!”).  But I have never once quit caring about the learning, about the growth that is before us and the questions that will lead us into that.

Which is why I want to turn the question in on itself, to step back and examine how questioning fits within the Christian life.  It’s not enough to simply announce that Christians should question everything.  We have heard that message before, as it has been very ably stated.  My concern is that in our embrace of questioning we learn to question well, that even in our uncertainty and our exploration we not give up the task of walking worthy of the calling which Christ has placed upon us.

What does it mean to question well?  That’s a good question.  I’m working out an answer, over 30,000 words available in the early summer of next year.  The whole thing even has a title.  The End of our Exploring:  Questions, God, and the Confidence of Faith.  Which is, frankly, a title that I love.

———

Writing is a dangerous practice.  The last time I set out to compose a book, I failed in serious and soul-damaging ways.  I became consumed by sales, turned Mere-O into a platform for sinful self-aggrandizement, and reduced readers–you–into conduits for recommendations to friends or links on social media.

Writers are witnesses.  Their role must be self-effacing:  they point beyond themselves and the words, toward the substance and matter of the subject at hand.  The last time my hopes that the book would be welcomed as a Really. Important. Work. actually had the paradoxical effect of undermining my ability to simply say what I saw and to say it with the distinctive voice and witness that I have been given.  And that, in turn, had the corollary of commoditizing all my relationships in order to make up the gap.  “Error’s endless train,” I think Spencer’s line is.  I found myself in it, and the witness is ultimately what suffered.

That’s a lot for a book announcement, but I say it to make a point:  my concern this time around is different than the last.  In a real sense, I am not worried about this book “starting a conversation” or “making a dent” or whatever other sorts of big-splash type language I used last time around.  My goal is to say something true about the subject, and to say that truth with as much beauty and life as my words can convey.  And that is enough.  All the marketing strategy, all the building of a tribe, all the requests for links on Facebook to drive Amazon rankings and sales—the sort of tactics and techniques that the marketers will swear by but which I place no hope in.  Let the work speak for itself and if it cannot move an audience to tell their friends and neighbors, then I can die knowing that in the vocation to which I have been called I have only sought to be faithful.  One man plants, another reaps:  the same is true of books and the fields they enter as it is of anything else.

I have more thoughts about how our mindset as writers relates to marketing, and maybe we can talk about all that on another day.  But let me close with one other thought and then a few requests.

———

I am really humbled to have this opportunity.  I can’t tell you how humbled.  And excited.  This has been a very difficult year for me.  I don’t write about my personal life here much at Mere-O, because I am a big fan of maintaining a large domain of privacy so as to avoid making the online world all about me (still, it doesn’t seem to work!).  But suffice it to say, deciding where to go to graduate school, uprooting my life, and then trying to pay for it all has posed a number of challenges that at points worn me thin.

But this, well, this has been invigorating at points in ways that I haven’t felt in my writing in quite a long time.  I am really humbled to even have the chance to explore the subject.  I mean, me!  It’s hilarious and awesome, all that same time.

The chance is really due, in fact, to two people in particular.  One is Erik Wolgemuth, who for some bizarre reason offered to become my agent.  He’s been invaluable, not only in terms of helping me secure the contract for this, but in terms of putting up with my idiosyncratic rantings and encouraging me along the way.  I like to joke that I must be the strangest client he has.  It sounds narcissistic, but trust me:  I’ve got good reasons to believe it.

The second is Randall Payleitner at Moody Publishers.  In fact, Team Moody is doing simply fantastic work these days.  They’ve published my friends Rhett Smith and Tyler Braun’s books, and they’re about to publish Scott McClellan’s new book on narrative, which I’ve not yet read but looks really sharp.  Randall, particularly, had me from the first moment we talked about my proposal.  When we got down to business, he said very clearly, “Well, we really hope you publish this book with us.  But frankly, I passed it aroud the office and we all decided that it didn’t matter who published the book—we wanted to read it.”  I mean, how do you top that as an encouraging word?  Frankly, to me, you don’t.  It’s humbling to work with folks who like your project as much as you do.

Finally, there’s you, Dear Reader.  We’ve had a terrific year, filled with plenty of ranting and raving by me and lots of great stuff by other folks.  I am so grateful for all the kindness you’ve shown us, and for the questions you have posed and the conversations you’ve had in the comments.  Every time I see people on Twitter rant about how terrible commenters are, I smile because I know that the loyal crew that does show up in the comments happens to be among the most interesting on the internet.

———

Now, for a request.  Or rather, three requests.

First, I want to seriously and quite candidly ask for your prayers.  And by “ask for your prayers,” I mean ask you to actually and intentionally remember me and your wife when you are talking with Jesus.  Especially between now and the end of December, when my first draft is due.  My term ends December first and my draft is due two weeks later.  Your prayers for the words, for my writing, and for our marriage are precisely the sort of gift that you can give that goes far beyond anything else.

