Asking the Right Questions: Starting the New Year
The following is adapted from a talk I gave at the Convocation service at Greyfriars Classical Academy in North Carolina.
To begin again is always a grace—it’s the opportunity to start fresh, to put things behind us including the sins that so easily entangle us. From the perspective of educators it is also a clean start—for all of the good intentions that did not come to fruition and the opportunity to engage with students, not with baggage from last year but with the anticipation of a new start garnered from the grace and wisdom that the Lord gives through the rest and break of the summer. The pattern of rest and work is well established in Scripture and these principles hold true in the work of growing in knowledge and wisdom.
With the start of a new year, comes a host of questions. Some are situational:
- Who is my teacher this year? Will I like them?
- How much homework will I have?
- Who is in my class? Who is that new student?
- How will I do in algebra this year?
Other questions are future oriented:
- What are my college plans?
- Who will I marry? Or even more simply, does he or she like me?
- What will I be when I grow up?
Still other questions are more metaphysical:
- Who am I? What is my purpose?
- Am I normal?
- Who or what is God?
- What is justice or virtue?
- Can I even talk about virtue when I know how much of a mess I am and how broken I am on the inside? What is truth when I feel like a hypocrite?
Education starts with asking questions. It presupposes that there are things that you do not know. There is a certain degree of humility in learning—for you are always acknowledging a lack of knowledge. If what you encounter, or what you highlight in your reading, only reinforces what you already know, you are not truly learning but rather only confirming your own prejudices. You have become the arbiter of truth and the standard of wisdom; therefore, there are no questions to be honestly asked. The only thing query that remains is, “Why doesn’t everyone else think like me and agree with me?”
It takes knowledge and humility to ask the right questions and be open to seeking the answers. Asking the wrong questions can lead to misinformation or even the wrong path.
In the book and film Jurassic Park, one of the pivotal moments of the story comes with this particular realization. If you remember the story, the hubris of the creators of the park and the scientists is their faith in being able to control and understand nature and technology—biotechnology and computers. They think they have everything under control and cannot imagine there being any danger or situation that they have not already foreseen and accounted for. The issue arises as to whether the dinosaurs are breeding or not—something they are not supposed to be able to do. This fact would be a major breach of the control and safety of the park. But each time they have the computers run the automatic count of animals on the island, the result is always the same. The computer consistently confirms the expected number.
The mathematician Ian Malcom suggests that they are asking the wrong question; when he suggests that they search for a higher number of animals, they quickly discover a large number of previously unknown animals. Computers are only as good as their programs and what they are told to think and do. Because they asked the wrong question, they got the answer they expected. By asking the right question, they actually learned something they did not know—something in this case that was a matter of life and death.
One question that has far reaching implications is “What is the purpose of education?” How one answers this question can actually determine whether education happens or not. What is education for?
James K.A. Smith wrote, “Education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people.” It’s about wisdom and virtue. It’s about who you are, not what you know.
What is the hope and goal of this academic community, for the teaching of these classes, for assigning you reading and making you write papers and create projects? There are lots of places that you can go for information but far fewer concerned with the aspect of formation. Googling facts will give you information, but true learning enables you to know what to do with those bits of information, and virtue recreates you as the type of person who will serve well. What kind of difference does it make to your understanding of what goes on in the classroom if you are far more interested in who you become than in what you do or know?
Henri Nouwen bluntly gets to that point when he writes, “The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?”
Or as Jesus said in Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
This really gets to the heart of the matter.
- As you gather together as a community, are you united by what you love in common?
- Are your hearts rightly ordered?
- Is it love of Jesus that compels you to sharpen and hone the gifts He has given you so that you might more effectively serve?
- Is it love of Jesus that changes your priorities from selfish and empty pursuits to serving the needs of others?
- Is it love of Jesus that swells within you and overflows in awe and wonder and gratitude for this world that He has made, ordered, and sustained by the word of His power?
- Does this wonder and gratitude extend to glimpsing His hand at work in the movement of men and nations, the rise and fall of empires and ideas, and the elements that make up His-story?
We so often get sidetracked from this ultimate purpose by focusing on what we hope to achieve—what our goals for serving Christ and His kingdom look like. As you look to the future and the various roles in which you will serve, what will be your motivating factors as you serve as parents, pastors, educators, businessmen?
Biblical knowledge involves action and not just intellectual information. What you desire in your heart/gut is more powerful than what is in your head. You know this from experience. Just because you know something does not necessarily lead to action. You can quote statistics all day long about the dangers of smoking, driving without a seat belt, bad eating habits, screen time, or rest patterns, but people still light up, grab another jelly doughnut, binge watch Netflix, and have erratic sleep. We know better, but our actions reveal the depth of our true knowing, in a biblical sense. How you spend your money and your time are probably truer reflections of what you value, where your affections lie, and where you find your worth than what you say you believe.
We have been trained to give the right answers or worldview. In fact, we are very good at hiding behind that screen as a cover. The trouble is that we have become so inoculated to the “right” answers that is leaves our souls at risk—it can be easy for a churched youth to blithely get the “right” answers and fail to live it out.
From an early age, we often learn incomplete doctrine because we have not exercised that doctrine with action. We get the right answer, but we don’t know what to do with it or allow it to change us.
We are always in danger of knowing more than we actually do. The Apostle John says it this way in 1 John 2:3-6,
3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
By putting into practice what we are learning, we are growing in wisdom and being formed. Which brings us back to asking questions. What are your questions going into this year? What ought your questions be?
Ranier Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet, put it this way:
Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Or as Wendell Berry said in his novel Jaber Crow:
“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
Do not be satisfied with plain answers or plain questions. Do not be satisfied with the minimum amount of work. Do not settle for what college entrance requirements dictate. You are called to more than that. You are called to be much more than that. The God of the universe invites you to discover the glories of His providential works and the wonder and order of His created cosmos; to contemplate the metaphysical questions of purpose and meaning; and to wrestle with the interconnectedness of ideas, history, arts, creation, and humanity.
This is a grand adventure—an invitation to spend the life and time that God has given you. Trust Him for the blessings of job or college or vocation. But embrace the mystery into which he has called you—the much more difficult path of everyday faithfulness, of living in peace with those around you, of availing yourself of the means and disciplines of grace, of growing in virtue.
And as we start again, and when we fail, again, be grateful for this new beginning.
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is His faithfulness.
Because of His love, His mercy, and His faithfulness, you can start the year anew and you can start each day anew. And you can live into the ultimate question: “Not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?”
May God go before you this year and use your studies and the elements of life to more clearly show you the face of Christ.
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