Friday, March 7, 2008

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

1 comment:

mackie100 said...

Last week’s blog made me think that I missed an interesting discussion. Now there is no doubt about it. The ‘AI’ approach has a great deal of merit and the more I think about the concept the more I feel it could be an answer to a lot of our problems. Too often we are trying to identify the problem and fix it instead of making the good things better. I have heard the best way to keep pests at bay in a garden is to ensure the plants are health instead of trying to kill the pests.

This last summer I visited a garden designed by one of my landscape heroes, Humphry Repton. In 1812 while we Canadians were trying to repel an infestation of southern terrorists trying to illegally border cross, Humphry and his architect son John were designing Sheringham Park in Norfolk, England. Humphry really did not have any formal training but his ability was evident to me, my travelling friend and Repton's landowner clients. His novel approach to design was to amplify the natural beauty of the property. He would cut trees and plant more to accentuate the rolling landscape or to frame a view to a neighbouring church. Unlike others who cleared, leveled and dominated everything they owned, Repton encouraged an appreciation of his personal vision of nature that has influenced most of our parks today. It amazed me to think that while he had such an impact on this profession, the impact on the land is barely noticeable.

Your blog quoted the mighty sage, Monty Python, so let me quote another 'equally important' scholarly source, the TV show Kung Fu. In a ‘voice over’ at the beginning of each episode the kung fu master would tell his charge that he would not graduate until he could traverse a path of rice paper without leaving a mark.

Sometimes I think that an individual’s success should be based on the ability to make a change without necessarily making a mark.