Growing up, organizational psychologist Adam Grant was determined to be right. His friends called him “Mr. Facts” because he’d win arguments by rattling off statistics. He even unabashedly corrected his second-grade teacher’s misspelling of “lightning” as “lightening.”
Adulthood has humbled Grant. In his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know he captures the important lesson that he has shared with his five-year-old son: “Being wrong isn’t always a bad thing. It can be a sign that we’ve learned something new — and that discovery itself can be a delight.”
Think Again counters the traditional view that intelligence should be measured by the ability to think and learn. According to Grant, the abilities to rethink and unlearn are the cognitive skills that matter more.
In this Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts, Paul’s speech to the Athenians is a refreshing civil discourse grounded in a spirit of intellectual and spiritual hospitality. The Athenians were famous for their curiosity. After hearing Paul proclaiming the good news in Athens, a group of philosophers invite him to the Areopagus — a hill set away from the city’s distractions, where serious conversations could be had.
Grateful for the invitation, Paul praises the Athenians for their commitment to religious pursuits. He’d walked through Athens and noted the altars to their gods, particularly one with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” Paul commends them for knowing that they don’t know everything and tells them about Jesus and the resurrection.
Some Athenians “scoffed” after listening to Paul (v. 32) but others were ready to rethink and unlearn — and eventually joined the Christian community.
This passage offers people of faith a guide for positioning ourselves in our search for God and knowledge of God. As Paul describes our Creator to the Athenians, he says God cannot be captured in “shrines made by human hands.” The Divine is larger than what we mortals can comprehend. In searching for God, we must “grope for him” (v. 27) as if feeling our way through a dark room looking for the light switch. Our search requires a posture of humility, a knowing that we do not know, an openness to rethinking, unlearning, and new discoveries.
This isn’t easy. Our religious beliefs are so tied to our identity as Christian (or Presbyterian, Niebuhrian, Calvinist, Tillichian, Liberationist, Post-Modern, Progressive, Liberal, Conservative, Evangelical or Post-evangelical — you name it). As Grant writes, “Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves … We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and we let our beliefs get brittle long before our bones.”
To search for God, to know God more fully, involves some scary groping through dark, doubt-filled spaces. We might even find ourselves breaking into a cold sweat, thinking, “What if I’m wrong?” Yet Paul and the Athenians remind us that there is more to be discovered about God, and we hold onto hard certainties to our faith’s detriment.
We aren’t alone as we search. The not-so-certain, humble path is crowded with other faith-seekers and even God, who is intimately close – “In him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28) – while also being mysteriously out of reach. Faith becomes more of a journey than a destination. Knowing that we don’t know positions us for possibility, for delightful discovery, for meeting God in new ways, new people, new understanding. The unknown God is our God, too, we come to realize — because there is always more to learn.
Questions for reflection:
- What feels “known” to you about God? In what ways have you come to understand God?
- What feels “unknown” to you about God? In what ways is God shrouded in mystery?
- How have you positioned yourself for new discoveries in faith? How do you search for God?
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