The Queries and A Life of Discernment

Introduction

Our world is made up of questions and ambiguities. Probably all of you have watched Jeopardy. The unique thing about the game of Jeopardy, besides its suave host Alex Trebek, is that the contestants respond with a question in order to score points.  For instance: Here is an answer for 500 points — July 4. The question: When is America’s birthday? Jeopardy’s unique gameplay suggests that sometimes questions are what is most important. What is most important in our day, we might say, is not so much having the right answer as it is coming up with the right questions.

Quakers have been living with questions for a really long time. These questions have been known as queries, most of you are familiar with them by now and they have a history of their own. The first reference I have found to queries is in George Fox’s journal in 1657. There he writes of queries that he posed to local professors and priests to challenge their lack of scriptural and spiritual insight (professors were people who professed to be Christians but didn’t possess the life of the Spirit).  But the first official queries were used in the 1660’s as the Quaker movement began to be more organized: “It was London Yearly Meeting that employed them “to gauge the health of the Society and provide specific information: “How does Truth prosper among you?” or “How many Friends have suffered for Truth in the past year?’” Are two examples (T. Hamm, email correspondence).

And as the selection of queries grew over time, so did their use:

“Yearly meetings added to them and made them more formal over the course of the eighteenth century–do Friends keep to plainness, do they avoid places of diversion, are the children of Friends educated under the care of the meeting? New queries often reflected changing testimonies and expectations.” (ibid)

The queries at this point in the history were meant to be read aloud at least once a year and then responded to. This was how quaker meetings gave account to the state of their meeting and the larger body. In one faith and practice from the 17th century it exhorts the local meetings to write their responses and submit them to the yearly meeting.

So the types of questions early Friends were writing responses to were things like:

First query: Are all our religious meetings for worship and discipline duly attended; is the hour observed; and are friends clear of sleeping, and of all other unbecoming behavior therein?

Second query: Is love and unity maintained amongst you? Are tale-bearing and detractions discouraged. And where any differences arise, are endeavors used speedily to end them?

So initially, queries were used then mainly as guides for community discernment. They were invitations to enter together as a faith community into the ongoing discussion of how their faith was being lived out.

Creeds and Answers

Queries emerged as essential to Quaker practice because we have no creeds. Creeds are sort of like contracts, at least for those who hold to them, are measurable and something to be either accepted or rejected in full.  Quakers prefered the more personal route, which gave rise to queries. This isn’t to say that early Friends didn’t agree with something like the Nicene Creed [eg…] so much as it meant that for our tradition, we have always subscribed to a personal, experiential faith, rather than a prescribed, doctrinal one. Early Quakers liked to repeat to their adversaries “the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”  Saying the right words, having the proper answers is to be only a professor of truth, it is never as important as walking in the life and power of God’s Light. Queries open us up to the fact “that words are inadequate to contain God,” and so we have to move beyond prose to the God beyond these words. Queries help to move us there. “In other words, the point of the best questions is not to know “the answer.”  The point is to move us toward wonder” (Mike Huber).

But a movement without creeds, without any hierarchy and without any priestly class can be a little difficult to hold together. So the queries were used to help maintain unity in a creedless church. In this way Friends have typically sought unity in practice rather than through doctrine. What we are interested in as a church is that each of you, each of us, are transformed by the living God, and that transformation spills over into the world, not that you can recite ancient words. [Though, I would add if those words help you in the process of transformation then go for it.]

We believe that this transformation comes through self-assessment and reflection guided by things like queries. With a good question, we will arrive at the proper answer. As Jesus said in the book of Matt:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matt 7:7–9)

Therefore, for us, a life lead by the Spirit is a life that learns how to ask good questions.  Instead, it recognizes that the asking, seeking and knocking, form us and makes us into Christ’s followers. To put it another way, to ask, seek and to knock is to take up a life of attention and discernment.

Discernment: So What Are Queries?

Queries are open-ended questions rather than rhetorical ones. They do not know the proper answer in advance. This is not a classroom where the same student always raises his hand to challenge the professor under the guise of “asking” a question. Queries are probing and heart-felt questions. And when we take them on, they help point us in what our tradition believes is the right direction.  Harold Loukes writes: “They are questions to our life, not accusations, yet they are hard questions…(Myers 36, cf Loukes 1968:1ff). They are meant for us to take them seriously.

Just like the the little child who persistently asks the question…why? because she is deeply hungry for knowledge, for experience, to understand and to know. We ask, we seek, and we knock because we are hungry to know God and God’s ways and to be known by God and God’s people.  Queries help us search out God and a life formed by truth. They help us understand that life cannot be simplified or boiled down into a pat answers, the same way that no matter how many times I give an answer to quench Lily’s questioning, she always subsumes it with another, almost instantaneous, “why?”

And why is this? I think it is because the answer isn’t as important to her as the wondering. And so we take queries on as a practice not simply as individuals but as a community invited to wonder, seek, to discern the many paths that lay before us.

New Uses

Over time, just like anything, the use of queries changed from a more communal use where local meetings read them aloud during their business meetings to a more individual focus. Over time there were no longer written responses (except OYM). And by the 20th century, queries were meant more for spiritual direction than anything else. But even still, while I would like to see us as a church, and as a yearly meeting, make more corporate use of the queries, the fact that we still have them as collective and distilled wisdom from our tradition inspires me. They are meant “to continually teach and transform us” not as a mere learning device but as an invitation to experience that transformation for ourselves, as well as our community.

