When I was in college, I had the pleasure of doing a semester at Oxford University in Oxford, England. The way teaching works at Oxford is far different from the US – instead of being in a classroom with twenty other students, having discussions and class assignments, we had lectures that we attended and then tutoring sessions with individual tutors. The lectures may or may not be relevant to the tutoring sessions that week, and sometimes a tutor would request that you attend certain lectures.
The other unusual part was the amount of writing. Have you ever wondered how I can put together a 1500 word post in a day? That’s why. Each week, my tutor would give me a reading list and a multi-part question, and by the next week, I had to have a 1500 word essay written that incorporated every source and answered the question. Some weeks, depending on when my primary tutorial overlapped with my secondary, I would have two essays due a couple of days apart.
My primary tutorial was Philosophical Theology with Dr. Meriel Patrick and it took place in her living room in the Jericho neighborhood of North Oxford. I would email her my essay before the session, and then each tutorial would be a mini-thesis defense, where she would ask me questions and I had to defend the position I’d taken in the paper. What I remember most about those sessions is staring out her window and at her couch as I searched for an answer to a particular tough question she’d asked me.
One thing my experience abroad taught me – aside from how to queue properly and that teenage boys will randomly call you “love” in the grocery store – is how to ask the right questions. English culture is at times very similar and very different from American culture. There’s more of an emphasis on privacy and what things are considered private for an Englishman are very different from what an American considers private.
For example, in English culture, it’s considered very rude to ask someone their name without a prior reason to know it. I had entire conversations, multiple times, before I ever learned a person's name or what they do as a job. These life questions are considered intensely inappropriate and, as an American, you’d find barriers going up almost immediately if you started off a conversation with the wrong question – if you started off by saying, “Hi, I’m Dianna. What’s your name?” for example.
Growing up in evangelical culture, I’ve found that there’s not much emphasis placed on asking the right questions. We learn apologetics and how to defend our faith against the common questions “opponents” may ask, but we’re not taught how to ask questions, how to dig into things. I think the current format of church services lends itself to this – Sunday mornings are passive. You go in, you sing a little, you hear a sermon or homily, and you go home.
The heart of critical thinking is not in having the answer, but in being able and willing to ask the right question. It’s being able to think things through to a logical end and ask yourself what that result means. It’s being able to see the full framework within which make decisions and questioning it at the same time.
This is part of the reason I loved my tutorials so much – my tutors weren’t afraid to ask me the hard questions, especially when they could tell I hadn’t thought about that angle. During one particularly hard session with Dr. Patrick, we were asking the age-old questions (there really is nothing new under the sun) about whether or not God exists inside or outside of time. As an evangelical, I’d had all the apologetic answers about incarnation and about how God became Man, but I’d never stopped to consider what “God becomes Man” means for what we say about God’s nature in terms of its eternal existence. Dr. Patrick got me to stop and ask the right questions.
Here’s the catch: sometimes you don’t know what the right questions are until long after you’ve allowed yourself to ask them. We can’t be afraid of what questions mean or where they might lead because we can’t predict the future. We need to ask questions, even if they feel wrong at the time, even if they’re uncomfortable, even if they make us cringe because they cause us to re-evaluate what we’d previously accepted as fact.
With hope, we will have another person in our lives who can point us toward some resources and let us come back to them when we’re ready to ask those questions. This is what we need to be doing in the church – working to give people the tools to ask themselves the right questions and let them go on their own journeys. It is the only way we will prevent stagnation.
So ask. Don't worry about the answers just yet. Get comfortable with asking the questions.