Please don't repeat that question

Not counting the title, there are 21 questions on the first page of "Does God Exist?" by Hans Kung. Nobody should be too surprised. The distinguished Swiss theologian, in asking, and asking ("Has religion any future? . . . Is not science sufficient?"), is taking the standard approach to his subject, or almost any subject these days.

The question mark has become our most valued piece of punctuation. More than mere punctuation, its wavering, convoluting shape seems to symbolize a mood of final uncertainty that pervades most discussions about anything more serious than who's going to win the Academy Awards.

We tend to pride ourselves, in fact, on our questions. The questioner, we tell ourselves, is a searcher, a cultural hero who does not settle for second-hand dogmas, old shibboleths, or stale conventions.

In higher education the goal is assumed to be to teach the student to think for himself or herself, even if it means questioning one's very education.

It is as if we have given up all faiths except the faith that if we ask enough questions we will arrive at The Answer.

The question mark, of course, lies at the heart of our personal relationships as well. We ask ourselves endlessly: Do I love this person? Do I love anybody? How much?

Whatever question obsesses us, we tend to take it for everybody's question -- for The Question -- just as people used to take their answer for The Answer. In "The Present Age" Kierkegaard, 135 years ago, could have been describing 1981: "More and more people think over the relationships of life in a higher relationship till, in the end, the whole generation has become a representation, who represent . . . it is difficult to say whom ; and who think about their relationships . . . for whosem sake it is not easy to discover."

Like the bouncing ball following the music, the question mark hops above all our themes until finally it rests above ourselves, above what we have come to regard as the ultimate question: Who am I?

Life has always been surrounded by questions. Socrates used more questions per argument than even Hans Kung. But the purpose of questions was always thought to be to elicit an answer. Now the questions seem to exist for their own sake. One would not even want an answer. One would not know what to do with an answer.

To question is enough. I question, therefore, I am interesting. I question, therefore I am.

The word "truth" is seldom used even in a limited, courtroom sense. Truth has become the monosyllable bonded to Pontius Pilate's question mark.

We congratulate ourselves that the question marks signify we are being tolerant, noncoercive people -- living and letting live, as the ideal goes. But can we say that gently harmony characterizes private or public life these days? If we believed that stubborn minds and adamant hearts were restricted to those who held onto dogmas, we have been proven terribly mistaken.

The question mark can become a dangling hook, jerking us about from one uncertainty to another until, in fact, we become irritable -- until we become dogmatic in ever smaller and pettier ways. For, as Santayana remarked, the skeptic does not lose the hunger, "the brute need to believe in something."

If we cannot found ourselves on a rock, we will found ourselves on a fragment -- become fanatics of the pebble. One way or another -- through gurus or men-on-horseback -- we will satisfy that subversive need for certainty.

Doubt works only as a counterpuncher, in dialogue. We have come close to turning it into a monologue -- an interrogation stretching out like a superhighway to nowhere.

Our doubts, our question marks have become as hoary as our old certainties, and only one truly burning question remains: W hat comes after the Age of the Question Mark?

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