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Why ask why?

Somewhere along the line, we learned to stop asking questions we couldn’t answer.

For example, when’s the last time you asked: Where does a butterfly go when it rains?

When I was little, I loved to be read a children’s book by May Garelick that asked this question. It told where various animals go when it rains: snakes slither between the rocks and cats hide under the porch. But how about the butterfly? The best thing about that book was that it left the question open. That meant that when my mom or dad closed the cover after the last page, my favorite part was yet to come: the time of speculating together. “Where do you think the butterfly goes, Mommy?” I would ask. And they would reply with a sense of wonder, inviting me to join in imagining by saying: “Hmm, I’m not sure. Maybe… under a leaf?”

Theologians commonly advise against asking speculative questions for at least a couple of reasons. First, because such questions can distract us from contemplating what we do know about the mysteries of God, thus impeding our Christian formation. Calvin thought it was problematic to ask, for example, why God created the world with the capacity to fall, invoking Augustine’s warning that “God created hell for those who engage in idle speculation.” And second, because speculation can lead us down a path toward grievous theological errors. If we ask why God allows the coronavirus, for example, we might be tempted to speculate about God’s judgment and punishment rather than investing our energy in proclaiming what we do know: that God is not in the business of condemning the world, but in loving and saving it (John 3:16-17).

In my view, there is no problem with asking the “why?” question as long as we remember we can’t answer it. The much greater risk comes when we, fearful of making a theological error, do not ask “why?” questions in the face of suffering. To discourage the asking of “why?” is to compromise on our conviction that God is providentially present in the world, and that we can therefore talk to God about anything.

The faithful ask “why?” throughout Scripture. Job famously holds forth for the better part of 42 chapters. And when he finally backs down after the whirlwind scene near the end, God commands him to speak again (38:1-3). The psalmist asks “why?” in the context of lament: “Rouse yourself, O God! Why are you sleeping?” (Psalm 44:23). Martha asks Jesus why he arrives only after Lazarus is dead and buried (John 11).

And Jesus asks on the cross, quoting Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46).

I wish all our wonderings could be as happy as those I shared with my parents about those butterflies. (Did you know that rain is very dangerous for butterflies? One drop hitting a monarch is the equivalent of a human being getting hit by two bowling balls!) But whether we are asking “where?” or “why?” about a butterfly’s safety, the suffering wrought by the coronavirus or the insidious effects of racism, it is our questions that keep us in thick relation to God and one another, particularly in times of crisis. We need to lament, to argue, to blame, to despair. If these responses are set aside for the sake of being theologically safe, we will find ourselves limited in our capacity to imagine and work for God’s Kingdom to come. To cry out “why?” is to insist on believing – even in the face of our own disbelief – that all creation will be whole, that every tear will be wiped away, that each person will be treated with dignity and that this beautiful, awful world will be redeemed.

Cynthia Rigby

Cynthia Rigby is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas.

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