Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Questions and Answers

We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers. -- Rabbi Abraham Heschel

Nobody likes a know-it-all. It's intensely annoying to be around someone who is so confident that s/he has all the right answers and conveys the idea, orally or by implication, that anyone with a different answer or idea is somehow deficient in their thinking or education. I'll grant you that not all know-it-alls are like that, and some that are really have no clue that this is how they come across.

Probably one of the best known know-it-alls for this generation is Hermione Granger. Her hand was always the first one up when a teacher started to ask a question, and it frequently got her in trouble. But there's something else about Hermione. I don't think she did it to be a know-it-all but as a scholar who gathered knowledge and wanted badly to share it with others. I've stood in those shoes, long before I knew about Hermione, as a much older and nowhere near as smart (or cute) as she. I've wanted to share what I learned with my classmates only to be told that I was not good for the class as nobody else bothered to do the homework, knowing I would have done it and had something to offer that they could then pick up on and discuss. I heard that several times - in private and in the class itself. I still kept trying to learn, but I did it on my own and at home rather than in a group.

Growing up, it seemed that the first part of my education consisted of a search for answers. There was always a test or pop quiz or exam that demanded I regurgitate the answers to specific questions based on what I was supposed to have been studying up to that point.  Even in college it was a search for answers, but it was also a time of learning that it wasn't always as important to know the answers as to know where to find them. The older I get, the more I see that an important part of learning is being comfortable with not knowing all the answers or where to find them. I find that sometimes asking the question is of greater importance than just reciting an answer that trips glibly off the tongue but hasn't yet reached the head or heart level that comes with true knowledge.

I think God likes questions; that may be why there are so many of them around that we haven't found answers to as yet. Why does a raccoon have rings on its tail?  Why do great whales almost leap from the water only to crash back into it and then repeat the performance? Why are some places in the earth's crust so much thinner than others so that magma can come to the surface and we can see a glimpse of the earth's core? Why is there suffering in the world, especially when it seems so unfair? How true are the gospel stories and did the stories in the Bible like the exodus, David's Jerusalem, the Akedah and the flood really happen?

When I (or we) ask questions, I/we ask that someone somewhere give an answer that helps to make sense of whatever it is. There are plenty of "experts" who are ready, willing and more or less able, to fulfill that objective, but are their answers really the full, accurate and correct ones?  I can come up with answers myself, but most often I can't tell if they really are the right ones or not until I either compare them with answers more wise and scholarly people have already come up with, or I find proof myself that I haven't misjudged. All in all, though, the ultimate authority is God, and once I've exhausted my options, read until my eyes burn and blur, thought and pondered until my very hair hurts with the strain, I have to come back to one thing. God knows. It's more than just a comment to be made when asked a question to which I do not know the answer and have no hope of finding it any time soon. It's a statement of faith -- and wonder.

I can be the biggest know-it-all in history, but, in all humility, I have to concede that I get more learn more by  thinking up questions than just reciting answers. When I was a child, I must have done what every other child on earth has done at one time or another, namely asking my parents the very simple question, "Why?"  And asking it again and again and again.

I'm betting that God's the only parent who hasn't gotten exasperated after about the tenth "Why?" in an hour's time. In fact, I'm willing to double the bet that it's what God really wants us to do. Oh, we might not get answers at all, much less answers we want to hear, but in the interim, we have to stay in contact with God just in case.

I have a feeling that's what Rabbi Heschel had in mind...

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