AI or CSI?
A longtime rule of research for me has ever been the keeping of an open mind. But even I registered a bit of surprise as Monty Python, Garrison Keillor, Robert Bly, Buddha, Nissan, St. Benedict, and, for good measure, Bob Gardiner, my sometime statistics prof from grad school days, all appeared to line up on the same side of the ledger – strange bedfellows (make that, bedpersons) at the best of times to be sure! And all this when I began to consider a concept Ed Leidel (small church coach) had introduced to our little group a few weeks back: Appreciative Inquiry.

In my rather rudimentary understanding, “AI” (not artificial intelligence or any other of those ‘artificial i’s’) is a process through which churches might better revision and revitalize directions in their parish; while avoiding the ‘problem-saturated stories’ that typify AI’s opposite – problem solving. By valuing ‘what is best’ in our church culture, cultivating affirmations, and dialoguing about ‘what should be’, we may develop as a community. This, versus identifying what’s wrong, getting stuck in the analysis of causes, considering solutions over strengths , and developing action or treatment plans – all notions which are rooted in the view that somethin’s broke and needs fixin’.

A basic principle of this approach (AI) is that the language we use to describe or investigate something, by its very nature, colours the way we experience this inquiry; in short, language creates reality. Ask problem-driven questions and you get negatively framed answers; pose positive queries and affirming responses come back to you. Sounds simple and upbeat enough. Right?

But what of our disparate group’s commentary on AI. Let’s begin with Bob. “No, no, NO! You start with the Null Hypothesis”, words that will ever echo as the young researcher’s mantra – the core value, as it were, of meaningful inquiry. Then would follow the lecture, punctuated with finger thrustings and pointer slappings: “Expect that nothing causes anything, that what you do will have no impact on the outcome – only then can you do good research”. Generously restated, this ‘null hypothesis’ requires that we adopt a skeptical point of view if we are to be free to make ‘real’ findings; and avoid the trap of ‘willing’ our research to confirm what we (optimistically) hope to be the case.

Perhaps a little more lyrically, Robert Bly, a dark and treasured poet of mine, has identified the need to “go into the ashes”. I once heard Bly tell the story of a swallow trapped inside a granary. The bird, seeing the faint light at the top of the silo, repeatedly flew upward, inevitably striking the clouded glass that covered his apparent (and hoped for) point of egress – falling back to the granary floor, time and again. Exhausted, terrified, no longer able to muster the energy to fly, he scrabbled around in the darkness only to find a hole, gnawed by a rat in the base of the wall. Summoning his courage he crawled through – to freedom. A Saturday night favourite, professed Lutheran, and spokesperson for Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor recently captured a similar sentiment on the Prairie Home Companion: “We need to get into trouble”; this, as he explored the Lenten dilemma faced by pastor Lindquist as he waffled (ever so briefly) between the wisdom of ‘giving something up’, the rightness of sacrificing and the humanity of offering comfort and fellowship to his fellow cleric (by accepting that glass of ‘single malt and a half’ and, in so doing, eschewing the ‘prescribed path’).

St. Benedict, in the third chapter of his Rule, cites the necessity of ‘calling the (whole) community together for consultation’, a reference to entertaining all points of view – however contrasting or incongruent or ‘negative’ – if (and here’s the essence) we’re to get the balance right. Buddha characterizes our sphere as ‘the full catastrophe’, replete with not only the ten thousand joys (presumably the positive, desired, and affirming experiences) but also the ten thousand sorrows. To deny the latter is to devalue and distort the former; to effectively delude oneself. And of all the unlikely sources of spiritual wisdom, the Nissan Motor Company many years ago adopted as central to its employment policy a practice known as ‘creative abrasion’: hiring, in pairs, people of strong conviction – with opposing points of view; not to foment dissension or discord, but to foster a full and creative assessment in decision-making.

So did you name that tune? With our run-up to Holy Week, it seemed only fitting to include in our ‘group of experts’ a most compelling, relevant, and sardonic image arguing for a balanced examination of facts: Eric Idle (in the closing scene of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”), hanging together with dozens of other victims of crucifixion, in blissful denial, as he whistles “Always look on the bright side of life”. Let’s ask the hard questions too. Choirs make wonderful music – but they do sing from the same page; a questionable footing for understanding, research, and growth.

