“In the word question, there is a beautiful word - quest. I love that word. We are all partners in a quest. The essential questions have no answers. You are my question, and I am yours - and then there is dialogue. The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue. Questions unite people.” (Elie Wiesel)
Walking beside the river of thought, experience, insight and wisdom that comprises the lives and writings of Elie Wiesel and Martin Buber, I am always surprised and exhilarated in the joy, the freedom and the ecstacy of the encounter.
Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, recently deceased, did one of the most heroic and under-reported acts in twentieth century history. He returned to the podium in the Bundestag to speak from the same lectern used previously by the Fuhrer in an act of defiance, hope, promise and courage. Wiesel, through the instrument of his survival and the remaining years of his life, is and will always be a role model for succeeding generations not only of Jewish children but of children of all races and ethnicities. Clearly, his little body had compacted within its frame, its mind and heart a depth and range of emotion reserved for only those vessels capable of both appreciating the blessing and of sharing it with the world.
The quote above that points to the energy and the life-giving quality of the question fits beautifully with Buber’s notion that whenever and wherever the sacred “I” and the sacred “Thou” meet God is there. If you and I are simultaneously and synchronously sharing the exploration of the same essential question, if we are on a similar, shared “quest,” then we are united in a way unique to that pursuit. It is when either we diverge on the nature of the question, or come to the dialogue with a pre-conceived, static and rigid answer to the question that our “sacred” moment dissolves or experiences its own demise before the dialogue even begins.
· What is the relationship between the purpose of life and the experience of love?
· What is the purpose of a meaningful life?
· What is the relationship between God and humans?
· What is the optimum relationship between the genders?
· What is the path to the reconciliation and collaboration between and among the various world faiths?
· What is the role and purpose of the military arsenal already compounded by the world’s nuclear powers?
· What part can history play in bringing the world to comprehending the true nature of shared demons, and their ‘de-fanging’?
· What do sacred texts share as a common heritage and what methods of inculcating those beliefs and values among the young are worthy of critical examination beyond the reach of each faith community?
· In a world divided against itself (as a house divided against itself) where are the existing bridges that need to be crossed, and what bridges still await their construction?
· What have our parents and grandparents bequeathed to us that gives us strength and hope and courage in ourselves and in our shared future?
· How have the poets, shamans and artists helped to birth the new explorations in science, medicine, law and faith in each of our cultures?
· How can the world community expand and enhance the cultural, educational and fiscal underpinnings of the creative imagination?
· What is the purpose and role of truth-telling in a contemporary world of dissembling?
· Who are the characters from history, literature, the arts, the sciences and the law who have inspired their generation and succeeding generations?
· Is there a God?
· Is there an afterlife?
· Is there a specific person designated to love each person?
· What is the significance of human will and decision-making in our life?
· How is evil conceived, experienced, thwarted or moderated?
· How can we have peace, if turmoil is the common experience of each human soul?
The list of “quest” type questions is inexhaustible, circumscribed only by the range, depth and resilience of our courage to explore.
Birthing the questions, of course, requires a culture in which such midwifing is not only expected but also valued as normal. And clearly, most of the current secondary and post-secondary education at least in North America has been dedicated to the acquisition of skills, processes, procedures and the theoretical bases of those learnings, all with an overall purpose of securing a living wage, or better yet a considerably higher than average income. Questions that really permit and require continual exploration, dialogue, without necessarily coming to a final answer, in such a culture, are necessarily given little formal classroom time, with the possible exception of the philosophy or literature classes.
As the humanities fade from the curricular menus of many colleges and universities, with the silence compliance, or overt lobbying for their replacement with the skills required in a digital universe, the pool of students and scholars pursuing these questions grows exponentially smaller by the day. Many parents, too, are fully occupied with the multiple tasks of earning a living, guiding their children and pursuing a minimal social, cultural, religious experience. And many of them also will find the explorations of such questions in dialogue, without the expectation of “final answers,” to be a waste of time.
One of the cornerstones of a culture in which such dialogue is possible and celebrated, as well as pursued, is a profound acceptance of ‘not knowing’ and of being quite comfortable with ‘not knowing’. Even within the range of many academic and scientific arenas, the ultimate practitioners continue to learn just how much they ‘do not know’ while continuing to practice their skills, talents, insights, curiosities and speculations. And whether their “questions” and “dialogue” is motivated by political or purely scientific reasons, those discussions, dialogues, are geared to pursue all feasible options, within the range of the experience and the imagination and the courage/vulnerability of the participants.
It takes great courage to accept vulnerability, the not knowing, on which such dialogue can only take place. And it is this bottom-deep vulnerability, at the core of human experience of having been drained of all pretense, of having been emptied of all sense of importance, and of coming to a total comfort and acceptance of that state of unknowing, that is the “sine qua non” of humility, and the potential for real sharing with the other. So there are two requisites in the “dialogue”: the perception that the questions have no final answers and that the participants are open to and comfortable with their own unknowing.
In so many circumstances, whether they are domestic, pedagogic, academic, spiritual, or economic/transactional, the exchanges are too often lopsided, with one person being the ‘one who knows’ and the other, ‘the one who does not know’. Information and direction are the primary contents of the communication. And most often, a solution to a problem, rendering the communication primarily one of function, not of the kind of unity envisioned by Wiesel in his “quest”.
It is the tilting of our culture toward the transactional, the functional that demonstrates to young people the benefits of “knowing” and the scarcity of not knowing. And, in so doing, perhaps through innocence or indifference, we participate in a kind of hierarchy that cannot and will not unite. It may provide short-term remediation, recommendation, or even a sharing of responsibility. However, it will not bring people together in unity of heart, mind, spirit and the ensuing community.
The questions that do not have answers, by their very existence, also preserve the mystery of life, the wonder and the awe that accompanies every new morning, and every new birdsong, every new smile, and every new encounter. When we remove our “assumptions” that we know how things are going to “be” or to develop, we open ourselves to the fullness of the moment, thereby allowing us to be fully present both to that moment and to the other with whom we share it.
At the root of theological reflection is the premise not only that there is no absolute answer and that none of us knows the ‘mind of God’.
On this first day of Hannukah, it seems appropriate to reflect on the wisdom, the insight and the spiritual counsel of Elie Wiesel, Martin Buber and the birth of new “light” in all of our lives.
Surely, Christians too would welcome the birth of new light and new life as the essence of the manger in Bethlehem, on this Christmas Eve 2016 when the darkness all around us is crying out for each of us to light the lights not only of the Menorah but the lights in our hearts and minds to the wonders of the universe and the wonders of each “other” in our path.