Live the questions now — Living well in the In-Between of question & answer.
In my own ministry, one of the things I regularly notice when in conversation with people who, on the one hand, are curious about how with a clean heart they might reconnect with Christianity or who, on the other hand, are busily rejecting it, is their shared experience that most churches and church leaders are only concerned to promote their own, various, putatively true, dogmatic answers and then to keep their members in an uninquiring, unquestioning state of faith.
Because the free-thinking, Unitarian tradition to which I belong is reasonably well-known as a place which encourages people to ask questions, that’s why I so often find myself having conversations with people seeking either to find an honest way back into, or out of, Christianity.
Indeed, this willingness to question was the chief reason I, myself, ended up joining a Unitarian community some thirty years ago and one of the books which finally persuaded me to dip my toe properly into its life-affirming and enhancing waters was “Living in the Questions” by Ralph Norman Helverson (1912-2007). Between 1959 and 1977 Helverson served as minister of First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts and, whilst in post, he engaged in a pulpit exchange with one of my ministerial forebears here in Cambridge, UK, Dr. Stewart Carter. It brings me, and I hope you, a certain pleasure to be recording this piece in my study in the Cambridge Unitarian Church where Helverson would have spent a fair bit of time working whilst in the UK. For those interested, a pdf copy of Helverson’s book can be downloaded at the following link:
The book’s epigraph was taken from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a young poet’ (pp. 34-35). It reads:
I want to beg you, as much as I can . . . to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves . . . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Given all the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that I’ve long found myself in agreement with the German-American political philosopher, Eric Voegelin (1901–1985) who thought that one vitally important project within our European and North American culture was that of reminding Christians, and Christianity, that men and women are supposed to be questioners and that believers who are unable to explain how their faith is an answer to the enigma of existence may well be “good Christians” but they have also become questionable men and women (see ‘The Gospel and Culture’, 1971, in ‘The Eric Voegelin Reader’, ed. Charles R. Embry and Glenn Hughes, University of Missouri Press, 2017, pp. 247).
That Christianity has not always been frightened of questioners and questions can be seen by recalling the latin phrase ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ which means ‘faith seeking understanding’ or ‘faith seeking intelligence’. This way of proceeding was encouraged most famously by Augustine (354–430) in the fourth century of the Common Era and by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. As the contemporary Czech, Roman Catholic theologian, Martin Kočí reminds us, ‘theology professed as fides quaerens intellectum is an ongoing struggle with questions.’
So what on earth happened which frightened the Christian horses so much that, today, they are often so fearful of questioners and questions? But, to be even-handed about it, it’s important also to ask on my own side, what happened which frightened the Unitarian and free-thinking horses so much that, today, they are often so fearful of finding and/or offering any answers?
Well, In broad, brush-stroke terms the matter is relatively simple.
In the former case, it is clear that where and whenever a person is only able to live in endless, wholly open-ended questioning, their life quickly becomes exhausting, enervating and distressing. Consequently, giving answers became the answer and Christianity has, alas, all too often become obsessed with only offering people answers.
In the latter case, it is clear that where and whenever a person is only able to live by predetermined, closed dogmatic answers, their life also quickly becomes exhausting, enervating and distressing. Consequently, encouraging questions became the answer and Free-thinkers, among them the Unitarians, have, alas, all too often become obsessed with only offering people questions.
Fortunately, there have always been people and traditions on both sides of this divide, Protestant and Catholic I might add, that have tried to bring the question and answer into some kind of relational, conversational balance but they can be, and often are, very, very hard to find.
I liked, and still do like, Helverson’s approach because he was one such person within the Unitarian tradition who tried to hold answer and question in balance and, to someone like me, his book made it clear that, although answers remain ‘as slippery as a Maine seal’ the person who is living in the question can still believe very much in the possibility of finding answers, even as they continue to doubt that they will ever be easy to attain. But, today, I’ll leave you to discover Helverson for yourself via the link in the podcast notes.
In this piece I want to return to Eric Voegelin whom I mentioned earlier. This is because I not only find his response philosophically and theologically powerful and persuasive but also, because he remained a secular philosopher throughout his life, his non-aligned religious status can, potentially at least, be very helpful in getting the conversation going again across the problematic and unhelpful divide.
Voegelin thought that, as a culture, we had got into the problem we had because we had forgotten something noticed by Plato, something called the metaxy, or the In-Between.
In Voegelin’s mind ‘question and answer [were always] held together, and related to one another, by the event of the search’ (‘The Gospel and Culture’ in ‘The Eric Voegelin Reader’, ed. Charles R. Embry and Glenn Hughes, University of Missouri Press, 2017, p. 249). What this meant for Voegelin was that to be human is always-already to be inextricably situated in the In-Between, pushed and pulled, not only between the poles of question and answer but also between what for us is a never fully known and knowable humanity and natural world on the one hand, and what we feel to be an unknown and probably unknowable transcendent (or even divine) realm, on the other. The mistake we have often committed is to try to make either one of those poles the only really-real or truly-true centre of human existence. But when we do this we simultaneously cease to understand that the only thing we can all assuredly say is always-already real or true for us is the movement, the push and pull, that is set up between the poles of question and answer and the human and the transcendent.
