Roger Durham finds that in discussions about spirituality, asking questions is more important than finding answers.
We were on our first bottle of wine, a Silver Oak Cabernet, when Danny leaned over to me and said, in his crisp British accent, “So Roger, we’ve never had a proper conversation about you having been a minister. I fancy myself an atheist, but I’m curious, what kind of minister were you?” The restaurant was loud and crowded. My wife and I and five other couples had been at Churchill Downs all day betting on the horses and enjoying the refreshment of Kentucky Bourbon and a variety of imported and domestic beers. It was our annual gathering for the Kentucky Derby. Danny had been making the trip to Louisville for six years and had never expressed the slightest curiosity about my former profession. But, for some reason, this was the night Danny chose to ask his questions of me. Why, I wondered.
“I’m a Presbyterian, Danny, but tell me, why do you think you’re an atheist?”
“Seriously, Danny. Why do you say you don’t believe in God?”
“For starters, it’s hard for me to picture some kind, old man sitting on his throne, deciding who will join him in heaven and who will not, and standing by while horrible things happen to perfectly innocent people. I would rather believe there is no god, than to believe in a god like that,” Danny said.
“Well, Danny, by your description I must be an atheist too. I have no interest in a god like that.”
Danny looked at me as if he couldn’t decide whether I was joking, making fun of him, or blowing him off. The fact that I could agree with him was not something he had anticipated. And that opened the door to an interesting and honest dinner conversation. We ordered another bottle of wine and kept going.
After some playful banter about biblical stories, fairy tales and myths, I asked Danny, “Have you wondered why human beings are curious about these kinds of things? Do you ever think about how creation has reached such a point of self-reflection?”
“It’s evolution, Roger. Simple as that. Natural selection.”
“Selection toward what, Danny?”
“Survival for what? Why survive? Where did that impulse come from? Why is that there?”
We teased that thought out for awhile, then, conversation drifted as dinner was served. I wondered why this was important to Danny, in this setting. We had been at the track all day. We were enjoying the festivities that surround the Kentucky Derby. Everybody has the kinds of questions Danny was asking. Most people find others they can trust enough to explore those questions with. But I couldn’t figure out why the questions were coming up now, in this sublime setting after such a fantastically fun day. Then, after dinner, Danny leaned over again and said, “You know, Roger, I was surprised at how moving it was for me to be in the church several weeks ago for my father’s funeral.” Ah, there’s the reason, I thought. “People thought it hypocritical of me, being so adamantly atheist, yet to be so moved by the ceremony. But I was moved – by the words and the music and the tradition.”
It was the first time Danny and I had spoken since his father’s death. I had written him a letter, offering condolences, but we had not talked. I was embarrassed not to have said something when we first saw each other, but now the conversation made sense to me. Death does have a way of bringing questions more sharply into focus.
That night, I didn’t try to give Danny any answers. I answered his questions, where I could, but often my answers came in the form of questions. “What was it about the tradition that moved you, Danny? Did you feel the contradiction that other people felt in you? Do you think your atheism sets you apart from those around you? Is that important to you?” At the risk of sounding like a therapist, I was genuinely interested in what he was thinking.
And that may have been the most surprising part of the evening for Danny. I think he was expecting answers from me that he could easily dismiss, or answers that would give him something to hang onto. Instead, I gave him more questions, which, I am convinced, are what really matter. The questions we are willing to ask do as much to define us as the answers we are willing to accept.
That’s why I enjoyed that conversation so much that night. Danny challenged my worldview. He made me think. I’d like to think he made me a better man that night, because he tested my willingness to listen and to learn, as much by the questions I was asking, as by the answers he was offering.
Photo: DieselDemon on Flickr