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Asking the Right Questions First

The kinds of questions we ask are important.

I am sure that you know this already, but it is hard to emphasize this enough. Inquiry is at the heart and soul of classical education.

As David Hicks points out in Norms and Nobility:

“Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry. Everything springs from the special nature of the inquiry (18).”

Inquiry is touted by every educational methodology as being central to learning, but the kind of inquiry that a teacher facilitates or that the student actually practices makes all the difference. If we don’t begin our inquiry with normative questions, if we don’t begin asking about the nature of things first, then we are mired in questions that are merely analytical, and we are lost before we have even begun to find our way.

As Hicks says a few chapters later in his book, “normative inquiry must precede and sustain analysis” (64). Normative questions render value. Analytical questions provide information, but they make no judgments and render no values.

Some examples Hicks offers of normative questions are the following: What is the meaning and purpose of man’s existence? What are man’s absolute rights and duties? What form of government and what way of life is best? What is good, and what is evil? (64)

These are the kinds of questions that must “precede and sustain analysis” if a student is expected to learn anything from his or her experience (64). When analytical rather than normative questions are allowed to guide inquiry, the results can be disastrous, or worse.

I offer two cases in point that are on my mind a lot lately because they are personal in some respects: Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins, and the recent decision in the Presbyterian Church USA to rescind the chastity clause from the Book of Order which effectively allows practicing homosexuals to hold office and become ordained Ministers of the Word and Sacraments in the church.

I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan were Rob Bell has built a mega-emergent-church in what used to be a shopping mall. I don’t know if you have heard of Bell’s book or the controversy that it has spawned, but it is a pretty big deal here in GR, and it has affected several people I know in significant ways. It also provides a fitting illustration for the point I want to make about inquiry.

I have never been to Mars Hill Bible Church, but I know Rob Bell, or at least I used to know him before he reached the level of national recognition and popularity that he enjoys now. His sons attended the school where I was headmaster. I saw him or his wife regularly when they dropped off or picked up their children. I chatted with him at school events and went to the premieres of his Nooma films. I read reviews of his two previous books, Velvet Elvis and Sex God, but I didn’t read the books. I read enough quotes from Velvet Elvis in reviews to know that Bell was not advocating an orthodox evangelical view of Christian theology, but I didn’t see anything in the reviews that I thought was denying anything crucial to the heart of the Christian message. Love Wins is another story.

I have good friends, even relatives who attend Bell’s church. When I heard the accusations that Bell was advocating universalism and was denying a biblical account of hell, I decided that I better read this one for myself. Love Wins is nothing if not an inquiry. The first chapter is almost entirely made up of questions. Some of them are normative, but the problem is that the normative questions, the questions about the nature of God and the nature of humanity are not the ones guiding the inquiry.

Michael Wittmer, wrote a book in response to Bell’s book titled, Christ Alone. In his book Wittmer accurately points out a host of fine distinctions that Bell fails to make in his portrayal of the nature of God and the nature of the gospel story. Perhaps the primary problem is that apparently Bell thinks that the central question of the Bible is an existential question: “Is the universe on my side?” Bell answers the question in the affirmative and says that the cross of Christ is a reassurance of this fact.

The problem is that he is asking the wrong question. The central question of the Bible is as Wittmer says, “the cry of a broken and defeated rebel, ‘How can a sinner like me and a fallen world like this ever receive the righteousness and peace of a holy God?'”(105) The task that Bell undertakes is doomed from the beginning because he has not asked and answered the preceding normative questions about the nature of God and the nature of man. Bell, like every other historical liberal theologian, uses his own experience (analytical questions) to guide his inquiry about what is normative rather than the other way around. This is a certain way to arrive at answers that are relative because they are based on feelings rather than norms.

The second case in point is much like the first in its methods and results. I made profession of faith in the Presbyterian Church as a boy, and have been a member of that church in some capacity ever since. I went to Seminary at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and I was ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA in 2001. The church has been discussing, debating, fighting, and battling over the question of the ordination of homosexuals for the last 35 years. It is a difficult issue that is also deeply emotional. The ordination of practicing homosexuals has been resisted for thirty-five years because it is an issue that is bound up with normative questions: What is the nature of a human being? What is the best way to live? What are a human being’s absolute rights and duties? What is right and what is wrong?

In the last month, enough of the votes against ordaining practicing homosexuals in the Presbyterian Church USA have changed to votes for ordaining practicing homosexuals to make it possible for practicing homosexuals to be ordained as early as July 2011. Is this because the norms have changed? Have the answers to the normative questions above changed in the last few months so that church leaders have had to make decisions differently based upon those new norms?

I would submit to you that the norms have not changed. Norms by definition are unchanging universal truths that are true in all times and all places regardless of circumstances. The thing that has changed in the church is the same thing that has changed in the educational realm: analytical questions are allowed to guide how we answer normative questions rather than the other way around. The result is always relativism.

Without the proper order of inquiry, without finding the answers to the normative questions first, we end up being cast about, blown here and there by every wind of teaching. We end up with relativism, liberal theology, and bad decisions. Sometimes this is unfortunate, sometimes it is disastrous, and sometimes it is worse.

The questions we ask are important. The order in which we ask the questions, not just chronologically, but in the way the questions themselves order our lives is crucial.

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