Culture At Large

Matthew Lee Anderson on asking good questions

Matthew Lee Anderson

The following is a teaser for Matthew Lee Anderson’s new book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith.

“What does it feel like to feel yourself forgiven?”

Every now and then a question like this takes hold of me and will not let me go. I came across this one recently while reading and was instantly struck by its ingenuity and depth. Never in my thirtysomething life had it occurred to me to ask. It pointed at a feature of the world that was so obvious, so familiar, that I had never once bothered to consider it. What does forgiveness mean, or when should we forgive or whether forgiveness satisfies justice - these I have taken up and pursued. But what does it feel like? That question opened up a new world, one that I am still enjoying living in. 

Good questions have a way of doing that, though, of opening up the world before us. They point out features that we are not acquainted with, and in ways that surprise us. They enchant the world, making it seem simultaneously strange and wonderful. A good question evokes us, makes us momentarily forget ourselves and our histories as we begin searching things out. Does forgiveness feel like a relief or a burden, a feeling of warmth or of heartache and pain for not only the wrong done but for the absence of restitution?

Every now and then a question takes hold of me and will not let me go.

Of course, not every question grips us in that way. Most of the time we take up subjects without considering the questions that have framed them very closely. We find ourselves at the half-way point of a conversation, without much of a sense of what the starting points were or what has happened since. Take a controversial question that many of us have considered in recent weeks: should the United States government reserve the rights and benefits of marriage to heterosexual unions or not? An entire world of assumptions makes up that question, only it takes a lot of digging to find them out and consider them. That question presupposes a certain history, a conception of “rights” that comes from somewhere yet is rarely reflected upon. It is easier - and will garner a lot more pageviews - simply to answer the question as it lies before us than it is to consider whether it is a question worth asking at all. 

Evaluating our starting points isn’t a license to be annoying or irritating. Knowing when to challenge the questions we are asking and when to simply continue on is as much an art as a science. But recognizing and sometimes acknowledging that how we phrase the questions set the trajectory for our conversation is essential to ensuring that we are not only questioning, but questioning well. If we want to understand the world around us, then we must carefully explore and evaluate its foundations, its givens, the things we take for granted. How we phrase our questions sends our attention in a particular direction, and if we wish to learn well we will have to at some point consider whether that direction is good. 

Yet we do not need to be anxious about our questions, either, for we ask them beneath the umbrella of the gracious kindness of God. As George MacDonald once wrote about a character of his: “Whatever motive he had for seeking to commence the study of music, it holds even in more important matters that if the thing pursued be good, there is hope in the pursuit of purifying the motive.” The goodness of the world and the God who made it means that we can ask our questions freely, provided we open ourselves to their purification and renewal as well. 

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books, Theology & The Church, Faith