Having experienced and embraced an adult conversion to the Christian faith, I transferred to a new institution of higher education for my third year of college. This allowed me to switch my ‘major’ from art to classics and medieval studies. In the process, I benefited from the teaching of several professors trained primarily in philosophy. My favorite among them frequently called attention to a large sign placed high above a nearby freeway. The sign said this: “Jesus is the answer.” In relation to it, our professor would ask, “but what is the question?”
Later, when I was pursuing doctoral studies in philosophical theology, I became aware of the dialectical relationship between two theological ways of understanding Jesus. Each of these two approaches to understanding Jesus’ life and ministry can be summed up in a phrase: ‘Jesus is the answer to all our best questions;’ and or, ‘Jesus is the question that prompts all our best answers.’
From an historically Anglican-Catholic perspective, we can say that recognizing Jesus as both ‘our best question’ as well as ‘our best answer’ enhances our spiritual growth.
Henry Ossawa Tanner captures the spiritually dynamic moment of one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It is Jesus’ night conversation with Nicodemus on an upper terrace.* In it, John’s Gospel presents us with a conjunction of compelling personal narrative interposed with mystical spiritual reflection. How can we not wonder about how the venerable and trusted Nicodemus approaches the upstart rabbi in the safety of the nighttime darkness? And how can we not remain thoughtful about Nicodemus’ challenging questions, as well as how artfully Jesus turns them back upon the man who appears to ask them so sincerely?
An aspect of the historic rabbinical tradition within Judaism is its respect for the power of previously unanticipated questions. As applied to Scripture, the generative power of such questions may surpass the importance of our previously arrived-at ‘answers.’
Tanner’s painting of John’s evocative scene prompts us to consider the power and beauty of questions posed by Jesus’ teaching. Questions help us to grow. Asked and pursued with integrity, they lead us to discernment and learning. Recognizing that new insights can be gleaned from them, we begin to realize the potential within us to perceive greater beauty, live into more genuine goodness, and know fuller truth.
A contemporary approach to personal and organizational development, Appreciative Inquiry, complements this emphasis upon the positive power of questions to help us see, live well, and know what is real. The artist, Reinhold Marxhausen, as well as the photographer, Dewitt Jones, exemplify this approach in their engagement with the world around us. Marxhausen is remembered for having constantly encouraged his students to look for and then see beauty in everyday life, even in contexts like factories, side-alleys, and in ‘ordinary places’ like a nearby farmyard. Dewitt Jones, a former National Geographic magazine photographer, encourages the same approach through his videos and published material. Celebrate What’s Right with the World is both the title of one of his videos, and also a persistent theme in his advocacy for being open to finding new and unseen possibilities in ‘what is there,’ all around us. David Cooperrider’s book, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, provides a succinct and helpful introduction to how asking better questions can help us to see, live, and know better!
*See John 3:1-15 in context. More about the art and approach to life of Reinhold Marxhausen as well as Dewitt Jones can easily be found through a google internet search. See, for example, the Marxhausen Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Marxhausen); as well as Dewitt Jones’ TEDx Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gD_1Eh6rqf8), and his teaching project, The Habit of Celebration (https://celebrate-whats-right.teachable.com/p/the-habit-of-celebration1). My 2017 homily reflection on the Nicodemus conversation in John can by accessed by clicking the following link: (Lent 2 A 17_PDF).