Matthew Lee Anderson. The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Chicago: Moody, 2013. 224 pp. $10.49.
C. S. Lewis often said that one of the biggest difficulties in persuading people Christianity is true is simply that people often aren’t asking which belief system is true. They want to know which belief system will solve this or that social problem, get people to behave in certain ways, or make them happy. At one speaking engagement, someone in the audience asked Lewis which religion makes its followers the happiest. “The religion of worshipping oneself,” he replied. “While it lasts.”
But Christians themselves often fail to think critically and ask the right questions. We, too, believe things out of desire or fear, rather than because we have discerned them to be true. No doubt true beliefs will be much more useful than false ones—once we find them. But, as Blaise Pascal wrote, the first moral duty is to think clearly, for without clear thinking we can’t know our other duties.
Matthew Lee Anderson’s new book The End of Our Exploring urges Christians to awaken from the slumber of easy answers and comfortable talking points. Anderson, lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy, reminds us of the deep reasons why honest inquiry will lead us toward, not away from, a deeper faith and a fidelity to historic orthodoxy.
The strongest parts of the book are the points where it interacts with Scripture. Anderson’s reading of the fall narrative in Genesis is profound. The serpent temps Eve by questioning her understanding of God’s word. Some have read this to suggest that rational inquiry is a result of the fall—that the process of uncertainty and gradual discovery reflects a deficiency of faith.
However, as Anderson points out, Eve sinned because she failed to question the serpent! God had armed her with rational faculties; she could have used them to uncover the false cosmology presupposed in the serpent’s statements, and consider what motives might lie behind it. God himself responds to the fall with questions (“Where are you?” “Who told you that you were naked?”) that provoke Adam and Eve to question, and thereby understand, what they had done.
Jesus did the same, using questions and mysteries to confront people with their failure to think and force them to grasp what they didn’t want to grasp. The most powerful passage in Anderson’s book may be his reading of Luke 24:13-35. We are told that when two believers encountered the resurrected Christ, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Not simply that they didn’t recognize him—they were kept from doing so. What was God’s purpose in this?
Luke himself provokes us with a mystery in this passage:
As Jesus hides Himself from the disciples, so Luke hides Jesus’ interpretation of the Old Testament from us. The one definitive, infallible, finally authoritative reading of the Old Testament, from the mouth of Jesus himself—and Luke does not bother to write it down. It is almost as though he is unwilling to short-circuit the process of learning for us. He leaves Jesus’ teaching in the shadows so that we ourselves may be moved to inquire and explore until the last day, when all shall permanently come into the light. (181)
Once this pattern is brought to our attention, we can see the theme of God forcing humanity to go through “the process of learning” throughout the biblical narrative. The New Testament even invites us to read the entire Old Testament as centered on this theme. In the King James Version, Galatians 3:24 says “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” Modern translations say “guardian,” but the pedagogical nature of the old covenant is still implied.
Everyone must use reason to question and learn, because that is how we deal with the unknown. As finite creatures, we cannot help but encounter the unknown daily; inquiry would have been central to a God-glorifying life even in an unfallen world. As fallen creatures, we need it all the more urgently, to keep us out of sin and error.
Chapter by chapter, The End of Our Exploring goes over many of the classic problems associated with inquiry. How can I question well unless I take for granted some prior knowledge that I don’t question, as the basis of my questioning? How do we raise children to grow into adults who think for themselves when children can’t question well in childhood? How do we create communities where inquiry is welcome without losing our sense of solidarity and commitment? How do we make good use of study guides and apologetic works without letting them become substitutes for inquiry? How do we confront a culture that seems to think questioning is an end in itself, so it’s always wrong to think you’ve found an answer?
However, the underlying theme of the book is that inquiry leads to Christ. We question in order to learn, we learn to achieve maturity, and maturity means stability—ultimately, the stability of resting in Christ. The more we invest in our questioning, the better we know the answers when we find them. So if we have faith that Jesus is the answer to our questions, we should question all the more. The title of the book comes from T. S. Eliot: “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
Yet even this stability does not mean the end of inquiry, because in the infinite glory of God there are always new glories to discover. As Anderson puts it, Jesus is the answer to our questions, but he is an answer that is constantly provoking new questions. If we simply say “Jesus is the answer” and think no further, we will never discover the riches of wonder and knowledge God has in store for us.
Anderson would benefit from a more aggressive copy editor. He sometimes meanders around a point. Parts of the book will strike some readers as overwritten or pretentious. But in a book this short, those are forgivable flaws. And if your interest is piqued by a book whose back cover asks, “Do we know what it means to question well?” I expect you’re prepared for a little overwritten prose.
The world around us clings more and more stubbornly to the stereotype that Christianity is for the ignorant, irrational and bigoted. Anything that tends to confirm this stereotype is a disastrous witness for the Gospel. Now more than ever, our first moral duty is to think clearly. Anderson has sounded a trumpet we ignore at our peril.
Editors’ note: This review has been updated to better reflect the reviewer’s original wording.
Greg Forster is the editor of Hang Together and the author of five books, most recently The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God's Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love (Crossway, 2012).