Fr. Lukasz Popko

Lukasz Popko: If God questions you

The Bible as a place of questions and not precepts: two scholars discuss and discover what the secret for true dialogue is. One of the two protagonists, the Polish Dominican Fr. Popko, speaks about the book in the March issue of Tracce.
Stefano Filippi

The Bible as a place where God poses questions to man: this is the starting point of the book Questioning God, whose Italian version has a preface by Pope Francis Sacred texts are often considered a catalogue of answers or commandments rather than a conversation between God and man; here, however, the perspective is reversed. The authors of the book are two brilliant Dominican friars with in-depth knowledge of the sacred texts: the Englishman Timothy Radcliffe, a distinguished scholar awarded the title 'Doctor of Divinity’ by the University of Oxford, , and the Polish friar Lukasz Popko, who teaches at the École biblique et archéologique in Jerusalem. We spoke with Fr. Lukasz, asking him questions about questions.

Where does your approach come from?
Actually, the realization that the Bible raises very important questions came at the end. My conversations with Timothy began quite simply. During Covid, every week we would spend an hour or so talking about Scripture, even preparing our sermons. And so, from that very experience of dialogue – and this was the inspiration for Timothy – came the idea of a book on dialogue in the Bible. Only at the end did we see that dialogue is possible because there are questions. True dialogue requires true questioning. What moves us forward is an appropriate or well formulated question. And answers open up new questions.

A phrase by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr comes to mind: “Nothing is so incredible as the answer to a question that is not asked.”
And that, however, must be solicited. In my experience as a teacher, a large part of the pedagogical effort is to create spaces in which students can ask questions. You can only advance in knowledge if you are aware that you do not know, if you experience a lack, ignorance, non-understanding. Anyone who thinks they already know everything is delusional.

Is it not paradoxical that God has questions? Does He not already know everything?
God's questions serve to start a dialogue. It is a pedagogy to awaken man's curiosity or make him come out into the open. Let us suppose you have a friend who is ill, you know it but they are unable to say it: a trivial question such as 'how are you?' helps them to talk about themselves, and this self-revelation made up of questions and answers allows them to better understand who they are. Dialogue is not only informative but also relational in the sense that it creates the relationship. It works even if I say obvious things, for example an ‘I love you’ from a man and a woman: it is something she knows, but saying it brings him to life. It is not mere information, it is something much deeper. That God asks questions allows man to discover something of himself and creates a certain intimacy.

Even if they are obvious things?
Above all! The majority of our spiritual lessons do not contain theological novelties. The Christmas story, for example, is always the same but must always be re-told because it is the only way to experience it again. When distant relatives get together, the same stories from the past are told because this brings the family to life. The value of these dialogues is in creating a relationship.

The first two chapters of the book focus on God's questions to Adam ("Where are you?") and then to Cain ("Where is your brother?"). Both answer by being defensive: Adam puts on his clothes because he has to justify being naked while Cain says he is not Abel's keeper. Man often feels in awe before the Almighty. What makes a free relationship possible?
I deeply believe that a dialogue even with someone in hiding is still a beginning. It is not the whole truth, but it is enough to start a relationship. God is content with the little that man can give him. A five-year-old child does not have all the philosophical language necessary to describe themselves, and so many adults do not know their own heart. The apostles of Emmaus discovered who they had before them little by little, stuttering in conversation. God says: OK, I accept it, let's start walking part of the road together, even after sin. In our human experience, dialogue presupposes distance. If I am very close to someone I love we do not talk, we are happy and words are not needed. This is the depth of mysticism, as also of eros: at the moment of deepest unity we are silent. There is a time for dialogue and a time for silence, and dialogue is a dynamic moment that leads us towards this silence of deeper communion along a path.

So even imperfect dialogue is important.
What matters is walking in the same direction. Communion does not come at the end, we do not only speak when we understand each other. That is why God takes Adam where he is: he is on the defensive, hidden in the trees, lying or manipulating, he does not have the courage to recognise himself, yet God goes to meet him as he is and slowly comes to re-establish the lost connection and trust.

