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?
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.