40,000 Questions


I read an article recently that described the work of one of my old college professors, Paul Harris, a developmental psychologist who now works at Harvard’s education school. The work in question is about questions. Contrary to much received wisdom about how young children learn about the world they live in, which asserts that they do so by testing out their environment via a behavioral succession of trial and error, Harris contends that key to child development is an extraordinary volume of question-aksing. A 2007 study by psychologist Michele Chouinard found that children between the ages of two and five ask one to three questions per minute, equivalent to 40,000 questions over the span of those first crucial years of cognitive life.

This past academic year, I have been passing on the gift of teaching, first offered to me by Professor Harris 20 or so years ago, to my own college students as an adjunct professor at my local university. I fully admit that for students who have been brought up on a pedagogical diet of information delivery and recovery, my teaching style may well have been something of a pain. Full-time educators like to call it the Socratic method, which is just another way of saying that as the teacher, you ask a lot of questions.

miles-cole-illustration-260215I doubt that we got anywhere near 40,000, but I would hope that my students will have at the least got the impression about Theology this year that there are many, many more questions than there are easily articulated answers. If that is even partially true as a teaching outcome, then I will have succeeded. For it strikes me that our culture is so entrenched at present with easily articulated, or at times barely articulated answers, that the pedagogy of our public discourse almost wants to rule out questions before they are even enunciated.

The current daily dose of evening news Washington politics has that particular strain running right through the middle of it. Yet it is not just political life that suffers from an aversion to interlocution. For many of the students who ended up in my classroom this semester on a Thursday evening, the education system that had prepared them for college has increasingly preferred to view the cultivated mind as the one that can absorb what others think rather than one that can think for itself.

kid-answers.jpgYet, it is not enough for us to be people who will be inclined to ask questions; of ourselves or of others. Incisive intellectual discovery requires us to ask the right questions. Duncan Watts, who works for Microsoft Research, and is author of the book, ‘Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer’, argues that a ‘good’ question is both ‘interesting’ and ‘answerable.’ As a theologian, who does not work for Microsoft, I would contend with Watts’ here, and ask whether the most productive questions for theological inquiry are actually those that capture our interest because they evade being ‘answerable’, at least at first.

All of this has given me cause to reflect on the life of church community these past few weeks. In the life of our wider church, which as Episcopalians we call a ‘diocese’, I am leading a group that is charged with shepherding the process to find a new bishop to lead our church community. It seems to me that the success of that work will depend greatly on our ability to ask the right questions of ourselves and of God. The same can be said for our individual lives as they are played out in the company of others. The Church over time has called such a posture, discernment – the art of leaning into the Spirit of God, listening for the ways by which the divine life is moving within our own. Done well, it has the capacity to enrich our lives by raising up questions we hadn’t even realized we needed to ask.

mazeDuring one of my students’ presentations a few weeks back, one of them made the case for Christ’s presence in the sacraments as akin to the work of a supervisor. He stated that given that Jesus had begun certain practices in the life of the Church, Jesus wished to remain present within them in order to make sure we are keeping good on the promise, that we are remaining faithful to the vision of life together he had first intended. I told the young man making his presentation that ‘Christ as Supervisor’ was an image of God that would ring true for many in today’s workplace culture, although I am not sure always in a good way. That said, it is an intriguing way in to think about the divine life among our own: that ‘Christ the questioner’ might be present among us, asking of us if we as the Church have remained true to our calling.

Wherever you are on your journey, I pray that you can keep on asking the questions.


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