In the book, Fr. Radcliffe quotes the motto of the Dominican Academy of Human Sciences in Baghdad: 'Here no questions are forbidden'. Are there no forbidden questions with God either?
On the cross, Jesus cries out: Why have you forsaken me? It is a question, his question to the Father. A very dramatic question that seems paradoxical. Is it possible that God has abandoned his son? But it is a fundamental question, and it is a question that creates communion. Why are you not here? Why are you far away? But if I speak to you it means that you are there, that you hear me, that I express my pain or even my anger because I believe that you are there and are listening to me. And indeed it is the beginning of the resurrection.

The questions in the Bible are very linear, almost elementary: "Where are you?", "Who are you looking for?", "Simon, do you love me?". What does God’s simple style tell us?
Ultimately, we can say that God has something in common with the wise men and children. Children ask the same elementary questions as philosophers. But the perhaps simple questions are also the most fundamental and most difficult to answer: What is life? Who made me? Who am I? We adults are often distracted by so many things, we focus on the details and lose sight of what really matters. So every now and then we need someone or something, an event, to bring us back to the essentials. With his questions, God directs our gaze to our deepest being, like children or philosophers do. Simplicity for us adults is complicated. Perhaps after original sin we struggle to regain the wholeness of our person, to hold everything about us together: mind, heart, emotions, relationships....

And we are so divided.
We lack the link between these very different realities. God meets us and gives us this connection. One of Jesus' commandments is to love God “with all your heart.” I think our problem lies in that “all”, in this uniqueness of the person restored by God's questions. And if we do not recover this “all”, we are ultimately nobody.

You are describing the condition of man today...
I think it is a danger for anyone. In the 17th century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal found the image of the king who, with all his power, always needs distractions so as not to be "more unhappy than the last of his subjects." Now the danger is heightened because, with increased wealth and technology, everyone has endless possibilities not to think about the most important things.

The last dialogue in your book is between two men, albeit from the Church: the apostles Peter and Paul. Neither God nor Jesus appears, and rather than an encounter, it is a clash that is eventually reconciled. You and Radcliffe hint at a comparison with the Church today. How can one dialogue openly from opposing positions without hurting oneself? Is there a unifying point?
We comment on the Letter to the Galatians. Paul had met Peter for the first time and they had argued, but then Peter changed his mind. How is it possible to dialogue with someone who first says "A" and then "not A"? Who are you? After all, Peter's motivation was good: to seek communion with his brothers. And perhaps this is Pope Francis' challenge: to build a bridge. The thing to note is that in their conflict Peter and Paul had the same attitude that God had with Adam: to ask a question and continue to dialogue without losing either confidence or courage if the dialogue is not ideal.

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In the preface to the book, Pope Francis writes: “I think that God loves questions more than answers.” What value, then, do answers have?
That they keep the discussion going. We realize that a discussion has been good when, at the end, we want to talk again. The danger is when conflict becomes almost ritualistic and arguing does not make progress. The commandments do not say: “Do not be angry.” Loving is much deeper than keeping quiet and pretending that everything is fine. It is from this point of view that we also understand what the Pope says. However, there are also manipulative questions: for example, those that the Pharisees addressed to Jesus to leave him in a bad light or to set a trap for him. But Jesus does not shirk away, even knowing that he is expected. It is like a game of tennis: one hits to make the opponent miss. Often God plays with us, hits the ball and answers even if we do not know how to play, and makes sure that the game continues.

Is God not scandalized by some of the questions asked by man?
Not at all. Of course, sometimes He does not answer directly. On the night of the Passion, Jesus did not answer Herod's questions or Pilate's either. It is the silence of God. But silence is also a way of answering. Perhaps one speaks with the gaze and leaves the interlocutor space to judge. Sometimes God responds after years or in ways we do not expect: the important thing is that the relationship remains alive. Faith is being certain that God always responds.