Monday, May 2, 2011

Curiosity and spirituality

It's perhaps not commonly known, but I occasionally take services at a Unitarian meeting house in South East London.

For more information on Unitarians (like Quakers with hymns) see Our Meeting House is on Faceborg here:!/pages/Lewisham-Unitarian-Meeting-House/204686696210228

The theme of yesterday's address/sermon was 'curiosity and spirituality' and I include revised extracts below.

Last month I finally watched Citizen Kane for the first time. For those who haven't seen it, the story revolves around a reporter's quest to uncover the riddle of Charles Foster Kane's dying words. Consumed with the need for an answer, he plunges deeper and deeper into Kane's life. Yet for all his zeal and labour, he never finds the answer he is looking for.

But if our own questions don't have one right answer, or even an answer at all, does that matter?

Can we enjoy asking questions without needing an answer?

A question of questions

There are differing views on the value of questions. At one end of the spectrum, analytical philosophers like A J Ayer argued that most questions of ethics or metaphysics are not really true questions at all, as they cannot be answered through observation or mathematical logic.

At the other, literal-minded interpretations of religion tend towards being 'all answer and no question', to quote John Updike. In other words, all questions of belief or practice can be addressed through a monolithic reading of a single holy text.

I have too many questions myself to rest easy with either view. I do think the big questions are worth asking, worth discussing with others. But I've also learnt to live with the fact that often all we get isa provisional answer, an answer for the moment alone.

Sometimes all we can do is hold the question without getting an answer at all. Yet I believe that paying the question attention is I believe in itself useful and consciousness-expanding.

This is why the most interesting teachers answer questions with riddles, parables and stories that enrich debate and enhance possibilities, rather than closing them down.

This is why it's vital to engage with ideas, and with others with ideas, who make you think in new and exciting ways.

This is also why critical thinking is so important

Critical thinking and curious cats

The liberal Anglican Don Cupitt (in The Sea of Faith) defined critical thinking as follows:

A critical thinker seeks to emancipate his own thinking from the tyranny of theory. He learns regularly to perform little thought experiments in which he sets aside the theory which he himself uses to look at himself and the world and tries looking at them in light of another theory.

The only thing I think is missing from this definition is a sense of playfulness. For example, I share my house with three cats which the landlady has left in our care. I have no idea what they are thinking when they poke their noses into everything around them, but they are undeniably curious about the world in a playful, open-ended way.

I recently came across a summary of liberation theology and straight away knew I wanted to read more. I don't know what I'll take from these ideas, but I do hope that this open-minded, curious, cat-like enquiry will help enhance my own thinking and spiritual practice, as Christianity, Buddhism, psychoanalysis and conversation with other Unitarians have all done before now.

Curiosity helps us grow as individuals - if Thomas Edison had not sought the new he would have just built a better candle!

Unicorns in the balloon factory

What applies to the individual also applies to to the community.

There's a great story from Seth Godin in Tribes - a parable almost - about a unicorn in a balloon factory. It means no harm, but it causes all kinds of havoc just by having a point to make.

Curiosity, asking questions, is part of liberation. Wherever a status quo is unhelpful, perhaps even harmful, calling it into question can be a powerful and sometimes a brave act, and perhaps the start of a positive change in your life or the life of the community.

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