The People Who Don't Have Any Questions
A meditation on a general statement about white evangelicals.
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The food was forgettable, but the conversation was stimulating.
I was there with two other people. We talked about relationships, films, and white evangelicals.
In the midst of the dialogue, one of my companions threw in a casual remark about his evaluation of white evangelicals after extensive personal experience.
"They are the people who don't have any questions," he said.
My memory for quotes isn't great. I remember a few Bible verses and some lines from Martin Luther King, Jr., but that sentence I just heard instantly cemented in my brain.
I knew on a gut level precisely what he meant by "the people who don't have any questions."
The People Who Don’t Have Any Questions
I became a Christian in a white evangelical church twenty-five years ago. For most of that time my religious life has been among white evangelicals--their youth groups, churches, denominations, conferences, books, and sermons.
As individuals, I have encountered numerous white evangelicals who exhibit curiosity and openness to God and those made in God's image.
But group dynamics are different.
Institutional and aggregate expressions of religion often distort the everyday faith of believers. That is partly why describing white evangelicals as "the people who don't have any questions" makes so much sense.
How can a group of people be so certain about topics that are so complicated? How can they say with so much certainty, "The Bible says..." when so often their interpretations have led to injustice and oppression?
The way I understood the phrase “the people who don’t have any questions” is not that white evangelicals never ask any questions or have any doubts. Rather they, or their leaders, have an indisputable conclusion to every query.
Go ahead and ask the question. But you need only ask once because there is an answer to every question, often with a Bible verse to back it up.
Once you have asked all the questions and gotten all the answers, what’s left? You have become one of “the people who don’t have any questions.”
A Primer on Answers to Every Question
As a new Christian, part of what drew me into the white evangelical world was the appearance that they had an answer for every question. On every issue, they had a "biblical" stance.
Question: How old is the earth?
Answer: Six-thousand years old, clearly.
Question: How should a household function?
Answer: The husband/father works outside of the home to provide money and resources for the family. The wife/mother stays home, raises the children, and supports the husband/father. All other arrangements are less desirable and probably the result of a lack of obedience or outright sin.
Question: What should we think about racism?
Answer: Hating any person because of their skin color is wrong. Thank God we have moved past that. Now people of any race or ethnicity have the same opportunities if they just work hard enough. People who still talk about racism make overblown claims, blame all white people for their problems, and some are trying to get rich off of a grift.
Question: What do we think about public education?
Answer: The government is godless, and so are their schools. Our children will be introduced to sinful ideas and reject the God of the Bible if they attend public schools. We either need to start private schools (preferably with public funding) where we can control the curriculum or we need to take over public education at all levels so we can bring the schools in line with a "Christian worldview."
Question: How should Christians vote?
Answer: Christians should only vote for "pro-life" candidates because the most important social issue of our day is repealing the laws that permit abortion and eliminating the practice altogether. We should also elect candidates who will appoint judges who believe the same. While other issues may be important, when you cast your vote, this single matter trumps all others.
Question: What is the best economic system?
Answer: Capitalism is the best economic system. It is the only one based purely on merit, and it leads to the most wealth for everyone. Other systems, like socialism, steal wealth from hard-working people and give it out to lazy, undeserving poor people. They just need to work harder. And let's lower taxes on the richest people because they are the ones who create jobs for the rest of us, and the government should just get out of their way.
Whatever the question--whether it concerns politics, law, economics, relationships, science, the Bible, or whatever--white evangelicals have been discipled to always have a ready response that requires no further questions.
The only areas where white evangelicals consistently demonstrated a willingness to concede to divine mystery is when trying to explain precisely why they could be so sure about so many things.
All you need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit. A background in ancient Hebrew and Greek is a bonus. But it also helps to be a man, white, middle class or wealthy, English-speaking, U.S.-born, politically conservative, etc., etc.
Not Keys But Cages
Part of me craved this kind of certainty. It made a boundless, disorienting world seem smaller and safer.
But particular kinds of surety aren't the keys to freedom, they are cages.
They lock you into narrow ways of thinking and being. They close you off from relationships with people who can introduce you to new perspectives. They shrink your world so small that you can touch the walls without moving your feet, and they make anything beyond that area seem so threatening that you never venture forth.
I posted my friend's statement in a tweet. Many others seemed to resonate.
One person who commented on the original post offered a synonym for "the people who don't have any questions." They are "incurious."
What often skulks behind an incurious mindset is fear. The terror that sliding one block of certainty from the stack will make the entire Jenga tower of faith tumble down.
"If I'm wrong in this area," so the thinking goes, "maybe I'm wrong in other areas, too. Areas that would dismantle my entire sense of self and perspective on reality if I'm wrong."
Another fear of the incurious is the fear of betraying the ideological solidarity of the group. There are consequences for questioning the established order. You could be expelled from the community--whether it's a family or a Facebook group. The desire to create and preserve a sense of belonging has muted many questions.
Through the Fear of Uncertainty
There is no way past the fear of uncertainty except through it.
To have your deeply settled convictions questions is disruptive. The consequences of such queries are so unpredictable that it would be dishonest to presume the result.
You may become more cynical. You may lose relationships you cherish. You may reject religion altogether.
But there are other possibilities.
If you question your certainty. If you view curiosity and confusion not as apostasy but as entries into deeper understanding. If you concede that finite minds will always not understand more than they understand.
Then life becomes a limitless adventure of learning.
Every person you encounter holds another fascinating story in which you can be immersed. Every new idea transforms from a potential threat into a new possibility. Each time your understanding evolves becomes a sign of growth rather than one of backsliding.
I am not of the opinion that we cannot be certain about any knowledge. No one functionally believes that all information is tentative and slippery.
But the answers we protect as certain should be scandalously few.
As a Christian I believe there is a personal God who loves us personally. I believe that all people--inclusive of financial status, skin color, native language, ability, sexual orientation, political persuasions, and more--are all made in the image of God. I also believe that all people, including myself, act in both admirable and atrocious ways at times.
I speak boldly on matters of justice from issues of race, to reparations, to the death penalty. But I strive to be informed, and I hope that with credible information I might learn and change my mind on occasion.
The People Who Engage and Discover
When we were all much younger, long before we'd ever have the hint of interest in reading an article like this, we embodied wonder and curiosity.
Our questions led us to ask someone we'd just met if they would be our friend. It guided us into fields and up the branches of trees. It filled us with new information that we were bursting to share with anyone who would listen.
As children we knew that our questions would lead us closer to truth and deeper into the joy of being.
A few days after our meal, I followed up with my friend. He elaborated on his perspective.
He said, "I think I also told you that I often felt jealous about the dogma of inerrant certainty. I do, but I also recognize - for me - the fallacy in that thinking. I think it's lazy. I think that practicing a faith in the divine requires dirt under your fingernails - always. You have to engage and discover."
What if white evangelicals were not known as "the people who don't have any questions?" What if they earned a reputation as "the people who engaged and discovered?"
This is spot on! Having been brought up white evangelical poor but also having been able to attend public schools, my childhood was a constant tension between the curiosity needed for the knowledge seeking and the certainty needed for existing in my religious space. My curiosity eventually led me to reject the dogmatic views of evangelicalism and begin exploring other denominations and faiths. Do you think giving way to a curious and uncertain mind will often lead someone away from evangelicalism?
WOW!! You nailed it! Thank you! In my deconstruction I came to similar thoughts but couldn’t articulate them as well. Wonderful!!