So will that be AI or CSI – Critical Spiritual Inquiry?

David Howard

Hinc Videndum

Hinc videndum. For a number of months now – since our website has been revitalized and comtemporized under the watchful eye of Nicola, my wife – I’ve tossed around the idea of attaching to it a blog (or web log, in its abbreviated form) as a forum for the community of St. James to offer opinion, observation, accounts of personal experience and the like for the consideration of fellow parishioners; or for that matter, anyone who might trip over the site as they Google their way across the internet. In essence, ‘views from the pews’. Hence, the christening of said blog, intended to reflect not only a longstanding preoccupation of mine with how we, as individuals, uniquely see things, but to offer a tip of the hat to an early mentor of mine, a senior high school Latin teacher who has engendered in me a love of inquiry, language, and free expression.

This past Saturday a dozen or so parishioners joined Lynn, Lorne, and Ed Leidel, a ‘small church coach’, to have a look at the St. James community, our values, identity, and ultimately, purpose. A particularly compelling (personally) part of his presentation involved a short video prepared by National Geographic photographer, Dewitt Jones, and centered on the old saw: seeing is believing – turned on its ear to underscore his main point that, in fact, believing is seeing. Briefly, Jones was urging us to let go the expectations, structures, plans, rigidities that frequently surface when we are disappointed by a circumstance that departs from what we might have hoped or prepared for, often resulting in our abandoning it as time wasted, opportunity missed; and to be and remain open to the potential of what is before us. Ed’s purpose, in part, for the inclusion of this moving video was to provide a springboard into a discussion of ‘appreciative inquiry’ – more of that another time. For me, it touched an additional chord: a need to cultivate, to discover, if I remain in the metaphor, a lens through which to view the world, to focus our experience, literally ‘seeing again – for the very first time’.

Many years ago (forty to be precise), I had the good fortune as a young man to live for several months in London, England – although, with little money and fewer prospects, ‘fortunes’ were deemed to be something less than good at the time. Dusting off some of the memories, the tiniest shards of which involved a visit with an acquaintance to St. Paul’s Cathedral, I recalled only playing the standard, touristy game of planting our selves on opposing sides of the ‘whispering gallery’ and attempting to share ‘secret messages’ (privy to no one save the fifty odd other tourists playing the same game). Nothing of the compelling grandeur of the building, nothing of the quire, alter, dome, art, organ case; and most particularly, nothing of the light that pervades and illuminates Wren’s amazing structure. I might as well have entered with eyes closed, senses (for the most part) shut. (I also lived in Aix en Provence only to discover thirty years later that it was home to Cezanne, a now favorite of mine! What was I thinking? Probably nothing – as I picnicked on Mont St. Victoire.)

Early January this year, opportunity presented once again – seven days in London with the Cathedral Singers (Nicola and I are kind of the church music equivalents of band groupies – but don’t tell anyone) charged with the somewhat daunting responsibility of singing Evensong services in St. Paul’s for much of the week; but affording me the chance to revisit this marvelous building again – for the first time. Photographic prohibitions aside (Terry Marklevitz and I became practiced ‘belly button’ photographers), I looked and studied and framed and saw what had ever been there, but was hitherto unseen by me. My passion for and blessing to have found the camera’s lens as a personal conduit into the world, a compelling (and I’ve come to have very mixed feelings about this word) interface that beckons one for a closer, lingering look, has spawned a hugely expanded appreciation not just for the subject (that alone would be lots) – but the light, the angle, the changes cross time; and perhaps most important to my own growth, the readiness to sit and wait and watch, quiet, patient (hopefully!), reflective, appreciative – for what is.

Back to blog, as it were. A second means of my processing what I experience is to attempt to write about it in an effort to better understand my own reactions to or thoughts about. I certainly have no illusions that many (or indeed perhaps any) members of our community will have a burning compulsion to read the ramblings. What I do know – and what I had touchingly and articulately re-presented to me in Jones’ film – is that, from time to time, we all benefit from the discipline and added stimulation of a ‘lens’, a vehicle prompting, even demanding attention to our surround; one that pulls us out of the expected into the realm of the possible, the unanticipated, the unappreciated. My hope would be that some of you may, from time to time, wish to contribute your stories for the ‘consideration’ of the community – as we get to know each other better.

David Howard.