Unask The Question
It’s been an insanely busy Fall and I haven’t had much margin for writing, but with a few minutes to spare I thought I would jot something down that’s been on my mind for the past few weeks. This post acts as a kind of follow-up to my post on rejecting simple thinking. Let me start with a quote I love from Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise:
“Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question.”1
Questions matters. Some are good, some are not. Some are expansive, some are limiting. Some questions will destroy an answer before it’s even spoken. And so, we need to be the kind of people who learn how to ask good questions and maybe even to be the kind of people who know how to reject bad ones.
We live in a time of dialogical combat. Words, God help us, have been weaponized and questions are launched as “gotcha” grenades. Yet beyond the questions which are obviously combative or unfounded, there are other questions which prove problematic not because they are heated, but because they are far too simplistic and demand a yes-or-no answer to a topic that demands complexity. These questions, even if unintended, often become loaded because they lock the respondent into an answer that cannot express any nuance or complexity, only this-or-that. Robert Pirsig calls this the “truth trap of yes-no logic.”2 These yes-no/this-that questions can help us at times. As Tippett says, “a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”3
But often, because of the complexity of what we are dealing with, a yes-no/this-that question is not simple, but “simplistic,” and therefore insists on pushing ideas into certain camps or, worse, people into certain camps, creating an us/them outcome. This exact simplicity is currently causing us to double down on our bitter divisions by leaving no space for generous answers or dialogue; the space between us is removed and the traps become set. When I’m asked a “truth trap” questions in dealing with complex issues, I want to answer by simply responding “Mu.” Mu?4
Robert Pirsig in his famous book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, talks about the Japanese word mu (pronounced moo). He writes:
“Mu means ‘no thing.’ Like ‘Quality’ it points outside the process of dualistic discrimination…It states that the context of the question is such that a yes or no answer is in error and should not be given. ‘Unask the question’ is what it says.”5
Unask the question. I love this. The point is not, of course, that I don’t like your question and therefore refuse to engage in dialogue with you. This would be inappropriate. So when, then, is mu appropriate? Pirsig says,
“Mu becomes appropriate when the context of the question becomes too small for the truth of the answer.”6
In life in general, and in the life of the church in particular, we need to resist questions that close space instead of opening it, pushing us over here or over there. We need to learn how to say mu and gently help each other to ask better and more generous questions that can lead to more nuanced and generous answers. After all, “it’s hard to resist a generous question.” And so, let’s learn how to ask good questions and reject (or insist on reframing) bad ones.
Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 29-30
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (New York: HarperCollins, 1974, this ed. 1999), 319
I’m using the Chinese character for Mu in the cover art. Thanks to Daniel Mok for helping me here!
Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 320