Matthew Lee Anderson recently finished a good book, The End of Our Exploring. I wish every youth pastor would read it. Plenty of great people reviewed the book, including Alistair McGrath, so I thought I'd add to the conversation by asking Matt a few direct questions. He graciously agreed to an interview. Here is what came of it:
What was at stake for you as you wrote The End of Our Exploring? Were there specific voices or ideas to which you needed to respond?
When I started the project, I asked myself a very simple question: if this were the final thing I were to write on earth, what would I say? It sounds melodramatic, to be sure, but in my experience undertaking a work as large as a book on a subject as important as questioning requires that sort of emotional trickery. Or at least I need it, anyway. I felt the weight of my vocation as a writer in putting the words down: to say just this thing and to say it truthfully and well is a heavy burden, and I wanted the freedom at the end to look backward upon the work and to know that it was well done. Not perfect, I should say, but truly and genuinely well done. Writing this book was something of an existential and vocational crisis for me.
Wow. Those are some high stakes. So what is it that makes question-asking your ultimate topic? How did you know that this topic could be your "final thing"?
It wasn't so much that I thought it was going to be my last word as that if it was, I needed it to be a well-written word. I may have other things to write about this world in a book format, but I care about seeing people question well a lot. If we begin unraveling this area of the world, we start seeing quickly how the deep things of God are at the center of what it means to be exploring, searching human beings. Whether we will look well into the universe or not....that is a question upon which our entire existence hangs. We cannot escape the terror of it, at least not if we are going to also find its relief.
There's this lovely section at the end of the second chapter. You've already made it clear that our questions are necessarily loaded up with pre-established content, and that it's hard for us to dig down and see whether that content is righteous and honest, like we want it to be. Reading that section, I'm left wondering how to get out of the quagmire of my own biases! Resolving the problem, you say something that seems very profound: "the true beginning of our exploring is when we are explored by God."His questioning of us reveals the quality of our questioning–good or bad.
So what I want to know is, how, practically speaking, do we get explored by God? And how can we see it happening?
Those are the questions, are they not? The problem is, I think, too large for me. I know enough to point that way, but not necessarily enough to solve it. But let me say two things that I have found to be true.
First, I think the only way we see this happening is through the lens of time, both in our own lives and as we look backward through history. Questions that flow from the depths of the infinite will not grow stale or tired quickly. If it seems like Christians are still having debates that they had two thousand years ago, well, there's a very good reason for that.
Second, I think we can only know if we make Scripture pervasive in our hearts and minds. Those words sound different, I think. I am haunted by the question in the Gospel of John: "To where else shall we go? You have the words of life." And that is right after Jesus says some rather bizarre stuff. They cannot escape the words of Christ, even if they do not understand them straightaway. But they also recognize that there is a life here that is not elsewhere, and so they keep on immersing themselves in the life of Christ.
I love that we can put our questions in fellowship with the Bible and the Church. I wonder, do you think we can "make Scripture pervasive in our hearts and minds" without questioning, or do they have to go together?
Yes, I think they do belong together. Occasionally there will be plodding, just reading and reading without our interests being caught up or questions gripping us so that we are taken deeper into the text. Those moments are where the Scriptures work on us without us realizing it: they are the often long, painful seasons wherein our faithfulness (or lack thereof!) is part of our preparation for seeing goods and depths that we would be too small to see otherwise. But I think most of the time we are given moments of keen interest at the beginning of the journey, to hook us to the text and to help us see that these words do have life. Remembering such moments without idolizing them or longing for them nostalgically is crucial for helping us continue plodding.
Ok, here's another question. In your first chapter, you identify questioning first with desire (18), then with love (24). Does it go the other way too? Are love and desire necessarily characterized by questioning?
Yes, I think they are. They have more than questioning in their structure, of course, but I do think they do entail a sort of exploration and searching. It would seem impossible to me to claim to love someone while not having any interest in understanding them or seeking them out in some way.
If we got better at questioning, would we be better at loving?
We may, but we not necessarily. It is possible for questioning to be used for false or wrong ends. Lawyers in the courtroom are often good at extracting information, but they have aims in mind that have nothing to do with the good of the people they are interrogating. Questioning is a form our love takes in the world: but it's a form our bent and misguided loves take, too.
One thing that I try to caution against is reducing questioning to a set of techniques: there are certain ways of questioning well or badly, but when our reflection about those means is disconnected from the ends which we are seeking through the practice, we end up distorting its true nature and doing harm to ourselves and others. So I do want people to get better at questioning, but by that I mean I want us all to strive to be more holy, charitable, and good. "The rest," as T.S. Eliot says, "is not our business."
You describe questioning as something that liberates us from defensiveness, self-sufficiency, and curiosity. Do you see defensiveness, self-sufficiency, and curiosity as uniquely characteristic of the church right now?
I suspect like all vices, they are present with us at all times in varying degrees. But curiosity certainly gets very little attention for a vice that is pervasive as it is. We want people to be interested in the world, to search and inquire. But that's different than demanding an account from it, from prying it apart and forcing it to give up the answers we want. Websites like Buzzfeed are designed to prompt and satiate our curiosity; we seek out trivial knowledge that is satisfied instantaneously. I think curiosity gets a pass these days in part because it seems so similar to a virtue and because the tools that feed it are so inescapable and dominating.
Ok. Last question: What's your favorite sentence in the book?
I won't say what my own favorite is. But this one has proved very popular: "The absence of genuine, sorrowful mourning in our worship services and communities is more to blame for the rise of doubt and instability among younger Christians than any French philosopher ever could be."
Thanks for your thoughts, Matt!
Readers, you can get a copy of The End of Our Exploring here.
Have you finished the book? What do you think of it? How has it helped you?