12 January 2023

Choose curiosity, part two

 
Image Design: Erica Stupfel. Photo of columbine w/mountain: Matt Boswell. Source.

The first time I wrote on the theme of curiosity, I had a specific agenda: "From now on, I'm going to try to replace peevishness with curiosity. I'm going to try replacing an incredulous 'What??!' (and its many colorful variants) with an honest 'Why?'"

Now this word "curiosity" has been chosen as the "Word of the Year" at our Camas Friends Church, and I'm glad to be given the chance to look at this theme again. This time I have a slightly different angle.

Or, rather, two angles.

First of all, I link curiosity with another important theme at our church: deconstruction. For various important reasons, there are significant numbers of people in our church, and in our Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, who are rethinking aspects of their faith that they had previously accepted or made peace with. Sometimes their new questions seem to have no satisfactory answers, or those supposedly in charge of answering them have proven to be untrustworthy.

What is "deconstruction" in the context of faith and theology? From within the evangelical family, Roger E. Olson outlines his understanding of deconstruction in this helpful essay: "Deconstructing evangelicalism." He cites the "great German pietist Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf [who] often said that whoever puts Christianity into a system kills it." Olson looks at this "system" that needs to be deconstructed, both in terms of presumptuous and illegitimate boundaries and in terms of self-proclaimed authorities who should be treated with suspicion.

Olson himself is a Christian theologian, so it may seem that his understanding of deconstruction would have limits. I'm sure he would hope that, at the end of our re-examination, we would still be in the same Christian family together. Nevertheless, I think his principles and tools of deconstruction have integrity, however near or far they might lead us.

I am incredibly grateful that people engaged in this re-examination of their faith find our Quaker community to be congenial and safe. I may or may not share the doubts that they express, but would our fellowship have any integrity at all if they were not free to express them? As I listen to them, my usual reaction is not fear or defensiveness (well, not usually!), but curiosity.

For example: I'm curious about why my experience has been different. I know that in some perverse way, I've led a sheltered life—I became a Christian at age 21, after growing up in an anti-religious family. By my coming to faith as an adult, through Bible-reading and a conversion experience, I may have missed a lot of the good aspects of formation in a lifelong church and family faith culture, but, judging by what I've heard from my friends, I've also dodged a number of bullets. 

I haven't been challenged personally by certain kinds of searing questions ... "How could a Jesus-centered faith community treat people like that? How could it punish people for asking the wrong questions? How could it do all those things described in Gordon Aeschliman's book Cages of Pain??" It seemed a safe choice for me to put all my eggs in the Jesus basket, so I'm not in a position to judge those for whom that basket turned out to have holes. Instead, I'm curious.

To be even more specific: The Bible was a central factor in my conversion, but I took it at face value, if that makes any sense. I read the words and was impressed by them—in fact, my life was utterly changed by them—but I never felt under any obligation to treat this book as magic or "inerrant," to ignore apparent contradictions, to explain away the collateral damage of people who were apparently disposable in the biblical narrative, to accept parables and stories as journalism, or to bow to authorities who thundered into their microphones or Twitter about what was or wasn't "biblical."

See also: Is the Bible nice?

I may represent myself as not being engaged in deconstruction, but my curiosity does lead me into questions for which I've got no clues at all. If you're a fan of the science fiction series The Expanse, you may remember the third season's unveiling of the Ring, created by the mysterious protomolecule as an apparent portal into a realm of space unexplored by humans, where even the laws of physics operate differently. 

There's a Methodist pastor on the space ship sent from Earth to explore the Ring. While I was intrigued by Protestants still being around when the Solar System is colonized, I couldn't help wondering if the planets beyond the Ring would recognize a Savior whose origin story (for us) involves a tiny region on planet Earth, held captive at the time by an empire that in a few centuries would fall apart. If my theology says that God is never without a witness to God's own beloved creatures, what exactly does that mean across the galaxies? More importantly, what requirements of humility and curiosity does that cosmic scale imply for my own attitudes to other faiths and other interpretations of my own faith?


The second angle from which I view the theme of curiosity is its important function, for me, as an antidote to cynicism. I've written several times about cynicism, an occupational hazard for political scientists ... for example:

Cynicism and truth.

Benefit of the doubt, part one.

I'll just summarize my point by saying that skepticism is often valid, but cynicism is lazy and spiritually poisonous. When something feels unjust, misleading, or just plain wrong, instead of resting on cynical assumptions, let's actually be curious; let's do the work of finding out where the trail leads.


Curiosity, this year's "Word of the Year" for Camas Friends Church, comes with these queries. Which queries seem especially attractive—or especially unsettling—to you?

How do others experience God and how does that experience shape and sustain them? 

How am I cultivating a sense of wonder and appreciation for what is good and beautiful? 

How do I remain receptive and hospitable to new possibilities, ideas, and directions? 

How am I proactively opening myself to finding God in others? 

What presumptions and rash judgments are keeping me from encountering goodness in others? 

Where am I practicing gentle persistence in seeking truth? 

What does it mean to ask good questions? 

What questions should I be asking? 

When I pay closer attention to the nuances and particularities of who I am, what do I notice? 

What could I intentionally learn more about and who might benefit from this learning? 

How might vigilant attentiveness and playful inquisitiveness serve me well in this season? 

Where do I see unhealthy forms of stubbornness, bias, or rigidity in myself? 

How could practicing curiosity be an expression of bravery for me? 

How might curiosity facilitate the coming of peace and justice in our world? 

How might practicing curiosity help me better love God, others, or myself?


Costica Bradatan on Simone Weil, slavery, capitalism, and Christ. (Thanks to Faith on View for the link.)

"Nothing is more paralyzing to thought," she would write in 1936, than "the sense of inferiority which is necessarily induced by the daily assault of poverty, subordination, and dependence."

Jeremy Morris: A startling and undervalued revelation from a Levada poll ... a third of Russians feel they bear moral responsibility for aggression against Ukraine.

Helena Cobban: Britain's National Health Service was once "the envy of the world." What happened?

What political economist Michael R. Strain learned from Pope Benedict. (Thanks to Bill Smith for the link.)

I'm glad that ChatGPT wasn't around when I was grading high-school-level homework assignments in Elektrostal, Russia. (It was hard enough to deal with online essay banks with texts exactly matching our homework assignments!) Here are two reflections on this technology: Panic now, but mundane soon ... and AI and the future of scholarship and education. For the fun of it, I asked ChatGPT what Stephen Grellet was doing in Russia, and at first it complained that I hadn't given enough context, but when I said "I'm referring to Étienne de Grellet du Mabillier," then I got a reasonably complete answer in a believably conversational text.


Imelda May and the late Jeff Beck...

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