I had the great honor of meeting Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso at last week’s Faith Forward conference. I was already a big fan of her books (In God’s Name, God’s Paintbrush) and I was delighted to learn that she was even more wonderful and engaging in person. (Don’t you just love it when that happens?!…and don’t you hate it when the opposite happens? Ugh.) I could have listened to her all day. Anyway, in her session she told us the story of how God’s Paintbrush was published. And of course, as these stories go, it was for a long time rejected and unpublished. One publisher finally said they’d like to acquire it, but could she please take out the questions on each page? Well, that didn’t go over very well with Rabbi Sasso, who explained that the questions WERE the story, after all. They were the most important part. She refused and left the book for a while. After some time passed, she thought perhaps she didn’t know what she was doing, and so she took out the questions and tried once more to send it off, this time to a Jewish publishing house. They responded and said they were very interested in the book, only they wondered if she could add in questions?
Isn’t that just a marvelous story?!
Because, of course, questions matter in faith. They are central to our practice. And not just questions of skepticism. Lately I’ve wondered how it is that we have come so far in being more open to certain questions (Did that really happen? Does God really exist? etc.) while still being uneasy or perhaps just unaware of the many other kinds of questions we also could be asking. It’s as if postmodernity gave us permission to be skeptical, but we took that skepticism and assumed it was the only kind of questioning that was important or necessary or even intellectual.
Don’t get me wrong- I do think there is a need for those of us in faith traditions to question in this way. I think the rampant fundamentalism and radicalism that lurks in every faith tradition’s shadowy corner is proof enough that blind allegiance to one perceived view of our faith’s truth is a terrible, harmful path. I’ve spent most of my pastoral years making space for people to ask hard questions of their faith, of the Scriptures, of God, even, who I’m convinced is not rattled by our musings. This is an important form of questioning that is our responsibility, and we avoid it at our own peril.
However, I don’t believe for one second that it’s the highest form of questioning, or the most important. There are also the positive questions, the exploring questions, the wondering questions. There are questions of awe, considering the unknown-ness of it all. There are the questions so big we can’t put them into words but must instead sit inside of them and see what happens.
In God’s Paintbrush, children wonder what makes God sad and happy, consider what it means that “God wants the world to grow,” ponder what God’s touch feels like. These questions expose that place where we ponder the most sacred moments and musings in our lives. It is in this space that Rabbi Sasso’s book exists. And it is, I fear, the space we often forget to foster in the walls of the church.
I do feel very good about what I see on the horizon, though. Being at Faith Forward with 300 fantastic people who are alive with passion and creativity and purpose and depth has made me feel like we are all onto something, like the Spirit is moving us toward a better way of being together and of walking together in this journey of faith. We don’t have it all figured out, but I did leave Nashville feeling that we have a sense of where we want to go, and I’d pick that over details any day of the week.
I think moving from skeptical, linear, rational questions into the wider expanse of existential, meaningful, awe-inspired questions is one way we will get there. I do think we’re on our way.
So let’s keep making space for wonder.