New and returning graduate students,
Welcome to this new 2022-2023 academic year! You have come to this place and to this moment from a wide diversity of backgrounds, experiences, achievements, and challenges. But, nonetheless, one thing binds you together with a shared commonness: you have formulated a question. Your research question has placed you in this position of embarking on a new academic year of research, study, reflection, and writing. Our hope is that your question will be of such quality that it will make new things possible, open new avenues for life, and will be one means of the world flourishing.
This is a very odd thing, if you take a moment to think about it. In our culture, at least for many of us in the English-speaking world, we are far more enamoured with answers. We are far more comfortable with certainties. We gravitate towards those with assertions of truth, even more so when their truth is backed up with power. We give our trust and loyalty to those with unshakable convictions. The pundits and the politicians seem to get far more of our attention these days than the poets, the philosophers, the prophets.
Instead, you are here with something else: a question. And to make matters worse, you have a humble question. Questions always place you in a posture of humility. Questions stand you before the great mystery of the unknown, of knowledge as yet undiscovered. Answers are things you can put on a resume. You can put them in the bank or the stock market. You can put them into awe-inspiring action. You can get a lucrative job with an answer. Questions, you’ve probably realized by now, put you in debt. Having a question makes others question you, your ability, your worthiness.
Things don’t get better in this regard when we remind ourselves of the name we bear. To be a Christian in higher education today is a very tricky business. In popular culture, Christians are often viewed by others as a tribe believing they have all the dogmatic answers that must be imposed on others against their will. Within many Christian cultures, it’s become a cliche that “Jesus is the answer” and despite its oversimplification, it sells loads of bumper stickers. The fundamentalism of slam-dunk answers is everywhere. Who can hear the humble question amidst a cacophony of certified facts?
So as you look out from here at the start of a new academic year, with your research question in your heart and mind, how might we think about the task of scholarship in light of all this, in light of our culture of ideological certitudes and our churches of dogmatic self-assuredness? What promise, what hope might your question have as you face a world in love with answers? How can you, as a Christian and as a scholar, follow the leading of your question into a new year of scholarship?
I would like to give you two examples that I find profoundly significant for the life of a scholar, one from what we as Christians call the Old Testament and a second from the life and ministry of Jesus.
In the opening chapter of Isaiah, God comes to Isaiah and reveals to him the sheer hopelessness of Israel’s situation before God. It is a rough message that Isaiah hears about his people, full corruption, illness, destruction, greed, and injustice. But the striking element of this chapter is that God does not just level one accusation after another, one judgment after another, one condemnation after another, until they pile up in retribution and destruction. Rather, God weaves questions into the announcement to Isaiah. Questions like, “Why do you persist in rebellion?” (1:5) and “When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you?” (1:12). They key to this first chapter is found in verse 18 where God reveals the divine posture towards faithless and rebellious Israel: “Come now, let us settle the matter” or, as the English Standard Version puts it, “Let us reason together.” And as we find out at the very start of Isaiah’s prophecy, God’s intention for Israel is forgiveness, liberation, and renewal. God’s questions and God’s invitation to work it out together are a gracious welcome that with God there is always hope, even in the midst of utter hopelessness.
The second example comes from what many argue to be the hinge in Jesus’ ministry as recorded in Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 8, Jesus’ ministry reaches a crescendo of sorts: he feeds a crowd of four thousand, he warns his people against the political and religious leadership, he heals a man who was blind, and then Jesus and his disciples go to the symbolically significant town of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus’ true identity is discussed. But how does Mark present the revelation of who Jesus really is? Does Jesus stand up and say to everyone within earshot, “I am the Messiah, the Son of the living God”? No, Mark places this most important section in the form of questions that Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” By using questions rather than answers, Jesus entrusts the discernment and the proclamation of his identity to us.
At the very least, what this means is that God is not afraid of questions. God actually uses questions to welcome us, to engage us in the unfolding of history. God even uses questions to draw us in to the further discovery of his identity, his attitude towards us, and his desires for the world. God uses questions to open up a hopeless dead end with new life. This means that, as scholars, our research questions are not just a bit of an application process or the start of a programme of research and writing. Our research questions are also the means by which God will do something new in the world. We probably don’t know what that will be right now. We may never know fully how it fits into the infinitely complex thing we call God’s Creation. But your research question, among many other things, is also an invitation from God to you and others, an invitation to love God with heart, mind, and soul through this particular thing we call a research question and the task of scholarship.
May what comes from your questions, what your questions spark, be for the healing and flourishing of the world. And may your questions lead you to the One who uses questions to draw you into the divine embrace, the embrace we see among Jesus and his disciples.