God is the question

What does it mean to accept that God is not the answer to anything, but remains the unanswerable question?

God is the question
I re-watched Diarmaid MacCulloch's brilliant tv series on the history of Christianity and liked his description of himself as a "candid friend" of Christianity. That is a label so many of us could wear. As the programme ended he observed that God is not the answer but is the question and I came across a couple of articles of the same mind. the first by Mark Vernon, in The Guardian ten years ago I reproduce below:

God is the question

Mark Vernon

What does it mean to accept that God is not the answer to anything, but remains the unanswerable question?

Sat 26 Dec 2009 10.00 GMT

In his open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, commending three reasons for Dr Williams to be cheerful, Dairmaid MacCulloch ends on an intriguing note. The Oxford church historian tells of a 'wise old Dominican friar' who informed him that God is not the answer. Rather, God is the question.

I presume that friar was Herbert McCabe, an intellectual with wide influence, from Terry Eagleton to our very own Andrew Brown. McCabe's succinct books on faith and life are fantastically stimulating, even if you don't share his view on faith and life. But what did he mean by God being the question?

First you've got to ask what you mean by the word 'God'. And there is a quick answer: we don't know what we mean by the word 'God'. God is a mystery. 'The word "God" is a label for something we do not know,' McCabe writes. Now this already reads like as much obfuscation to the sceptic. But bear with it and ask a second question too: what is a mystery?

A mystery is not a problem. A problem is a puzzle to which techniques can be applied, intuition brought to bear, and a solution found. Science tackles problems. It's brilliant at it. But a mystery is not amenable to that strategy. And life is littered with them.

What did I dream of last night? It's gone forever, though I undoubtedly dreamt of something. Why did Romeo love Juliet? Timing had something to do with it, as did her beauty, as did his passion. But whatever you say of it, there's always more that could be added. It's an inexhaustible experience – a different kind of mystery. To the list you could add other types – counterfactuals and genuine paradoxes, probably the nature of things like freedom and time.

And you should also add the concept of God, though it's a mystery in a different way again. As the theologian Thomas Aquinas asserted, from whom McCabe draws much, God cannot even be said to exist. That's how much of a mystery God is. Inherent in any decent conception of divinity is the notion that the divine is not a thing in the world, like everything else, because God is the reason there are things at all. God as the cause of existence, not something that exists.

Now, just because something is a mystery does not mean you don't and can't talk about. Much ink is spilt and air expelled in the discussion of dreams, love, paradoxes and the like. So when it comes to God, there are two further issues. First, why would you want to talk about God? Second, how can you talk about God, if you do?

Again, the "why" is simply answered: because existence is so extraordinary. You see, if you believe the question of God is worth asking then it's because you've sensed that life might have meaning, that the cosmos is for something, that there might be an explanation beyond chance as to why there is something rather than nothing. To ask of God is to raise these questions.

If you don't believe God is a question worth asking then you're perhaps like Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Here the question is asked, and an answer is provided: 42. The message is this: ask a silly question, get a silly answer. Though, there's a more subtle reading of Adams too. Perhaps the answer is silly, but only because the question itself is beyond us. So even though 42 is a silly answer, that does not in fact imply the question itself is.

To put it another way, believers and agnostics can be defined as people who think that God is not a silly question, but rather one that our experience demands of us. Believers have faith there is an answer: God, "the mystery of wisdom which we know of but cannot begin to understand," as McCabe put it. Agnostics say they don't know whether there's an answer, though they want to keep asking.

So, second, how can God be talked of? It's called the negative way, or the apophatic – saying what God is not. Whatever God might be, God is not visible: God's invisible. Whatever God might be, God cannot be defined: God's ineffable. Nothing positive is said. But nonetheless something is said of God. Similarly, the often forgotten motivation for the formulation of doctrine is the aim of not dissolving the mystery of God. When Christians say God is three in one, they assert what they take as a meaningful contradiction. And that's the point. If you accept it, you accept a mystery.

God as question is expressed in numerous other ways. A dying Dennis Potter moved his audience when he commented that religion was always for him the wound, not the bandage – the question, not the answer. Zen Buddhism tends not to talk of God, but it does talk of the mystery of existence in its koans and meditation on questions like "What is it?" Enlightenment comes when the monk sees that there is no answer, or rather that the answer is only the question: "what?" The mystery of life is revealed as an interrogative. So too God.

Zen raises another truth about such mysteries: the source of their vigour is doubt. 'Great doubt, great enlightenment. Little doubt, little enlightenment. No doubt, no enlightenment,' the adage goes. The trick is to develop a path that feeds the doubt, that re-invigorates the question, that keeps the mystery alive. That might be a good definition of religion.

It also explains MacCulloch's further point, with which he concluded his letter to the Archbishop. "As long as your church, and all other churches, go on asking the questions," he wrote, "they will never die." Affirming the question. In an age with a lust for certainty, that's not easy to do.


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