One of my old Old Testament professors, Fr. Leslie Hoppe O.F.M., said his greatest priority was to make sure he was on the Right Question. It puzzled me for a moment, since in academic study the Right Answer would seem to be more important, but he was speaking of something a little broader in scope. After thinking it over, it seems to be a very important issue, and not one that hits a lot of people’s radar these days.
What’s a Wrong Question? There’s lots of them of every kind: irrelevant detail questions, questions that take us down tangents, questions that have no good answer, questions that intend to deceive, questions that try to prove us wrong. Wrong questions almost universally try to get us stuck in the middle of nowhere, usually get us stuck between our own ears. They tend to be rather useless, like: “How may furlongs can I cover in a fortnight?” The problem with Wrong Questions is the answers never help us, and they keep us from paying attention to important things.
Needless to say, in an Election Year, most of the questions in public debate are Wrong Questions. They are great help when you want to distract big groups of people from topics you don’t want thought about or discussed. They’re also used at meetings a lot as well: a great trick that can make a group of people think they’re getting something done when they aren’t, take up time, and keep a subject off the agenda. They’re used in classes as well: especially when a student wants to get a teacher sidetracked from the syllabus and/or chew up class time. Teachers can use them to take up class time when they’ve run out of material as well.
It’s human nature to get stuck on a Wrong Question. A good Wrong Question can create a lot of room for mischief. At times, they can even be tools of deception, deceit and manipulation.
So how can you tell what a Right Question is? That’s a good question, and the answer isn’t always easy to spot.
Many Right Questions help us solve problems because they get to the heart of a matter and help us think things through efficiently. They help us learn: Socrates was good at Right Questions, in fact, almost all his stories had him asking strings of Right Questions that help lead a student to some excellent discoveries. In my opinion, a Right Question always keeps us balanced, always lets to find a new path, opens our minds to infinite possibility. A Right Question doesn’t even need an definite answer, strangely enough: contemplation of a Right Question can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world around us. The Zen Buddhist tradition of the Koan is a good example of such questions. The question “Who is Jesus?”, the great question of the Gospel According to Mark, is the important question for us Christians.
The Right Questions always leads us toward places like Illumination, Insight, Self-Discovery, Compassion, and Community. For me, the Right Question always leads me toward Christ. I hope we can always be on the Right Question, because we’re better off that way.