Rowan Williams
June 26, 2015
Elihu Vedder, 1863. The Questioner of the Sphin

In the twelfth chapter of Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus dealing with a  succession of challenges – questions posed by opponents or sceptics  designed to produce an answer that will make him look foolish or  contradict himself, or that might justify a legal charge against him.  Jesus sees them off with crisp dialectical ruthlessness, though he gives  a plain answer to the questioner whom he judges to be in good faith. So  effective are his responses that ‘from then on no one dared ask him any  more questions’ (Mark 12.34).

Questioning can be a weapon; Jesus’ critics are asking so that their  advantage will be reinforced, asking so as to engineer a result that  will secure their freedom to despise or ignore or annihilate another.  For them, the ideal answer is one that strips the person they are  questioning of dignity, so that they don’t have to bother any more with  them. Jesus’ responses and counter-interrogation silence questions like  this because he refuses to accept the terms of the questions and has no  difficulty in exposing the game that is being played. What he silences  so definitively is a questioning that wants to stop questioning once it  has an answer that delivers satisfactory advantage.

Academics are not unfamiliar with the kind of question that is  designed to silence, embarrass and disempower; people in public life  know fairly well what it is to be faced with the question that expects  an answer which can be exploited for a story or a move in the game of  advantage; most of us know the panic that can arise when we’re not sure  whether a question is being asked with an agenda behind it. Is it what  it seems? Or is this the trick question that they ask everyone in the  interview? Is this the question that will finally blow my cover and  reveal me as infantile, inconsistent, selfish?

Elihu Vedder, 1863. The Questioner of the Sphinx.

To understand why research might be a matter of spiritual rather than  simply intellectual interest we need to start with some grasp of the  various ways in which questioning can be used and abused. The  questioning we’ve been thinking about so far is a questioning that – in  one way or another – both lacks and undermines faith. The questioner has  no trust in the person being questioned and is out to expose what that  person wants concealed; once that exposure has been achieved, the  questioning is over. The person being questioned has no trust in the  questioner, knowing that what’s being asked is freighted with an agenda  that is damaging or destructive to them. Neither has faith in the other;  and the process of negotiating such questions is a game of suspicion,  avoidance and deepened hostility.

Once again, we have all seen how this looks in the curious blood  sport that is the modern political interview. But that leaves us asking,  ‘What would a question sound like that arose out of faith not  suspicion?’ And answering that question begins to open up what we mean  by thinking of research as proper matter for prayerful seriousness.

Because – to put it at its most basic – the good researcher asks  questions that are meant to generate new levels of puzzlement and  enticing inconclusiveness, not to close down investigation or  consolidate a given position of power. When, notoriously, Francis Bacon  wrote about ‘putting nature to the question’, he left us a malign  legacy, implying that nature is itself a suspicious and perhaps hostile  power, concealing things we need to know, and so requiring to be  tortured in order to deliver up her saving secrets. For the torturer,  the inquisitor, there will be a series of questions of fact to be  answered, coming to an end when the expected evidence has been gathered:  the questions don’t open out on to each other and push towards  different levels, different kinds, of uncertainty. But if we don’t begin  with a Baconian agenda, we can grasp something of what it is to ask so  that we shall know better what it is that we don’t yet know; to ask in a  way that allows the answer to challenge the question.

And that is where research becomes a spiritual and ethical issue, and  an issue inseparably linked with ‘faith’. Asking in this spirit is an  act of faith, not – as is sometimes sentimentally said – in the ‘human  spirit’, but in the capacity of the world to surprise, enlarge and  nourish us. Asking the properly open questions of research is exposing  myself to be changed in the process; and this requires a kind of faith  that the environment which I am questioning extends beyond what I can  presently manage or grasp. These questions do not, of course,  automatically yield a satisfying opening to the transcendent – but they  belong in the same world as the language used by a Job (or an Augustine  or a John of the Cross) about the restless searching through creation to  find – what? Not another object called ‘God’, but an entire mode of  being, a practice of wisdom which is attuned to the deepest order of  things; something to be longed for, feared, celebrated, patiently  explored and lived into; a practice uncomfortably connected with death  and hell, so Job suggests, because it means embarking on dangerously  uncharted waters. Destruction and death say that a rumour of wisdom has  reached them, since those who truly look for wisdom are going to be seen  in that territory. The opening up of more and unimagined questions is  both exhilarating and frightening: how many of the canonical myths of  scientific advance treat of those moments of isolation, profound  self-doubt, rejection and contempt?

Serious research changes the questioner. As our New Testament reading  implies, the journey into ‘all truth’ is not a steady accumulation of  fresh facts. The journey there sketched, the journey into the truth of  Christ, is not a progression by which the finite mind is bit by bit  extended to include more information; it is a process in which infinite  gift is shared, and the standards of the world around are judged and  found wanting. The narrative of spiritual discovery is a sort of  prototype for the narrative of intellectual discovery: a story in which I  am surprised, challenged and altered, as is my world. To ask a question  here is to be vulnerable to that kind of change; and it is possible  because of that strange ‘faith’ that what we open ourselves to is  somehow desirable and nourishing. We ask the question as a way of laying  down our privilege and our security – not, in the Baconian spirit, as a  way of consolidating it; and we ask in hope.

