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The FAQ, which is copied from other sites, says:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

That can't be right, can it? Do we really want people to ask questions based on "actual problems that they face"? That sounds like we're here to give pastoral advice, for those practical actual problems that Christians face in their day-to-day lives.

And what sort of problems are we facing, when we ask questions? Usually, I'm just curious about something, and I think it's the same for most other people. For example:

Why can't cardinals over 80 vote in the conclave? "Why can't cardinals over 80 vote in the conclave? Is there a reason given anywhere?"

I'm guessing the person asking is not really an aging Cardinal.

Regarding the phrase "based on actual problems that you face":

  • Is this appropriate for our site in particular, if it really can be easily confused with certain types of "pastoral" problems that people face?
  • What is this even getting at, when it comes to our site? What sort of problems are we having when we ask questions?
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    We can't change that part of the FAQ. That's the same across all StackExchange sites. – El'endia Starman Mar 15 '13 at 5:36
  • @El'endiaStarman Perhaps an exception can be made if there's a good reason, or even a clarifying word thrown in. Edited, though. – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 5:41
  • If we come up with a REALLY good reason, we can petition to have that bit edited. I doubt we'll be able to come up with a sufficiently good reason though. In any event, if a new user takes this at face value, it doesn't take much effort to gently correct them. – El'endia Starman Mar 15 '13 at 5:48
  • I was thinking of asking exactly this just today. I'm with you but considering @El 's comments I don't know what might convince SE to change it. It is also in conflict with the 'answer your own questions' encouragement. – fredsbend Mar 15 '13 at 6:03
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    @fredsbend I don't think that it is in conflict with the answer your own questions encouragement. In fact I think it plays in most excellent concert with it. I'm still mulling a meta post about why, but I'ts coming. – wax eagle Mar 15 '13 at 18:01
  • See also, Shog9's excellent answer. Basically, if we start asking questions just because they are questions Christians ask, we are walking a dangerous path. – Jon Ericson Mar 15 '13 at 18:07
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Many sites just ignore this rule (Physics and Chemistry do this). It's been written for sites like Stack Overflow, where the dominant type of question is "I have this problem, halp!". It's basically for filtering out questions asked out of idle curiosity. Thing is, not all such questions are bad on some sites. Most good questions on Physics come from "curiosity" in the end. There are bad questions of this type as well. (Here's an example of such a question on C.SE, see the first revision. It's not exactly what I mean, but it conveys the point)

The real question is "Is this question really useful to others?" or "Will others benefit from this question?" or "Will people search for this?". The one I linked to above is pretty useless, it's just curiosity. It won't lead to any useful info in the answers. (Sure, someone might write a long answer with info on the procedures for dealing with a pope's posessions after death. But that will be extra; an answer which just answers the question and nothing more would be useless)

This already came up on the mother meta, see my answer here: Is there a rule of thumb for objective questions asked out of curiosity? (and the rest of the question/answers)

This quote (from here) is quite relevant:

However, I do want to defend ...

Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced.

... a little, on the basis that if you care enough about figuring something out, it is in fact a problem to you. You just can't stop wondering why X happens, it nags at you, it keeps you up at night, you're fascinated with learning more about it, you constantly talk to others about it. It's a problem.

Or are you just bored and want to be entertained with some blue sky daydreaming and idle curiosity? If you can walk away from your question and not care too much about the answer, that's no problem at all, is it?

Make us believe your question is important to you, and to anyone else who will ever read it. Because by God, this is a bona fide problem we're all facing here!

While I disagree with the level of conviction that is talked of, I agree with the general idea here.

  • That question was not asked out of "idle curiosity", though it might look that way to someone unfamiliar with Catholicism: 1) those personal possessions of a potential saint can become relics, and 2) the question establishes the personal wealth of the pope from a specific angle -- Catholicism always has to defend itself from the idea that the pope lives a life of riches. (Worth noting: I think none of the people who vtc'd are Catholic.) – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 20:34
  • @Alypius: Hmm, true. I can't find a better example then, but I think you get the point. – Manishearth Mar 15 '13 at 20:49
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    @Alypius: This isn't an anti-catholic thing. Your question (particularly the original version discussed here) simply isn't that interesting. If, as a Catholic, you know a reason why it should be interesting, build that into the question! In the case of your #1 above, ask a question about what possessions of the pope can be expected to show up as relics. That is part of building a good question: showing why it matters to you. That's how "real problem that you face" applies to this site. – Caleb Mar 15 '13 at 21:05
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    @Alypius: Honestly I don't think #2 is very constructive. That's the equivalent of using a question as a soap box. If the reason you are asking is because you think somebody else needs to hear the answer, that's a recipe for not constructive. Those end up preachy or the only answer that will ever satisfy them is the one you had in your head to start with. Those aren't real problems that you face, they are problems you think everybody else faces. – Caleb Mar 15 '13 at 21:07
  • @Caleb I don't know why you're pressing this point so hard here. If you're not a Catholic, you'll have no basis for judging "interesting" for Catholics. The original version explicitly mentioned "relics", not that I have to explain that as background since I should expect familiarity with certain terms from people who know something about the topic. In any case it's not just about relics: I want to know what sort of personal possessions a former pope had at a certain time. I can't imagine why anyone would care what Calvin or Luther owned around the time they died, but they weren't popes. – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 21:15
  • @Manishearth Possible examples of "bad-curiosity" questions to use instead?: christianity.stackexchange.com/q/14614/3941 christianity.stackexchange.com/q/14578/3941 christianity.stackexchange.com/q/14499/3941 anti-example: christianity.stackexchange.com/q/14659/3941 – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 21:19
  • @Alypius: No, those were closed for different reasons. – Manishearth Mar 15 '13 at 21:25
  • This comment thread switched to chat starting here. – Caleb Mar 15 '13 at 21:51
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For reasons you've pointed out we have to take a much looser view of the "Problems you actually face" clause of the FAQ. However, that does not mean we need to ignore it entirely.

