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Death by Answers

Looking back on my college years, when I was exploring who I was and what I believed, I realized that the most vibrant periods of my life have been when I was haunted by questions. Is God real? What am I to make of this Jesus dude? Do I have a chance with Karen? What can I do that is interesting and for which someone might pay me? The periods when I was driven by something other than questions are those harder to recall, as if I went unconscious to my life.

A surprising realization is how much of my life in schools goes into the unconscious category. It turns out that seeking answers without first asking questions is deadly, despite this being the working philosophy of much of our education system. Only when a question is sparked within us does interest, focus, passion come online; even more importantly, that is when answers are welcomed, appreciated, and stick to something within us. I distinctly remember walking across campus my junior year after taking a couple courses that I chose because I was actually curious about the topics, and thinking, “So this is what college is supposed to be about.” (I know, took me long enough, right?)

But my school years were not my only experience of the deadly combo of answers without questions. Becoming a Christian was a life-altering discovery of wonderful answers after years of asking hard questions of anyone who would listen. I later learned I had gotten the reputation as a “persecutor of Christians” for asking my questions. And that is troubling. Because within church culture, questions are not always seen as a portal to new discoveries but can be seen as a problem, especially if the questions are directed at ideas the community would prefer to see as settled, absolute, and unchanging.

But I don’t think God works that way. One does not have to study the Bible very long or even walk very far down the path of the Christian faith to learn that God’s preferred language is questions. And that is why we should welcome a wonderful primer on asking questions that has just been published, even though it is not formally a religious book. In Wait, What? James Ryan turns a commencement speech, the video of which went viral, into a fun but wise and important book on the five essential questions we should regularly ask. Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Ryan makes a big promise: “If you get into the habit of asking these five questions, you will live a happier and more successful life.”

You don’t have to read very far to learn that Ryan is not providing some Harvard sociological analysis. No, this guidebook fits squarely within the wisdom literature genre, which is obvious when we see the list of five questions:

  1. “Wait, what?” is at the root of all understanding.
  2. “I wonder…?” is at the heart of all curiosity.
  3. “Couldn’t we at least…?” is the beginning of all progress.
  4. “How can I help?” is the base of all good relationships.
  5. And “What truly matters?” helps gets you to the heart of life.

While Ryan does not bring up religion, I think what he is describing when he is promising success and happiness is something like Jesus’s promise of an abundant life. Questions focus us, wake us up, cause us to listen, engage, connect, and so add meaning to our lives.

Answers without questions do none of these things. A culture of answers that defensively shuns questions is a form of death, a means of staying asleep to all God wants us to be awake to. We cannot go deeper except through the discipline of asking questions. And Jim Ryan’s Wait, What? is a wonderful primer on this necessary spiritual discipline.

Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor

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