Voltaire, a philosopher of the French enlightenment, famously said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers”. Voltaire’s point was that the quality of an eon is defined by the quality of the question asked. He emphasised that the quality of the question determines the quality of the answer we get. Good answers require good questions.
Asking questions is one of life’s most essential skills. It improves our logic and reasoning, decision-making and problem-solving skills. It teaches us how to separate the wheat from the chaff, truth from lies, and fact from fiction. It stops us from being naïve and gullible so we may hopefully see through the fake news and false information. Most importantly, asking questions does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. Instead, it consists of seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based. To ask questions is to make harder those acts and assumptions which are now too easy (Michael Foucault).
Without questions, there will be no innovation and progress. Progress requires prodding. We witnessed this prodding in the history of civilization when the Copernican Revolution questioned the authority of the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos. The Copernicus heliocentric model replaced Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe. The planets circle the sun, not the other way around, claimed Copernicus. But this was not enough, as Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. The Newtonian model gradually replaced the Copernican paradigm, and again the former gave way to the Einsteinian model. We learn from Kuhn that history is not a linear progress, but each idea contains within itself its own opposite.
Do we not witness the same questioning in the history of Christian theology? Take, for example, Augustine questioned Pelagius. Thomas Aquinas questioned Augustine. Martin Luther questioned Aquinas. John Calvin disagreed with Luther. John Wesley questioned Calvin (Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in line with Practice by Don Thorsen).
Indira Gandhi rightly observed that “The power to question is the basis of all human progress.” Indeed, the road to progress is paved with questions, not certitude. But, to ask a question is to make oneself vulnerable. To ask a question is to risk being noticed. To ask a question is to stand out from the crowd. In all groups and societies, there are sensitive topics, where asking questions is prohibited by those in power. Depending on the context, questions could be about climate change, gender issues, inequalities, politics, corruption, religion, spirituality, etc.
Isn’t it more comfortable to disappear into the anonymity of the crowd, surrendering personal convictions to large gatherings?
Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian and philosopher, asked the same question in his essay entitled “The Crowd is Untruth”. His essay comes with profound and prophetic insights. He insightfully notes the following.
There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that “the crowd” received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.
For Kierkegaard, it is important to question an idea that is unquestionably accepted by everyone. Just because something is broadly accepted does not proves its credibility. The task is to stand at odds with commonly accepted conventions and ideas to offer viewpoints that courageously speaks the truth. “The crowd can be easily swayed”, he claims, because to win a crowd is easy “one only needs some talent, a certain dose of untruth and a little acquaintance with the human passions.”
Kierkegaard’s observation makes us wonder if Jesus felt this same temptation when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey? Did he see the crowd? How easy might it have been to lose a sense of self and identity, to disappear in the crowd’s anonymity? Only a few days later, Peter succumbed to the pressure and sided with the crowd.
But what about Thomas? He could have taken things at face value. He could have sided with his contemporaries. Why did he not just keep quiet and went along with others? Why did he have to ask the question?
Perhaps Thomas knew that the art of questioning is at the heart of all discoveries of faith. Maybe, he was willing to ask questions even if it meant risking his own reputation. Perhaps, he was not seeking answers, but, rather, an encounter with the resurrected Christ. Maybe this is why he refused to settle for a piece of second-hand information. His search for truth led him to ask a daring question. It is highly likely that others in the room were also curious but afraid to express their curiosity. It is highly likely that someone else in that room was feeling the same way, had similar questions, but lacked the courage of Thomas.
Thomas stood out from the crowd. He did not succumb to the pressure of pleasing his contemporaries over following his convictions. He probably knew that truth is not held hostage to or dependent on others, which is why he queried: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
It is a message for both church and culture. Thomas, one of the first theologians, insisted on our right to think for ourselves. He reminds us that the journey of faith is not a sleepwalk through life, simply going along with the crowd. But our faith may lead us to stand aloof from everyone around us. Thomas shows us that our doctrinal assumptions are not above the existential commitment to pursue the mystery of our faith. From Thomas, we learn that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certitude. The history of theology and science informs us that certainty is the opponent of creativity and curiosity. With curiosity, we are drawn into the depth of divine being to find out first-hand what our faith means to us.