Anybody who knows me also knows that I have a deep fascination with questions. Many years ago when I was a youth pastor, we would occasionally have a “Big Hairy Question Night,” where the youth could anonymously ask their Big Hairy Questions (BHQs) and I—with all the wisdom of a 20-year-old—would try my best to offer answers. Late-night conversations at Denny’s with my fellow baptist students often involved the deep questions—questions about life, the universe, and everything. I even wrote my seminary master’s thesis on the questions that Jesus asks in the Gospel of Luke. Below I have listed seven questions that have stuck with me pretty consistently for the last ten years. These questions have challenged me and continue to shape the direction of my life.
1. Who (or what) am I?
Sometime in my early/mid-twenties I came to the unsettling realization that my personal identity was inextricably bound up with the identities of others. I realized that I’m not me—I’m an aggregate of what I admire in my best friends, my family, my wife, even characters in my favorite TV shows. As Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou sings in “Cattail Down”: “You think you’re you, but you don’t know who you are; you’re not you, you’re everyone else.” When I was in high school, I developed a laugh that was an exact copy of Hawkeye’s cackle on M*A*S*H. I’m still trying to put my finger on what I can call authentically and uniquely “myself.” At this point, I assume I’ll spend the rest of my life feeling like a different person each day.
2. Does God exist?
First I was convinced God exists. Then I was convinced God doesn’t exist (“God doesn’t exist, the bastard!” wrote Samuel Beckett). Now I remain open and cautiously hopeful. As one of my friends recently put it, “I believe in God more often than I don’t believe.” I want to push myself beyond simple mythology, wishful thinking, and nice stories on the one hand, but on the other hand also move away from the scientific reductionism that marks so much secular thought these days. On an emotional level, this question has fueled a lot of the anxiety and depression I have suffered over the last several years. But now I am learning to question the assumptions that underlie the scientific and philosophical ideas we take for granted today in a way that feels a lot healthier than it has in the past.
3. Who was/is Jesus?
As a Christian, I think that this is one of the most crucial questions we can ask ourselves. But the claims about Jesus’ identity (both historical and religious) also demand an answer from society at large. I don’t want to succumb to C.S. Lewis’s flawed “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trichotomy; history is much more complex. I’m looking for a plausible Jesus of Nazareth, but also trying to reconcile the startling claims made about him by the earliest literary accounts of his life. Moreover, what does it mean to claim that this first-century backwater Jewish would-be Christ who was executed by the Romans is in fact the incarnation of the Living God, who eternally reigns over all creation as God’s messiah? Here the struggle is for balance between the historical and the spiritual. Or perhaps the distinction between the two is not so clear. On a deeply personal level, though, I want a Jesus who transcends both fundamentalist and liberal attempts at appropriation. A Jesus who is completely human, situated in his own ancient Jewish context, but also somehow wholly other, resisting modern (and postmodern) ideological co-option.
4. What should be the Church’s relationship to the broader popular culture?
As far as I can tell, there are three distinct philosophies regarding the relationship between the Church and the social environment in which it is situated: 1) Should the Church be a follower of culture, adopting popular ideas for its own use? 2) Should the Church be at the forefront of culture, so that in effect the Church becomes the dominant/popular culture? Or 3) Should the Church be a community unto itself, “in the world but not of the world”? Obviously the lines are not so obviously clean-cut. If the Church merely adopts modes of thought that are already popular, what is uniquely “Christian” about it? If the Church leads the cultural pack, where is its prophetic power of dissent? And, by contrast, if the Church isolates itself into its own subculture, how useful can it be to the broader community of creation?
5. What is a moral/ethical life?
I have little interest in learning how to be rich or how to be happy, problems that most American self-help books attempt to address. Rather, I want to know how to be good. How ought we to go about the business of living? How should we purchase goods and services in our free-rein capitalist economic system? Where should we seek employment? What should we eat? Beyond deontological fidelity to the Law or anarchistic libertarianism (“to each his own”), I am searching for a deeper morality. Personally, I am a fan of virtue ethics, in which our moral/ethical decision-making is determined by established “virtues” or conceptions of the Good. The struggle, though, is when one person’s conception of the Good comes into conflict with another person’s conception of the Good. What then? The “right thing” is not always immediately apparent.
6. How can individuals live moral/ethical lives in community?
Community and tradition have always been and will continue to be cornerstones of my faith. A logical follow-up question to #5 above is how to live an ethical or moral life in community. The Christian faith is predicated upon the tension between unity and difference, a balance often referred to as the “wisdom of stability”. How do we navigate that balance to seek the Good together in community?
7. How can I become a kinder, gentler, wiser person?
This question is a little more complicated than it seems at first. There is a balance to be struck between justice and mercy. Sometimes kindness, gentleness, and wisdom are not the right tools for the job, particularly when holy anger, assertiveness, and stubborn persistence may be called for instead. But when I pray—which is, admittedly, not often enough—it is these three characteristics that I ask for.
These are seven of the most important questions that drive me, that fuel my philosophical and theological curiosity. They keep me reading and writing, and color my perception of the world around me. What questions have helped shape your life?