The Role of Questioning in Faith

I can’t stop thinking about a recent article I read in The New York Times, titled “Nuns Weigh Response to Scathing Vatican Rebuke” [http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/us/us-nuns-weigh-response-to-scathing-vatican-critique.html?pagewanted=all]. Maybe you have been reading for the past year or so about the growing estrangement and tension between the Vatican and women religious, particularly American nuns. Here is the quote from the article that has stayed with me: “What is in essence a power struggle between the nuns and the church’s hierarchy had been building for decades, church scholars say. At issue are questions of obedience and autonomy, what it means to be a faithful Catholic and different understandings of the Second Vatican Council.
Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the Leadership Conference, said in an interview that the Vatican seems to regard questioning as defiance, while the sisters see it as a form of faithfulness” [my emphasis].

What is the role of questioning in one’s religious life? One response, I suppose, could be taken from a page in Benedict’s playbook: you could argue that any questioning of traditional teachings, scriptural interpretation, practices, etc. is a dangerous threat to truth and order, which must be stamped out firmly and unequivocally. But really, does anyone think that is productive or helpful? Does anyone think it is even possible?! I don’t. While I do understand that questioning can be challenging, and I don’t think that everyone simply should make her own rules when it comes to religious practice and belief, I also believe that God really works in and through our questions. In the challenges that we raise to our faith, often in response to the challenges life has raised for us, we engage in an active dialogue with God, with our religious communities, and with our brothers and sisters–both within the church and without. And when we come through on the other side–maybe changed, maybe scarred–we are stronger, our faith is stronger, and our relationships are stronger. When we ask questions of our faith, what we are saying is that our faith matters, the church makes a difference in our lives, and we want our relationship with God to be at the center of all we are and all we do. If you never ask a question of your faith, it means you simply aren’t paying attention, or you just don’t care anymore. Is that the kind of attitude we want to foster in the church?

I was thinking about all this while I was reading Margaret Guenther’s book, At Home in the World. She is talking about the value of formulating a “rule of life” for today, and in the chapter on study, this is what she says. “Perhaps even more important is the application of our intellect to our faith. It may be disturbing to bring a certain rigor and discipline to the study of Scripture, to wrestle with its inconsistencies and let our old certainities be challenged. The good news here is that God is strong enough to withstand our poking and prodding, maybe even delights in it as a loving parent enjoys being poked and prodded by that inquisitive toddler who likes to push buttons. An unexamined faith is a dangerous faith; false gods are all around us, alive and alluring. When we think that we have God all figured out and that we are infallible interpreters of God’s will, we are in trouble.”

I’m confident that God would rather be poked than ignored, so when it comes to questions of faith, I say, “fire away.” The church can only get stronger invigorated by faithful, questioning members. As Guenther says, “Just as an unexamined life is not worth living, so an unexamined faith is not worth having.”

4 thoughts on “The Role of Questioning in Faith

  1. Doc, wonderful thoughts as always. I was debating commenting on your FB about that article, since you linked it last week. Questioning as faithfulness- you practice extreme faithfulness when you teach! The sisters I've met here in Leavenworth & Atchison are amazing and profound in their dedication, and I think the willingness to serve everyone has caused them to question the way the world itself works. They embody McDaniel's idea of salvation & inter-being- If our neighbors are still suffering, we are not saved either. We are in it together. The women see salvation as happening here and now as well, and they step up to the plate. Thanks!!

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  2. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts & comments–I hope the further conversations are rich and meaningful. I think it is great that you all are enabling conversation around this issue and giving people permission to ask and discuss the hard questions.

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