Questioning: A Time-Honored Quaker Tradition

Questioning: A Time-Honored Quaker Tradition


Explore how the Quaker practice of queries allows us to mindfully pause from easy information, and encourages us to process our spiritual experiences more deeply.

A few years ago, I was visiting Cuba on a seminary trip and I was trying to remember the name of a political concept from South America. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll Google it!” Instinctively, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, only to be quickly reminded that I couldn’t use the internet. In Cuba, at that time, Wi-Fi was only available in select locations and only accessible by purchasing expensive cards. This had happened several times during the trip and each time I had a similar reaction—something like panic. The irony is that we had several brilliant professors in our group, not to mention a solid selection of graduate students and Cuban natives. I was in the middle of many knowledgeable and wise sources. No algorithm necessary.

My panicked reactions on that trip revealed how reliant I had become on my phone. It also revealed how most of us handle an unanswered question. When a question pops up in a conversation, we can simply grab our phone and find the answer—often in a matter of seconds. Everything, it seems, is Google-able.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Easy Information

On one hand, this is an amazing technological advancement. We have access to an incredible amount of information which can be promptly located and applied. It comes in handy when seeking guidance on fixing a dishwasher or finding the number for a local pizza shop. More urgently, it can provide critical information, like when I recently needed to find the address to the nearest emergency room.

On the other hand, this technological age has its downsides. There is the liability of bad information and fake news. People post all kinds of things on the internet, and the junk is about as easy to find as the treasure. There is also the challenge that comes with monetizing information and expertise. There are lots of individuals and businesses eager for your clicks; they will happily provide some of their expert information if you provide some of your personal information. Before you know it, you are on a list and sliding through a customer funnel into a sale.

The Value of Questions in the Age of the Internet

In an age of experts and easy answers, it’s easy to overlook the value of questions. Questions aren’t simply mental prompts to be immediately fixed by a quick online search, like a craving for a snack is quickly satisfied by a candy bar. No, questions have innate value as carriers of power and possibility. They can move us into self-reflection, into wider conversation, and into new pathways of action. As the word itself implies, questions can inspire us to new quests—whether it’s a quest into new ideas, new relationships, or new vocations.

Before it can be answered, a question has to be asked. This may seem obvious, but maybe our definition of “ask” has grown shallow. Does it mean to Google or “ask Siri?” Maybe in some cases. But truly asking a question is more than that. Surely Jesus meant something deeper when he advised: “Ask and you shall receive.”

Why Jesus Asked Questions Instead of Answering Them

Despite his reputation as an “answer man,” Jesus was actually more interested in asking questions than answering them, especially when the askers used questions as tools for political and religious manipulation. In his book Jesus Is the Question, pastor and scholar Martin B. Copenhaver submits that Jesus asked about 307 questions, but only answered 3.

“Through Jesus’ questions,” explains Copenhaver, “he modeled the struggle, the wondering, the thinking it through that helps us draw closer to God and better understand, not just the answer, but ourselves, our process, and ultimately why questions are among Jesus’ most profound gifts for a life of faith.” Indeed, asking is about that struggle and searching, wondering and wandering that reveal transformative possibilities.

The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously advised: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” This patience enables us to release our anxiety for fast answers and let the questions do their work within us. “Do not now seek the answers,” he said, “which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Rilke knew the value of questions and reminded us that “asking” questions means living and loving them.

Questioning: A Time-Honored Quaker Tradition

I am not very good at this, but I should be. I’m the beneficiary of a spiritual tradition that has revered questions for hundreds of years, encouraging its members to embrace them as invitations to reflection rather than problems to be solved. In my Quaker faith tradition, we don’t demand adherence to strict beliefs and behavior codes. Instead, we have “advices and queries” that invite us to reflect on our souls, our lives, and our communities.

The queries are often open-ended, leaving room for prayerful introspection and authentic conversation. But they can also be “leading questions” in the sense that they nudge us to embody Quaker values like the ones listed in our acronym of social testimonies (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality, or SPICE). Nevertheless, the queries don’t presuppose a single “answer.”

Quakers trust that the Light within each of us and the Spirit who leads us in community will show us our individual path. Our job is to ask the question and listen deeply. Listening attentively is how we “live” and “love” the questions. We receive the queries in silence, welcoming them in a spirit of expectant worship. Silence enables us to lower our defenses and open ourselves to hard truths and life-giving insights.

Here are a few examples of common Quaker queries that have inspired, challenged, and guided me through different seasons of life:

  • Are you open to new light from whatever source it may come?

  • Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

  • What are you doing to build a more peaceful world?

  • What are we ready to release so that we can give our attention to what matters most?

  • Do I live in thankful awareness of God’s constant presence in my life?

  • Are you able to contemplate your own death, and the death of those closest to you?

  • What does love require?

How Anyone Can Practice Queries

Many of us think of religion as a set of imposed beliefs and practices. But the queries are an expression of religion in its truest sense—the word literally means “to bind together.” Queries help us bind or weave our lives and values back together. This practice nurtures harmony between our inner and outer worlds. In the words of Quaker Parker Palmer, it helps us “rejoin role and soul.” Regardless of our religious affiliation or lack of affiliation, most of us long for that kind of integrity in our personal lives and our circles of relationship.

The enduring wisdom of Quakerism invites all of us to live our questions in a time dominated by expert and easy answers. It invites us to slow down, listen to our lives, and remember our values. You may want to explore some of the queries that Quaker communities use. Or you may want to write your own. What questions are you living? What questions will keep you centered in your callings and convictions? What questions are coming up in your community?

Notice the questions that are rising in you. Write them down, journal with them, talk about them with friends and family. Live and love them. They are gifts to be opened slowly, and they are nudges toward new life.

Explore the practice of deep listening.

Queries A Quaker Practice for the Modern Age

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