Weekly Edgework #30 - Jan. 24, 2005

On Being Reflective

The reflective person is, first and foremost, a question asker – one who finds in every experience and assertion something that requires further investigation. He or she is a stone-turner, attracted to the creepy-crawly things that live under rocks and behind human pronouncements (Daniel Taylor in The Myth of Certainty, p. 17).

It is not a given in Christian circles that being a reflective person is a positive thing. And it must be admitted at the outset that there are some disadvantages to being sensitive to and fascinated by the complexity of things. Those who reflect deeply on reality are often not the most serene among us. For them, issues of faith and life can not easily be projected on to a black and white screen. They fail to see one conclusive answer to every specific question, as do their non-reflective friends.

Indeed, many people I know sing the praises of being non-reflective. Not asking questions, or – God forbid – questions behind questions, allows them to live with a sense of tranquility. Not only is it less work to adapt to an inherited worldview, it also provides an instant sense of security. Along with motherhood and apple pie, an unquestioned worldview provides for a sense of wellbeing and safety.

When such persons bump up against competing worldviews an instant defensive reflex emerges. They must repel all other ways of looking at the world than their own. To legitimize even part of another way of looking at faith and life threatens their own foundations. There is no truth to be found outside of the boxes in which they live.

Sometimes, however, unreflective persons encounter situations themselves that simply do not fit neatly into their unexamined worldviews. When they do, one of two things happens. Either they begin exploring for answers outside of their boxes – that is, they become reflective - or they concoct a way of squeezing the new situation into their view of the world, even if they must delude themselves with respect to the truth. Unfortunately, in most cases they choose the latter strategy and in so doing double-lock themselves into a defensive posture. If they choose the former they will find themselves on a journey of growth and change.

But that is precisely what unreflective persons and sub-cultures fear the most – change. It has become quite popular in some evangelical contexts to look upon conservative, Mennonite colonists, for example, as being stuck in they ways – not open to change. They are charged with stubbornly hanging on to an inherited worldview that is out of sync with reality. However I have come to see this same phenomenon in evangelical circles. Granted, their worldview is different, but it is colored black and white nevertheless, just like that of the colonists. Many evangelicals do not want their leaders to wrestle together with them about the complex issues of faith and life that confront them. One such person once said to me that he came to church, not to hear anything new, but to be affirmed in what he already knew to be the truth.

Now there are dangers reflective persons must be aware of. Endless reflection can lead to paralysis – a perpetual inability to act because there always seem to be more questions than answers. Of course this is balanced by the propensity of non-reflective persons to act too quickly and inappropriately. This tension is obvious in the wake of a major natural disaster, for example. Non-reflective persons tend to rush to the scene without proper equipment or resources to back them up, sometimes doing more harm than good. Reflective persons may be slower in responding, but when they do they do so in a more sustainable and helpful way.

On the other hand, reflective persons also face the danger of alienation because their continual probing of issues implies that all is not well – that action is needed. To keep asking questions, and then questions behind those questions, does not endear one to those who have vested interest in keeping a rigid status quo. As a matter of fact, such persons can and do become easy targets for persecution of varying degrees. That was the case in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and unfortunately in the Christian church as well. Questions posed by reflective persons often sound very threatening to those charged with preserving a particular Christian institution.

Yet the church needs reflective persons in its midst. But reflective persons should not be confused with those who simply amass a great amount of information or demonstrate unusual intelligence. Many smart and gifted people are not naturally reflective. As a matter of fact, they can be just as tightly locked in their boxes as their less endowed brothers and sisters. The church needs people who are restless and uneasy with the status quo – persons who challenge others to also ask questions, think new thoughts and dream of what a more faithful church could look like.

Unfortunately, reflective persons are also usually sensitive persons who feel the displeasure of others keenly. Non-reflective persons tend to be insensitive, on the other hand. When you put these two together it is usually the reflective persons who get hurt. Either they are suppressed and “put into their places” for the supposed benefit of group solidarity, or they choose to leave communities that do not make room for them.

All great movements of the past have been born in the hearts and minds of reflective persons. If the church cuts itself off from these people among them, it will without question eventually find itself in the backwaters, far from the cutting edge where God is engaging the world. The challenge for the church is to embrace and nurture reflective persons, for its own sake, and for the sake of the Kingdom of God.