Learning to Question: The Value of Education

This blog post is the fourth in a series of responses to the article, “Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins (Without Tattoos),” in which the writer basically argues that Christian women shouldn’t go to college, have careers, or even move out their parents’ house before they’re married because their sole purpose in life is to serve their husbands and raise a large family. Over the past few weeks, I have discussed the double-standard for Christian men and women when it comes to sexual purity, the necessity of finding our identity in Christ alone, and the fact that all Christians have an equally “holy calling,” no matter their vocation.

Ever notice how every time Jesus performed a miracle in front of a crowd, there were always those people wanted to throw a lot of big rocks at Him for blasphemy or demonic possession or – gasp! – healing the sick and crippled on the Sabbath or something?

We see it over and over again – people so fully immersed in their own perception of reality, their unshakeable belief that the Christ would be a mighty warrior who would dart in on a snow-white steed to free them from Roman captivity, that they were oblivious to the human incarnation of God when He literally stood right in front of them.

And these people believed the Christ was coming. They studied the Old Testament, they could recite the prophecies, they memorized the signs…but they had no idea who the carpenter’s son really was.

It is so easy for us to arch our modern, Holy Spirit-enlightened eyebrows at those ancient skeptics and condescend, “Umm…this guy turned water into wine, made the blind see, cast out demons, healed lepers, cured men crippled since birth, and…oh, yeah. He raised the dead back to life. Ya really think He’s just burning off steam?”

But how many erroneous, rock-solid beliefs – maybe even Biblically founded – do we cling to without even being aware of their existence? How many assumptions have been subconsciously etched into our minds that affect the decisions we make every day? How many beliefs can we not articulate because we’ve never actually thought about them?

What would happen if we were a little more uncertain about what we believe?

That, I would argue, is the true value of education.

People don’t like to feel uncertain. We prefer to draw tidy black lines between right and wrong, good and bad, people who eat their pizza rolled up like a burrito and people who eat it flat like God intended. Uncertainty means questions, questions mean we need to remove our rose-colored John Lennon glasses and try to squint through gray area.

Welcome to life.

Christians especially tend to fear questions. We worry that if we don’t unhesitatingly follow everything a Christian leader or if we mistrust an interpretation of Scripture, then we’re being disobedient or unfaithful.

Listen. Jesus never said, “Ask, and I will rebuke you for not operating in willful ignorance. Seek, and I will assume you’re ‘It’ in a cosmic game of hide-n-seek. Knock, and I’ll turn off all the lights and hide underneath the table like you’re a Jehovah’s Witness coming around at dinnertime” (opposite of Matthew 7:7).

Over and over in the Bible, God called on people to do something and they responded with a question – sometimes even multiple questions. When God first appeared to Moses, He 1) addressed him by name 2) spoke from a bush that was on fire but not burning up 3) turned Moses’s staff into a snake and then back into a stick 4) infected his hand with leprosy and healed it like a magician at a kid’s birthday party and 5) gave him a direct order with specific instructions. The message seems pretty clear, no?

Well, Moses still had several questions. And then, even after witnessing these signs, he told the Almighty Creator of the Universe he picked the wrong shepherd.

Yet despite Moses’s doubts and fears, the apostle Paul commends him as one of the most exemplary models of a faith-filled life (Hebrews 11).

Doubt does not equate unfaithfulness any more than fear equates cowardice or anger equates violence. The problem isn’t the feeling, it’s the control we allow it to have over our decisions and actions. It’s fine – normal and healthy, even – to have questions. What’s wrong is not pursuing answers. That is displaying a lack of faith…are you worried God won’t or can’t answer?

Not only is it ok to ask questions, it is impossible to become a mature Christian without questions. Because here is the scary thing: we can absorb life-altering opinions without even knowing it. We’ve come to expect it in the TV shows we watch, music we listen to, and books we read, but they can seep in through something as trivial as an offhand remark our elementary school teacher once made or a headline we notice while checking out at the grocery store. Unconsciously, we store these ideas up and allow them to affect our thinking.

The goal of education isn’t to teach us what we already know. It’s to introduce us to new ideas and concepts, force us to examine our long-held beliefs under a more intense light, make us a little less certain that what we previously assumed was correct.

Now, you may be thinking, but Jesus taught people how to seek and serve God…not algebra. What does asking questions to clarify your spiritual beliefs have to do with education? Can we compare spiritual discipline to academic study?

First off, I am not proposing we seek spiritual guidance from textbooks or Biblical principles in lecture halls. I’m not saying you need to strengthen your prayer life by reading Jane Eyre (but yes, everyone should definitely read that) or you need to supplement your daily devotional with The History of Trigonometry. (Please, if anyone ever catches me studying that, take me to Rome immediately so that I can get a gallon of holy water dumped on whatever demon, ghost, or alien has sunk itself into my brain.)

But our faith affects every aspect of our lives; your worldview influences your political opinions, your relationships, your professional life, the entertainment you enjoy. There is really no such thing as “secular study.” You can’t sit spiritual beliefs in one corner of your mind and academic pursuits in another and scold them into leaving each other alone.

So, since our faith influences everything, we need to examine all aspects of our lives to make sure they align with what we believe.

(If you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of work – bingo! You’ll be figuring out life ‘til ya die – now go get yourself a gold star.)

Second, learning to question does more than strengthen our knowledge of God and ability to “give reason for the hope that is within you” (I Peter 3:15); the practice of asking questions develops a certain attitude. It changes us.

As Christians, our challenge is to reset our inclinations – whether we developed them through “nature or nurture” – to align with Christ’s heart and God’s will.

The most significant, innate misconception I have – which everyone is born with – is that I am the realest, most important person in existence. As David Foster Wallace said in his famous commencement speech, “This is Water”: “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe…There is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of…Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”

That is where questions can help.

Questions make you a little less certain of your automatic assumptions. They force you to think outside your own perspective. We need to expose ourselves to other ideas and perspectives, so we can be conscious of our own and aware of other people. More than aware – able to relate and sympathize with them. By challenging ourselves to think beyond our own experiences, we learn to “love our neighbor.”

We do what we do because we believe what we believe. So, let’s be careful what we believe.

That’s what it means to be educated.

Some people perceive the sole value of college as getting a job and earning a substantial paycheck, but the goal of college is not to get a job. It’s to get an education.

Education is the practice and discipline of asking questions and finding answers. Being educated doesn’t mean spending $100,000+ on a piece of calligraphy. It doesn’t mean being the person who is content to sit in the back of the room and write down only what may appear on the midterm.

It means having a critical awareness of yourself and the world. It means being the kind of person who isn’t content to absorb, but instead analyzes, reflects, investigates.

Wallace concluded in “This is Water”:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day…That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing…

The capital-T Truth…is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time.

Let’s stop venerating willful ignorance and calling it faith.

Let’s storm our preconceived notions and steadfast assumptions and trust that our search for answers will kindle a sincerer love for others and bring us to a deeper, more intimate understanding of our Heavenly Father.

Let’s learn to be ok with feeling uncertain; let’s allow it to humble us and make us more patient.

Let’s ask questions. 

Big news!! Some exciting changes are coming to the blog. I’m not going to give it away yet, but if you type your email into the “Stick Around” widget on the side of the screen, I promise you will be one of the first to know. Trust me, you don’t want to miss out.

(Seriously. I’m so excited.)

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)