Wednesday, May 13, 2009

good questions

The true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop . . .

-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (trans. Michael Henry Heim)

“To question is the answer.” Unitarians used to say this, beaming like sophomores who’ve just proved that the chairs they sit in don’t exist. Questioning is not the answer. A question that satisfies itself is a false question, and the person who asks it is false to himself. Questioning is means not end; it’s the means to a better answer – better than the one we were given. As we ask a good question we are tapping our feet. We’re not going away until we get a response, no matter how long it takes.

Institutions don’t like good questions. They know or think they know what they have to do, and they intend to do it. Liberal institutions permit a wider display of discussion than conservatives ones; they engineer greater dispersal of powers into their constitutions and organization charts. But in all institutions, liberal as well as conservative, the moment of action is the moment when conversation ends. Shut up now and do what we tell you. “The Leader has spoken,” says one kind of body. “The process is complete,” says the other. Whoever gets to say “That was the last question” is the one in charge. Now it’s time to do as you’re told.

There are places where the first question is the last. A tyranny can be rough – speak and brownshirts beat you up. Or it can be smooth – speak but they corrupt your speech.

Orwell taught us that it’s easy to corrupt free speech. All you have to do is limit the vocabulary, answer all the questions with the same few words and phrases, holy terms reborn as subject, object, predicate of all sentences, till meaning disappears and incantation is what’s left. The subtext of incantation is: shut up now and do what we tell you. Class struggle, expropriation, alienation. Ego, id, superego. Presence, absence, differance. Justice, reason, tolerance. God, Jesus, Savior. Profit, property, enterprise. Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Growth, Wholeness, Transformation. I have no quarrel with the words, until you bake them in a brick and hurl them at my head.

“I learned that if you’re spiritual, you don’t think. If you think, you’re not spiritual.” That’s how Irshad Manji* described her expulsion from a madressa. Many of our best Unitarians come from churches where their questioning disqualified them. A teacher of mine says that he only argues with what he respects. The Words deserve at least as much of my respect as other texts. Disputation is our kind of love. Take our spirituality or leave it, but if you leave it, don’t tell lies about us.

The story** says that Elijah, after defeating the priests of Ba’al in a pyrotechnics competition, had the other team killed. Their offering, a bullock on an altar, was precisely like Elijah’s, and so the fatal difference, for which four hundred fifty died, was their pronunciation of God’s name – al instead of el. There are many today who say that God will destroy those who get her name wrong. We were put on this earth to interrogate such beliefs, and give them no rest.

A circle cannot be square, and God cannot be vain and cruel. (I don’t claim to know what God is, but I’ve learned some things that God is not.) An entity that gives us mind and demands that we disable it cannot be God. An entity that advertises by killing those who get its name wrong cannot be God. Attributing such narcissism and sociopathy to deity is impious. If such a force existed, it would deserve the name of devil.

Judaism, thank heaven, is not the religion of ancient Israel; it is not a religion of animal sacrifice on consecrated altars. It’s a life of law, and a law of life – the same Torah everywhere and anywhere, ceaselessly pronounced, ceaselessly interrogated and ceaselessly interpreted. Jews know what Christians forgot: they know how to argue with God. Instruction does indeed go forth from Zion. My rabbi friends say Next year in Jerusalem – but Jerusalem is anywhere, when the Lord’s song is sung there.

Job the arguer said, “God, if this is your work, and for the reasons that are written, then I want to talk to someone else. I know that my advocate lives and will stand on the earth.” The Judaism, the Christianity and the Unitarianism I know, have more to do with Job than with Elijah. I don’t want to be smug about this but, as those who read the book to its end have learned, God said Job was right.***

*The Trouble with Islam (Random House Canada, 2003)

**I Kings 18

***Job 42:8

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