[Apologies for the lack of recent posts: I’ve been on holiday. (North Americans, that means vacation.)]
Anyone who’s been around the “Christian internet” for any length of time will know David Hayward as the (in)famous Naked Pastor, who styles himself a “graffiti artist on the walls of religion” and has been posting irreverent but piercingly insightful cartoons on a near-daily basis since 2006. While Questions Are The Answer is not his first book, it is surely his most personal and widely accessible writing to date.
In short, the book recounts Hayward’s story from childhood dreams of pastoral ministry through to his current status as unofficial agent provocateur and commentator on all things related to western religion and its shortcomings.
At the core of this book, as its title indicates, is the idea of paradox: Hayward sets out to show that, while much of the Western evangelical church is unrelentingly engaged in hot pursuit of dogmatic certainty, the real satisfaction is, in fact, to be found in the very questions that stimulate uncertainty and prevent crystallised certainty. The genius of the book is that Hayward accomplishes his task not by setting out an apologetic or series of arguments, but by simply and honestly telling his own story. As we read about his childhood and teenage passions, his on-off love affair with more than one church community, his theological studies, and his processing of all this with wife and close friends, we feel not threatened but rather privileged to have a disarmingly real and vulnerable insight into one person’s spiritual development.
Briefly, Hayward’s book charts the course of spiritual deconstruction and reconstruction. To make this often difficult and turbulent process easier to understand, the author breaks it down into three stages, which conveniently serve as chapter headings (yes, it only has three chapters!).
The first stage is “Closed questions”, in which every question must have a black-and-white answer, open questions are not allowed, and certainty is the order of the day. Many of us will recognise this as a necessary building block in the construction of a secure identity in this uncertain world. And many of us will look back on our childhood and teenage years and see how this stage unfolded for us.
The second stage is “Swinging questions”, in which the pendulum oscillates between certainty and uncertainty and we begin to entertain the notion that there may not be a clear, unambiguous answer to all of our theological and philosophical questions. Again, many of us who have reached a certain age will recognise this stage and the uncomfortable feelings that often accompany it.
The third and final stage is “Open questions”, where we are finally at peace with the fact that there are a great many questions to which we do not and cannot know the answers. In this stage, we finally come to realise that, in fact, the only way to peace is not in knowing the answers to more and more questions, but rather in accepting and treasuring the questions themselves. We finally realise that the journey is the destination; or, to put it another way, Questions Are The Answer.
The notion of theological deconstruction is scary to many people. The very idea of change, particularly when it comes to theology, causes alarm bells to ring and defensive barriers to go up. What is so valuable about this book is that, by simply and honestly telling his own story rather than seeking to rant or proselytise, the author endears us to him and takes us along in his quest. Instead of feeling incredulity and alienation, we experience empathy and togetherness.
This blog is mainly a place where I have charted various aspects of my own theological deconstruction. As such, I know that I have many readers who are struggling with the very real challenge of how to let go of dogmatic religious beliefs while maintaining some kind of personal identity and integrity. If you find some degree of resonance with what I’ve said here, I strongly encourage you to read this book: in it you will find not a detached instructor, but rather a close and understanding companion for the journey. If the spiritual destination you seek is peace, you will find few better guides than David Hayward to help you along the path.
Full disclosure: I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.