It can sometimes appear as though Christians are threatened by questioning. Those who question must somehow be doubters or even unbelievers. The faithful need only believe and be silent. Enter Matthew Anderson and his new book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Anderson argues persuasively that questioning and faith are not enemies but close friends. This is first and foremost because questioning is not the same as doubt. Those who doubt everything may deploy questions as a shield, but they are not likely to accept any answers they find. Genuine questions are asked, not accusingly, but in the hopeful expectation of finding an answer that leads to deeper understanding. Anderson argues that it is only from within a sound intellectual framework (in other words, from a position of confidence rooted in belief) that one can have the confidence to ask the tough questions. Asking hard questions, after all, is risky. Only confident people take risks.
It follows from this that the strain of reactionary fundamentalism that often plagues the evangelical church is not rooted in invincible certainty (as non-Christian critics often allege) but in insecurity. Why are fundamentalists so often insecure? According to Anderson, it is precisely because they are closed to questioning. Many young evangelicals are taught to think of questions as subversive, and so those with genuine doubts simply keep them quiet until they leave for college. We know all too well how that story often ends.
Anderson suggests that the lost practice of catechesis is one way to begin cultivating the skill of questioning in young evangelicals. Rather than simply handing a student a list of answers to be memorized (without question), catechisms train them to think of their beliefs as the end result of questioning. And with each answer the catechism gives, it flows naturally into another question, which the previous answer actually precipitated. By the end, the students have not only been given a deeper understanding of their faith, but have also been trained to think of answers as an occasion to ask more questions. Within this environment, the goal of such questions is obviously not to be a contrarian skeptic, but rather is motivated by the hopeful excitement of going even deeper.
Anderson also caut-ions that the evangelical reliance on study guides (and I would add study Bibles) may actually be a hindrance to cultivating the practice of good questioning. By constantly limiting ourselves to prepackaged, one-size-fits-all questions, we are already forcing the text of Scripture into someone else's mold and potentially blocking our own questions. And unlike catechism, most of these study guides are designed for easy answers (if they give answers at all). This is because the "success" of a Bible study is often measured by what factual knowledge was gained. By such a measure, a Bible study that seeks to draw its participants into a life of never-ending questioning is not likely to be judged a success (though, ironically, it would ensure return customers!).
Unfortunately, the book falls short at the point most people expect to find practical advice on how to question well. After explaining in great detail how evangelicals fail to do this, and how bad our spoon-fed study questions are, the lack of a practical solution is a bit frustrating. To his credit, though, Anderson anticipates this worry and suggests that the constant demand of evangelicals (especially in America) for practical advice and "application" is actually one of the major factors interfering with their ability to question well. In other words, we American Christians want everything boiled down to a short, immediately useful how-to list, in part because we don't have the time or patience to sit, contemplate, and question. So, ironically, Anderson's refusal to give us a how-to on questioning well should actually help us on the path to questioning well.
Even this isn't entirely accurate. While Anderson does not distill his experience into a condensed how-to chapter, the entire book is filled with personal anecdotes and bits of practical wisdom. Anderson counsels that we should not be afraid of long silences in group discussions, for example, because we should not feel pressured to give easy, regurgitated answers. He also suggests that good questions move from the whole (an entire work) to a part (a chapter or passage) and then back to the whole. Advice like this, together with illustrations drawn from Anderson's experience as both a student and a teacher, mean that the book slowly immerses the reader in the ethos of questioning well. It will also leave readers with a million questions of their own. For example, Anderson says that when we are "at home" in our framework of belief we can ask deeper and more radical questions than the skeptic. He later says that in the eschaton we will be fully and completely "at home" in the cosmos with Jesus. Doesn't it follow that we will be asking even deeper and more radical questions in heaven than we can even dream of now? And that, in one sense, the age to come will be an eternity of questioning?
The End of Our Exploring, then, is an excellent critique of some unfortunate trends in American evangelicalism, as well as a thought-provoking introduction to the life of questioning well. There is plenty of stimulating material for the average reader, and I suspect it will become an indispensable guide for pastors, elders, and small group leaders for years to come.