Happy New Year Paul/ette!
Thank you for your courage in our seminar today! Many eager and anxious students are quick to speak up about what they think they know with certainty. You were braver today in giving voice among your peers about your questions! In fact, as I’ve come to learn, the questions we ask – the most important ones we dare to face – can turn out to be hidden doorways that lead us to new and wonderful things in academic work. Those honest questions can become the portals to another stage in the journey of scholarship, loving God with our minds.
This reminds me of an episode in Jesus’ life and ministry when he (again) faces off against the Pharisees:
Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here is it,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21 NIV)
The Pharisees are part of the religious leadership of Jesus’ day. They’re like the tenured professors of theology. And Jesus is the questionable inferior with the even more questionable ideas about God. So, when Luke tells us that the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come, we should remember that they were probably not asking for information that they lacked; they’re setting Jesus up to trap him in their certainties.
And Jesus’ response captures the certainties that others must have had at the time too: “Here it is.” Instead, Jesus points to the kingdom of God being located in a place of serious questions: in our midst (or, as other translations and even the NIV footnote says here, “within you”). Human communities are places of questions. And even the individual human personality is a seat of endless questions. And that’s where Jesus locates the kingdom of God: in the midst of the deepest questions of life.
What if this was true: that the new thing God is doing in the world originates from the most pressing of human questions? That would mean that for us as graduate students and scholars, our questions have an important place in the life of the academy. It means that our research can be taken up by God in the arrival of his kingdom in our midst. Where we wrestle with questions yet answered, God begins to show up. When you formulate your research question, this is part of God’s unfolding work!
In this new year, I’ve been meditating on the reflections of Henri Nouwen as published in his 1975 book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Nouwen’s argument is that spiritual maturity brings us from loneliness to solitude in God’s presence; from hostility to hospitality towards our neighbours; and from illusions to prayer before God. Along the way, he references a Zen story that has a striking resemblance to Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees in Luke 17:
Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”
“Enlightenment,” replied Daiju.
“You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.
Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”
Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”
Daiju discovered that his own personal question of where to find enlightenment was, in itself, the inner treasure house of the enlightenment he was seeking from elsewhere. Jesus responded to those who wondered where the kingdom of God was to be found: it is within/among you. The kingdom of God is in your question-asking, your enlightenment-seeking.
Let me conclude with a personal story. My own academic journey began with the questions that I couldn’t help but feel pressing themselves into my mind and heart. For years I tried to push those questions away. I tried to convince myself that they weren’t important, that others would answer them, that it was just vanity in pursuing them. But they wouldn’t go away. And nobody else was addressing them in the way I felt like they needed to be faced. And then, over a hamburger of all things, a mentor told me: “That sense you have of those questions, that’s what it feels like when God is calling you to a new academic pursuit. You have those questions and nobody else because this is your work you’re being called to.”
So, I applaud your questions. And I hope and pray that this year you will attend to those questions closely, that you will listen to them carefully, and that you’ll discern in them what God is calling you to so that his kingdom might take shape in our midst.