Isodor Rabi, the American Nobel laureate in physics, famously credited his mother with his success. When he came home from school she would always ask him, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’
We are inexorably moving towards the busiest time for BAP conferences and their three interviews, based, as all ordination candidates know, on the nine criteria. It can feel a little bit like mugging up the answers for an exam; working out which topics will come up in this year’s exam papers.
‘What questions are they going to ask?’
‘What answers will they expect me to give?’
‘I don’t know enough’
Candidates often worry that they will be expected to have all the answers. Questions are dangerous, answers are reassuring: if I’ve got the answers I will be OK. In any situation it takes a lot of nerve to say, ‘I don’t know. I’m still working on it’, because between the question and the answer is the time of uncertainty that the poet John Keats called ‘Negative Capability’, that being in a state of ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’.
At its best Christianity welcomes both questions and answers. The bible has a golden thread of questions running through it. A question even became the name of God’s life-giving food when the Israelites were starving in the desert: ‘What is it?’
Easy certainties make us feel secure, but the visionary leaders of the future whom we want to nurture and support today are those who look beyond what is safe to what is still to be discovered. Not grabbing the superficial answer like a life-jacket but thinking, ‘what does it mean for me?’, ‘how do I understand this?’ Cultivating the the mind-set that can question the tabloid headline, the current sound-bite, the presidential tweet.
For them a question mark is not a burden it is a liberation and every answer is a platform that enables us to reach the next question.
In ‘Benedictus’, his book of blessings, John O’Donohue gives a A Blessing for a Leader, with the words,
May you have a mind that loves frontiers
So that you can evoke the bright fields
That lie beyond the view of the regular eye.
How sad it would be if we thought there were no frontiers left to discover.