On Failure, Questioning, Scholarship and Leadership

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image12544574I learnt much at college. I should have done, it was one of the best in the world. A particularly valuable lesson came midway through my second year. I had mid-year exams ahead. I had not done the necessary work and was expecting to do badly, which for me would have been an epic fail. The stress produced excruciating pain in my lower back. I regularly had to lie down because sitting was too uncomfortable. Then I went for a walk in the University Parks and, as clear as I have ever heard it, I heard Him challenge me: “Can you accept that I love you and you are OK if you fail?” As best I could, I gave in, and let go of the performance orientation that defined my identity. My back pain disappeared and I did do badly in the exams. So, for what counts, an epic win.

Probably that lesson helped me learn another: the art of asking the right questions. At the time, I was inspired by one of my lecturers N. T. Wright and, for a while, believed pretty much everything he said about the New Testament and its ancient Jewish environment. There is much I still agree with. In a more subtle and valuable way he modelled a way of being—of inquiring—that has had a deeper, lasting impact. ‘If you can’t explain the data with the existing conceptual framework, dig down to the conceptual foundations of the current models; question the assumptions’, he would say. The true scholar is not the woman who knows everything (though it does help if she knows where to go to find out anything): the true scholar knows how to ask the right questions.

For any discipline (but especially for the theologian, and even more especially for the biblical theologian) this is an intensely personal matter. It takes courage; asking the question means an admission that you do not know. And one question usually leads to many more; to an acknowledgement that you might be wrong about many things. That your three-year long PhD might actually be wrong. Seriously wrong. That the theology you have championed and fought for in your youth might be wrong. That your business model might be the problem, not the work force. That you, the leader, might be the problem. Being free to ask the right question means allowing the circumstances and His still voice to ask you searching questions that get at the current conceptual foundations and assumptions of your being.

If the scholar is also to be a leader, there is an added pressure. As leaders we are programmed to have the answers and we grow accustomed to the guru position; the attention and praise feeds our souls. We sell certainty: assurance of faith and vision for purposeful living. But genuine asking—not the polite outward show of respect for colleagues—requires not knowing. And my not knowing threatens a collapse into the abyss of social isolation (or worse, castigation). Epic Failure. It is only possible if I have a knowledge that I am known and loved that goes deeper than my identity as somebody that knows.

This questioning is not a gnawing, anxious, disillusionment; but the peaceful, expectant and wide-eyed inquiring of the childlike mind. It comes from faith; faith in God the creator of an ordered, meaningful, life-giving world who has the answers. So we ask the questions knowing that the other side of uncertainty He will restore clarity and provide confidence. He will answer the questions (just like he did at the beginning of your journey, and many times since). The questioning is simply one aspect of prayer (of our conversation with Him and about his world).

And, the quest is one aspect of confession and worship: it starts from and ends in a ruthless honesty and recognition that the current model could be better or that it is not working at all. The decision to find answers comes from worshipful acknowledgement that He is good, he made the world to be ordered, good and whole; to make sense and to be fruitful.

And it requires courage: courage that comes from the knowledge that we are made in the image of the only wise and all powerful God. We are made to find the answers.

God likes treasure hunts, and hide and seek.

And if we have to change in response to the answers, that’s just part of the repentance we signed up for.

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