A number of years ago, when I was Episcopal Campus Minister at UC-Berkeley, as part of my job, I "managed" a student residence (in a building over a hundred years old!). Three floors, eighteen students. Men and women. Different races/ethnicities. Different religious backgrounds. Both graduate and undergraduate (although mostly the latter). Part of the "management" meant addressing clogged drains, the internet not working, dealing with various "pests", taking the change out of the laundry machines, painting vacant rooms, etc. All of that meant that I was often walking through the building on a relatively regular basis.
Walking through a residence hall, one often hears snippets of conversations; my experience at Berkeley was no different. Most often I'd hear one half of a phone conversation, or some discussion of the menu for the evening. But every so often I'd hear a piece of a "religious" conversation, frequently a question. These were not my conversations, and I was rarely invited to participate--and I didn't eavesdrop--so I wouldn't hear the whole thing. Plenty of times, of course, I wanted to interject something, especially when I heard an incorrect fact in an answer. Again, however, these were not my conversations, so I'd wander off about my business, speculating about what brought on the discussion and how it played out.
Late-night residence hall conversations are central to the university experience. Those dark hours lower some defenses, but also seem to evoke the need to address mystery. So, during the wee hours, questions about "What do you believe?" or "If there's a god, what's he (or she) like?" arise like mushrooms. And, as I remember from my collegiate days, those discussions were formative; I changed my mind over and over again. I developed a much more expansive world view.
All of this came to mind after hearing something earlier this week about how, in much of what passes as conversation (or debate) these days, questions are often given short shrift in light of authoritative answers. An answer is given, but follow-up questions are increasingly rare in our age of sound-bites. So now we hear a cry for "fact-checkers", as if "facts" will answer the deeper questions. Would my desire to correct the answers given by the Berkeley residents, for example, really address the deeper longings that stood behind the initial question?
We need reinvigorate the art of question-asking, continual question-asking! Ancient maps would sometimes show the known world, the world of facts, the world that could be ascertained. Beyond that was the realm of dragons. Venture there, and you were in danger. Thankfully many explorers took the risk of going into those "dragon-infested" waters. As a result our knowledge was enriched, our experiences were deepened. The values of the explorers were challenged, to be sure, especially as exploration turned to colonization. But, then, for many, so was their capacity for wonder and compassion.
"Here there be dragons" didn't stop the explorers. Indeed, the dragons seemed to be lures for growth. A little further from sight of land, a little further from safety. More hope for something new, something valuable.
Bring on the dragons! Bring on the questions! And let's go deep and far together!