I’m enjoying reading the biography of a favorite Christian: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while I’m over here in Germany. He was a German pastor, ultimately arrested and executed because of his overt and covert involvement in the resistance movement. I love reading about German history while I’m over here because this history still bleeds into day to day conversations. I learned today that the dorm for a local school here once housed Nazi youth, and that the Art Center I visited was leveled by Nazis and then rebuilt. “if these streets could talk” I say to myself as I walk along them, pondering what it must have been like to live in the midst of such confusion, fear, and chaos.
There’s much to learn from those who lived well during those days, and as I read about Bonhoeffer, I’m struck by the degree to which his leadership and influence was extended by his curiosity. Bonhoeffer was a learner: concerts, plays, art musuems, theater, movies. His curiosity, though, extended beyond the arts, into the realm of people, places, and ideas.
People: Dietrich sought out, and nurtured relationships with people whose views were different than his own. In Berlin, he learned from a theologian whose views were different than his own. While studying in America, he developed close ties with a Frenchman, and an African-American, both students of theology with him. He would come to value eccumenism (getting along with Christians of various denominations) because of the Frenchman, and would become convinced of his need to intervene and actively resist Hitler because of the horrors of racism he saw firsthand, in America, through his friendship with an African-American.
Places: Italy, England, Spain, America (including a road to trip to Florida that continued by boat, all the way to Cuba), Mexico. This man was always exploring other cultures, and doing so with the goal of learning and absorbing, not just criticizing. He tried to get to India to visit Gandhi, but that never materialized, and Gandhi himself would exit this world shortly after Dietrich.
Ideas: Dietrich both criticized and praised: the fundamentalists, and the liberals, the Americans and the Germans, the Jews and the Gentiles. The only Easter Dietrich was in America, he didn’t go to church, but rather to a hear a Rabbi speak (because all the churches were filled overflowing), where he heard an exhortation for Jews to step up and make New York the city it could be, a city fit for the Messiah. If you read Dietrich’s “Letters from Prison” you see that, to the very end of his days, his was a mind intent on digesting and refining ideas. Of course, there’s a danger in academia, of which he was aware, and Dietrich was always careful to call his listeners to action, not just contemplation. He especially loved the African American church, because it was there, and there alone (he said) that he found, “great intellect and social vision…combating racism and speaking about the saving power of Jesus Christ” for Dietrich believed (like I do) that the centrality of Christ, and it’s social/ethical implications must always go together: “when the two are combined, and only then, God came into the equation”.
I bring all this up because curiosity is deplorably lacking in our culture today, as we gather around people who are just like us. In our self-referential little sub-cultures we can all feel good about our ideas beliefs. What’s needed is exposure to the realm outside our existing convictions, but always with an eye toward growing in our understanding of truth. It’s the curious, reading, watching, questioning, person that enjoys the bet possibilities of living a well textured life. How do we cultivate curiosity?
1. Read outside your genre. If you read fiction usually, try non – or vice versa.
2. Get entertained outside your genre. If you go to movies, try theater. If you go to rock concerts, try the symphony.
3. Visit art musuems.
4. Get your news from a new source for a month. If you’re FOX, try CNBC, or vice versa.
5. Have lunch with someone from a different faith, or an atheist.
6. Have some friends over for supper, light some big candles, and have a conversation about politics, with a view towards understanding the other.
Learners run the risk of having weak convictions, because they’re addicted to getting more information. That’s the downside, and it needs addressing. But the downside of not being a learner is even greater, for the truth is that you’ll likely fall into some ideological hole and have neither the will nor desire to get out, because everyone around you thinks, just like you do, that all’s well. When nearly all pastors in Germany were metaphorically kissing Hitler’s ring, Dietrich was running an underground seminary, and I’d suggest the courage to swim upstream against popular religious opinion came from Dietrich’s willingness to explore everything, a willingness which served only to strengthen his convictions to live by the truth that is found alone in Christ.
How do you cultivate curiosity?