Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Big Questions

Written by: on April 18, 2015


I teach a class called Faith, Living, and Learning. One of the assignments in the class is called “The Big Questions.” It is an assignment that includes both a team presentation and an individual paper. The teams (usually groups of four or five students) are to come up with what they think are important questions about life in the following categories: ontology, cosmology, and theology. After coming up with five strong, agreed-upon questions, each group is to interview five people, soliciting the interviewee’s responses to the questions. The group being interviewed is a diverse mix. One person must be over 65; another must be between 13 and 17. One person must come from another culture and be bi-lingual. The fourth person must come from a faith background other than Christianity. The final person could be anyone the group chooses. Finally, the group reports their findings to the class; then each student submits a paper with his or her own responses to the questions. It is a good assignment that always makes for some good class conversation. No two answers on any of the questions have ever been identical. The “Big Questions” assignment makes for some very interesting conversation, but above all, it teaches my students that these are the kinds of conversations that are most fulfilling. We need these conversations; they shapes us, improve us. They make us think and make us ask more questions, which is a good thing, a good spiritual practice.

Our reading this week reminded me of my HUM 310 assignment. The thinkers covered in A Brief Guide to Ideas: Turning Points in the History of Human Thought[1] made me ask a lot of big questions. I have read about, studied, and even taught others about many of the thinkers in this book. Some were new; however, most were familiar. It was was good ground to cover again, important ground. As I read along, I thought of a question that really made me think. Would I have felt differently about this book in my late twenties than I do now in my late fifties? Absolutely! In my early twenties I would have rejected most of the thinkers as heretics. Now in my fifties I read with interest. I could see how people could perceive things the way they did. I could especially understand those who started as people of faith but ended up otherwise. I, too, have had my doubts – lots of doubts. I get this. Doubt makes sense to me now. Doubt is part of the human condition, and is a very important part.

This book covers philosophy, psychology, politics, religion, Christianity, science, feminism, and the paranormal. Not too many stones are left unturned. So what is the thesis of the book? Why was it written? To whom was it written? I like the fact that in the introduction the authors say that they are writing about Western thought. They do not pretend that their book covers all thinking – no book does. They even admit to their readers that some of the concepts in this book are difficult, and that is true. From what I can deduce, this book is not evangelistic; rather, it is informative. Although Raeper and Smith must have their own ideas and conclusions, they leave the readers to synthesize the information on their own ground. I appreciated this perspective. The motives for this work seem to be pure and clear. Raeper and Smith want their readers to think for themselves. For me at least, that made the text an enjoyable read.

The characters who stood out to me were Erasmus, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Carl Jung. The topics that stood out to me were psychology and fundamentalism. Why these men? Why these topics? Many reasons.

When I first got married, I was a committed fundamentalist Christian. I was also a pastor, but I was an atrocious husband. I knew everything about the Bible but little about relationships. Were it not for a close friend, I might still be a flaming fundamentalist, but I would have been divorced and would have done countless harm to many if I would have stayed on that path. But God intervened in the form of a growth psychologist named Frank and also in the form of a self-help, Jungian book called Born to Win. That man and that book turned me into a human being. Without psychology and a humanistic intervention, I would have been a different person today. In my story, unlike other Christian stories, I was saved from the faith as much as I was saved to the faith. Perhaps this is why I “get” the philosophy of humanism, even though I do not necessarily agree with it completely. Obviously, I am not in full agreement with the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, but I understand his reaction to Christianity. In my view, Feuerbach went too far; however, he did have something to say that is worth listening to. According to the text, “the secret of theology is anthropology” was Feuerbach’s mantra.[2] He believed that by studying God a person would discover more about human beings. But for Feuerbach, “the Human is, in fact, God.”[3] The study of humanity is an important study, but this thinker went too far, missing the point of the incarnation of Christ. Why? My guess is that Feuerbach had met some people who turned him off to the faith, people like me in my twenties. This probably included family since he came from a family that included churchmen. This is only conjecture, but one thing is true: We each have the power to influence others, for good or for evil. How am I influencing others in regards to the things of faith? Father John Powell said it this way, “We are shaped by the words people say – and by the words they refuse to say.”[4] Mark this well – we each influence others, who in turn influence others.

