of Progressive Christianity – Called To Question

November 4, 2012


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Nov. 4, 2012

“Voices of Progressive Christianity – Called To Question”
Exodus 32:9-14

I absolutely love children … especially if they belong to someone else! I thoroughly enjoy having my nieces and nephews come over to our house for an evening or a weekend. Children learn from an early age just how far they can push us.

When our daughter was young, she became the queen of the question “Why?” “But why?” Each day, I thought I would die if she said it one more time. Unfortunately, I found out each morning that I was destined to awake again with her voice, “Why are you still asleep, Mom?”
“Because I was up late last night.”
“I had to do some extra work.”
And the day began again.

When she was about nine, she made a mis-statement. It was a casual comment, and I don’t even remember the specifics. We were in the car together. She made an observation. But she was in error. And I corrected her. That’s when the trouble started. She was livid; I don’t mean upset like a nine year old. I mean thoroughly riled up. I couldn’t figure her out. It was such a small thing; why so upset?

When we got home, I sent the child to her room with the instruction that when her attitude was better, she could come downstairs. She never came. Hours went by. It was torture for me. Finally, not able to stand it anymore, I went to her room, half expecting that she might have fallen asleep. No….. she was sitting on her bed, arms crossed, still fuming. And for what?
I sat down on the bed and began to plead (sophisticated parents don’t do this with nine year olds, but I was at wits end). “Erin,” I said, “It was an honest mistake. You didn’t know you were wrong. I can’t figure out why you are so upset.”

(deep sigh) “Mom,” she retorted, “I am nine years old. If I made a mis-statement, it was only because YOU never told me about it. It’s YOUR fault I didn’t know why!” She wasn’t mad about being corrected, I found out. She was mad because I hadn’t preemptively informed her of a topic I never knew she had on her mind! There was something she didn’t know and couldn’t explain. I’m happy to report that as a young adult, she has discovered her questions are more numerous than her answers.

Some religious people like certainty. Folks flock to churches to get the “why” questions of life answered. And there are preachers ready and willing to give them just what they seek. My observation is that this isn’t that kind of church. And that’s good with me. On my good days, I have more questions than answers.

This issue of a lack of religious certainty is one of the hallmarks of a progressive church. We are continuing our study of Voices of Progressive Christianity; today’s theologian is Sister Joan Chittister. Joan is a Benedictine sister, best-selling author and lecturer. Today, I am drawing from her book “Called to Question; A Spiritual Memoir” (Sheed & Ward, 2004).

Sister Joan says that we suckle ourselves on clear or comfortable answers because we fear to ask the questions that make the real difference to the quality and content of our souls. The spiritual life, she says, begins when we discover that we can only become spiritual adults when we go beyond the answers, beyond the fear of uncertainty, to that great encompassing mystery of life that is God.

She speaks of a day when she “began the conscious, perilous, journey from … the certainties of dogma to the long, slow personal journey into God.” And she uses her questions to navigate a new spiritual life.

We’ve all read or observed religious people who have answers for any and all questions. Before the question is uttered, they are ready with an answer. Chittister tells us that the spiritual life is one where questions are not just out there for answers – the questions themselves are spiritual.

One of the reasons I am enthralled with Joan Chittister’s writing is that she is able, as David Steindl-Rast says, “to admirably demonstrate the sparkling wisdom which springs from befriending our uncertainty.” “Befriending our uncertainty” – what a great phrase. In religious circles, I think it is refreshing to see someone who is willing to live into the questions, be comfortable with nuance, and open to carefully examine details and new ideas.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” I understand what it means and I know that there is truth in this saying. However, I also think most of us are old enough to have moved on from the days of blind obedience to the time of exploring and discerning new questions. Or, as Kate Compston says, “God… we need your persistent love to disturb… our heart’s rigidity.”

It is in the asking of questions that we learn what it means to be a spiritual person. The process of questioning itself brings us closer to God. And I can assure you that God is big enough to handle our questions! In fact, this is one area where I believe the Jewish tradition far outshines our own. Jews are taught to ask the questions and argue fine points of faith. Along the line, the Christian tradition has been much less open to the spiritual art of questioning. However, there is Biblical precedence.

Our spiritual ancestor Moses argued with God. The same Moses who sang, “The Lord is my strength and my might; God is my salvation!” (Exodus 15:2) also had heated arguments with God, “Yahweh, turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on these people!” (Exodus 32:12b) I love that! I don’t know about you, but I have argued with God, bargained with God, been angry with God, doubted God and yelled a few not-nice words to the heavens.

Chittister suggests that security of thinking we know is a sin. She asks, What is life all about? She asks, The worship of God? The praise of God? Well, maybe, but if it is, it sounds like a very narcissistic God to me. No, that can’t be it. Life must be the womb of God. We are gestating. Wrapped in the holy array of a life well-lived, we find ourselves breathing the breath of God.” Remember the 2nd creation story in the Bible? God formed the earth creature and it only became alive when God’s breath entered it.

It reminds of me the disciple Thomas. After Jesus’ death, he was said to have appeared to some of his followers. But Thomas had questions. He said he wouldn’t take it on someone else’s account. When he declared his uncertainty about Jesus, Jesus did not reprimand him. Instead, Jesus honored Thomas’ questions by showing him the living proof. (John 20:24-29)

Chittister says, “Life is not lived on a continuum. Not even the spiritual life. We do not find God on a laser beam, bright and cold and straight. We have times of great, dark incubation. We have times that are barren and arid and bleak. We go through periods when life feels more like death than like gestation. But it is always gestating. It may even be in the dark times that we grow the most.”

Wherever you are on this spiritual journey, I would invite you to welcome the questions, the uncertainty, and even the spiritual process of doubt. Instead of being a threat to our faith, I agree with Joan Chittister that the spiritual life is infinitely enhanced by questions. “Why?” we ask to no one in particular. The answers are not easy; but, as Chittister notes, “spiritual life does not come cheap. It is a walk into the dark with the God who is the light that leads us through darkness. Darkness, I have discovered, is the way we come to see.”

Bible References

  • Exodus 32:9 - 14