Question People and Answer People

I have a new novel coming out soon, entitled The Good Know Nothing.

The title came from a quote from novelist Paul Auster: “For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing.”

Soon after I decided upon the title, I mentioned it to my son Cody, which prompted a discussion of the value or danger of “knowing”. He contended that unless we know or believe we know something, we will have no passion to fight for it.

I maintained that we can believe with a mighty passion while holding onto a portion of doubt that our belief is valid. This portion of doubt (however small), I argued, can keep us from murderous fanaticism and help us obey the admonition to love even our enemies. For all we know, they may possibly be right. A portion of doubt can also leave us free to grow, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and to live unburdened by the defensive posture that troubles and often ruins so many friendships.

I’ve noticed a distinction between types of people, whom I’ll call “question people” and “answer people”.

Let’s apply the distinction between question people and answer people to their attitudes toward belief in God. Either sort might assert “I know God exists”.  But a question person would probably define the word “know” as a deep feeling or an existential choice based upon both intuition and experience. I’ll call this faith, and point out that faith is not an appropriate synonym for knowledge. Knowledge more properly refers to understanding based strictly upon evidence. And where there is sufficient evidence, there is no need for faith. Faith is a kind of knowing apart from, or only partially based upon, evidence.

Now let’s tackle a more nuanced question, and imagine ourselves in a small group of believers. Someone asks, “How can I resolve the fact that the Bible says our prayers will always be answered with my experience that makes that claim look false?”

The “question person” may have an answer, but it’s liable to be tentative, and she is likely not to express it right away. Rather, she will wait to see if someone else’s answer might offer new thoughts or angles on the question, or a new insight or awareness.

The answer person generally seeks closure by delivering a formula, such as: “God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is no. ” Or, “The answer may not come right away, but it will come eventually.” Or he may come to the dangerous conclusion that the person who prayed lacked faith or didn’t pray according to God’s will.

The question person is comfortable with mystery. The answer person is not. Essayists, I suppose, can be answer people. Poets or writers of fiction had better be question people, or else they’re not making art, they’re making product, which those of us who consider life on earth far too short don’t have time to bother reading.