The Practice of Questioning

This came in a letter from Bruce Illig:

Hello Editors,  I just finished Jeff’s book [The Family], and had to subscribe to your site’s newsletter and become a facebook fan just to find a place to hide.  The amazing book answered many questions of my past 40 years, most notably the relationship between “elite” and “popular” fundamentalism.  I am left wondering what to do about the influence of the amoral “elite” , aside from continuing the secular practice of “questioning.”  I saw “The Blob” in theatrical  release in 1958 at eight years of age, and knew there was something fishy about its tone then.  I now know why I spent my high school years questioning and forensically debating the irrational rabid anti-communism of the era.   Thanks, I think.

Bruce is on to something, we suspect. Questioning is the ultimate antidote to dangerous certainty, and we at Killing the Buddha make it our mission to raise questions in the face of every orthodoxy we can find—not simply for the sake of squashing it but in the hope of ever keeping on our toes, of asserting the priority of thinking and feeling above idols.

When he speaks of questioning, Bruce describes it as “secular.” I think of Heidegger, one of the architects of modern, secular reason, who understood the authentic subject as one for whom one’s own being is a question. It is, on the one hand, a Nietzschian attitude, flying in the face of fixed religious dogma, in search of an ever-changing, ever-rebuilding ethic of existence—an ethic very much of the world, which is to say, secular. However, wandering back through Heidegger’s lectures that precede his great work Being and Time, one finds not Nietzsche but the apostle Paul and Augustine of Hippo. In Augustine, actually, we find the root of Heidegger’s secular subject in a phrase that appears several times in the Confessions as the defining posture of his faith: “I have become a question to myself.”

I would suggest, therefore, that to define the kind of questioning we’re talking about as purely secular is to cover over the possibility that it can be a very religious practice too. Think, for instance, of “killing the Buddha“—a religious story from Buddhism that inspired the questioning that goes on here on this site. Certainly there are secular ways of being dogmatic and unquestioning. We need secular questioning, yes, but religious questioning as well.

If you’ve gotten this far and would like to think more about the religiosity and secularity of questioning, be sure to check out “Is critique secular?” a discussion at The Immanent Frame featuring Bill Ayers, Saba Mahmood, Robert Bellah, and others.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.