One class had been assigned “European Scientific Discoveries.” There were many. The students highlighted Copernicus, the first to make the radical claim that the earth was not the center of the universe, but rather, orbited around the sun. Galileo was featured for his proposition that the laws of nature are mathematical and his adherence to Copernicus’ heliocentrism. (It was noted that the Catholic Church was none too pleased with some of his writings and beliefs.) The skit about Newton was particularly engaging as the cardboard tree was wheeled on stage and an apple dropped on Isaac’s unsuspecting head. DaVinci talked excitedly about observing birds in flight and dissecting human corpses. Descartes thought and was and did not just use his senses to found analytic geometry but deduced and used his mind to come to his revolutionary conclusions.
As I sat on the gym bleacher I had the following small epiphany: all of these men (they were all men at this time) shared a few basic characteristics. First, they were observant. They noticed the obvious that was all around them from the stars, to the falling apples, to the human being walking on the street (and dead in the morgue). Additionally, they were curious. They wondered. They wanted to know why these common things did what they did and how they worked and were related. They also had the courage to follow that curiosity wherever it led without concern for what others had already concluded. They did not fear the liminal time and space of the unknown but instead lived within it as they thought and researched and tested and observed and experimented. Finally, they shared what they discovered even when it was met with doubt, disbelief, ridicule, or, at times, persecution. These seemingly unremarkable shared traits led eventually to the Scientific Revolution that birthed many of the ideas and inventions we cherish today.
Observation, curiosity, unfettered exploration, and bold proclamation, these are the traits that, in many ways, transformed the world into the place we know it today. And as I thought about this I wondered: are these not the traits that, if employed by the Church and its members, might bring about another sort of revolution, a revolution marked by good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and freedom to the captive?
Could we, the Church, not begin by observing the obvious, the people and circumstances that are in front of us and all around us every day? We could notice who is at church and who isn’t. We could notice the changing make up of our neighborhoods and country. We could notice creation groaning under the weight of our consumption and our brothers and sisters living in poverty down the street and around the world. We could observe not only one another but also the work of God’s Spirit among us. We could make note of those times when our “hearts feel strangely warmed” and our consciences nudge us in certain directions. We could see what others are doing, and doing well, to relieve estrangement and hunger, both physical and spiritual. We could begin participating in the transformative work of God simply through observation, noticing the obvious.
Then we could get curious. Why is our congregation bereft of twenty somethings and people of various racial backgrounds and the poor? What is causing certain species of animals and insects to decline or disappear? Why do some populations of people do so poorly in school while others excel? Why do so many pastors leave the ministry after five years? Why do new people come to the church? Why don’t they come to church? What incorporates them into the community? What doesn’t? Why don’t younger women come to Presbyterian Women meetings? Where are they on those Tuesday nights? There are countless observations we could explore.
What if we picked a few and got really curious and asked questions and wondered and tried some experiments with time and space and program and worship and then observed some more and got curious about those observations and then did some more experiments? What if we weren’t afraid to hang out for a while in the unknown, knowing that during that period of time there will be failures both big and small, maybe even an occasional explosion, but that those failures and explosions will give us valuable information that we’d never get otherwise?
If we are willing to do this we might make some interesting discoveries. We might come to surprising conclusions. We might even find out that a lot of what we thought we knew, was completely wrong. We might, through the restless, questioning, bold power of the Holy Spirit, discover that God is about the work of transforming the world, at least in part, through Christ’s Church, if that Church is willing to go where ever the Spirit leads it, in places and to people and in ways that are new, unheard of perhaps, contrary to the established conclusions within and without the Church. It is then that the hard work of proclaiming and acting upon those conclusions would need to be done, regardless of how it will be received, but if we are brave enough to do it anyway we really could be the church reformed and always reforming, in accordance with God’s living Word.
Observation, curiosity, unfettered exploration, and bold proclamation, not such radical things, not such remarkable traits, are they? And yet, if we use them in service to our radical, remarkable God, through the power of God’s Spirit, they could spark a revolution and transform the world. Are we willing to find out?
Jill Duffield is Associate pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church, Ft. Mill, S.C.