At a critical time in my search for a credible faith, I came across the writings of Paul Tillich. I have never been the same since, because they gave me an answer to a question that I have never been able to stop asking.
The question is: May we question even the most sacred declarations of faith? Tillich’s response was: genuine faith respects the questions as much as it does the answers it tries to give them.
Actually, Tillich put his response a little more abstractly, as theologians tend to do. But this is the heart of it: at its deepest level, our personal faith is best understood as an answer to the questions which make an ultimate difference to us.
For me, what this has meant is that faith involves both trusting in answers and letting things matter enough to ask more questions. Faith’s answers to our questions will change. And our questioning will persist for as long as our humanness does.
More than once, Tillich summed up the questions that were most important to him this way:
(1) Is death truly the end for us? (2) Is forgiveness of our sins and faults really possible? And (3) Does existence itself have any meaning?
My questions have always been a little different from Tillich’s, but the most basic ones are three in number, like his were. Ministers just can’t break out of three-point approaches to things, it would seem.
Maybe, however, I’ve extricated my personal faith at least a little from this kind of bondage to triads. For one thing, I have questions about a lot more religious beliefs than just three. And for another, even these three really come down to ways of asking only one really big question. Its subject still is God:
- Do we have good reasons to believe that there is a God at all?
- Is that God truly good?
- Does that God have anything important in mind for human beings in the grand scheme of things?
For many people, the only faith worth having is a proud faith that gives wholly convincing answers to life’s questions and inspires proclaiming those and only those answers boldly. But there is also a questioning faith whose source is wonder, whose energizing power is curiosity, and whose gift to the world is compassion in the absence of certainty.