Living the questions

Readings: John 1:29-42; 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Jean wasn’t religious. When we met to discuss her sister’s funeral, she told me how she told me about her life of drug-taking and prostitution in the Kings Cross area of London. She fled home as a young teenager to escape the abuse of her father and slept rough on the streets. Her ‘knight in shining armour’ turned out to be a pimp. Drugs helped to anaesthetise her for a while, but things got worse, until one night she found a back entrance into a tall building in central London and climbed the fire escape stairs making her way onto the roof with a bottle of whisky and a pile of pills.

Lying on top of the building, she gazed into the sky and saw stars. Thousands of stars. ‘I’d never done that since I was a little girl’, she said. ‘I stared and stared and thought how perfect and how peaceful it all looked – so different to my sick life. And that’s when I decided not to kill myself. I suddenly felt as if I was in this massive womb about to be born. Something was looking after me.’

As I say, Jean wasn’t religious; she didn’t go to church or claim to be a Christian, but when I suggested it to her, she readily recognised that the ‘something’ looking after her might just be God. By the time we met, she had been in recovery from drink and drugs for thirteen years, and now works with a team going out on the streets befriending girls who live like she once did, offering them support and counselling. She didn’t have a religious conversion, as such, but she certainly had some kind of epiphany that changed her life – just as Andrew and Peter did in today’s gospel reading when they encountered Jesus.

The passage contains the first recorded words of Jesus in John’s gospel, and surprisingly, perhaps, they appear in the form of a question: ‘What are you looking for?’ These are the first recorded words of Jesus in John’s gospel: What are you looking for?

Think about it: the whole Jesus movement began with a question. Not a question about theology or doctrine. He didn’t ask if they believed in the holy trinity, or the authority of scripture, or the bodily resurrection, or a literal ascension. He asked, ‘What are you looking for?’ Now of course you can read this on a totally practical level – he was being stalked by these two guys, so he turns round and says ‘What are you looking for?’

But typical of John’s gospel, there’s always another level to what is said. The question is existential: ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘What is it that you yearn and long after?’

There isn’t intended to be a simple answer to this. Andrew and Simon didn’t even respond to it directly; instead, they came back with another question: ‘Where are you staying?’ Again, the answer isn’t supposed to be at the Score Hotel! In John’s gospel, the term ‘staying’ is mostly translated ‘abiding’. John uses it a lot, but always in a figurative rather than a literal sense. Where a person ‘stays’ or ‘abides’ in John’s terms is where they are on the inside. It’s about a spiritual place not a physical one. So, when Jesus asks the two men ‘What are you looking for?’, their response is: ‘We want some of what you’ve got! We want the tranquillity, the sense of purpose, the wisdom we see in you. We’d like to be in the place you’re in.’

The great thing about a question is that it opens up a conversation in a way that a straightforward statement often closes a conversation down. Questions invite further interaction; they open up imaginative possibilities, something to chew on, something to talk about and explore together. By contrast, a statement like, ‘Christ is the answer’ is a conversation killer; it’s saying, ‘I know the truth, you don’t.’

Basically, there are two approaches to Christianity – to religion in general: the destination approach that says ‘I’ve found the answer’ – full stop. And the journeying approach that says, ‘This is my truth, tell me yours’ – to reference the Manic Street Preachers.

Many of us begin the Christian life thinking that we’ve found the answer, but later, we realise that we hadn’t even discovered the question. And as time goes by, more and more questions emerge, which become increasingly challenging, yet despite our desire to explore them, we feel less and less compulsion to finally resolve them. They become the pathway to another leg of the journey, not the journeys end.

A lot of people are turned off religion when it is presented as a destination, a conclusion, a set of pre-packed answers. Why? Because that tends to turn them into passive recipients, instead of partners in a conversation. And sometimes, the religious outsider has more spiritual intelligence than those on the inside; they’ve got more to contribute, even if they express it in different (less religious) ways. Pre-packed answers do not help to grow spiritual intelligence; they more likely bring that process to an close.

What do I mean by ‘spiritual intelligence’? Well, for much of the 20th century intelligence was measured solely on the basis of a person’s intellectual capabilities, denoted by an IQ score. But increasingly we recognise a host of different kinds of intelligence including physical, emotional and spiritual. And of all these, spiritual intelligence is the central and most fundamental because it becomes the compass or source of guidance to all the intelligences – to the whole of our life.

The notion of spiritual intelligence (SQ) emerged in the mid 1990s as a result of advances in psychology and neuroscience which demonstrated that certain parts of the brain ‘light up’ when people engage with what can broadly be called ‘spiritual’ topics or activities like meditation.

SQ is not about religion, as such; it neither requires nor precludes belief in God. In fact, it is actually prior to any form of religious belief because it represents the part of us that seeks religious beliefs and meaning in the first place.

Basically, SQ is the intelligence that drives us to wrestle with issues of meaning and value; it’s what we use to process the big questions like ‘what are you looking for? It’s what we use to contemplate questions about what is right and wrong, about pain and suffering, about life and death and God and the whole kit and caboodle. It tells us that life is about more than material stuff or external priorities or biological instincts.

So far as we know, spiritual intelligence is uniquely human: no other animal appears to feel the need to study philosophy or theology or to make sense of existence – to question ‘why?’ When I walked our dog in the woods, I pondered such things (sometimes), but our lovely dog Woody never gave them a moment’s thought; he just sniffed around the undergrowth, peed everywhere and chased squirrels. But maybe it’s a matter of evolution….

Presumably, somewhere back in the mists of time, one of our ancestors started to reach beyond the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ of daily existence, to wonder why we are here in the first place. They gazed at the night sky… …wondered at the birth of a child… sensed mystery…pondered mortality…

Human beings are driven to dig beneath the surface of life: to develop things like integrity and moral values, to ponder stuff like good and evil and what, if anything, lies beyond the grave, to search for purpose in the face of deeply challenging circumstances like illness and bereavement and failure.

You don’t grow spiritual intelligence just by attending church or joining a Christian group, or by buying into a theological system. Spiritual intelligence is an intrinsic capacity in the human brain. It’s like a muscle – we have to use it to grow it. And the more we use it, the more it develops. And the way we use it is by grappling with questions that take us beneath the surface of life.

But nurturing spiritual intelligence was what Jesus was all about. He constantly disturbed and upset people’s comfortable little religious certainties. He pushed people to think and to rethink. He never said, ‘Here is the answer’; he said, ‘follow me.’ He took his followers to the core of religious tradition instead of the externals, the rules and regulations. He was about spirit not the letter of the law. He stretched people’s spirits by constantly throwing a spanner in the works of popular wisdom. In the words of my pal Mike Riddell from NZ, Jesus ‘comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable.’ That’s about growing spiritual intelligence.

The poet Rilke writes: ‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, 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.’

What are you looking for? This is the most important question you can ever ask yourself. It’s the basis of all spiritual growth – what sort of person do I wish to be?

One way we can go about answering it is to identify the people we admire most (religious or not religious, your grandma, a rock star or a spiritual leader) and ask what is it about them that inspires me….? I’ll guarantee that it won’t be how much money they’ve earned or how famous they are; it will be things like beauty of the heart, integrity, courage in the face of adversity or compassion.

The purpose of epiphanies like the one Jean had on the roof of a building in London or when Andrew and Peter met Jesus and faced his penetrating question…the purpose is to help us to identify the kind of life we want to live.

In his wonderful benediction ‘For Death’, John O’Donohue writes:

Gather yourself…
And decide carefully
How you can now live
The life you would love
To look back on
From your deathbed.