Death to Doubt

Semester Alathea LeBrun“Don’t write that down.”

Wait, what?

“In fact, why do people take notes?”

Did I miss something? I glanced around, and saw other people just as bemused as I in the small classroom at Snow Wolf Lodge.

Thus began Monday morning, and we met the mild-mannered Dr. Gary Hartenburg. Underneath his calm exterior lay a deeply passionate mind, eager to ponder and deliberate deep questions. That week, we were taught in the delicate art of inquiry by asking many questions, most of which were probably poor questions, but they were asked in earnest and answered equally so.

Dr. Hartenburg was the first purely philosophical professor we had. Before him, we’d had theologians, logicians, and scientists; all of whom followed a linear lecture style. Dr. Hartenburg, however, allowed his class of quite confused, sometimes skeptical college students to digress on rabbit trails, which he, almost magically, tied back in to the main topic. We never quite understood how he did it.

Classes were intense and riddled with deep theological thoughts, on everything from whether or not numbers exist, to the nature of truth itself. We spent quite a bit of time on this topic: inquiry. What is it, and how best does one practice it? One might think it’s obvious; inquiry is asking questions about a topic.

It’s not though. Not solely. Not all questions are worthy of being asked and, dare I say it? There are stupid questions. Contrary to every grade school teacher’s first-day-of-class mantra, they’re asked fairly often. But that’s not always bad; stupid questions often lead nowhere, which is an opportunity for a skilled practitioner of questions to show the student how to refine his questions, no easy task.

Inquiry takes us “Further up and further in,” as Jewel the unicorn says in Lewis’ The Last Battle. It opens up a whole new frontier of rational thought to us, and, as we get better at reasoning, we become more able to think rightly about many topics that do truly take training to think about. “Good questions point one, in some degree, to the answer to that same question,” Dr. Hartenburg said. It’s the difference between asking, “What is beauty?” and “Why do we find beautiful those things which we think are beautiful?” Finding a definition for beauty is, as Dr. Bauman showed us in one of our early lectures, extremely frustrating and a relatively hopeless pursuit. However, trying to determine why beauty is perceived gives one a direction to head, and helps immensely in the process of discussion.

Dr. Hartenburg didn’t teach us to be skeptics, but skeptical. It’s funny how different one can make a word simply by changing the form of it. The noun skeptic implies a dogmatic grump, fully set against discovering truth and knowledge. The adjective skeptical, however, connotes a more reasonable, questioning nature. This is what Dr. Hartenburg tried and succeeded to instill in us during his week here.

Indeed, I think that the week of Dr. Hartenburg was, in many ways, our hardest week, disguised as our easiest. During it, the reality of our ability and right to ask questions of any topic, any underlying principle of society became more apparent than I’d ever realized, and the ability to question is a skill that never disappoints.

Alathea LeBrun is a native of Silverdale, Washington, where she graduated from high school earlier this summer. As someone who is passionate about stories and storytelling, Alathea loves reading, writing, and communicating. When she enters college, Alathea plans to pursue a degree that involves communication through story, such as literature, art, or film. With this passion, Alathea loves to find the hopeful themes imbedded in tales of despair, such as in the Psalms or Lamentations. In her spare time, Alathea enjoys playing the violin, knitting, writing, reading, and theatre. This semester, she anticipates that God will grow her in appropriately dealing with doubts, while also building her knowledge of her faith.