Northrop Frye once observed that in Zen Buddhism, a teacher shows his or her qualifications to teach by refusing to answer questions.
There is a lot of wisdom involved in not answering a question, but only if a question is not answered correctly. If a young child asks, “have you seen my soccer ball?” there is no wisdom involved in refusing to answer the question. But suppose a young person asks you, “What is the meaning of life?” In truth, no one knows that answer. Liberation comes with the challenging realization that we are free to find meaning in our lives and that humanity as a whole is free to do likewise. To interrupt that challenging freedom with a question denying answer is both unwise and a bad idea.
A good answer to big questions is strangely a good “no answer.” A good “no answer” is not about refusing a question but learning to open a question to a broader horizon where trust of the unknown is cultivated and where self-becoming is the task.
John Calvin (1509-1564) reportedly had an answer to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” In case you’re wondering, that answer was “to worship God.” To me, this is a good example of a bad answer. Such a definite answer only expresses a desire to control the question as well as the person who asked it. The answer expresses what Calvin, if the story is true, already believed. The question about the purpose of life is answered by a belief statement that is given as a command. We can only agree or disagree with Calvin, but we are not invited to explore the question with him. Of course, I never met Calvin and I don’t know for certain such a question and answer were exchanged. Suppose Calvin’s real answer was “I don’t know” but the student refused the master the right to offer “no answer” to the question?
Curiously, in the teaching of many religions, the wise are those who know “no answer” and the ignorant are those who claim to know the answer. Why is this so? There is a Christian saying that states, “Whoever clutches and grabs after life will lose it.” If this is put into a Zen Buddhist “no answer” kind of answer, we could say that to attach our desire to things is to attach our desires to what must pass away. In place of attachment there is peace with all things when we let go. This marks the difference between wisdom and ignorance. Wisdom is good at letting go; it is happy, even joyful, about a good “no answer” before a good question. Since a good question opens life up to the unknown, and a bad answer closes that door, the idea is that a joyful life is about trusting the mystery of things and finding peace within this wonder.
The Jewish and Christian Bibles are often thought not to hold good examples of “no answer” to big questions. The history of the Bible, and for that matter the Qur’an, is to be a book of authority that accordingly is supposed to hold the answers. But this is unfair not only to the Bible and the Qur’an, but also unfair to the cultural settings from which these books arose. Ancient people, just like modern people, often did not know the answer and, often, they expressed their basic, joyful, ignorance through religion and its symbolism. The book of Ecclesiastes, which is a wisdom book in the Bible, is an excellent example of this. In ancient thinking, to explain the world as the creation of God (or of the gods, if one was Greek or Roman) was to express knowledge about how the world works and why it is sometimes unpredictable. But the writer of Ecclesiastes sees things differently. The world and its workings do not reveal to this writer’s knowledge about how things work or why. Instead, this writer sees in the nature of the world how he or she is at a loss to explain things and how, in effect, the eternal cycle of nature makes the writer feel small, silent and ignorant. The writer concludes this fascinating venture into wisdom with the idea that the best thing is to be joyful, not depressed, about the nature of not knowing. After all, it is human “not knowing” that opens the question about life and the journey in life. Not knowing in this way is the best knowledge we have.
A question is more significant than an answer because a question is a sign of human spirituality, that is, human trust, openness and peace. A question is a search for our humanity and even for better ways to be human. To answer questions of a deep and profound nature without sharing the profundity opened by the question is to cancel the promise the question holds. Such a tragic refusal of the ticket to life in all its wonder is sad not only for an individual but for humanity as a whole. Against the backdrop of violence and intolerance in our country and world today, it seems clear that human beings are better off with the wisdom of no answer that seeks questions than with the ignorance of the answer that refuses to be questioned.
David Galston is the Ecumenical Chaplain for Brock University.