The End of Our Exploring

July 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

9780802406521_p0_v1_s260x420Matthew Lee Anderson is the lead writer over at Mere Orthodoxy and the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith. You may have seen articles from him elsewhere, including but not limited to CNN, the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, Relevant, and The City. 1 Right now, Anderson’s working on an M.Phil in Christian Ethics at Oxford and offering us his own exploration into the nature of questioning and confidence appropriately titled The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith.

First off, this is an interesting book, and I mean that not in the sense the content itself is interesting, 2 but that the nature of the book is interesting. Usually books are about some particular topic and explore it from different angles. This book is about exploring and specifically about the interface of questioning, confidence, and doubt. It’s almost like reading a book about reading books, 3 but is more about the disposition that lies behind reading itself. Usually, if you read a lot of non-fiction books, you are doing some sort of exploring, 4 and Anderson wants to explore the nature of that exploration. 5

That said, this is a book offering a kind of philosophical meditation on the nature of questions. Questions are what drive exploration, so that is what Anderson focuses on. After “A Beginning,” Anderson’s first chapter offers thoughts on the “anatomy of questions.” Questions are “one of our most common ways of interacting with the world,” yet as Anderson wisely notes, the “mechanics remain ambiguous” (18). To that end, he would like to open up the hood and examine how it all runs.

In chapter 2, Anderson explains that questions (like facts) are not neutral but are inherently value laden. As an illustration, and probably one of my favorite headings in the book, Anderson points out that “the first question was not God’s and it was not good” (32). So, while questioning is unavoidable, questions can be misused. 6 But, they don’t only have to misused since they can be used in redemptive fashion.

This is an apt framework to have in place before discussing doubt, a subject Anderson turns to in chapter 3. Here, he offers numerous quotables; things like “In its popular form, postmodern doubt is merely modern skepticism with hipster glasses,” (47) and “faith is not fundamentalism and doubting is not questioning” (50). In perhaps one of the most helpful clarifications, Anderson notes that “doubt seems to be more of a state or condition, while questioning is a pursuit.” Given this distinction, “our questioning may be rooted in our doubts, but it does not have to be. Conflating doubt and questioning is one of the chief confusions of our age” (51). And further (if you’re looking for a money quote, here it is):

Faith is the presupposition to questions and inquiry, the ground that we stand on as we look out and survey the world. It is not the end of our exploring but the beginning for it engenders a love that longs to see the one whose life gives us life. (52)

In the end then, “the questioning faith is a confident questioning, a questioning that knows the answer we seek is already known by God and will be revealed to us when we are ready” (64). This is immensely helpful, both as ground clearing and stage setting 7 for the rest of the book to be able to explore the nature of questions and questioning without being incorrectly labelled as a book on “doubt.”

Chapter 4 explore the nature of satisfaction. 8 Brilliantly, Anderson points out that “searching for information on the Internet is easy; pursuing understanding is hard” (72). In other words, part of questioning well is looking for something specific to reach a point of satisfaction. Otherwise, you’re just curious, which is not necessarily a good thing (being curious simply for novelty is somewhat of a vice, a topic discussed in chapter 6).

Chapter 5 explains how questions interface with our world and introduces the idea that there is a progression to our questioning. That is, sometimes you don’t even have the framework in place to understand the answer to certain questions (the lesson Job learned at the end of the book). But, as you grow through your pursuit, your questioning matures as well.

In chapter 6, Anderson shows how questioning can be liberated. As he explains,

Questioning needs to be liberated. We can’t simply take up inquiry as part of our formation without seeing the ways in which it too has become entangled in a fallen heart and the structures of a fallen world. If we fail to orient the practice appropriately – around the gracious actions of God and His authorized witness to them – then we will simultaneously fail to cultivate the virtues and communities that we need in order to question well (107).

Specifically, Anderson sees that questioning well can set us free from defensiveness (108-113), self-sufficiency (113-115), curiosity (115-117), and the need to have everything now (118-124).

In chapter 7, Anderson explains and promotes the value of questioning within community. As he says, “we explore best when we learn to question with others” (127). These others are best real live people you know and live with, but questioning with the past is also helpful as well. Writers in the past had different questions than we have and offered different answers to questions we still have. This historical focus helps develop questioners well. Perhaps the best route would be to read a old book with a group friends since that unites the best of both worlds. 9

Chapter 8 takes an issue that arises in conjunction with questioning in community, that is, how to handle disagreements among friends. To help with this, Anderson highlights the role fundamental commitments play and how many times we can share fundamental values and commitments (like questioning well, arguing a case reasonably, and show respect to others) with people who ultimately disagree with on important matters. Anderson offers several personal anecdotes to support this, and I think he frames the issue well.

Chapter 9 is perhaps the only overtly practical chapter. Here, Anderson offers us advice on how to ask a good question, though he is really just building on much of what he had already been saying about the nature of questions. Still, it is a useful chapter and Anderson rightly suggests that the more saturated we our with Scripture, the better our questioning will be (172).

The final chapter shares a title with the book and like all good final chapters, helps drive points home and tie everything up. 10 In a very poetic fashion (helped by quoting T. S. Eliot), Anderson explains where the end of our exploring is leading and how our faith guides us along the journey. This is followed up by two short appendices: “How to Not Lose Your Faith in a Christian College” and “Loving Those Who Leave.” Much could be said about both, but I’m out of time and space. 11

On the whole, I thought this was an excellent read. Very timely and very important for just about everyone to digest. It helped me in thinking through the role questions play in my teaching (probably from Anderson’s several examples of his own use in that context) and how it might help me this fall. I would like to train my high schoolers to ask better questions of the Bible and learn how to discover the answers themselves rather than just giving them a list of answers and/or Bible facts. I was already leaning that direction, but Anderson’s book helped me clarify a few things.

If you’re the inquisitive sort, or know someone who is, this is probably a great book to read together and profit from. It will help you understand the role your questions play in intellectual formation and help you in your own journey, wherever you may be at the moment.

Book Details

Notes:

  1. He has also guest posted and answered questions on the blog of she who must not be named
  2. Which it is
  3. For instance, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
  4. That is unless you genuinely enjoy reading non-fiction over fiction/TV/the internet
  5. Kind of like Inception, especially when you consider that my review is exploring Anderson’s exploration of exploring (which is exploring what other people have said about the subject)
  6. This reminds me of the role inflection plays in the words used for questioning. (e.g. “Did God really say? vs. “Did God really say? vs. Did God really say? vs. Did God really say? – same question, different intent in asking)
  7. Which are both important activities, but are not strictly speaking, synonymous
  8. Unless I missed it, there were no references to The Rolling Stones
  9. An idea wholeheartedly supported by Tony Reinke in Lit!
  10. I realize I’m getting vague here, but this review is getting long and you’ve hopefully gotten the point by now
  11. Which depending on how you take it, could be a rather jarring admission

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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