Second, I would ask for your help.  Not your help marketing the book, because you’re my “tribe.”  No, your help with the book because you want it to be a book befitting of the subject.  If you are interested in reading an advance copy and doing some critical feedback sessions on it, leave your name in the comments and I’ll get in touch.  I am not sure yet how it’s going to go, or how many I’ll ask.  But I am pretty confident that it will require reading the book through the holidays and talking with me in early January (which is a short turnaround).

Finally, you can help in this way:  I’m just curious to hear (a) your favorite question from a novel, (b) your favorite question you’ve ever asked, (c) any quotes about questions that have been particularly meaningful to you, or (d) any thoughts about questions that you have.  I won’t be able to respond to all of them, but I am thoroughly interested to hear what you’ve read and thought about on this subject before.

These are fun days to be working.  Now then, back to the task of learning to question well.

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  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    David Dark’s The sacredness of questioning everything I thought was a good look at the idea of why we should allow for questions and doubt in Christian faith.

  • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

    How exciting! That sounds like an important project, and one that will make good use of your particular strengths. I’d love to be involved in the feedback process.

  • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

    This is marvelous–I can’t think of a more pertinent issue for Millennials than how to ask questions well.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Hannah! I’m really excited about this one, for that very reason. : )

  • http://www.facebook.com/ngilmour Nathan Gilmour

    So long as I have some lead time, Matt, I’d be happy to look at drafts or to review your book over at http://www.christianhumanist.org or whatever else. Just let me know.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Only if you promise to really skewer it this time around. I mean, your review of the last one was *such* a disappointment! : )

  • http://twitter.com/chrishorst Chris Horst

    I’d love to help out (advance copy?). Just let me know what I can do.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Competence questions aside, I’m game to help. I love the subject matter. I ask a lo of questions, and read a lot of books, but I also know that asking questions has a point beyond cultivating the postmodern limbo my generation seems to revel in. Questions ought to, on occasion at least, lead to life-giving answers, or possibly lead you to question your questions–which is its own sort of answer.

    Also, at the end of it you could expect a review over at my blog, which means that at least my mom will know about your book.

    Blessings on your work, Matt. I’m only a recent member of the tribe, but an enthusiastic one.

  • Matt

    Love this idea! I would love to help out however you want me to.

  • Erik Wolgemuth

    Congrats on this, Matt. Can’t wait to get this important book out there.

  • Rebecca Card-Hyatt

    Carsten and I would love to read it over the holidays!

  • http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/ Alastair Roberts

    I would love to be of help if I can.

  • Colby Garman

    Sounds like an interesting project. I would be up for reading an advanced copy and offering feedback.

  • Steven

    Congrats, Matt! I would love to see an advance copy (hard-copy or one I can print out) and give you feedback in January.

  • Jared E.

    related to “writer are witnesses…” quote, see the Preface for Kierk’s “Purity of Heart”, especially the last sentence; the “Needlewoman and Her Altar Cloth” as a parable for the craft of writing.

  • Shane

    It seems to me that good questions create space.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      How do you mean this? I’m curious to hear more about it.

  • Joseph Rhea

    Matthew –

    We don’t really know each other, but Mere Orthodoxy is a really interesting blog to me and I’d be happy to read over a copy (I edit/write to put myself through seminary right now; but I could do this for free :)).

    As for quotes, this isn’t on quotes per se but it’s a wild and wonderful line from Chesterton’s “Introduction to the Book of Job:”

    In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right
    method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to
    tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day
    newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange
    enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.

    It’s a great essay as a whole – it might have some helpful thoughts on questioning for you if you haven’t read it already.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      I love this essay. One of Chesterton’s finest moments, I think!

  • Adam Green

    Sure, send along whatever you’d like feedback on, and I’d be happy to try and help. Congrats on the contract. Go write a lovely book, good sir.

  • Ian

    Matthew, I’m excited about this book, and I’d welcome an advanced copy. As for questioning well, I think it’s good to start where past generations have. Often, their questions — and their answers — hold out insight for us. One of my favorite Scriptural passages is found in Job 8. It begins with verse 8: “For inquire, please, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out.” The rest of the passage is worth reading.

  • Joseph Rhea

    Also —

    “I have a lot of questions” can be the postmodern way to shrug off theological (or existential, or whatever) responsibility. There’s a way to handle questions Godwardly (or at least truthwardly), which is how Job does; or there’s the “I don’t want to think about this so please don’t ask me about it” way to handle it. It makes me think of another quote, this one from The Life of Pi:

    “It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is
    useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane.
    If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished
    night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why
    have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we
    must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to
    choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

    This isn’t meant to slam people who genuinely have a lot of questions and don’t know where to go; but we should lovingly coax people to really question, in the expectation (or at least hope) that there is Someone out there who may have an answer for them.