Once we open ourselves up to these probing questions, we can’t help but start down the path of transformation.

A couple yrs ago when I bought the bike I now ride I was impacted by these spiritually directed questions. As I was trying to customize the bike to fit my needs I continued to battle the desire to go all out, add some of the really nice (i.e. expensive) parts to it to make it extra sweet. But earlier that week I had a read a query that kept ringing in my head, prompting me to wait and consider the choices I was about to make:

“Do I recognize when I have enough?”

As I took this query seriously and considered it I began to look at my situation differently. The query invited me into a dialogue with God about the situation that otherwise I would have ignored.

Therefore, we might also say that queries are narrative based. They enter into concrete moments in our lives and help ground us in a larger story where there are many ways we can respond. They can also evoke “within us a memory of who we are as a people.” (Myers, 12)  When we consider, reflect on, and pray these queries, stories and struggles from our own lives are evoked, pictures appear and examples are promoted in our hearts. Transformation is underway.

Jesus the Interlocutor

Jesus entertained many questions in his life and he asked many more. Ched Myers says that in Mark 3/4‘s of the episodes are composed of questions to, by or about Jesus from 1:24 (scribal authority) to the closing quandary (16:3). Jesus is constantly asked questions like: “By what authority are you doing these things; and who gave it to you?” (Mk 11:28), to which he classically replies with more questions “I will ask you one question: answer me, and I will answer you” (11:29). And there are many others including “Who is my mother and brother? (3:33), “What is the Kingdom of God like? (4:30) and “Why are you afraid? (4:40).

Jesus is not so much a wise sage as he is an “interlocutor of reality” using questions to “lay bear the inner conflicts of his disciples and opponents alike” (Myers 26). Jesus fits Paulo Freire’s picture of an empowering teacher who “provides the right questions not the right answers.”

And this is exactly what happens in the passage we read for this morning (Luke 10:25-29) as well. The young new hot-shot lawyer (ie expert of the Law) shows up, asks Jesus as question about the Law. Jesus responds again with a question, inviting this young man to reflect on what he knows already. And Jesus tells him that his answer about loving God and his neighbor is indeed the right answer. But that’s exactly the problem. Just as we said about Jeopardy, as well as the rest of life, what is important isn’t the answer so much as getting the right question down. And that’s when we get to one of the most probing queries of all time: “And who is my neighbor?”

And so we start again, with another question. Because life is full of questions and none of us stand outside the ambiguities of our world. We can pretend as though the questions don’t loom, we can use answers or creeds to duck behind our most probing questions and fears. But whether they are little questions about what parts to put on a bike, a daughter’s persistent “why?” or LeBron’s big gazillion dollar question, we must enter into spiritual formation and ask, seek, and knock. When we accept their invitation, these queries offer us to participate in a discerning life. They invite us as a community to ask, with the Spirit as guide, “how we can deeper our journey of discipleship, wherever we are starting from?” The goal isn’t to get the right answer, but to ask better questions.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

6 thoughts on “The Queries and A Life of Discernment”

  1. One of the best collections of advices and queries outside a book of Faith and Practice is in the book Plain Living by Catherine Whitmire.

  2. Hello, Wes

    Greetings from the Annual Session of North Pacific Yearly Meeting!

    I find this post so helpful because it showcases one spiritual practice among the several that, as you emphasize, have been especially supportive and encouraging of the transformational work of Christ/Spirit in our lives–such work being the "point" of "Quakerism."

    I also appreciate your explanation that while the queries have played different roles at different times and in different places they form a framework to test/prove the development in each of us, and in our communities, of the empirical and re-produce-able outcomes of that process of transformation.

    I'd like to add that these outcomes are what are often called "the testimonies"–the outward signs of inward transformation. In the Liberal domain of the Society we write these down, at this time, in this place, as Simplicity, Peace/Harmony, Integrity, Community and Equality. They are, of course, another iteration of the Fruits of Spirit found beginning at Galatians 5:22.

    Using queries asks us, as individuals and a church, about the extent to which our lives can be described by these testimonies. They are very important to the process of the perfection, developing the wholeness, the maturity and the fitness for a particular/peculiar purpose that is at the center of the faith and practice of Friends.

    So many times it seems that validation is the greater part of our spiritual aspiration–that we want reassurance that what we are is acceptable. And, of course, it is–even while we so often fall so short of that which, as a peculiar people, we are called to be. But while all of us can thankfully look back at the distances we have traveled toward spiritual maturity, we need to break down the pride and complacency that may accompany such backward looking. The queries help remind us that, while we are not what once were, Christ/the Light is not yet finished with any of us–that there is more shaking and quaking in front of all of us.

    Thanks.

    Reading this was a great start to my Annual Session here in Missoula.

    1. Thanks for this contribution Timothy. I appreciate the point about the testimonies being rooted in the Fruit of the Spirit. We’re actually doing a summer series on the testimonies and this was a sermon done within that series. So while I didn’t mention it here (which I probably should have), it was in the background.

  3. Here's my query:

    What is truth? Truth is based on what? If two people come up with two opposing answers, are they both right? If Ohio Yearly Meeting and and the New England Yearly Meeting come up with two answers for the same question, is one right and one wrong?

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