Why Ask Why?

In an issue concerned with asking questions and challenging assumptions, I found it only most apt that it be concluded in the same spirit, one that asks questions, one that challenges assumptions, one that provokes us to greater reflection. Why is it winter in Narnia? Why obey? Why pray? Why Jesus? These are the kinds of questions that have been raised in this issue. In the spirit of this enterprise, then, let us ask: why it is we ask ‘why’ in the first place? What assumptions undergird the very task of asking?

The why-asking we have set for ourselves here bespeaks a number of assumptions. It assumes something like what most of the tradition of Christian thought hitherto has assumed, that Christianity is capable of answering these questions. It assumes Christianity as a philosophical system, one capable of competing with rival philosophical systems, one able to provide different answers to the same sets of questions. From the very beginning of Christian thought, this has been assumed. The early church father Justin Martyr, for example, baptized the Logos of John 1 into a principle of formal logic:

I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos.1

This is slightly defamiliarizing if only for the fact that one does not get the impression of Jesus having been a philosopher. Of course, some argue that he was. But even if Jesus spoke in parables and paradoxes rather than in syllogisms, it is not my point to argue here, only to ask. Is Christianity a philosophical system? Or is it a way of life? Both? Or something else altogether?

Bear in mind that it is Pilate rather than Jesus who asks the most philosophical question in the gospels: “What is truth?”2 The most famous of Jesus’s questions ‘asks’ rather, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?”–My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?3 Do the gospels ask philosophical questions? Do they answer them?

I am also inclined to ask: what is to be gained by Christianity as a coalesced philosophical system? Does not truth which is constrained to “fact” lead to political expedience? The first substantial attempt to systematically homogenize doctrine, the First Council of Nicaea, was convened by no less than the Roman Emperor Constantine. Does not a philosophical closing down on meaning serve political interests and does not an imaginative opening up of meaning challenge power? Yet I am assured the greater portion of Christians would object, and I am told this is too political. Fine. But, let us ask why, for if– hypothetically–it is true that Christ a Jewish peasant assuming a title of the Caesar of Rome has some political significance, then would it not be a most grievous fallacy to politically neuter Christianity? Could it not be tantamount to ordering a pizza without bread? The philosopher Antonio Gramsci argued that it is this very ‘common sense’ we ought to be most suspicious of, for it is precisely at the level of what is assumed that harmful ideology functions. The point is to provoke you, dear reader, to continue asking questions, especially those which seem most obvious, for even amidst disagreements, certain assumptions are tacitly reinforced; they become common sense.

Did not Jesus challenge common sense in every way? Was he not supremely paradoxical? A Jewish peasant who assumed one of the titles of the Imperial Roman Caesar: the Son of God who ended up crucified on a cross, who said things like “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.”4 But perhaps there was a point to Jesus’s having been a paradoxical rather than philosophical figure, for does he not elsewhere ask his followers, “And why take ye thought for raiment?” and then enjoin them to “Consider the lilies of the field” ?5 The point, so it seems, is not that lilies do not ask questions (though this is certainly true), but rather that they do not fret. Perhaps, and if so then ironically, it was the poet John Keats, an atheist, who best articulated Jesus’s own sentiment; he called it “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”6

The entire premise of this issue has been philosophical, a seeking after answers under the assumption that Christianity provides them–and this may be the right way to go about things. But Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,”7 not “I am the practical reason, the epistemology, and the ontological principle.”

So I leave you, reader, in the awkward position of having to ask why you ask why, without thereby being too angsty about it. Question everything, especially this, what I write; question especially the unsaid, the assumed, but be not irritable about it. Be skeptical of everything, but have some faith in mystery too.

 

[1] Martyr, Justin. Dialogue Of Justin, Philosopher And Martyr With Trypho A Jew. N.p.: Kessinger, 2004. Print., p.74
[2] John 18:38
[3] Matthew 27:46
[4] Luke 17:33
[5] Matthew 6:28
[6]  Keats, John. Complete Poems. Ed. John Barnard. Penguin Classics, 3rd ed., p. 539
[7] John 14:6

Kelly Maeshiro ’14, a Religion Concentrator in Leverett House, is Theology Editor for The Ichthus.

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