Living the questions

By Ann Fontaine

A few weeks ago I was challenged about my faith as a Christian because I question many of the central tenets of the church and love to debate the meaning of Christ in my life. A quote of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke came to mind as I was pondering this challenge. He wrote:

…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
in Letters to a Young Poet

Living the questions is the pathway to faith for me. I feel compelled to ask questions, to debate points of religious scholarship and to ask questions about scripture, faith, theology, belief and all things told to us by the church. It is not possible to shut down the questions that occur. I find discussions of history, culture, literary style, translation, fascinating and strengthening to my faith. To others this may seem as though I don’t believe but I could not believe until I found people who were asking questions instead of giving me answers.

The idea of multiple paths for a faith journey was clarified for me when I read a book by Urban “Terry” Holmes, the late Dean of The School of Theology at Sewanee: the University of the South. A History of Christian Spirituality, postulates four paths by which people seek the experience of the Holy One. I call these paths social justice, logical, emotional, and mystical. Each is a pathway to enter into a closer relationship with God. Holmes laid this out on a grid with one axis being Apophatic (self-emptying) to Kataphatic (quest for vivid images). The other axis is Speculative (cognitive) to Affective (emotional). Each quadrant contains two of the four paths.

Social justice is found in the quadrant formed by the Apophatic and Speculative axes. It is the path of liberation theology, bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth; it is peace and justice oriented with a prophetic call to care for the “widows and orphans.” The logical path is found between the Speculative and Kataphatic axes. It values knowledge, theological reflection, seeking one’s vocation, and liturgy that connects with history. The emotional path is located between the Kataphatic and Affective axes. Followers in this path describe it as from the heart, a walk with the Lord, valuing witness and testimony, verbal and spontaneous prayer, speaking in tongues, and baptism in the Spirit. The mystical path can be liturgical or contemplative. It seeks union with God through meditation, symbolic actions, through the creation, and finding God within.

Initially, a person is attracted by one of these pathways but as one grows deeper in faith he or she comes closer to the center and closer to those on other paths. Any of these paths can also spin out too far, leaving us empty and far from each another. Mystics can become reclusive and too withdrawn. Logical religion can become just a head-trip. Emotion can become emotionalism. Social justice can become moralistic. None of the paths are better or worse but because we are most comfortable in one path we tend to think our way is superior or the only way.

The Rt. Rev. Joe Doss, a close friend and student of Holmes, says it this way:

[Holmes] saw us growing to appreciate the validity, the importance, and perhaps most importantly, the interrelationship between the “religious magnetic fields”. He would have compared it to Jungian psychology in this narrow sense: in the same way that some of us are more thinking and some more feeling, some more extraverted and some more introverted… We find that we are to grow with and in and yet beyond our natural religious tendencies into a more mature spirituality in which our desire for justice, our desire for community discovered and shaped in worship, our desire for theological acumen, and our desire for direct experiences of God are interdependent.

In Mark 12:29-30:

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Each path speaks to one of these ways to love God: heart, soul, mind and strength. If we think of ourselves as part of the body of Christ, there is no need to say which way is best. The community that is the church loves God more fully when all are appreciated for the gifts of each way to God. As each person moves closer to the center, rather than pulling apart into gatherings of separate sects of like minded believers, we offer affirmation and balance to one another.

I draw closer to God by exploring the questions; for others their faith is deepened by working for justice and peace, by contemplation, or by spontaneity. No one path is totally separate from another. We can learn from experiencing other ways of seeking.

Our ability to allow for difference and to explore our faith in a variety of ways can bring us together if we take Rilke’s advice to have patience with the unresolved nature of our journey in faith.


The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

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