The Art of Discovery by Morgan Miller
All stories are the same. Despite an assortment of differing character arcs, quests, and antagonists there is one basic component to all – a protagonist must go out into the unknown and change. Characters that don’t change lead to narratives that are flat and uninteresting, at best. The more lasting consequence is that, along with the protagonist, the audience fails to learn.
What causes true change, in life as in stories, is the act of discovery. This discovery can come from within or without – in the form of other people or circumstances. However, discovery requires a posture of openness on our part. A certain level of comfort with ambiguity. The ability to listen, adapt, reorient, and experiment in light of new evidence. These are attributes that much of the world would be hesitant to ascribe to Christianity. Some even argue that this has been a primary contribution to the church’s decrease in velocity when it comes to creating sustained change. It is a way of thinking and living that can be cultivated, however.
More specifically, what do we mean by discovery? For the purposes of this piece, we can think of discovery as the act of exploration. An almost childlike curiosity to learn, not in order to persuade or win arguments, but solely for the sake of learning itself. This is an important distinction to make because this type of exploration is a necessary driver of systematic change. It does so by placing us in a position of intellectual humility.
This type of thinking won’t allow us to sell our faith (or each other) short by settling for easy answers when it comes to determining how to best impact our communities. It doesn’t set a place at the table for monopoly of truth. This can be especially difficult in a faith tradition such as ours. In contrast to what might be deemed “civilization-religions” such as Judaism, in which you are largely a part of the spiritual family through birth, ours is one of belief. A sort of loose confederation. You come into the family by belief and you can (ostensibly) be kicked out of the family for the wrong kinds of beliefs. More specifically, what do we mean by discovery? For the purposes of this piece, we can think of discovery as the act of exploration. An almost childlike curiosity to learn, not in order to persuade or win arguments, but solely for the sake of learning itself. This is an important distinction to make because this type of exploration is a necessary driver of systematic change. It does so by placing us in a position of intellectual humility.
An unintended consequence is that this can create a culture of certainty – reinforcing uniformity at the expense of unity and characterized by a fear of failure. Fear of not being ready to answer every question or challenge to our faith at a moment’s notice. A culture where there is a prefabricated verse ready to resolve even the most desperate of situations – an unfortunate result since certainty and faith maintain an inverse relationship. Certainty impedes long-term growth because it applies mismatched solutions. It impedes love because it makes neighbors into enemies – or into ignorant people who just need to get what we’ve got. It substitutes the transactional for the transformational. Most egregiously, though, it ignores a simple fact (of which we can all be certain): that at any given moment of our existence we are absolutely wrong about something. At best, severely underinformed. The pursuit of discovery assists in purging us of this by constantly placing on our shoulders the responsibility of rooting this tendency out.
Before moving further, it is important to note that I am not arguing for a type of relativistic worldview in which the truth, God, and morality are unknowable. I would argue that these are independent of our ability to wisely discern them and that, in the words of Richard Rohr, they are infinitely knowable. Nor am I arguing that individual awareness and openness alone are a substitute for systematic changes that need to take place if Oklahoma City is going to more closely resemble the kingdom of God – but that is beyond the scope of this piece. I am aware that each of us is a leader in one or more spheres, in part, because we are seekers of change. All I am asking for is collective honesty about what we don’t know. I am asking for transparency in our assumptions because establishing the kingdom is not so simple as some would suggest (….if only we could accomplish _____ then everything would be fine….). That we allow God to more fully use us by not placing arbitrary limits on how he accomplishes his work. That we apply the same analytical rigor and entrepreneurial boldness to the spiritual as we do the professional.
Maintaining a spirit of openness allows us to draw information and inspiration through crowdsourcing of wisdom – affording us a more accurate view of what is a highly complex and reflexive world. This will not come through attending to scripture or church, at least not primarily. In the spirit of Scorsese’s Mean Streets: you don’t learn openness in church. You learn it in the streets. Nothing will test beliefs more swiftly or forcefully than actively engaging with the populations we disagree with – whether that be fellow believers or not. What we think about privilege, oppression and marginalization, economic justice, women’s rights, stewardship of the earth, and a menagerie of other issues cannot help but be changed if we actively seek to understand those who the kingdom is meant to lift up. Instead of seeing them as obstacles in the path we realize that they are the path. If we allow ourselves, with all our assumptions and contradictions, to be inspected by the world. Allowing ourselves to see their expression of the Imago Dei and what their relationship to the kingdom has been.
If this seems messy, if this seems uncertain: it is. The truth is, neither you nor I know where this story is going. The history of our species and faith is filled with people assuming they know what everyone needs. It is filled with good Christians failing spectacularly because they equated personal domain and pet projects with kingdom justice. We are all seeing iterations of the kingdom at different times and filtering them through the lens of our changing beliefs. God doesn’t seem to mind, though. He’s adaptable and constantly reabsorbing our attempts into his strategy. It is our responsibility to exert that part of his image that creates despite doubt. That constantly listens to the other. That constantly reevaluates and asks what might be? instead of what must be? The change will follow.
For those of you who are not engineers, physicists, or economists: velocity differs from speed in that it also includes direction.