questions are better than answers

this statement (“questions are better than answers”) is one of the CORE values we came up with a few years back, as part of our one-day CORE training for youth workers. it was one that brought with it much heated discussion with the CORE team. there were those on the team who weren’t happy with this as a statement by itself, saying that while Jesus certainly raised lots of questions, he also provided many answers. some lobbied for a modification, along the lines of “questions can be as helpful as answers” or “questions are sometimes better than answers” or something of that sort.

but sitting here at the emergent convention seems to be a good place to ruminate on this tension. and all i can do is fall back on the statement itself. frankly, i do not find answers all that helpful. i suppose the primary reason for this, in my life (and i think this is reasonably universal), is that the “answers” we think we have are almost always temporal, or situational, or — at the very least — lead to new questions.

for some, this seems to be a very frightening thought: how can i know anything, if i can’t settle on an answer? but this very question (ooh, a very helpful question in and of itself) is built on such a faulty set of assumptions. sure, i “know” that God is characterized by love (let’s just use this as a sample “answer”, since christians of all stripes would agree on it). and i “know” that is true, as opposed to it’s theoretical opposite: God is characterized by hate. but while the answer gives me a road sign, it doesn’t give me a destination. so, last year i might have responded to that “answer” with a certain set of new questions, this year (today) it brings with it a whole new set of questions. and this does not leave me in a place of fear; it leaves me in a place of wonder, a place of exploration, and a place of humility. and these places are exactly the places God wants me to be! God does not desire for me to be in a place of conclusion.

just yesterday, someone asked me what a defining mark was about the emergent crowd. i thought for a minute, and the best answer i could come up with was: they (we) are not afraid of any question.

so, in the spirit of the emergent convention, i re-affirm this statement, and would even add stronger language to it:

questions are always better than answers

16 thoughts on “questions are better than answers”

  1. Do you mean, “Are questions always better than answers?”

    My brother, you’ve done the opposite — instead of asking questions, you’ve argued for an answer (questions).

    But, the blog was a nice one.

  2. hey there marco, i was looking to say hi to your wife. but i read your comment and thought…what the heck since i’m not there that doesn’t mean i can’t throw in my two cents…i think it’s a great diservice to put the two words, question and answer, into compitition with one another. they seem to me to be like a dance between two people that is so fluid and so remarkable that the bystander can hardly tell the two appart. they both have thier turn taking a spin or a dip, but always returning to embrace one another, creating a beautiful, inticing, and mesmerizing dance. to seperate the two and pick one over the other would be like seperating those amazing tango dancers that where so much make up and wear those incredible outfits. it would just look funny watching those dancer all by themselves. so i think the one intices and wooes the other and back and forth. to forgo the one for the other would probably lead to depression or narcicism. ok, enough of that, just trying to feel like i’m there with you all having cool discussions. speaking of cool, could you tell your wife hi for me? thanks,

  3. hi jerilyn! ok, so let me put it this way:

    it might be nice to watch “question” and “answer” as dance partners. but what i’m really thinking, as i watch them dance, is that i want to cut in and dance with “question”.

  4. i totally get that…i’m always switching partners though. in some moments i love the openess of the question and then i get all weirded out and run to an answer, any answer sometimes, which could be where the danger lies in answers. i want to be the sweat in between the two as the dance together, as the push and pull against each other. uck! way gross… hey i wonder if you would become the answer if you danced with the question. and vise versa, you would become the question if you only danced with the answer, ie. inability to know self, inability to measure up… well, whatever. just babbeling here. have fun dancing with your questions this week. try not to pull a muscle.

  5. I see answers as a way to stop thinking. Answers are an ending, the destination. So many of us now are thinking that the destination is not the point (in our theology, vacations, cooking, etc.) but the trip there is equally valuable and worthwhile.
    I find questions further my journey of life, whereas answers are like a path that dead-ends. It is supposed to satisfy me that I reached the end (modern-era definition of success) but I find myself asking more questions…what is just past the end of the path?, what’s over to the right?, the left?

  6. I’d like to offer you guys a little challenge–just to get you to question a bit this position you’ve taken.

    James, to make your way down a path, you have to pass points along that path. Finding answers leads to more questions, but you won’t get anywhere unless you build on the answers you already have.

    I think it’s difficult for anyone to argue that we should only stick to questions when the Bible specifically says we are to “give every man an answer.” Can you point to anywhere in the Bible that warns us against coming to conclusions? Anywhere that says that questions (without answers) have the highest value? If not, then please consider that you may be choosing your own philosophy over a direct command of God.

    We are, of course, told to study and ask questions and grow, but the Bible always honors questions as means to coming to actual answers (for example, the Bereans) and not simply because they are questions.

    Questions are extremely valuable to challenge our thinking and most effective in getting others to think about Jesus. But avoiding answers prevents learning certainly as much as avoiding questions does. Mark, you say the defining mark of emergents is that they are not afraid of any question. But actually, I personally don’t know any serious Christians who are afraid of questions–this isn’t particularly distinctive. Instead, I think the defining mark is that they are afraid of answers. If you can point to anyone in the Bible who is praised for avoiding answers, then I’ll gladly take on this aversion as well. But I think you should seriously consider changing this particular conclusion you have come to.

