My first thought when I heard a knock at the door was that I hadn't yet brushed my teeth. I hoped it wouldn't be too offensive, but then also thought it could prove a formidable weapon if whoever it was attempted to overstay.
I hushed my dog into submission and opened the door to two wide-eyed strangers. His suit told me he'd be selling me something, and the Bible he had in a headlock told me who that something would be. I said hi.
“Hello there. I’m John, and this is my daughter, Samantha."
Samantha's pretty dress was full length but her smile was only half-hearted. She was also holding a Bible.
"We're out here to help our neighbors find answers to the big questions. Sir, do you ever find yourself on a search for answers to Life's Biggest Questions?"
I saw a full color brochure in his hand, tri-folded. I could see it was a Jehovah's Witness publication. I have a stack of them in a drawer somewhere. They canvas our neighborhoods from time to time, and I generally engage in a conversation with them until I sense it’s becoming a thing to win or lose. Having sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door, I know how hard it is to persuade people to care about what you care about on their porch. So I’ll indulge anyone long enough to assure them I see their humanity.
"Well, sort of. I think I know what you're saying,” I said. I was speaking with low air pressure, to keep my breath on a short leash. John was now presenting the brochure to me, upside down to himself as he continued. He pointed to italicized words on the cover with his pen while he spoke.
"There are many people trying to answer our biggest questions. But philosophy hasn't answered them. Science hasn't answered them. Religion hasn't even answered them. So where will you go to finally get the answers you seek?"
I wasn't going to be critical of his thin, cartoonish premise about human inquiry. His daughter was standing right next to him after all. But I was suddenly talking.
"Well, man, I don't really seek answers like that." I was surprised by how much I meant this. "I'm more interested in joining with people who ask great questions." John smiled at me, turned to his daughter and said he hoped I'd have a great day. He seemed to either be satisfied with my response, or satisfied that my response meant further discussion wouldn't be a good use of his time. Or maybe my breath was doing more of the talking than I realized.
This morning I read Walt Disney's words; "We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths." This is sort of what I was saying I think. My theological differences with Jehovah’s Witnesses—and you—aside, us faith folks are generally too willing to swallow the sugary sweetness of certainty at the expense of the vitamin of wonder. Our soul needs the latter, but the brain craves the former.
Answers give us more than answers.
Answers give both the asker and the answerer relief.
And I can understand it. The pain and the trauma of reality make us cling to whatever sounds like it might have explanatory power. Knowing is the relief not knowing made us desperate for. If I stab you over and over with a needle you’ll probably defend yourself, and feel like a victim for long after. But if I dip the needle in ink and then stab you over and over, you’ll sit still, pay me hundreds of dollars and gleefully show off what I've done to you to your friends. It’s the same pain, but knowing why it’s happening gives you control and makes a bad thing good. This is why the temptation to tell grieving people what their tragedy means is almost too strong to resist. Answers give us more than answers. Answers give both the asker and the answerer relief.
It might be tough to admit, but of course even wrong answers can do this. Even wrong answers millions of people embrace for generations can do this. Any answer can medicate. The evidence suggests to me that we pass down more answers than questions because we pass down our anxieties at a higher volume than we do our peace. The unwritten inheritance of the fear of death and pain also has has in it certain assurances that, “As hard as life can be, at least we know this.” Any well-reasoned answers will do, so long as they effectively settle. Of course they may actually be true—the point is that they don't have to be to "work." In this, a lot of God-talk is more pharmaceutical than honest quest. Marx’s opium. And perhaps this is benign enough to leave alone, except once we agree to some fixed answers and our uncertainty is relieved, being in the presence of folks with other questions and other answers can feel like a threat. A poison to be expelled from the Body. All hell breaks loose. Watch one encounter what they consider to be contrary answers to, say, human origins, or sexuality, or God’s participation in government, or what’s true, or what happens to who in the great beyond, or what “good” might really mean; you can tell pretty quickly if they are interested more in ongoing discovery or in protecting the medicine. Only the latter will break your heart.
I told John and Samantha at my door what I believe to be best for the human condition. Despite my role as a teacher and guide—a role seemingly designed to cancel mystery— it’s proving too important to the species to retain our ignorant wonder, to admit we don’t know as much as our brains insist we must to be happy. A criticism I receive is that, as a pastor for a church, it's my responsibility to give people the truth, the Big Answers. And I agree: that Truth is the Christ, one we're invited to follow and emulate in our own particular contexts as those who don't really know what else to do when it comes right down to it. What else is faith but to learn to endure our genuine ignorance even while retaining our convictions and learning some things as humbly as we're able. I can really only find unity and humility—surely the medicines we most need now—in resisting the impulse to allow my nervous brain to broadcast answers when my soul doesn't have the capacity to comprehend the questions. So from my role, my faith, and from my own front porch, I say let's keep wondering together, because it's really only our fixed answers we're arguing about.