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Fostering Conversations that Count: Questions vs. Answers

April 20th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

It is a theme that I have touched on in several posts now, so I thought I would put it into an installment of its own.

Managing the interaction between questions and answers is a challenge for any institution, but particularly for Christian institutions. On the one hand, Christians have the creeds and Scripture, which make definite truth claims about the world. We think we have the answers. On the other hand, Christians value free inquiry and questions, as we want to make sure the answers we have are actually true.

This is going to be a tension for any discussion leader, and I won't pretend to resolve it. But here are a few thoughts:

Leaving students with questions, rather than answers, moves the authority away from the teacher and transfers it to the home or the church. As a Christian educator, I understood my role to be fairly limited: I was not a pastor, nor was I a parent. While some students looked to me for both of those roles at times, I always attempted to transfer them to the proper spheres of authority in their lives.

My job, then, was to ask questions and to cause them to reflect more deeply on what their parents and churches had taught them. As I am interested in working in Christian education, my goal is not to persuade students of the truths of a particular denomination or of Christianity in general, but to get them to ask questions for themselves. At the same time.....

Wanting students to believe the right answers isn't bad. Had one of my students started questioning their faith, I would have discussed it with them after class or (if appropriate) during the discussion. While I would encourage them to keep questioning, I would do everything in my power to convince them of the truth of Christianity. While not ultimately responsible for that student's soul, I also recognize the influence that comes with being an educator and want to use such influence for the good. Becoming a participant in the discussion and offering reasons for what you think is true isn't always off-limits for the discussion leader, but should be done only with fear and trembling.

Students jump to answers far too quickly. Quick, unreflective answers almost always are cliches, and students are full of them. We're all full of them, for that matter. Moving beyond cliches is difficult, but a well-framed question can help students look at old truths in a new light.

For Christian educators, there is no book more difficult to lead discussion on than Scripture, as students all think they "get it" from the moment they walk into class. Demonstrating the depth of the book takes an immense amount of work for a discussion leader, or it takes a sly and subtle question. When I led discussions on the Gospel of John, the most effective question I ever asked was, "Why does it matter that it was John, and not Peter or Thomas or Nathaniel, that wrote John?" The question struck them as so odd that it forced them to evaluate the book from a brand-new perspective.

Good questions incite desire in students. Most of the students I meet don't care a whole lot about genuine learning. They care about grades, yes, but few are willing to work hard to gain understanding about the world. Good questions and discussion leading tactics can expose their false beliefs though, and deepen their desire for genuine understanding. "All men by nature desire to know" (or understand, which is probably a better translation) Aristotle said, and that desire arises when men realize they don't know. Good questions help students realize that.

Conclusion: Those are a few more thoughts about the relationship between questions and answers for Christian educators, for whom the struggle is (I think) most prominent. (See here for Brother Jim's interesting thoughts on the dilemma from a secular perspective, and read the helpful comments too). If nothing else, I hope they promote (heh) further dialogue about the role of philosophical committments on the part of teachers. It's a minefield that takes an extraordinary amount of wisdom to navigate.

Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.

Other posts in the series:

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.