The Sacred Question Mark

woman“Can I tell you what I think?”

I’ve responded like this countless times to clients posing what is to them a vexing life problem: Is my relationship’s disintegration my fault or because we’re incompatible?  Do I keep sabotaging myself or am I terminally a failure?  Do I keep gravitating to women who abandon me because I don’t love myself?  Do my parents have the right to keep telling me what to do as an adult?

The first time questions like these are asked in therapy, and almost every time thereafter, there’s a piece of me that wants desperately to answer.  When I think it’s in their best interest, I ask point blank to share my thoughts.  

You might be surprised how often I hear this in response:

“No, I don’t really want you to answer the question for me.  I just need to be able to ask it.”

***

After a lifetime in church and a fairly radical set of conversion experiences, I pulled the thread on the warm, comfy sweater of my evangelical upbringing, and pretty soon I was nakedThe whole thing unraveled.  I became riddled with doubts and misgivings.  I started asking all kinds of questions.

I wondered whether God was real, and even if he was, whether the church in America was in touch with him. 

I wondered at the utter infusion of nationalism, capitalism, moralism, and conservatism in American Christianity.  

I wondered why I was finding Jesus more clearly and definitively in my therapeutic practice of Buddhist mindfulness than in church. 

I wondered why churches were run by people who seemed to know so little about people.  

Wizard

When Toto whisked back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, I imagine Dorothy and company felt exhilarated.   But when they found out it was just an old man with dry ice shouting into a microphone, they probably started to wonder whether their questions were really worth asking. 

I felt the same way, because asking questions in the Western church is freeing and soul-crushing at the same time, especially if you’re asking the questions we all agreed not to ask.  I was excited at the chance to explore all of the things about Christianity that never added up, but I went through a real season of  grief as I realized I was losing the faith I’d grown up with. 

I felt out of place, and I was.  My evangelical friends who tried to answer my questions didn’t know what to do with me.   They accused me of having a critical spirit, or of looking for the perfect church, and of “thinking too much.”

Here’s what I discovered in the middle of all this.

While there is a place for questions in the 21st century American church, there is no sacred place. 

 

The space offered instead is often short-sighted, fabricated, and fearful of loose-ends, designed to guard against sending you away with more questions than you had at the outset.

It chooses from a canned list of questions, then stares blankly at you after answering every…last…one.

*** 

In his prescient work, The Imitation of Christ, German canon Thomas à Kempis said, “Restrain an inordinate desire for knowledge, in which is found much anxiety and deception.”

The term sacred comes from the latin term sacer which translates “restricted” or “set apart.”  If truly we created a sacred, set apart place for questions in the Christian tradition, we may realize that all of our attempts to answer them are actually part of the problem, vis à vie Kempis.  We may realize that, like Adam and Eve, plundering them for the fruit of knowledge potentially leads us away from God, not toward him.  It is profane.

Thank God We've Got the Right KnowledgeBut this is antithetical to a Christian culture that has supposed it has found God by virtue of what it knows, salvation being tantamount to giving “intellectual assent” to various points of doctrine. 

And this is precisely why the American church cannot abide an environment where questions are held in tension from being fully answered.  It presupposes that failing to answer a question about God is failing to experience God. 

The opposite is often true. 

Creating a sacred space for the asking of questions which have no answers orients us to our position as humans – weak, vulnerable, broken, needy.  Profaning that space with a constant barrage of definitive answers misunderstands our position to be strong, secure, whole, and self-sufficient, American ideals for sure. 

But if by limiting our faith to the sum total of a few people’s answered questions about God we are hoping to avoid the pain of acknowledging our brokenness, neither we can acknowledge our belovedness, because it is precisely in that broken place we meet elder brother Jesus, whom the Father has sent to bring home the prodigal.  

We exchange one form of suffering for another – a needless and false kind around the certainty of theological straw men.  They require constant defense from dissenting crows, creating “us” and “them,” and preventing Christian unity.  As Carl Jung pointed out, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”

***

My clients’ desires to sit with unanswered questions can be incredibly frustrating.  I’m not one of these therapists who thinks everyone has the answers inside of them, or that my opinion about interpersonal and relational dysfunction shouldn’t matter.

But that’s just it – many of my clients aren’t coming to me looking for answers, even when they think they are, and even when I want them to be.  They are not seeking to understand, but longing to be understood.  I suspect the same is fundamentally true of churchgoers.

The lesson for me to learn with my clients is that they often wish for me to be with them in their suffering, not to fix it.  They want this from me because no one else will do it with them.  This is something we all experience. 

Everywhere we go, well-meaning colleagues, friends, relatives, pastors, counselors – they all offer answers.  But how precious few are willing to simply sit with us in our suffering, in humble acknowledgment that the only answers they could offer would be grossly insufficient to its magnitude. Jesus understood this in that he did not come to offer some ideology or dogma, but himself. 

What conclusions should we draw about a church that offers the opposite?

It is a church that that struggles to provide the very healing it claims to know.  It is a church where the word “referral”  comes up as soon as it becomes clear people have problems for which no answer will suffice.  It is a church that is fearful of truly acknowledging human suffering because it would require admitting its insufficiency to address it.    

Tragically, it is a church that forgets it need not have answers to suffering, though the world around us clamor for them, for Jesus desires to visit us within it.  Connecting with Jesus in our suffering is our healing this side of eternity, in the same way my clients’ visiting with me in the midst of their struggle is their healing.  It is but a foretaste of that which is to come when we no longer see through a mirror darkly, when we are with God and each other free from this mortal coil.

While we are busy looking for an emotionally positive, genie-in-the-bottle God who dispenses definitive answers for our questions in easy to access catechisms, Jesus is here in our midst, in our brokenness, in our uncertainty, in our questions.  We miss him if we have created no sacred space for the inscrutable, for it is where we are closest to him.

The path to holiness lies through questioning…everything.”  –M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled  Click Here to Get New Posts Via Email

This post is part of an ongoing series called, A Therapist Goes to Church.

This post was also featured in edited form at Ryan’s blog at The Huffington Post.

(Header photo art credit to Pinkx2)

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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at ryan@changeincorporated.org.

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