Horizons and curiosity

Many years ago, I was Vicar of a group of small villages in Herefordshire. Next door to our Vicarage were two small cottages belonging to a nearby farm. In one of them there was a young couple who were local to the area. The young mother in the family had been brought up in another village nearby and her parents were still living in one of the local authority homes in that community. This next-door cottage where the couple lived was in a state of disrepair and the young mother would often complain about it. Her solution to the problem was to be allocated one of the houses in the road where she had been brought up and where her parents lived. This ambition to move three miles, back to the place where she was born, seemed to us a very restricted kind of ambition. The possibility of an alternative future to this hope was simply outside the boundaries of her imagination. This limited sense of what was possible was also characterised by her inability to be curious about her general surroundings. Both our Vicarage and her cottage had a glorious view of the Black Mountains on the edge of Wales. In a conversation with my wife, this young mother revealed that she had barely noticed that these mountains were there. Still less was she interested to know what they were called. It was sad that this young woman was completely lacking in curiosity and imagination about the world beyond her front door. She did not seem to want to find anything new. Rather she was content to remain in the familiar and known.

Many people live within constricted boundaries, whether geographical or psychological. They may never have moved far from familiar surroundings whether home or family. As a result, their imaginations may not have been stirred to seek or discover what is new or unfamiliar. Clearly, a limited education may contribute to a narrowness of worldview. Equally there may be some psychological factors which may inhibit a person moving out of the familiar to face the new and unknown. It is hard to imagine our former neighbour ever providing a challenging environment for her children to grow up in. It is also hard to see how this restricting cycle of narrowed expectation might be broken so that a new generation would learn the things that are possible when imagination and curiosity are given full rein.

I mention our former Herefordshire neighbour as a way of introducing the thought that many Christians are kept trapped within extremely narrow boundaries on understanding and belief. Their membership of the church has done absolutely nothing to inspire learning or curiosity. They have been encouraged to believe that the important thing is to seek safety in this world and in the next. This will involve not questioning anything they are taught and certainly not straying into areas of discussion where they might be challenged to think for themselves. When I speak about fundamentalist attitudes among Christians, I detect a kind of fearful conservativism and obedience to a trusted authority. Christians are encouraged to feel fearful of a world that might involve imagination and the discovery of what is new. The result is that curiosity is completely suppressed. Without this curiosity and a longing for newness, there will only be, to my mind, something stale, repetitive and ultimately boring. In the last blog post I spoke about churches which entertain by the singing of familiar choruses and songs. The predictability of this kind of worship is reassuring but in another way, it may be responsible for mental stagnation. For me the thought of Christian experience consisting of a formulaic repetition of a particular style of music feels me with dread. I am reminded of the sight of wild animals in a zoo, pacing endlessly around the confines of their cage. Most people recognise that while these animals are safe and fed, they are completely unable to fulfil anything of their potential to be free and fulfilled. I repeat, my objection to much conservative religion is in this fact that it so often fails to encourage any sense of exploration and discovery.

In this blog post I leave my readers with this question. Is it right to destroy a sense of curiosity in a Christian in favour of giving them something safe, predictable and ‘sound’? Should we not rather encourage him/her to see the Christian journey as something exciting, unpredictable or even dangerous? By limiting the spiritual horizons of a new Christian for the sake of safety there seems to be an act of betrayal being perpetrated. So often safe conventional teaching seems to lead to a place which the faith is made something banal and even boring. Can we really expect a Christian to remain engaged with this faith, when all he/she is being offered is an endless round of bland choruses and banal cliché-ridden preaching? The choice that a Christian is being given is perhaps between a path of challenge and a path of safety. Those who only follow the path of safety in the Christian life, by never deviating from a strict adherence to authority and doctrinal orthodoxy, do not seem to find ‘life in all its fullness’. Those who follow the path of challenge do discover something far more adventurous and risky. They have the adventure of moving out of the well-trodden paths of safety and conservative thinking. In making this contrast I am reminded of what Jesus said about losing life in order to find it. Perhaps losing life at one level is to a readiness to risk all in allowing the Christian faith to challenge each of us to follow the path where curiosity, imagination and our sense of adventure may lead us.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

8 thoughts on “Horizons and curiosity

  1. This is very important, thanks Stephen. The love that crosses boundaries, as we see in the Good Samaritan and the command to love enemies, is inherently risky in all sorts of ways, but it alone has the potential to open our consciousness to the unity of all things in God. Jesus makes no bones about the necessary challenge as you say, in the image of picking up our cross daily. Our journey is so intimately involved with allowing the Spirit to work within us so that increasingly perfect love will cast out fear. Hence Jesus’ many encouragements to overcome our fear through putting our trust in him. But as you say, there are many churches which suppress these vital aspects of the Gospel. Indeed, even in my liberal church which does encourage thinking and exploration, it is noticable how very little preaching and teaching time is given to articulating the problem of fear and developing the virtue of courage. I speak as someone who often feels very timid, and therefore sees that as a sign of still very imperfectly developed faith.

