Doubt, Religion, and Knowledge

In Night, Elie Wiesel’s haunting memoir of the Holocaust, Wiesel reflects on time spent with Moishe the Beadle with whom he discussed the deep things of Jewish spiritual inquiry. In his conversations with Moishe, we are told, “He [Moishe] explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer . . .” (Wiesel 2006: 4–5). Having read this book with my students many times now, I have always found this part of the narrative important for the story that Wiesel tells and for my own search for knowledge and truth. Answers inevitably mean that a given question is no longer compelling to ask. New questions often arise, but the question you started with no longer holds its potency to drive the questioner towards finding the answer. And thus, the power of the question is totally linked to the answer. In Night, one gets the sneaking suspicion that the question—perhaps I should say, The Question—is the answer. Or in other words, that in the most enduring human issues, predicaments, and trials, the questions we ask are an answer in and of themselves because they keep our attention on what is most important. For Wiesel, the question of how God could allow the Holocaust is a key motif in Night. He eschews easy answers and opts for the stance of protest. In one poignant scene, Wiesel recounts how the men he lived with in Auschwitz speculated on the reasons why God was allowing such horrible things to happen. Some said God worked in mysterious ways. Some said God was judging the Jews for their sins. Others saw it as a test of faith. Wiesel had come to a different conclusion: “As for me, I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice” (Wiesel 2006: 45). To the question of unjust suffering, Wiesel did not seek to turn to an answer that somehow got God off the hook; rather he doubts God’s justice in allowing such things to happen. Wiesel’s answer to the question, “Why does God allow suffering such as the Holocaust?” is something like, “Why in the world would God allow such suffering to take place?” And perhaps for good effect, it should be repeated several times with an ever-increasing urgency in the voice. The key is the incredulity, the unwillingness of the one who answers the initial question with another question to settle for a simple answer. This impulse seems critically important in religious life and more generally in the search for knowledge. In the face of pressures to find certainty and assurance of the things we hold most dear, it can be unsettling too. And yet, the creative tension, the power of the question as Wiesel puts it, is one of the strongest tools in our intellectual and spiritual toolkits. To embrace it is to accept that our need for certainty is less important than a long quest for understanding driven by unanswered questions.

Idealizing the Past

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Recently, as I was preparing for a class on the book of Ecclesiastes in my Introduction to the Bible course, I read this verse, which I don’t think has ever really stood out to me. This time, I was struck by it. It addresses something that many, perhaps all people, experience in their lives; they look to the past and they think that the past was somehow better. In some cases, this motivates people to try to change things back to those glory days. The author of Ecclesiastes thinks otherwise. Now I don’t think we are meant to take this as counsel against ever thinking about the past, but—as I see it—it does warn against idealizing the past as better than the present. Why?

Humans love to think about the past, individually and corporately. Sometimes we idealize it and sometimes we demonize it. However we represent it, we are shaping and being shaped by the memories we form and recast. It is common, when people find themselves in a difficult spot, to look back to their childhood, or more remote past, thinking that if they were only in that time, things would be different. On the more radical side of things, those who are afraid of the downfall of white European civilization try to get back to a more “pure” time. In either case, the impulse to idealize the past and try to recreate it is strong in our species, and it is not always a productive impulse. It can lead us down the path to self-deception, dwelling on something that never existed in the way we recreate it in our mind. Here, the author of Ecclesiastes seems to beckon us to enjoy the now, without comparing it to the past.