Living with the Question

by Gary Phillips

August 30, 2007

Good morning to the soon-to-be-graduated Wabash men of the class of 2007. On the occasion of the Dean's Breakfast for seniors this commencement weekend, it has been the tradition that the Dean of the College address graduating seniors. As a recent arrival to Wabash, I find it more than a bit daunting to imagine following upon the likes of Trippet, Rogge, Shearer, Traina, Powell, McKinney, Herring, Ditzler, Williams, important names you will surely recognize from your time at Wabash. The Dean’s Breakfast is a tradition, and as you are all well aware Wabash loves tradition, relishes tradition. It is a traditional opportunity the Dean of the College takes to reflect with seniors about the liberal arts experiment you have participated in these last four years.

In preparing my comments I scoured the records of past addresses: What did previous deans say? I asked: what is important to reflect upon for this time, this place, this senior class? 

Given what some might regard as an unseemly hour, it may be pretentious to imagine that I have something important enough to say that would wake you up. But what I have learned is that those past presentations reflected something idiosyncratic about the speaker and his way of meditating upon the significance of liberal arts learning at Wabash: for Rogge it was his unshakable commitment to the value of unfettered, principled debate and the encouragement to be skeptical of all unexamined truth claims; for Vic Powell it was a disarmingly wicked sense of humor that challenged students never to permit themselves to be bored; for Don Herring, the ironic voice of a bibliophile who retires from the College this very year, it was to give consideration to life after the novel’s last page is turned and the book is closed. How then does one live after the book is finished? 

In my case, I want to think for a few minutes about questions, about living with questions, loving questions at a time when, it seems, the world presents us with a high level of uncertainty about even the most mundane things: When will this war in Iraq end? Am I safe to fly? Given this economy will I get a job? Will Social Security and Medicare be around when I retire? Can I pay off my student loans? Is the cat food safe? I give privilege to–some might say obsess upon—the question, the importance of asking questions, of living with questions. To be sure, I give answers their due and one does need them, but it is the question I love, the interrogation, the inquiry not simply as an intellective act but as an ethical action by means of which one lives the critical, responsible, effective, humane moral life.

Yes, I love questions. Always have. Ask any of my former students, my colleagues, my children. Better yet, ask my mother who reports that as a child I hounded her constantly with "But why?" "But why?" When she would give me an answer that didn’t satisfy I would press her to give me reasons, better reasons. "But why?" Yes, I was obnoxious. It was only her final "Because I say so" that quieted me, more out of self-defense than satisfaction. When mothers are cornered with backs up against the wall in that way, it is the prudent son who looks for a way out of the conversation, for in fact the conversation has already ended.

As a child first learning to write, I remember being fascinated with the question mark, that most interesting of punctuation signs. I would draw it repeatedly on the chalk board and in the margins of my Weekly Reader. To this day it is my favorite editing sigla: It is my habit to fill the margins of books, student papers, reports from faculty and memos from the President with question marks. Think about how we fashion it. A composite of period, exclamation point, and semi-colon, the form of the question mark is a movement that begins in one place, loops away, and comes back near full circle but does not close off, a graphic sign that I suggests mirrors the questioning process itself:: you start with an issue in one place, query your way around it, leaving yourself open with something that remains unfinished, with more to come. It says "I’m in process of thinking. I am open." And what follows? Perhaps another sentence, a statement, even a further question. A isomorphic sign of the very process of inquiry, the question mark signals the presence of a thinking person encountering something outside of herself. Just as the question mark is the hardest of writing symbols for the hand of a young child to master, the framing of a question – the heart of liberal arts inquiry—is a difficult intellective act for an adult to hone. One needs practice. Just as it takes a steady, practiced hand to shape the question mark, it takes an equally focused mind to pose the right question. All of this lead up to this observation: at the heart of the liberal arts is the question, the act of learning to question, of living with the question as unfinished business, of loving the question. Your Wabash science, social science, humanities and fine arts courses have been about developing the arts of the question. It takes practice, mentoring, and willingness to abide with uncertainty and disequilibrium. This is what close engagement with faculty inside and outside the classroom makes possible. In human terms, excellent liberal arts teaching is about teachers who stand as a question to you, thus demonstrating how for the rest of your life you can become a question to yourselves.

Given my fascination with the question, it might come as no surprise were I to confess that my favorite TV game show is Jeopardy, where success is measured not by providing answers but by getting the question right. Getting the question right and getting the right question. Does anyone recognize the name Alexander Butterfield? The deputy assistant to President Nixon, Butterfield was the person who first disclosed to the public that President Nixon taped all of his Oval Office conversations. Had it not been for a low-level Senate staffer oft handedly posing the question directly to Butterfield whether or not he knew if the President taped his conversations, the country might never have come to know the truth and history could well have taken a different course. Knowing how to frame the right question at the right time can make all the difference in getting at the truth. What you have learned at Wabash from Freshman tutorial to Senior Colloquium is the art framing the right questions in ways that lead you to discover the truth. The liberal arts, literally the arts of freedom that make men and women free, is a practicum on discerning truth through ongoing face-to-face questioning. It takes continued practice and the stakes are high.

