Why do children ask lots and lots of questions? Aren’t they capable of understanding the answer the first 15 times their parents respond? Why do people make statements about their views instead of asking each other questions? Shouldn’t we be quick to listen to others’ ideas instead of simply asserting our own?
Why does God ask questions?
Isn’t he supposed to be all-knowing?
The ability to ask questions is part of what makes us human. Animals have significant communicative abilities—the ability to signal, to gesture, and to vocalize. They can problem-solve and even reason, as Mexican ecologist Constantino Macías Garcia found in house finches that line their nests with cigarette butts as a chemical deterrent against ticks.
But animals lack the metacognition required to ask questions. Metacognition refers to the ability to think about thinking and implies more than merely taking action or responding to inputs.
Peter Carruthers, in his article “Meta-cognition in Animals: A Skeptical Look,” explains that thinking in humans and animals can be divided into two systems: a lower level that is reactive and a higher level that is reflective. In Carruthers’s classification, animals can make statements because statements come from the lower level of thinking. They can reason that some types of nesting prevent ticks. But animals cannot ask questions, because animals cannot think about the possibilities that questions could evoke.
My cat, Sitka, can tell me he needs food (“meow”), and command me to get him food (“meow, meow, meow”), but he cannot ask me what the food is. He lacks the higher level of abstract thinking needed to ask questions. Being a cat, he probably doesn’t care what I think anyway.
Unlike animals, human children have the ability to ask questions from an early stage of development. “Ask questions” does not imply the ability to form grammatically correct interrogative sentences; this comes later. Most parents have heard their children ask oddly worded questions. “Ask questions” means to inquire, to wonder, to request, and to seek, even if they can’t form the sentence with correct structure. This way of thinking arises in the second, higher system of thinking.
A history of questions
In the ancient world, one dominated by an oral culture, questions enjoyed a certain pride of place. In the first real conversation God had with people in the Bible, God asked, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). And who can forget God peppering Job with questions, starting with: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2). We also see this in the letters of Paul. When a point needed to be made, Paul didn’t always make a statement but sometimes asked a long string of questions instead (for example, Rom. 10:14–15 and 1 Cor. 1:20).
The idea that God asks questions makes some Bible readers uncomfortable. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria wondered as early as the first century A.D. why God asks questions. Philo, convinced of God’s omniscience, ultimately felt that God couldn’t really ask questions. Instead, he argued that God communicated in a way that seemed he was asking questions when he actually intended humans to hear commands in need of a response rather than a conversation. After all, how can God, who knows everything, need information from his creatures, who clearly know so very little?
Modern readers of the Bible are tempted to explain many of the questions that God asks as mere rhetorical questions. But this concept is a modern invention. This way of thinking would have been foreign both to Job and to Philo. Ancient readers would have heard these questions more as a type of dialogue—God debating Job—and this is precisely why it bothered Philo.
In many ways, we can blame Aristotle for killing the question. In trying to help the Greek world think better, he argued that only statements can be true or false. Other kinds of utterances like questions and prayers cannot be true or false, and thus are of lesser value. From this point onward, culture moved from oral culture (word of mouth) to written culture (handwritten documents) to textual culture (printed documents) and now to a hypertextual culture (digital word processing and communication), where facts in bullet point have slowly but surely become the privileged form of communication. With each iteration, statements have increased their dominance over every other type of utterance.
The loss of questions
If Aristotle killed the question, Gottlob Frege buried it. Frege, the late 19th-century father of analytic philosophy and logician who launched the modern study of interrogatives, tended to see questions as little more than statements that request information. In the mid-20th century, some linguists such as David Harrah and Lauri Karttunen went on to argue that there is no such thing as a question distinct from a statement.
For example, if I ask, “Will you please pass the butter?” am I asking you a question, or am I politely commanding you to pass the butter? If I ask you this at a potluck and you tell me, “No,” you will find out very quickly by the looks you get from others that maybe it wasn’t a question after all.
Likewise, if I ask you, “Where is the best place to get barbecue?” maybe I am just implying the command, “You tell me where the best place to get barbecue is.”
“Will you please pass the butter?” may seem a silly example. But it is actually an infamous type of question that pervades the linguistic study of questions. Though the last 50 years of the linguistic study of questions have seen a decrease in this heavy-handed reductionism, much of this way of thinking fits our hypertextual society. We don’t ask each other questions. Instead, we speak—sometimes tweet—statements at each other. Political discourse is the lowest-hanging fruit of making statements and avoiding questions. We don’t care much what the other side has to say as long as we get our point across. But political discourse is only the extreme end of the way people today speak to each other.
A dialogue with God
Communication is not merely about form and function. One reason I ask you “Will you pass the butter?” instead of commanding it is because I care about you, what you think, and how you feel. The only way that I can know you is to ask genuine questions.
So why does God ask questions in the Bible? Is it because the Bible writers were products of an oral culture? Is it because he is a God who toys with people, asking questions perniciously, knowing the answers but testing how people will respond?
God asks questions in large part for the same reason humans ask questions: the desire for relationship. Commands and declarations create monologues, but only questions can create dialogues. Think of young children who ask the same questions over and over; these budding dialogues are attempts to bond with their parents. Parents listen and respond because they love their children. Conversely, think of political protestors, shouting their slogans; these are monologues.
God created humans with both systems of metacognition. He can monologue with us—tell us what we need to do—and that works on a certain level. Yet, if God wants to have meaningful relationship with us, it will require dialogue. And dialogue requires questions.
“Questions and responses are an integral part of growing a friendship, both human and divine,” notes Trevor Hudson, author of Questions God Asks Us. “It is part of the process of mutual self-revelation which is critical to the deepening of our friendship with God.”
Cognitive psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Teresa Bejarano Fernández have noted that very young children often misinterpret questions from adults. If, when my children first get home from school, I ask, “What is your homework?” they are likely just to go to their book bags and get their homework, never actually answering the question. They confuse instruction with discussion, monologue with dialogue.
There is an analogy here of our relationship with God our heavenly Father. When God asks us a question, do we hear the question as a question, part of a dialogue with us? Or do we mishear it as an instruction?
But does God really ask his people questions today? “Absolutely!” says Heather King, author of Ask Me Anything, Lord: Opening Our Lives to God’s Questions. “God’s character and heart for relationship remain the same now as they were in [the time of] Scripture, and he can draw us into conversation and intimacy with him through questions.”
Are we also asking questions of God? In my own prayer life, I find myself telling God, “Forgive me of my sins.” It feels like “Pass the butter.” Somehow, that statement needs to be a question; I need to dialogue with God about my sins, not simply make theological statements in the expectation that God will do what I expect him to do. I ask because I don’t want God to merely forgive but also to help me grow closer to him, so that I will move away from the sin I struggle with. It’s hard, because we live in a world that is perfectly comfortable with making statements. And perfectly uncomfortable asking questions.
Loving with questions
The Bible reveals a God who does not just monologue, but who dialogues, creating conversation and intimacy through asking questions. If we want to reflect the image of God in us and love other people, we can do so by asking them questions.
In God’s first dialogue with people, he asks the intensely personal and probing question, “Where are you?”
This is unlike the world around us. The current socio-political environment in the West engenders an endless stream of finger-pointing and declaration-making. Our media, and the people in it, say a lot but ask little. Even as Christians, we’re not often asking real questions that create real dialogue and lead to real community. If we really love people, should we ever make statements again?
Douglas Estes is an assistant professor and director of the DMin program at South University, Columbia in South Carolina. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Questions and Rhetoric in the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 2017).
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