It’s a picture of research that is probably a good way from the  experience of the average researcher in mid-course, tied to a series of  frustrating exercises, dead ends, false starts, routine checks. Yet the  energy of intellectual life comes from some awareness, however slight,  of that more unsettling vocation to enter a new world. One researcher in  thousands will genuinely change the discourse, whether in humanities or  sciences; but any serious researcher will have felt the desire to go  out of their depth in risking questions that will be changed by the  answers.

Which is why the University needs constant reminding of what  intellectual life really amounts to; why it needs to reflect on these  foundational commitments to research that are embedded in so many of our  documents in colleges and faculties. Ours is increasingly a culture  which proclaims in one moment its sovereign emancipation, its  unprecedented intellectual liberties, and in the next insists on rapid  results, efficient problem-solving, according to a fantastically tight  and restrictive model of success.

We are seriously in danger not only of privileging work in which  answers do not challenge questions but simply add to a simple cumulative  total of information, but of genuinely disadvantaging the kind of  research whose impact – to use that magical word is unclear,  slow-burning or indirect in the short-term. If the activity of genuine  research always arises from the faith that the world can not only make  sense but make a new kind of sense, not yet plain to us, the funders of  research and the institutions in which it happens will need to awake  their faith (in Shakespeare’s resonant phrase) to allow it to go on  enlarging the world of questioning.

Our intellectual life as human beings is properly a matter of  constant wonder. That we are able to go on reconfiguring our world,  learning not only new answers but radically new questions, that we are  repeatedly pushed by our own enquiry beyond what our existing language  can say, that we are continually – and practically continuously – moving  in and out of the deepest bewilderment in order that we may expose  ourselves to a more comprehensive truth: this should never fail to  astonish us, whether or not we call ourselves religious. Job’s hymn to  wisdom is not a celebration of a world that presents itself to be  ‘solved’ like a crossword puzzle, but a declaration that we can never  escape the dialectic of hiddenness and uncovering that makes our very  speech so unpredictable.

And the wisdom that is sought here is ultimately a way of existing  morally in the world, not a set of detached insights and skills. The  quest for wisdom, with its dangerous skirting of the territory of death  and destruction, involves a ‘departing from evil’: a leaving behind of  self- concern, self-advancement, in the light of the faith that there is  more meaning to uncover than we imagined. It is a model of  self-forgetting absorption in what’s given, what’s presented for  questioning; a story of how we are, like Moses faced with the burning  bush of Mount Horeb, ‘drawn aside’ by the paradoxes and glories of our  environment to listen and be enlarged.

For the believer, the process of revelation is precisely not the neat  provision of heavenly answers to earthly questions; it is the process  by which the questioner faces both judgement and transfiguration, an  entry into a new world in which the questions are changed and the  questioner too. The Christian believer is caught up, as the text from St  John’s gospel says, in a cascade of gift, from the Father through the  Son in the Spirit, and is given knowledge of what is to come – not  predictions of the future but a pervasive awareness of where human  vocation and destiny are moving, that final attunement to truth that, as  some of the Church Fathers insisted, never settles down in comfortable  and static possession but is eternally opening on to what cannot be  captured and named. Intellectual research may seem far from the world of  doctrine; yet it witnesses to exactly the same anthropology, the same  vision of the humanum, as these doctrinal convictions. As humans, we  live not in a world of soluble puzzles but in a world of ever-expanding  search. At times, it settles for a while with some brilliantly  successful schema that holds together an unprecedented range of issues  or phenomena; and then the strains, the unresolved areas begin to show  through. The flames of the burning bush kindle again and we are drawn  aside into dumb staring, stammered questions, slow probing and new  words.

This college and the university of which it is so uniquely  distinguished a part are committed by foundation and profession to such  an anthropology, such a picture of human calling and capacity. Whatever  other signs of faith are inscribed in their life (and we are sitting  inside one rather notable sign of faith), this surely is an ineradicable  mark of the intellectual life we seek to nourish: a faith in the virtue  and nourishing power of questioning – not because we have a woolly and  sentimental attitude to truth (‘better to travel hopefully than to  arrive’, etcetera), but because it is questioning that releases our  openness to the lifegiving depth of reality, helping us on our way  towards more and more serious receptivity to what there is.

The pressures on such a vision these days – pressures both cultural  and economic – are colossal; but the cost of the loss of this vision are  immeasurably greater. When we are tempted to redefine our questioning  in such a way as to allow us to close down the questions and be content  with answers that do not change us, we need to remember that we are in  danger of redefining not just our model of the intellect but our model  of humanity itself, its dignity and oddity. And if we learn to resist  (and please God we shall learn to resist a bit more effectively as time  goes on), it will be in the name of that dignity and oddity: for the  believer, a matter of honouring the divine image in humanity; for the  whole intellectual community, a matter of faith in that wisdom which  cannot be bought for gold or silver; for all of us, in one sense or  another, with an upper-case initial or not, ‘the labour, the patience  and the pain’ of the Spirit.


All by
Rowan Williams