When I think of questions, my mind always turns to the Wachovia Brothers "The Matrix" featuring Thomas Anderson’s (a.k.a. Neo’s) unrelenting preoccupation with the question "What is the Matrix?" Questions proliferate in this movie like rabbits. Which pill to take—the blue or the red? What is reality? Who are we? Where did we come from? Am I awake or asleep? How can we be free? Who will save us? What does it mean to be human? Recall Trinity’s words to Neo: "It's the question that drives us, Neo." "The Matrix" is a liberal arts style Wonderland of questions that invites the viewer to ask with Morpheus just how deep the rabbit-hole really does go. Just how far can you, should you, think, question? What are you permitted not to question? To think about? Your Wabash education, I hope, has left you with an appetite to ask at all costs "Why?" "When?" "Who?" "How?" Where?" What level of courage must Neo screw up to find the answer to his central question? As we learn Neo eventually awakens to the desert of the real but not without a substantial cost to body and soul as he struggles to think freely, to frame the question, to test reality: How can you be free? What will the cost be to you? How do you learn to be free and to free others from the assorted matrices that impose unthinking existence upon us? "The Matrix" is more than an action film awash in overt and covert religious symbolism, a topic which also interests me; it is visually emblematic of the liberal arts experience of inquiry that tests reality with the stakes being life and death. There is an intimate connection between Neo’s being free (liberalis) and his being free to think. He develops the arts of freedom—the liberal arts—and that makes all the difference for him and his world. Morpheus hounds Neo with the question: are you awake, Neo? Time to wake up? The same question I pose to you: After four years of studying the arts of freedom at Wabash are you awake? There is precious time awasting as the Machines move against human life. "It's the question that drives us, Neo."

I am certain that it is the question that has called me to my discipline (Religion) and to the texts I read (Gospels, rabbinic parables, creation narratives, wisdom literature, Holocaust memoirs). I have come to understand that the central, abiding issues of moral and religious experience revolve about the hard questions that, if we are honest, beg simple or complex—maybe any—answers: Why is there suffering? Why do the good and the innocent suffer, and the wicked and guilty prosper, Job’s question? Over the next 24 hours 26,000 children under the age of 10 across the globe will die of starvation, malnutrition, and disease. How is that possible? Why do religion and violence so often make friendly bedfellows? How could German Christians, practicing Christians, stand idly by and let 1.5 million Jewish children perish in the furnaces? I have no good explanation, only questions. Every time I go to Washington, DC and visit the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum I leave stunned. Even if I could concoct an explanation, no answer would satisfy. For questions seem more honest, more in touch with the world. Perhaps, for me, it is the study of religion, that precious liberal arts subject matter, that refuses to let the interrogatory give way to the declarative, insists against a closing down of thinking and action, interrupts my daily self-sufficiency and keeps me asking Tolstoy’s haunting question taken from the Confessions: How then should I live? As one great rabbi puts it, religion "offers answers without obliterating the questions. They become blunted and will not attack you with as much ferocity, but without them the answers would dry up and whither away.…The question is the great religious act. It helps you live great religious truth." The question is the great liberal arts act. It allows us to live the truth. "It's the question that drives us, Neo."

It is the question that drives us in the study of the liberal arts. 

In John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University he writes, "[The purpose of a liberal arts education is to] open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression. . . ." This come about by means of focused inquiry, a skeptical mind that will not rest until it has looked for and at all the evidence, heard the different sides of an argument, eschews boredom, imagines what’s next once the book is closed. Inquiry is "the putting of a question, an interrogation." For it is the question that triggers the critical appetite, the imaginative inquiry, the wonderment of aesthetic appreciation. The question gives rise to moral action, as Tolstoy’s reflection suggests, and so challenges us to a life lived outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves, not self-satisfied, but interrupted, incomplete, left off balance, unsatisfied, ill at ease, circled back toward ourselves but left open. Has this not happened to you during your four years at Wabash? Has not the question, the impudent, surprising, sometimes irritating, interruptive least-when-you-expect-it-at- 8:00 am interrogatory put forward by a Wabash faculty person or a fellow student not evoked a response, interrupted your reverie, or dull headache or hangover? If it hasn’t and you haven’t been made uncomfortable these past four years then you have been cheated of an education. Lamentably, you have been left to persist in a matrix of uninterrogated assumptions, beliefs, ideology or moral positions, enslaved not free. It is by way of the question alive in the face-to-face exchange to which you have been invited on the Wabash campus that a human vista opens up, a text comes alive, an experiment takes on new urgency, an artistic moment breaths veracity, a math formula takes your breath away, a common sense reveals enduring truth. The disturbance and satisfaction of the interrogatory. Remember this above all else about your Wabash experience..

I have spoken this morning about the question and its deep connection to the Wabash liberal arts experience. I have reminded you of the weightiness of the interrogatory and the hard work of thinking critically. I have drawn attention to the cost entailed by pursuing the arts of freedom. I have even proposed "The Matrix" as thematically representative of the best of what liberal learning does. Even more, I’ve gone out on a limb to suggest that the very nature of religious life is about living with questions because answers, as important as they are, offer little permanent solace. To live with and in the mode of the question requires courage and a disposition that is sometimes off-putting to those who would rather not be disturbed. I now want to conclude on a slightly different note, to shift to a grammatically different mode, namely that of the hortatory, the linguistic form that communicates encouragement.


In 1903 the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and a 19-year-old young military student named Franz Xavier Kappus began a correspondence about the young man’s efforts to write. The young man was riven with great self-doubt about his writing and thinking, about his capacity to produce good poetry. Rilke responded out of a generosity, care and critique as much to his personal self-questioning as to the quality of his poetic output. Kappus was unsettled, disturbed by his own questions to which Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet responded:

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

The most and perhaps the best young Kappus can do is to love the question and live with the question. Waiting.

What Wabash faculty member has been Rilke to you at Wabash? What poetry, literally or figuratively, have you found helped to write? How has your humanity been touched by a questioner and a question in this place? What questions do you now love and live with in anticipation? What lies ahead in a future, like the question mark, that stands open?

On this final note the Matrix speaks yet again. Recall Neo’s final communique: "I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. I'm going to show you a world without boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you." Your Wabash education leaves you with the question and the love of the question. What is now possible for you? In good Wabash style, you must decide.

Congratulations, Wabash men, on completing your liberal arts course of study. Welcome to the world of the real.

 


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