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How our Questioning Begins: A reply to Fare Foreward

January 29th, 2014 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

“How then shall we begin?”

Among the questions that a writer must answer, that is perhaps the most difficult. When it is time to make an ending, we have the entire body of work to that point to draw from to find what might fit. Good ending should unfold from what has already come; they ought do something new, but that newness ought help us appreciate and understand the old with a greater intensity and awareness. But beginnings, well, beginnings are a miracle.

The End of Our Exploring Matthew Lee AndersonAt the excellent journal Fare Forward, Jordan Monge has written the most thorough and critical review of The End of our Exploring that I have seen. Her objection, as I understand it, is that I do not adequately explain how we get going in the life of questioning well and so offer rather cold and unhelpful counsel to those who might not be as “far along” as I purportedly am.

I’m not sure if it’s fair to claim that we are open to the possibility that we are truly wrong if our purpose is to simply affirm what we believed at the beginning. C.S. Lewis suggested, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin and, in the end, despair.” Anderson seems, at a deep level, to understand this. He critiques an immediately defensive posture and suggests wrestling with questions more deeply with great patience. But he also seems to put too much stock in Eliot’s promise that we’ll arrive where we began.

In that sense, I think his book speaks far too much to people who have already gone through the doubting process and far too little to people who are just beginning it. It seems like the sort to get head nods—yes, this is what exploring is like—from those who have been through the process of exploring and come out faithful on the other side. But I can’t imagine anything but incredulous stares from those beginning the journey or coming from a more skeptical starting point. Those who share his experience may rejoice in having found a compatriot whose voice resonates, but those outside could find this an echoing chamber as hollow as the churches they’ve left.

It is true that I write from the conviction that Christianity is true, all the way down and backwards and forwards, and if that presupposition provides little comfort or counsel to those who disagree with it then I can only respond that the book was never written for them. Monge’s review registers disappointment for that limitation, as I fail “to justify why we should be engaged in the project of questioning from a Christian perspective.” But one can only fail at something that one attempts, and nowhere in the book did I give any indication that persuading the unconverted was part of my aim. I am tempted to respond with something like a Chestertonian warning that she need only ask and I will write another book.

Still, how people move between outlooks—undergo intellectual conversions—is a difficult problem. It extends at least back to Plato, who wrestled in the Phaedo about whether these things can be taught. I alluded to it in mentioning the curious opening to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he begins his journey—but how? “Just as Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy begins with him waking to find himself lost in a dark wood—a curious phenomenon, for how can one awake and find himself lost?—so the first step of return begins when we recognize and say that we too have gone astray. We begin from where we are, even if we start from nowhere.” (43)

Or as I say later, “intellectual conversions feel like a sort of homelessness. Our framework orients us in the world: it is how we decide through our reflection and deliberation whether we will do this or that. Calling it into question destabilizes us; our sense of balance and place gets thrown off. And we lose our “insider” status in the communities that shared those commitments, which introduces a new level of unfamiliarity. Such periods of transition can be very difficult and feel very isolating” (95-96).

My counsel there is not terribly substantive, because conversion is not the main point of the book. But the double exhortations to Entishness (“don’t be hasty!”) and gratitude are the sort of dispositions that I think those in the middle of intellectual upheavals should attend to, if only because the repudiation that a conversion necessarily entails is fraught with emotional and spiritual dangers.

But Monge goes pretty far awry in her discussion of doubt and questioning and her reading that I said some questions were “sinful.” As she puts it:

“The problem with this distinction is that particular questions may provoke doubt, because they call into question the character of God as loving and just. How could a God of love command the killing of every man, woman, and child? Why would God condemn to torturous, eternal fire those whom he loves? How can God hold people to account if we don’t possess free will, if he hardwired us to be this way?

Anderson is right that such questions come from particular places. They aren’t neutral. (Take the last question—it assumes that free will doesn’t exist, that God is responsible for all our negative hardwiring, etc.) But just because such questions come from a place of hostility or severe doubt doesn’t necessarily make them bad questions to be asking. They are questions that make us challenge the foundation of the faith: who is God and what is he like?”

I make no judgment on whether those questions are themselves right or wrong, in part because such things cannot be decided in the abstract. I have written before about how to think about the difference between good questions and bad. But I will simply note that it is absolutely right that because questions “come from a place of hostility or doubt” does not make them bad questions. However, it may mean that they are being asked badly. The intentions beneath the questions matter too, not just the forms. Or as I say in the book:

“The man who asks whether God’s mercy allows for justice may be asking a sincere question and faithfully opening himself to the creative destruction of his own false ideas or to a deepened understanding of his true ones. His questioning may be rooted in love and aimed at his growth. Or he may be clinging to the final vestiges of his rebellion, making a final desperate stand against the holiness of God. Or he may be merely playing a game, reducing God to an abstraction for his own intellectual satisfaction. *These possibilities and countless others stand beneath every inquiry that we make.”

Monge’s real worry is whether I am supportive of “questioning the foundations” of our faith, or whether my exhortations to do so are simply a conjuring trick.

“It’s unclear to me, however, how much Anderson thinks we should really probe the foundations of our faith. On the one hand, he says that exploring the possibility of the resurrection and its historical details “is simply the drama of seeking understanding, a drama constituted by the possibility that we might end up on the wrong side of the ledger.” Yet it seems that the purpose of such inquiry is simply deeper affirmation of one’s original purpose. “By reopening our commitments and being willing to inquire into them again, we will remind ourselves why we held those commitments in the first place,” Anderson writes.”

I take it that if it turned out Christianity is not true, we would “end up on the wrong side of the ledger.” But if it is? The commitment to Christianity’s truthfulness means that the inquiry is not a 50/50 proposition, wherein we weigh these things up in a balance and start from—nowhere. We start in the middle, with commitments, and either deepen those commitments or repudiate them. The opposition between the pursuit of understanding and the question of truthfulness is Monge’s, not mine.

If I put confidence in Eliot’s suggestion that we will end up where we started, it is only because I wish as much as possible to live and inquire within the truthfulness of Christianity. Or as I say in a different context about my friend John Corvino, “Even though we think our perspectives are true, we don’t foreclose on the possibility we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere” (148). The book is aimed at the confidence of faith, not the “certainty” (as Monge says) for a reason.

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.