    I say this thinking of a non-Christian friend of mine who, unfortunately, falls right now in the not-truthwards camp of those with questions.

  • http://chedspellman.com/ Ched

    Question: Why would I want to be involved in a project like this when you totally disregarded my awesome book title suggestion for your last book?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Because you are as merciful as you are kind?! : )

      • http://chedspellman.com/ Ched

        I think this is the part where I question the status of your status quaestionis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gmoothart Gabe Moothart

    Matt,
    I would love to help review your book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kedbuhler Keith Buhler

    Kind of a joke question but Nat Tabris once asked in a metaphysics class, “Is being?” which I found actually interesting (in an intolerably philosophical kind of way) and precise to the point of hurting. Does existence itself exist is perhaps abstract but demands an answer, and in English at least “Is being?” is perhaps the purest way of asking it.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      This question is awesome. Seriously. I love it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kedbuhler Keith Buhler

    Here’s another question that is meaningful to me: “What kind of evidence would it take to convince you?” This question has gotten me out of deep-cut trenches where I’ve gotten stuck with friends in conversations-turned-stalemates. It’s also given me a way to be vulnerable to them, to give them the persuasion-conditions that would convince me to change my mind. Stops the defensiveness and opens up some healthy self-reflection. IS there anything that would change my mind?

  • http://www.facebook.com/MSelson Mark Elson

    Wow! What a great response to your new book and those generosities in providing help. I also would like to throw my name in the growing hat and would love a chance to offer some thought.

    Something that might interest you: http://elsongroup.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/the-why-cliche/

  • Stephen Williams

    Great news, man, and on a topic that couldn’t be more timely. Let me know how I can help, and know my continued prayers for both of you.

  • http://servantsofgrace.org/ Dave Jenkins

    Matt,

    Let me know if I can be of any help to you in terms of a review or looking over the book before its published. I’ll keep you in my prayers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.p.carter Joe Carter

    Congratulations! Sounds like a great and worthwhile project. Can’t wait to read the book.

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  • Don Thompson

    “And by ‘ask for your prayers,’ I mean ask you to actually and
    intentionally remember me and your wife when you are talking with Jesus.”

    Will be praying for you… but I do not have a wife…

    Exciting to hear what you’re working on. Let me know if I can be of any help. Happy to read if you need readers, or whatever else.

    DT

  • Matthew Miller

    Happy to help however I can. The obvious “questioning” passage from a novel is the Grand Inquisitor section in The Brothers Karamazov; if I can think of anything more original, I’ll let you know.

  • http://twitter.com/griffingulledge griffingulledge

    Hey Matt,
    I’ve been a reader for a while. I’m a student at SBTS, and I’m not taking class this winter! I’d love to have an advance copy and help out!

    Thanks!
    Griffin Gulledge

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

    Thanks, all, for the very kind words! I will be sending emails in the next couple weeks to a few of you about reading, responding, etc. I’m really excited about this project (it’s getting in the way of schoolwork, in fact, I’m so eager to make it happen!) and am *very* grateful for the kind words of support.

    • Christopher Benson

      You asked for “quotes about questions that have been particularly
      meaningful to you. That’s easy. From Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Mark Harman (Harvard):

      “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” (pp. 45-46).

      • Christopher Benson

        You asked for favorite questions that we’ve asked. Here are two that immediately come to mind, although they’re not original to me:

        * Do we need a theory of morality in order to be morally virtuous?
        * Do we need a theory of knowledge in order to intellectually virtuous?

        You also asked for favorite questions from a book. That’s easy. No one, in my estimation, has asked more probing or essential questions than St. Augustine. The opening pages of “Confessions” is written from a deeply introspective and interrogative posture. Augustine reminds me that that all of our questions should be uttered from prayerful lips to the Audience of One. Consider, for example, this haunting series of questions:

        Who will enable me to find rest in you? Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself? What are you to me? Have mercy so that I may find words. What am I to you that you command me to love you, and that, if I fail to love you, you are angry with me and threaten me with vast miseries? If I do not love you, is that but a little misery? What a wretch I am! In your mercies, Lord God, tell me what you are to me (translated by Henry Chadwick).

        Related to this, John D. Caputo writes in his book “On Religion”:

        By religion, therefore, let me stipulate, I mean something simple, open-ended, and old-fashioned, namely, the love of God. But the expression “love of God” needs some work. Of itself it tends to be a little vacuous and even slightly sanctimonious. To put it technically, it lacks teeth. So the question we need to ask ourselves is the one Augustine puts to himself in the Confessions, “what do I love when I love God?,” or “what do I love when I love You, my God?,” as he also put it, or, running these two Augustinian formulations together, “what do I love when I love my God?”. . . . I love this question in no small part because it assumes anybody worth their salt loves God. If you do not love God, what good are you? You are too caught up in the meanness of self-love and self-gratification to be worth a tinker’s damn. Your soul soars only with a spike in the Dow-Jones Industrial average; your heart leaps only at the prospect of a new tax break. The devil take you. He already has. Religion is for lovers, for men and women of passion, for real people with a passion for something other than taking profits, people who believe in something, who hope like mad in something, who love something with a love that surpasses understanding. Faith, hope, and love, and of these three the best is love, according to a famous apostle (1 Cor. 13:13). But what do they love? What do I love when I love my God? That is their question. That is my question (pp. 1-2).