  2. I just finished responding to a piece of satire about a recent statement made by the new US Vice President concerning how he will not allow himself to be alone with a woman other than his wife. I liked the satire, but I kicked over a Trumpster sacred cow for a few people. He strikes me as one of those “touch not taste not” folks who creates man-made rules to keep from sinning, but the rules get lost in favor of the spirit of doing what is right, motivated by love and virtue.

    John Bradshaw wrote a book about a decade ago entitled “Reclaiming Virtue.” This well written blog post focuses on what the culture established by the church produces. Do we want to encourage Christians to be obedient without reasoning where someone does their thinking for them, or do we want to foster a culture of virtue? A culture of obedience creates a rigid environment that aims at uniformity, duty, and self-martyrdom for the cause. A culture of virtue aims at unity with diversity, critical thinking, freedom that is directed by the desire to do good — and those things require an informed conscience. I really like the distinction Bradshaw makes about love. In a culture of obedience, love becomes a surrender of the self for the sake of the cause which seems to absolve a person of responsibility/accountability, but in a culture of virtue, love grows as a function of an individual’s identity. From that strong individual identity flows a sense of personal responsibility and honesty about human nature. We are imperfect, but an honest esteem for that becomes a potent motivator for personal growth.

    The locus of control is different for each culture as well. In an obedience motivated culture, worth and value depend on outcomes (an external locus of control). A culture of virtue, security and self-assurance flows from the nurture of one’s inner life and accountability along with a strong inner faith that manifests itself from the inside out.

    1. Wow. Working towards virtue. I like. I like very much, but I’m going to have to chew over that. A lot.

  3. haikusinenomine,

    I think that we all have an imperfect faith, but God works in us over time to make us holy. Paul talked about mortifying the flesh daily, and reckoning with that every day isn’t a fun process. I think of more obvious examples of Isaiah when he see’s God seated on His throne as the angels cry, “Holy, holy, holy.” He becomes painfully aware that he is not holy. John does something very similar when Jesus visits him at Patamos.

    What would cause a person to gather with other Believers to delight in their weaknesses? Christians ought to be good at it, as we’re all in the process of God working in us. There should be no condemnation if we are in Christ, and how will we learn if we aren’t curious about that and willing to question those most important things about our faith? I was taught that God was “strong enough” for me to question anything and that He was compassionate and merciful enough to “handle it.” We learn through our failings.

    It seems that in my experience that there are many people who talk about picking up their daily cross, but they don’t like to suffer along with others out of fear of looking imperfect to others. I probably lean too far to the other side, understanding myself as a mixed up mess and presenting myself that way. But that isn’t better and might be more destructive, too. It’s like being proud that I’m not so proud.

  4. ^^ I’m learning how to be appropriately vulnerable. In certain places and areas of my life, I can do that well. In others… I think that I have learned to come into situations from a “one down” position as a way of coping to hopefully set people at ease. It worked for awhile, but I’ve lived long enough to see how unhealthy it is.

    There’s that funny scene in the very irreverent Monty Python’s Life of Brian where some fellow offers to help carry the cross of someone on the way to their execution, and the condemned man takes off running. there seems to be no dearth of people who will take off and run away, letting innocent others bear the responsibility. The fellow who runs away learns nothing, and the fellow who takes on the burdens of another doesn’t help him either. Neither response fosters questioning and growth.

  5. I remember having a discussion among a number of Readers on a training weekend which involved the drawing of a church as a boat. The picture being to row out and rescue people like a life boat. We also got on to providing a place of safety, like an ark. I chipped in with a comment that I wasn’t (I’m still not) convinced that the church should be a place of safety. God is not “safe”. (One of my incumbents said he always thought the “stir up thy people” prayer was written for me!) But just remember, if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.

    1. comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable… some people need safety and protection, some need to be challenged….? We may each be in those different places at different times on our journeys….

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