Let’s jump right in and talk about conferences. A bunch of people getting together to ask a single question.
For example: how do we manufacture a better manufacturing sector? How do we, as institutions of higher education, use social media to advance our mission? How do we practice youth ministry in the city? How do we, as the world’s 20 largest independent countries, cooperate to achieve global economic stability and agree on international financial norms?
No matter how specific the question, the participants of each conference – speakers and audience and hosts alike – never leave with exactly the same answer. There was just too much information and personal opinion swirling around for everyone to be the same page. For some people, the success of a conference is measured not in “notes taken” but “business cards collected” or “photo ops achieved.”
Motives, goals, results will vary. There will be sub-questions and tangents.
Nonetheless, what holds all these elements of a conference together for its brief blink of unity, is that single question.
This summer, I was at a conference that was all about how Midwest-based, sustainability-focused non-profits could mobilize together to reduce the carbon footprint of the region enough to avert the climate change crisis (with the big assumption, of course, that the rest of the nation and the world does their fair share as well). It was the sort of conference with two separate dress codes – either business casual or hippie commune.
I was merely supposed to go and take notes, maybe get a few business cards along the way. When I arrived that morning, however, I found out that due to extraneous circumstances, the lead spokesperson for my organization, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, was unable to be there that day. With roughly 20 minutes until go time, I had to prep some preliminary remarks and represent us on the “Faith and Eco-Justice” session panel.
With three other panelists, I took all sorts of questions I had not had a proper chance to prepare answers for. “What are some the greatest challenges you have had reaching out to churches in the Midwest?” “How is your organization reaching out to African-Americans and other minority groups?” “What advice would you give us scientists and policy-wonks for reaching out to faith communities?” (The entire time, I wanted to ask what the difference between “eco-justice” and regular justice was. But I figured, as a panelist, it was best I not ask such a question that could come across as either pointed or ill-informed.)
I sat alongside some excellent panelists, and the conversation that ensued was at once frank, rich and insightful. Nobody in the room wanted it to end, and we were beginning to run over our allotted time.
“One more question,” declared the moderator.
That one more question came from a man sitting behind his 17” laptop. In subtle ways, he stuck out from the rest of the crowd. He broke both dress codes and wore a simple t-shirt and cargo shorts, while his overgrown stubble qualified him for neither the professional clean-shave nor outdoorsman beard categories. He had a few extra pounds on him — not that he was unhealthily overweight, just that at a conference of environmentally conscious folks who mostly ate plants and rode bikes, the fact that he was not slender was noticeable.
“I have found this whole discussion really fascinating,” he began. “In fact, I want to ask a question to the Christians on the panel about how they see global warming in view of their doctrine of the apocalypse and the end times.” I made a quick glance at the other evangelical Christian who sat on the panel, who looked just as excited as I was to launch into this conversation about the rich theology of eschatology that goes way deeper than one finds among the Left Behind books and rapture-ready bumper-stickers which dominate Christian pop sub-culture.
“But I’m not going to ask that question,” continued the man who was beginning to look more and more like an internet troll. “Instead, I want to talk about a very important topic that none of the panelists have brought up. Nuclear power is an incredible energy source that is getting safer all the time, but for whatever reason the green orthodoxy has decided to continuously push it away…”
This so-called “question” went on for about a minute, only to end when the man turned his 17” laptop around toward the panel, although we sat too far away to make out whatever chart or map he had on the screen.
The panel was polite but unimpressed. Nuclear power was a topic about as relevant as homeopathic medicine at a Race for the Cure event. A great discussion for another time wound up riling up the audience into righteous chatter and crosstalk. I was livid if not a bit sorry, because this man’s initial question was great. It was his own agenda that defeated him.
(As another conference participant reminded me later: “what did you expect out of a room full of activists?”)
I had a friend in college who is the sort of friend you want to have in college. Anytime, really.
She was, and continues to be, the master of the art of asking questions.
My college friend was not just interested in what you did today or how you were feeling. She wanted to know how these were connected. She wanted to uncover the passion behind your hobbies, the hope behind your labors, the values behind your talk. Her questions were far from “small talk” – they were verbal processing prompts that in the process of answering you would learn just as much about yourself as she would. She found a sly, subversive joy in making you the star of the conversation.
Nearly an hour in, I would try to turn the tables.
“Enough about me, how are things going in your own life?”
“Good, good,” she would respond.
I want to master the art of asking questions. I am not sure if I can.
My instincts as a storyteller, as a moralizer, as an advice-giver often are the first to rise to the surface. If I ever come across as silent, it is more likely because I am busy formulating my own response than it is because I am listening intently.
I once tried to come up with a pre-prepared list of “50 great questions to ask anyone.” The hope was that I would always be ready to come across as a question-asking-master.
That list never came to fruition.
Maybe you are born with the “art of asking questions.” Or maybe the “art of asking questions” is really the “art of listening.” The best questions, after all, seem to come not from outside the conversation, but rather from the inside.
There might be a chance that I can still master the art of asking questions. At the very least, I am going to give it the best shot I have left in me.
What if a question could change the world?
We are quick to rush to the answers — especially when the issues our world faces are so urgent. We understandably want people to think the right things. We are going to be evangelists of our own good news.
As someone who believes in something out there called truth, the sort of truth that is able to be touched if not grasped, I have to logically conclude that the answers are of crucial importance.
But answers have a way of growing old, of turning into tired talking points that are not in harmony with the world around them.
Just because we have the right answers does not mean we can leave the questions behind. Like a guitarist tuning his guitar partway through the performance, the evangelist needs to make sure her favorite answers keep hitting the right note. Questions can do that.
At the ground level, however, “changing the world” is not so much about righting answers as it is about righting relationships. Peace (if I may be so bold as to suggest what peace may look like) finds its roots not in agreement but rather in trust.
And so, a challenge: let us not simply ask questions that are mere intellectual exercises or opportunities to look smart. Those have their place, and we have enough of those to go around. Let us instead ask questions that are of the sort that show we trust each other.
The sort of questions that are springboards for someone else to develop their train of thought, instead of wedges meant to exploit their inconsistencies and omissions. The sort of question where we look forward to the answer, not because it is “truthful” or “insightful” or even “interesting” but because it comes from another human being possessing that strange thing we call dignity. The sort of question that is on everyone’s mind, but nobody has been quite sure how to put it to words. The sort of question that comes from inside, not outside, the conversation.
Heck, we can even have a conference. One where we all get together and simply ask: how can we ask better questions?
Who knows if such a conference could actually change the world, or even nudge things in the right direction. There’s enough conferences as it is and most of them, we complain, are high on talk and little on action.
But, if we are going to keeping having conferences (and I don’t think they are going away anytime soon), we might as well give them the best shot we have left in us.
What are the questions that could change the world?
“On Questions” is second in an ongoing series of meditations on life’s ubiquitous experiences. The first was On Notifications.