      • Christopher Benson

        I just remembered a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein that resembles the one above from Rainer Maria Rilke:

        “The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear.”

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    Hearty congrats, Matt. I’m looking forward to reading this, and would certainly be interested in reading any advance materials and/or providing early feedback.

    I’m not sure whether this is my favorite “passage” on the subject, but I thought of you when reading it recently. It’s from C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce — the exchange the “Episcopal Ghost”:

    Spirit: “Listen!” said the White Spirit. “Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.”

    Ghost: “Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

    Spirit: “You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.”

    Ghost: “If we cannot be reverent, there is at least no need to be obscene. The suggestion that I should return at my age to the mere factual in-quisitiveness of boyhood strikes me as preposterous. In any case, that question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level.”

    Spirit: “We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.”

  • http://chedspellman.com/ Ched

    Great, now you’ve got me thinking about questions in my spare time and questioning my grasp of the subject. Which is questionable?.

    For what it’s worth, I think it would be interesting if the colon in the title was a question mark: “The End of Our Exploring? Question, God, and the Confidence of Faith.”

    Reason 1: Because I’m a sucker for when authors impose punctuational irony on unsuspecting readers (i.e., “this feels like an indicative statement, but wait, why is there a question mark when . . . Ok, I see what you did there. Like, totally, Whatever”).

    But also Reason 2: Because I would expect (or hope for!) a multi-faceted use of the idea of “end” that would run throughout the project. So, is this the “end” (terminus) of our exploring (e.g., because we’ve found the answer to our questions), or is this the “end” (goal) of our exploring (e.g., because the questions themselves were the answers)? Is this the “end” of the world of “questioning” scholarship as we know it (a temporal/qualitative end), or is the age of mad men simply coming to an “end” (point at the end of a temporal/sequential spectrum)?

    Like, at some point, Ender’s Game will simply be over. There will always be a “The End” to every Narrative/Meta-narrative, even if the story is “to be continued.”

    And also the slightly more abstract reality that at some point your particular examination of this subject will end. Even if you let the open questions linger like a Liger, when you publish it for us to read, it will represent a distinct, non-repeatable moment in the development of your thinking on questions, confidence, and faith. The end of your reflections (mostly likely by your intelligent design!) will begin to raise more questions. The end, in other words, will not be an end, much less the end.

    Even though, at some point, you’ll likely dare your manuscript to meet you at high noon in the middle of the public square somewhere and shout, “I will end you!”

    But I guess at this point, there’s always a danger of getting incepted. If you let the seed of this idea expand into a rambunctiously robust matrix of meaning, I’ll probably point it out as a “lack of terminological precision” when I skewer your book next Fall. :)

    Looking forward to “it.”

    My hope is built on nothing less
    Than Matthew’s book
    And Moody press . . .

  • Isaac Wiegman

    I’d love to read a chapter or two at least. I suppose my favorite questions at the moment are ones about emotions and how they influence our reasoning. For instance, are my punitive judgments influenced by my anger? Should they be? I also hold dear some of the questions we’ve discussed in other forums. For example, while I trust that God is Good and will continue to believe it even if I find that there are souls suffering eternal conscious torment, I constantly wonder why it would be necessary (or good or right) to cause (or allow) them to suffer so.

    Thoughts about questions: I think questions are an invitation to exclude possibilities. While these invitations can sometimes imply or indicate a lack of trust, they need not. Questions are cognitive, but they often have conative sources, implications or entanglements.

    Peace,
    Isaac

  • http://twitter.com/ephphathaThots James Wheeler

    interesting topic. what comes to mind immediately is the issue of cultural relativity. Not as a bogey man but as a real issue in the area of social ethics. So this goes back to hermeneutics…how do i read the Bible…is it a culturally relative document? Or when is it culturally relative and when is it not? etc.

    A secondary challenge in our day which goes widely unaddressed is cynicism and denial. Can we move towards a post-cynical mindset that is still critical and rigorous?

    An older book on gospel virtues that start charting a path is Gospel Virtues by Jonathan Wilson. This is a fantastic book which addresses some of that pomo stagnancy with the Christian virtues. Great stuff!

  • Ann

    The first question that came to mind-

    Ro 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

    Thank God, the answers are No One and Nothing.

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