To understand what a "problem we actually face" constitutes we need to understand two things. Who are our users? and What is our subject matter?

In this particular site our users our target community is essentially theologians. A credentialed expert here would have a seminary degree, a bible degree or a degree from a bible college (like a 4yr or 2 yr degree in CS is a good credential on SO). However, there are plenty of other kinds of experts here, folks who have either read extensively (self taught programmer) or had education through their local church (a programming certification, or job training through one's employer).

We then have the less well trained users, these are the folks who have read a few of the right books, or had a few classes (amateur programmers perhaps?). And the third class is the entirely new users. People who are drive bys. The first group is like CS 101 students showing up on So asking questions. The second doesn't really have an equivalent on SO because of the nature of the differences between our sites (this would be like a non-programmer showing up on SO and asking about how to code something with no research effort, it's getting closed there, it might actually stay open here if it's phrased properly).

Now that we know roughly who our users are, we can talk about our subject matter.

We're here for all of Christianity and for basically any question that has to do with it.

So what constitutes a question you actually face? That depends on who you are and why you're asking.

For the expert and advanced folks:

  • Questions about theology from good perspectives. These might not get answered right away because you're expecting a well researched answer that goes into detail about why things are the way they are etc. These are questions you actually face because they are part of our belief structure and proffer a greater understanding of Christianity.

  • Questions about church order and structure. These are easier to answer, and are more applicable because they affect church life. It's easy to see how they are practical and answerable.

  • Questions about church history. It's less easy to see how these are "questions you actually face." But history is an important part of learning who we are and where we came from. They are problems you actually face because learning what happened and why informs what we do right now.

For the less advanced user:

  • Questions about basic Christian concepts. These are the things that the more educated user probably already understands (and thus aren't likely things they actually face, though they may make good questions). If a guy with 10k and a gold badge in the SQL tag asks a simple question about how to do a JOIN he's probably not being genuine, but if a 1 rep user asks it they probably are and should be answered with utmost care. The same with more basic concepts in Christianity.

All of that said, we actually specifically exclude certain very real questions that actually are problems people actually face. Things like "What should I do in situation X" and "Is X a sin" are real problems people face, but are not good questions for us to answer because they are things that are either between said person and God or between said person and their pastor. We're not a church and our goal here is to learn about Christianity, not to give spiritual advice (we pretty much universally believe the internet is a bad place for that).

I hope my above points help you understand how that clause of the FAQ interacts with how we should ask and answer questions. I'm in favor of it staying because it's actually a really good thought process to go through before you ask a question.

  • I'd be willing to expand both lists and clarify if people want me to, but that was all I could think of for the moment. – wax eagle Mar 15 '13 at 17:57
  • I think we get the gist. – Waggers Mar 22 '13 at 10:16
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This is standard copy used across the SE network. Though the exact wording may not apply well to theology, the principle behind it does. The idea applied here might read something like this:

You should only ask specific, answerable questions based on actual things you want to learn.

Lots of folks come here and start asking questions they actually know the answer to. They focus on on their own area of either knowledge or interest and what comes out is more about what they think others may need to know than what they are themselves trying to figure out.This rarely ends well.

Questions tend to be far more constructive when you ask about beliefs or practices of a tradition other than your own -- something you genuinely don't know what the answer is going to be like but wasn't to learn.

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    The original variant works well with self-answers: here's a problem I faced, and how I solved it. This variant seems to reject self-answers entirely, and in fact even questions about your own denomination... – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 9:06
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    @Alypius: That is emphatically not true. Self-answers are hard to pull off well, and here is one of mine that Caleb overhauled to make better. Also, if I had to pick one denomination that I belong to, mine would be Wesleyan. Yet, I ask questions with that perspective, and they are well-received because I don't know the answer beforehand, which makes it look and be more of an actual question. – El'endia Starman Mar 15 '13 at 16:41
  • @El'endiaStarman I don't think it's intentional, but the wording "of a tradition other than your own" might end up being used to clobber. I do agree with the general tone though. – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 18:28
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Simple solution:

Become a catechist.

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    No Thanks. Can I still participate? – fredsbend Mar 15 '13 at 17:47
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    The solution to the practical problem that Mr Pius brings up in this particular case is to become a Catechist. It opens up a world of minutiae! – Peter Turner Mar 15 '13 at 17:52
  • the answer should probably be expanded after those two lines, but it actually addresses a really major aspect of this question. I've noticed that a number of Peter's questions are about how certain aspects of Catholicism should be explained to people he catechizes. I've also found that my best answers (and self-answers) were ones where I saw someone confused about Catholicism. – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 17:57
  • @fredsbend No, because Peter is talking about how I could find a bunch of problems for myself. No Catholic church would let you near a "classroom", because you are not a Catholic. You would need to become an instructor of people who are of your own faith to face similar problems. – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 18:04
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    In my opinion, minutiae isn't the problem. Trivia is. (The difference between the two is trivial and left as an exercise for the reader. ;) – Jon Ericson Mar 15 '13 at 19:05
  • @JonEricson One denomination's trivia is another denomination's minutiae. – Alypius Mar 15 '13 at 20:21
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    @Alypius: Not at all. I'm fairly interested in Catholic minutiae and not interested in Catholic trivia. When you get right down to it, I bet you are too. – Jon Ericson Mar 15 '13 at 21:30

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