After 50 years of teaching, I know what my response “good question” often means: It’s a way of saying that I don’t have a ready answer. Sometimes my response was, let me check that out and get back to you next class. But the really good questions were not simple requests for information or even explanation. They wanted me to go within and rethink something. In all my years of teaching and learning, two questions stand out.
The first came from one of my favorite students, Peter, in a graduate class on ethics and public policy. He asked me the difference between a virtue and a value. I had to chew on that one. In the context of the course, my carefully thought-out answer was that sometimes a quality or attitude or behavior can be both a value and a virtue, and sometimes they are not. Values are qualities of a good society, or a good marriage, or a good school, Values are social in nature. A virtue is a quality of a person. Freedom, safety, and justice are values that we associate with a good state or nation. Honesty, generosity, and compassion are personal virtues. Justice is both a value (a just society) and a virtue (a just or fair person). Possessing or practicing that virtue can promote the values of whatever communities to which one belongs. That distinction clarified my thinking in ways that were helpful to me and to my students. It was a very good question.
Another good question came about at a church potluck. I am a Unitarian Universalist, and as our name implies, most of us do not find the Trinity to be a meaningful part of our religious understanding. Kevin, sitting next to my, was a gay Catholic in search of a church home. He asked, “If I was a Unitarian could I believe in God?” Since one of the seven principles that define our faith tradition is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning (a value), I assured him that the answer was Yes. Some of us do and some don’t, but we won’t tell you what to believe. How about the Trinity, he asked? Tougher question, and there was no next class coming, so I had to think on my feet. Well, I said, it is not a common belief among us, but if you think of the Trinity as God beyond, God beside, God within, then it might fit better with the way most of us are inclined to think about the Trinity, if we think about it at all. Often a variant of these questions are asked of me as a Unitarian Universalist in the form of “Do you believe that Jesus was divine?” For that one I have a well-practiced answer. “Yes, and so am I, and so are you, Jesus just got a bigger helping of divinity.”
My oldest daughter at the age of six asked me the standard question, Is Santa Claus really parents? Yes, I said, but we will still fill your stocking. Don’t tell your little sister yet, she’s only four. On through the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, and finally, “How about God? Is he really parents?” “No,” I said, leaving the question one to be answered more fully at a later age.
For a couple of years, I had a friend with whom I had regular lunch and hiking visits. What I treasured about her friendship was that she was always asking me questions like that, and I had to think through my answers. We drifted apart, but I still remember her probing questions as being a core part of our friendship while it lasted.
Here is my question to you. Two questions, in fact. What questions—from a parent, a child, a teacher, a colleague, a student—have forced you to look within and come up with an answer that you had not already discovered? And do you return the favor, asking other people questions that encourage them to think deeper and harder about complicated questions of truth and meaning?