Teaching for a long time has many blessings, but one I really appreciate is a chance to re-read a book that has been significant. Of course, there are many books that have made a difference in my life. I have often wondered how I would answer the question that is posed: if I were stranded on an island and could have only one book, what would I choose?
I am sure I would surprise and disappoint some people when I confess I know that book would not be the Bible. That does not mean the Bible is not important to me or that I have it memorized and don’t really need it. I know the Bible has formed me in crucial ways. As a Christian and Quaker, much of what I think is rooted in the Bible. But it would not be my choice.
There are a few books by Quakers I might choose. I would seriously consider the one by Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion. That is a simple, inspiring book that would serve me well on the deserted island. I really like some of Gerald May’s books and would be happy to be “stuck” with one of them. I like his book, Will and Spirit, and also would be happy with The Awakened Heart. And then there is my monk-friend, Thomas Merton.
Merton has been a formative influence on my spiritual life and thinking. One possible choice would be his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. It was written in the 60s when I was moving through college and on into graduate school. I have taught a seminar on Merton’s spirituality and, consequently have re-read quite a few of his books. I just had the opportunity to read again Conjectures.
I am always stunned to have a passage jump out at me that I know I have read a few times already. It happened again. On the very first page of the Preface I latched onto a line that I want to savor. Merton writes that he does not have too many answers. He continues, “I do have questions, and, as a matter of fact, I think a man is known better by his questions than by his answers.” I am sure if Merton were writing that today, he would use inclusive language. Instead of saying, “a man is known better by his questions,” Merton would have said, “a person is known better…” It is true for women and men.
Answers are definitive. They are statements and put periods at the end of the matter. Answers state what is and what should be. Of course, there is a huge role for answers. Some things are clear and complete. Much of science has these kinds of answers. But there are others areas of life where the question should be the approach. Questions function differently than answers.
Questions open up. Questions make room for what might be. There is an obvious link between questions and quest. Questions put us on a quest. We quest for direction, for knowledge, and even wisdom. Questions engage us and pull us into the activity of listening, probing, and patiently waiting for something to open up. Questions put us in a posture of expectation.
As I am pondering the nature of question, I am thinking primarily of the big questions in life. Indeed, perhaps the biggest question of any human being is what does it mean to be human? This becomes particularized when I ask, what does it mean to be me? This is an identity question: who am I? Clearly, there could be many answers to this. And we do have answers. I am a guy, a son, a husband, a father, a friend, a teacher, and the list goes on. They are all true, but they are not the deepest essence of who I am. It is at this deepest level that I want to ask that question, who am I?
For me the Bible helps me formulate an answer. I am persuaded I am created in the image and likeness of God. I am a child of God. Thomas Kelly helps me know that “deep within there is a inner sanctuary of the soul…” And Thomas Merton assures me that there is a “true self” and that I can come to know and be my true self. It is tempting to say these are the answers to the basic question, who am I?
But that is not quite true. These so-called answers only point to the deeper questions. What does it mean to be in the image of God? What does it mean to live as my true self? What does it look like on a daily basis to live like a child of God? I can only answer these questions in my real life and a day-by-day basis. And when I do it today, I will be offered the opportunity again tomorrow.
That is the wonderful thing about the spiritual journey. Each day I wake up with my questions. I am known by my questions. And then I endeavor to answer those questions in my real life interacting with real people. That’s it! I am the answer to God’s question: who will I be?