Unlike Feuerbach, Desiderious Erasmus was a Christian humanist. He lived in a very different time, a time in which the Roman Catholic Church dominated human thinking and behavior. It was during this time that faith and reason wrestled for mastery, and wrestling with the powerful Church of the day often came at great cost. Erasmus spoke out against the corruption of the church, particularly about scandalous clergymen and about the low state of the monasteries.[5] Ultimately, the church condemned his teachings, but his influence was immense in spite of that reality. Erasmus was for peaceful reform in the church, but unfortunately, the Reformation ultimately turned into a bloodbath. According to an article by Steven Kreis, “Erasmus stands as the supreme type of cultivated common sense applied to human affairs. He rescued theology from the pedantries of the Schoolmen, exposed the abuses of the Church, and did more than any other single person to advance the Revival of Learning.”[6] I like Erasmus’ brand of faith. He wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he truly believed. He wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions, the Big Questions. His influence is felt until this day.

Life is full of big questions. It is also full of wrestling matches. So, who is right? Who wins? It is my view that we all contribute in some way to the ever-expanding process of knowledge but that no single human has all the answers, at least not in this life. We cannot know everything. Each of us, if we are committed to personal growth, is changing and modifying how we see and understand the Big Questions. I am convinced that when I read this post ten years from now I will wonder what I was thinking then and will have a very different perspective to offer. Perhaps by then my writings will also be banned by the church. We will have to wait and see.

[1] William Raeper and Linda Smith, A Brief Guide to Ideas: Turning Points in the History of Human Thought (Oxford, England: Lion Publishing, 1991)

[2] Ibid., 123.

[3] Ibid.

[4] I read this quote years ago and never forgot it. It came from an important book called Why am I Afraid to Love?

[5] William Raeper and Linda Smith, A Brief Guide to Ideas: Turning Points in the History of Human Thought (Oxford, England: Lion Publishing, 1991) 162.

[6] Steven Kreis, Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536 (The History Guide, Lectures on Modern European History: from http://historyguide.org/intellect/erasmus.html, 2012) Para 6.


About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

11 responses to “The Big Questions”

  1. rhbaker275 says:

    What a great post – I like the way you engage our readings from a personal reflective perspective.

    I agree that Raeper and Smith present ideas in an informative format – presenting concepts in a clear readable genre that does not force the reader to accept or reject the idea – it is just like, raw knowledge. The value is in being able to reflect, something you do so well. I think you and Deve have a genuinely unique ability to reflect on concepts and ideas. I am learning from you guys.

    Part of my research this term involves building/developing a church model for ministry. The first step in model design is to answer the questions, “Who are we (as a congregation)? Why are here at this time in this place? Where do we want to be?” BIG QUESTIONS!

    Reflection is the consideration of what we doing with what we have learned. I have always liked the word “praxis” but have not understood nor applied the praxis concept very well. Mark Branson and Juan Martínez note that “praxis is the constant rhythm that includes study and reflection … in continual interaction with engagement and action” (Churches Cultures & Leadership, p.41). It is answering the big questions as we reflect on what we know and what we are doing. It is not just “learning” and/or “experience.” They note “Experience teaches us nothing! … No one learns from experience. One learns only from experience one reflects upon and articulates. We believe churches benefit when they intentionally reflect theologically on a church’s life and ministry” (p.42).

    • Ron,

      Thanks for your kind comments. That means a lot, my friend. You are such a good man, a good thinker, and a good writer.

      Yes, your questions are BIG. And they are BOLD. Not everyone I know is willing to ask the tough questions, perhaps because they do not want to hear the tough and honest answers. I think your project is excellent and I can’t wait to see the results. If we are seeking for TRUTH, we will eventually find it. But it may not be what we want to hear. However, it is truth that will set us free. I am glad to know someone who is willing to search for truth in a local church context. Keep up the good work!

  2. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Bill, Thanks once again for sharing your insights from personal and ministry experience. You said, “Life is full of questions…no single human has an answer. When I think about the evil things happening around the around the world, especially in middle east and Africa, in the name of religion or even the current xenophobic attacks against African immigrants in South Africa, I have more questions than answers. There is no quick fix for these social justice issues, but I wonder what we ( the follower of Christ (or Church) can do to bring about change in the long run.
    I love you say, “Each of us, if we are committed to personal growth, is changing and modifying how we see and understand the Big Questions.” Thanks again!

    • Telile,

      Thanks for your encouraging comments. I liked your post as well. I will miss reading each other’s work when we finish the program.

      Yes, I also wonder what we Christians can do about the violence and craziness going on in the world today. The greatest tragedy to me is when a person is willing to die (or to kill others) for his or her ideology. It seems that more and more people are becoming close minded today, more shallow, more brutal, more intolerant. Too many people are acting like judges rather than allowing God to be the judge. I certainly do not have the answers, but I do know that love and acceptance of others is at least part of the answer.

