James writes that our life is but a vapor, here today, gone tomorrow (James 4:14). Life’s brevity means that we can’t experience everything, even if you give full-time to your “bucket list.”
There is so much to learn, and so little time.
While I’ve been able to experience some things in my life that others will never experience – such as living as a missionary in four different African nations – what one chooses necessarily precludes other choices. There are other paths unchosen that I’ll never walk, even if I had the aptitude early on to do so.
I will never…
-Pilot a 747, though as a boy I thought I would become a pilot and was fascinated by jets;
-Be a bank officer, though I’ve been a teller more than once and was eyed by management for promotion;
-Work as a medical doctor, though I was in the top 3 of my zoology class as a college freshman;
Obedience to God’s calling on my life has led me in a different direction. I married, went to seminary, pastored a church, had children, then went overseas as a missionary educator. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Yet one of the dangers of specialization is the death of a wider curiosity.
As a theological educator, most of my reading is given to religious topics. I can read entire books on theological subjects that fascinate me but that would seem esoteric to you. How many people, after all, care much about the soteriological implications of the eschaton? (Eschatology – the doctrine of “last things” – is high on my list, and I’ve even written a book about hell). Someone once defined doing doctoral research as “learning more and more about less and less.” There’s some truth to that!
With the advance of knowledge, specializaton seems unavoidable. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had the reputation of being a “universal man.” Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was similar; both had broad interests, expertise, and accomplishments in multiple fields. But in the 21st century, it’s hard to find anyone who has an encyclopedic knowledge like theirs. Too many additional volumes are in the encyclopedia now, too many “hits” from a simple Google search.
The downside of specialization – no matter what your field of study – is that a kind of glaucoma can set in, an intellectual narrowing of the field of vision.
So while I can have a stimulating conversation at a meeting of a theological society, what do I say when I sit on a plane next to a fellow passenger who is a supply chain manager, a physical therapist, or a gay activist? We live in different worlds. Rather than engage the conversation, I might choose to watch a movie or read my book about John Wesley. It’s a safe choice, but there’s no connection. Community suffers.
Yet specialization need not mean the death of a broader curiosity. With a healthy curisoity comes the ability to interact fruitfully with people from various walks of life. To this day, I will sometimes read about airplanes, follow financial news, or learn something new about biology. Though I didn’t walk down the career path of pilot, banker, or medical doctor, when I need a break from theology, I’ll dip my toe in another pool.
Curiosity is the mother of learning. Here are a three practical ways to cultivate curiosity:
1. Get a liberal arts education. I’m part of a denomination that sponsors multiple liberal arts universities. (Full disclosure: I teach at one, Africa Nazarene University). Though I was a religion major in undergrad, Eastern Nazarene College required me to take a number of “core” courses including World Literature, Living Issues, Intro to Math, Arts and Music, and General Psychology. This helped me situate the “tree” of my own discipline (religion) within a broader “forest” of knowledge. Even if what I gained was just general knowledge about various subjects, I at least knew where to start if ever I wanted to dig deeper. Because of a liberal arts education, I’m more likely to ask good questions from specialists if I want to know more. That makes for human connection.
2. Listen to others with opposing viewpoints. One of my life’s guiding principles is this:
The first duty of love is to listen.
You may not be convinced by the other side, but the discipline of curiously probing why others draw different conclusions than you do will help us avoid demonizing the “other.” Curiosity helps us co-exist, even if sometimes we must “agree to disagree.”
3. Read a book outside your discipline. During this “staycation,” I’m reading Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations (2016). It was a gift from a friend who knows you can’t hammer out good theology if you don’t understand the context in which you’re theologizing.
Ours is a world of specialization. While mostly a blessing, let us not become so narrow that broad-based curiosity dies. Let us keep cultivating a healthy curiosity so that – while we may never totally agree with one another – at least we can understand each other. Then maybe, just maybe, we can live together in peace.
Big brother and baby: By Vitold Muratov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons;
Human ear: By David Benbennick (took this photograph today) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons