There’s a question that puts fear into many people’s heart, forces others to put up defense mechanisms and for others encourages the opinion that the one who is asking the question is naive and foolish. I believe this question, however, opens us up to inner transformation and the reception of joy and wonder. This question, when entertained and digested, changes our view of reality so that all we experience is brought into question. What is this question?
Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian theatre director, actor and writer on acting method, discusses the ‘magic if’. This kind of questioning allows an actor to transcend their perceived realities/ actualities and enter into the realm of possibility/potentiality. What is interesting about this technique, in light of philosophical understanding of ‘truth’, is it calls into question what we know about our experiences. Too often, in life, we believe only that which is actual, empirical, stable and tangible.
Rene Descartes’ search for true knowledge led him to dismiss anything that he could doubt in anyway. After discarding perception as unreliable he arrived at the famous belief ‘I think therefore I am’. Descartes’ conclusion is based on an understanding that if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting, therefore the fact that he was able to doubt proves his existence. At the most basic, Descartes knew he was a thinking thing. Despite my reservations about how this theory has been adopted and adapted by philosophers since (enforcing a natural turn to individualism and self centredness), it is useful in beginning the process of understanding the world around us as questionable.
The Matrix popularised this concept in 1999 as the protagonist, Neo, is pulled from his perceived reality into the real world. All that he had experienced up to that point was a fabricated, controlled and projected world which only existed in his mind; his real body was being farmed and used as a battery for alien beings. His discovery and explorations all start with the potentiality of such truth; he asked ‘what if…?’
What if I’m not who I am told to be? What if this is not the only way? What if it’s not true? What if it is true?
I grew up in a house where the search, the discovery, the process of learning was embraced and encouraged. In our family understanding and learning was the main aim of life. This has shaped me to be a person who asks questions, who never ceases to test, reflect and explore (much to the frustration of those around me!) Such questioning is not a challenge to authority nor is it a rejection of tradition; for me it is an awareness of and search for Beauty and Truth in the world around me.
As I continue to settle into this new community in York, I am re-discovering how uncommon such an outlook on life this is. I have been fascinated by how many people react so strongly to simple questions. People have felt threatened, challenged, insulted by me as I grasp hold of things, turn them over in my hand, investigate, prod, probe but ultimately with an attitude of wonder and intrigue. My wide eyed excitement at learning and experiencing something; trying to identify the uniqueness and intricate truths about something, enjoying it for what it really is and trying to find that which will make it mare real, more truthful.
What ‘what if’ questions do is open up our minds to the possibility of an encounter with the unknown. The reason this is scary is because the known is safe, comforting, stable. It is a rock on which we can have some foundation. We all have, however, just under the surface of our consciousness, a deep awareness of the changeability of life, the existence of flux; truth is not as certain as we thought it might be. The moment we entertain this thought our hearts begin to race and fear sets in. In matters of faith this becomes difficult to take. How can God be our rock, our firm foundation, whilst at the same time be ‘unknowable’ and transcendent. God refuses to be held, pinned down, confined and articulated fully. His relationship with human beings, throughout the Bible’s narrative, is one of playful, part-revelation. Ultimately His approach to encounter is one of ‘glimpses’ rather than fully and unrestrained.
Innovation and creativity always starts with a question. The power, however, is not in the answers to such questions but the journey it starts. People often misunderstand the role of questions. As a theatre director, my role was to guide actors through a process of discovery, an invitation to enter into a world of awareness to the stimulation of their environment. An alert, aware, responsive actor is a prepared actor; the same is true of human beings.
Here’s where the question becomes powerful: We walk around on this earth taking so much for granted, assuming so many things, leaving most ideas, objects, beliefs unexamined. Socrates was right,
An unexamined life is not worth living.
‘What if’ questions begin the process of examination and contemplation. This process is scary, unsettling, overwhelming and uncomfortable but it is only by entering into this space that you find a strength so transcendent that you can remain calm even in the deepest storm. Living the question, in my experience, is becoming aware of the beauty, wonder, and amazement of the world around us. The smallest thing becomes of infinite importance, you hear words with all their meaning, you see faces with all their history, you see the potential of every person, even yourself.
People today close themselves off to the unexamined out of fear and trepidation whilst, at the same time, they close themselves off to new discovery, life giving encounter, affirmation, understanding of what is really going on. That which seems frightening, overwhelming is in fact an invitation to receive a gift; life.
Peter Brook finishes his book ‘The Empty Space’ with the following thought,
In everyday life, ‘if’ is a fiction, in the theatre ‘if’ is an experiment. In everyday life, ‘if’ is an evasion, in the theatre ‘if’ is the truth. When we are persuaded to believe in this truth, then the theatre and life are one. This is a high aim. It sounds like hard work. To play needs much work. But when we experience the work as play, then it is not work any more. A play is play.
I’ve been struck by how many people have questions and they feel uncomfortable with them. They are told by some unknown force that questions are bad and should be eradicated. I find the opposite to be true; answers destroy life. Rowan Williams suggests,
Christ may indeed answer our questions, but he also questions our answers.
I have returned again and again to the realisation that life is best experienced as a playful exploration and creative journey. Answers are the end of growth, searching and newness; questions begin journeys, discoveries and new life. In the theatre ‘what if’ questions wipe the slate clean and begin things again. Questions invite relationship with someone. Questions, when handled as gift, encourage our souls to sing with wonder, humble adoration and openness to all that is around you.
As I ponder my place in this new ministry I am aware that the world doesn’t need a church to answer their questions but one that creates a safe place to seek, explore and experience the Unknown. A church which asks the questions of society’s answers is a church embodying Christ Himself.