Voegelin was insistent we should understand that our whole existence takes place completely inside the movement of the event of the search and, therefore, the only answer to the enigma of existence which will ever satisfy us (and have half a chance of being as true as anything can be) is one that remains consciously in the metaxy — the In-Between. Here’s how Voegelin writes about this:
‘The search itself is the evidence of existential unrest; in the act of questioning, man’s experience of his tension (tasis) toward the divine ground breaks forth in the word of inquiry as a prayer for the Word of the answer. Question and answer are intimately related toward the other; the search moves in metaxy, . . . in the In-Between of poverty and wealth, of human and divine, the question is knowing, but its knowledge is yet the trembling of a question that may reach the true answer or miss it. This luminous search in which the finding of the true answer depends on asking the true question, and asking the true question on the spiritual apprehension of the true answer, is the life of reason’ (pp. 248-249).
Consequently, it seems that, for Voegelin — and certainly for me — the only religions and philosophies that are truly worth their salt are those which continue to offer people practical ways to live well and fruitfully in the metaxy, the In-Between, and not those which seek fixed and final answers from either the gods or god, or humanity or nature alone. The moment a religion or philosophy believes it has found the answer to the enigma of existence by absolutising either the divine on the one hand or the human or natural on the other they have become religions and philosophies which have lost sight of what it is to be human and so threaten to introduce tyranny into our lives.
Drawing heavily on Plato, Voegelin felt that the Christian gospel — which for him centres on the idea of a life of seeking which involves, as Jesus often noted, giving up one’s life to gain it — did, in fact, offer one such practical answer to this question.
I continue to agree with him and, in recent podcasts, I’ve tried to offer you just such a ‘gospel’ which holds together Athens and Jerusalem, Socrates and Jesus.
On the one hand, Socrates — about whom we know primarily through Plato — keeps us questioning by constantly asking “What is it we can know?”, and his answer is that we come to know we don’t know. When we pursue this method in a disciplined and consistent way we find we have access to an energy which can successfully limit our dangerous, hubristic belief that we can ever know about, and control, anything and everything.
On the other hand, Jesus keeps us questioning by constantly asking “Who is our neighbour and how it is we should be treating them?”, and his answer is that it is always the person before us, right here and now (whether friend or enemy), and that we must always be displaying to, and with them true love and justice at work. When we do this in a disciplined and consistent way we find we have access to an energy which can transform us in the face of complacency.
To quote Rilke once again, I find that after all these years I, personally, continue to have a very strong faith that by sticking close to the examples of Socrates and Jesus, and staying willingly in the In-Between, in the movement of the search with the push and pull of question and answer, human and divine, that gradually, and without hardly noticing it, I am, indeed, living along some distant day into an answer. It seems to me that this is clearly to engage in that ancient philosophical and theological form-of-life professed as ‘fides quaerens intellectum’, faith seeking understanding.
In his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, Kant memorably asked three perennial questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What can I hope? Having got to this point in my piece I can now conclude by saying that when a person is able to live firmly and confidently in the metaxy, in the In-Between, it is possible to find three, tentative, but still very real and practical answers:
Q. What can I know?
A. I can know, with full belief and a clean heart, that it is possible to live a decent, full and good life by following the examples of Socrates and human Jesus.
Q. What ought I to do?
A. In two parts: 1) To keep questioning so as to remain absolutely clear that I must learn to live knowing that I don’t, and can’t, know everything and 2) to keep myself concentrated on the task of showing love and justice in the best way possible to myself, my neighbour and my enemy.
Q. What can I hope?
A. That, by engaging in a philosophical and theological form-of-life professed as ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ — faith seeking understanding — I have access to “energies for limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency” (James C. Edwards: “The Plain Sense of Things – The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism”, Penn State University Press, 1997 p. ix) both of which, in turn, help me faithfully to live along some distant day into an answer.
LIVE EVENING ZOOM CONVERSATION
If you would like to join a conversation about this piece on Wednesday 18th November at 19.30 GMT you can join a live Zoom event. Please note that the event will be recorded.
Here’s the timetable:
19.30 - approx. 20.00: Streaming of the most recent podcast "Making Footprints Not Blueprints"
20.00 - 21.00: Questions to, and conversations with, Andrew James Brown moderated by Courtney Whalen Van de Weyer
21:00: Event ends
Those of you who have already listened to the podcast and who only wish to join in the conversation are invited to login to the meeting at around 19.50
Topic: Cambridge Unitarian Church Wednesday Evening Conversation
Time: Nov 18, 2020 19:30 London
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Meeting ID: 853 6917 5010