  3. Michael Badriaki says:

    Oh wow Bill, your BEST blog ever here!! It’s super!! I read your post many times. I will reflect on this post for a while. It’s a devotional. That’s all I want to say if it weren’t for the fact that I have to write more due to the rubric standards.
    Your post is an example of the David Maybury-Lewis’s quote you mentioned in your response to Richard this week. “Humility plus wonder equals wisdom”! Bill, I thank God for making you the leader you are. Like Ron, I have learned a lot from you, in our friendship, the meetings and your vulnerable proclamation of God’s intervention work in your life. For that and more, thank you. You are real, deep, funny, authentic … and continue to pastor and in the John Wesley way of “the world is my pulpit.” I could go on. I pray that many can be as generous of spirit as you are. You give a lot from your treasure box of life.

    Brilliant, just brilliant!

    • Michael,

      Thank you for your most kind words. They mean a lot.

      I can only be myself. And, as I approach 60 years on this earth, I am in some ways becoming more comfortable with who I am becoming. I think that is an important thing to do. If others don’t like me, so be it. I don’t have to agree with everyone and I don’t expect people to agree with me. If we do not leave room for mystery, we will be in pretty sad shape, I think. God help us to realize that none of us has all the right answers. I know I don’t.

  4. Richard Volzke says:

    I enjoy reading your post; your willingness to share your journey with Christ is inspiring. You stated that, “When I first got married, I was a committed fundamentalist Christian. I was also a pastor, but I was an atrocious husband. I knew everything about the Bible but little about relationships. Were it not for a close friend, I might still be a flaming fundamentalist, but I would have been divorced and would have done countless harm to many if I would have stayed on that path. But God intervened in the form of a growth psychologist named Frank and also in the form of a self-help, Jungian book called Born to Win.” Relationships have been difficult for me. I have struggled with forming and having authentic relationships. Allowing people to see my true self creates fear, and has hampered my ability to forge real friendships. Like you, this has affected my marriage and it has taken 20 years for me to truly build a meaningful relationship with my spouse. I’ve learned more from studying people and how they interact. I’ve also spent many years studying the nature of Christ and attempting to reflect Him in my own actions. Yet, this could easily lead me down a path of having a “holier than thou” attitude and outlook. I still have a long way to go in my journey of learning to connect with others, and becoming a positive influence in all that I do.

    • Richard,

      Thanks for your very transparent reply. I love your post and I love you as a friend. I am so glad you are in this cohort and I look forward to seeing you in Hong Kong. Let’s chat about all of this while we eat good Chinese food together. I am continually growing in my understanding of relationships, especially of the relationship with my dear wife. I still blow it on occasion, but each of these encounters teaches me how “not to do” relationships. I am grateful that God uses many ways to teach us, even our mistakes.

      Thanks again for your great reply!

  5. Julie Dodge says:

    In my twenties, Bill, I wouldn’t have read this for a different reason. I remember taking philosophy as an undergraduate. I thought it was meaningless ramblings of people trying to overanalyze what was obvious. I of course, was young and knew everything. Those were the days. Now I read it and see the value of understanding the themes of human thought.

    One of the missing elements in Raeper & Edwards book was another existential psychologist – Victor Frankl. I remember reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” as a young college student and being touched by many things. I can’t recount the details of this book now, 30 years later, but I recall reading how Frankl sought hope in the concentration camps. I could ramble in a thousand directions, but I will focus my thoughts on the very title of the book: Man’s search for meaning. The big question before man – does my life matter? It seems to me that perhaps almost every other big question revolves around this. I care about whether God is, and who He is, because if He is, it might impact me. Truth and reality – well, that’s about where I fit. Am I real? What is real? And on and on. We want our lives to make sense.

    I think I like Erasmus, too. He brings it out of the institution to the personal and practical.

    My mind is now shooting in a bunch of different directions so I’m going to stop.

    By the way, I LOVE your big questions assignment. That is awesome.

    Peace, my friend.

    • Julie,

      As you know, you never cease to amaze me. Thanks for your heartfelt reply. It is good to know that I am not the only “know it all” out there. 🙂 I have not read Frankl’s book. I have it somewhere, but I will read it this summer. I think I need it right now. Thanks for mentioning that book.

      If you like, I will send you the sheet for the “Big Questions” assignment. Just let me know. I would modify the assignment a bit, but I think it is a good one.

  6. Clint Baldwin says:

    “I was saved from the faith as much as I was saved to the faith.” Yep. That’ll preach. 🙂
    This coupled with your thoughtful notation of how we tend to understand differently based on age offers wonderful kernels of goodness to ingest as we continue to weave our way through the conversations that Raeper and Smith offer us in their text.
    It is a good reminder that we do ourselves and others a great injustice if we do not allow ourselves to reencounter ideas during different eras of our life.
    Thanks, Bill.

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