    Thanks for hearing me out!

  7. Mark,

    I’m uncomfortable with this whole idea.

    yes, questions are good. They lead us to search out truths. Granted, there are some things we can not know, but there are also many things that we can. I figure that Jesus raised so many questions, because he had so many answers.

    He left us with so many answers as well. What a disappointment it must be to Him, when we ignore those answers, and live only with questions.

    To only question leaves us more confused, rather than more confident. In fact something else also occurs. Rather than make it seem as though the Emergent crowd is ‘not afraid of questions’, just the opposite seems to be the case.

    Last Friday, one of the first statements made by Spencer Burke at the Emergent Church Conference was something to the effect of: don’t ask me questions about what I stated a year ago, because I probably don’t agree with it anymore.

  8. mark — i’m glad you’re unconfortable with this (nothing personal), because that provides a pathway to contemplation and inquiry (ooh, questions!), that often leads to growth.

    amy — several responses (i don’t mean to be combative, and i hope this doesn’t come off that way — please don’t read that tone into my comments, as it’s not here as i type them):
    – be cautious what conclusions you draw from my comments. you make a few small leaps and say that i said things i didn’t say. for instance, i would not, and did not, say we should “avoid answers”. i just think we should hold loosely to our answers.
    – sure, i agree that whatever answers we come to provide an impetus to a new set of questions (i said that, i think) (though i wouldn’t tend to use the “build upon” phraseology you use). but what i’m contending is that even those answers deserve further reflection and refinement and re-definition, and even, occasional dismissal and replacement. in the “god is love” example i used — well, nothing is leading me away from that answer, and i’m confident in it. but i’m constantly being brought to a new place of redefining what that means. it’s not ONLY that it leads me to new questions (though it certainly does that). but those same new questions can (should?) bring me back to re-examine my answer in the first place.
    – as to anywhere in the bible that warns us against coming to conclusions: yes, i think this was a primary thrust of jesus message, especially to the religious (actually, i don’t see it in his message to the non-religious). i can’t list a propositional verse that says this, but it sure seems a clear theme in the story of the bible, especially in jesus’ teaching.
    – i never meant to imply (as you seem to think i did — so, my bad) that questions are ends in themselves. just the opposite — the wonder of questions is in their ability to lead us somewhere.
    – i disagree with you that christians aren’t afraid of questions. in my experience, that simply isn’t true.

  9. marco, i think something you said in your original thought is very important. that you think that at the very least an answer leads you to more questions (paraphrased). for me that’s what emergant is. it shows me a god who is inticed by my questions, in fact is wooed by my questions, and in response gives me some of the answer. that “some of the answer” than is god inticing me toward him and seek him out with more questions. i’m learning that it is an incredible breading ground for relationship. as aspposed to the stiffling answer only driven, performance needed based religion of my childhood. yes, i also have met many christians who avoid questions at the cost of loosing a relationship not only with god but others (namely myself). so rock on with living in the question, entertaining answers, and holding onto things loosely…

  10. Mark, I never assume people are being “combative” when they dialogue with me–I’m used to friendly questions and discussion with people who disagree, so no worries!

    Again, it has not been my experience that people who are serious about their faith and genuinely seeking Jesus don’t ask questions. You must not hang out with many Christian apologists! (Not to say here that only apologists are serious about their faith.) There’s this weird idea that apologists go around yelling at everybody and not listening, but actually, my apologist friends question and challenge their own faith more than anybody I know. I think this is probably why they’re more certain that their answers are valuable–because they’re constantly testing their own answers, examining them from every angle and interacting with those who disagree.

    I can see then, if your experience with Christians has been the opposite, why you would want to emphasize thinking carefully through the things of God, but I think it’s important to avoid overcorrection here. The message “questions are always better than answers” definitely implies that we shouldn’t grab on to conclusions when we find them, or even that we can’t find them. Questions are better than wrong answers, but can you truly say that questions are better than the right answers? If not, then they’re not always better. I think it might be more accurate for your position to say something that reflects the end goal of “seeking the truth through questions” instead of glorifying the questions. This might be less confusing for people.

    I would challenge you a bit on the primary thrust of Jesus’ message. Jesus didn’t warn the Pharisees against coming to conclusions, he warned them against coming to the wrong conclusions. In fact, every thing He asked or said was meant to draw people to the correct conclusion that He was the Messiah from God. But I’m interested in hearing how you see the theme that “questions are better than answers” plays out in the gospels.

    Also, in terms of the early Christians, Titus 1:9 says that leaders are to hold fast to the Word so they can “exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” This would mean they would have to have at least some solid answers to defend and propagate. Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to focus on pursuing those answers so they can fulfill this command from God? I think you would say yes, which is why I think this new motto may not reflect what you truly believe and may actually mislead people or discourage them from finding answers.

    What do you think?

  11. marko,
    reading your post, i was reminded of this quote by rilke:

    “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

    maybe it’s because i know you a little bit and can see your heart, but i think what you are affirming here is the humility that comes from not being sure and the desire to stay in that space until the answer is no long the point.

    but, per usual, i could just be putting words in your mouth. ;)

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