Monday, August 24, 2015

Teaching Uncertainty

- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

As students all across the country go back to school at this time of year I’ve been thinking about the “almost ludicrous” way in which we have come to envision the process of education – young students sitting at desks opening up their brains for teachers to pour knowledge and information into them. We think about the educational process as an “acquisition of knowledge” – the more schooling” one gets, the more knowledge one acquires, and if you go to school long enough you become an expert in your field.

But of course there is a serious drawback for any one of us to become an “expert” in any field. The Zen masters teach that the goal of wisdom is not to become an expert but rather to become a beginner - to develop a “beginner’s mind," a mind that is not full of existing answers but always open to explore many questions:

If your mind is empty it is always ready for anything.
In the beginners mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s mind there are few.

As students across the country go back to school I think it’s wise to rethink what education is ultimately all about. The more you learn and know should lead you to a deeper wisdom about just how much you don’t know and how much more there is to learn about everything in life.

I was pleasantly surprised by an article in today’s New York Times – a story about a new trend in medical schools, teaching prospective doctors about the value of uncertainty in their profession. The trend started about 30 years ago when a professor at the University of Arizona introduced a course called “An Introduction to Ignorance” offered to all incoming med students. The idea of the course was to help students realize that, while they may think they are in school to learn all there is to know about the human body, the opposite is probably  true. Medicine, like all scientific knowledge is quite limited and filled with more questions than answers. When you learn to embrace and value uncertainty you see these questions not as roadblocks but as doorways to further exploration. 

The news article today reported that in recent years courses like this have become staples in almost every medical school in the country as well as part of a core curriculum for many other institutions of higher leaning where science is taught. The article today went on to quote from a recent book about the importance of scientific “ignorance” by Columbia Professor Stuart Firestein who suggests that scientific discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine. Instead it always involves:

feeling around in dark rooms,
bumping into unidentifiable things,
looking for barely perceptible phantoms.

I actually love this description of the nature of scientific inquiry as “feeling around in dark rooms.” While it provides a wonderfully refreshing understanding about scientific endeavors, it is perhaps en even more apt description of theological study and the spiritual quest.

It seems somewhat odd to me that while scientists today admit that they actually know very little about how the world works and embrace the mystery of it all, many religious people have sort of “hunkered down,” clinging to their sure and certain answers about who God is and what God expects.

And yet, “God” is the ultimate mystery. In fact there is nothing about “God” that can ever be figured out, never any clear-cut, immutable answers.  “God” is the mysterious transcendence that cannot even be named let alone known or defined.

Personally I think every seminary and school of religion in the country should follow the example of the various schools of medicine and science and teach their students a course about embracing uncertainty -  “Ignorance:101”

Many people may feel as if they have failed when their quest for God leaves them with more questions and perhaps even doubts about what they already know. I say they have progressed into the next phase of their journey. They are growing into a “beginner’s mind,” in which there are many possibilities.

Centuries ago, St. John of the Cross described the spiritual quest in this way:

If a person wants to be sure of the road he treads on,
he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.

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