How to be a responsible seeker


Seekers, by their very nature, try to live lives of richness, integrity, and honesty. Their lives are at the same time full of risk, ambiguity and temptation. It’s quite heady stuff to break out on your own and search for “truth.” Breaking away is itself fraught with problems: can we truly define ourselves as autonomous individuals who have a right and a responsibility to make up our own minds what we believe? Might we not be deluding ourselves into thinking that we know more than we do, that our cognitive capacities are superior to others and that therefore we have abrogated the right to judge for ourselves rather than believe what “authorities” have taught us? Are we not committing a supreme act of pride by deciding for ourselves that what legitimate authorities have taught us is questionable? Are we not cutting ourselves off from the very communities that have fed and taught us and continue to nurture us? Even more seriously, might we be deluding ourselves into believing that our search for “truth” is honest and serious, when we end up, often with little scholarship, picking and choosing what we want to believe and discarding what we don’t? Do we even know if our motives for discarding what we discard are proper and responsible?


To be a seeker is to assume a responsibility we simply didn’t have when we were followers. As Kierkegaard entitled one of his books on faith, we move forward “in fear and trembling.” We are on dangerous grounds, but forward we know we must go. How do we proceed responsibly? In the end, that’s the best we can expect from ourselves.


So, what is involved in “responsible seeking”?


a) Responsible questioning


Characteristic of the seeker is questioning. There is a certain scepticism about the seeker, once he or she has begun to realize that the theological edifice traditionally presented is not quite as solid, logical, legitimate, etc. as was originally thought. With the post-modern philosophers, seekers have learned to ask for the motives behind what authorities teach. What exercise of power gets addressed by the positions taken by authorities?


This kind of scepticism is a good thing, so long as it works hand in hand with humility and openness. Otherwise it leads to bitterness and cynicism. Not all authorities are self-centred. Not everyone has nefarious ulterior motives.


Part of questioning consists of self-examination. We are, after all, flawed human beings, with blindspots, hidden agendas, motives we don’t fully understand, and we suffer from our fair share of pride and greed and sloth, to name a few. We need to be constantly asking ourselves questions about our journey and the decisions we make along the way:


-Am I focussing my search only in terms of “what is good for me,” “what fulfills me”? etc., rather than what is truly the case?


-Am I looking for a smorgasbord approach to spirituality, where my determining criteria is “what works for me” without really studying if the pieces truly fit coherently and non-contradictorily together?


-Do I find yourself searching for ‘experiences’ which don’t entail effort and commitment rather than engage in the sweat and pain of a true spiritual discipline?


-Am I more concerned about the thrill of ‘experiencing’ and less about the often tedious and lengthy spiritual discipline and the inevitable theological infrastructure required?


-Do I find myself no longer willing to engage my communities of origin because I have dismissed them as irrelevant in my search, rather than patiently and with humility maintain an open-ended dialogue with others?


These are typical questions that seekers must constantly be asking themselves. And allowing others to reflect back to them. We are often so blind to what others spot so quickly! Pride, arrogance and laziness have no place in a seeker’s life! Being a seeker is hard work! And it is not work we should be engaging in alone! The greatest danger for seekers is individualism – it’s all about what matters to me, and what satisfies me. If we have learned anything from the great spiritual masters of all major traditions it’s that it’s not about me! We are born in community, we grow up in community, and we are called into community. And community is not made up of like-minded people – “lifestyle enclaves, the American sociologist Robert Bellah would call them – but of whoever is around us.


b) Responsible experiencing and reflection


Responsible experiencing means experiencing what there is to experience, not only what you want to experience. It means being open, not prejudiced, not blind, not avoiding stuff you think might challenge your cherished notions. The Buddhists call this “mindfulness.” Being present to all that is happening, present to all your feelings, present to what is going on around you.


Experiencing leads to hypotheses designed to understand what you’ve experienced. Responsible understanding means generating all the possible hypotheses that might help make sense of what you’ve experienced, not just sticking to your pet theory. This means not playing favourites; this means considering all possible explanations; this also means talking with others to help you make sense of your experience.


Generating hypotheses leads to further experience to test out the hypotheses you’ve generated. Responsible judging means sorting through the hypotheses and discarding those that can’t be verified by further experience, and testing out those that survive, and continuing the testing process until you’ve exhausted the questions. Responsible judging means inviting others to help you test out your favourite hypotheses and being ready to hear answers you may or may not want to hear.


Responsible seeking also means that you are always on the lookout for your own blind spots – your biases, your weaknesses, your prejudices, – because these can so easily distort what you experience, what you understand and what you conclude. Responsible seeking also means that you conduct your seeking within a community – not necessarily of like-minded people! We learn most from those who disagree with us! The temptation of the seeker is to go it alone, or at most with people who think like them. Seekers need to engage their natural communities, learn the skills of listening and sharing, learn how to engage the world-view of others different from themselves without losing their integrity. This is the great task – and skill set – of “hermeneutics,” the art of interpretation. To learn more about practical hermeneutics, click here.


c) Responsible appropriation


The term “appropriation” means “making something one’s own.” The seeker is typically one who appropriates her faith, who wants to “own” it. Appropriating one’s faith is complex business.


Over the centuries, many have reflected on what constitutes true “tradition,” (seen in this case as a verb, coming from “traditio” = “to hand on”). The best expression of this has come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: responsible appropriation of one’s faith involves an active engagement with four components: Scripture, tradition, experience and reason.


1. Scripture: In every faith, some form of Holy Scripture purports to capture the essence of someone’s or some community’s insight into the Divine Mystery. For better or for worse, these texts, grounded as they are in time and geography, still constitute the touchstone of a faith tradition. One would be loath to claim to remain in the tradition without interacting with what constitutes that tradition’s Scriptures.


We are not asked to accept such scriptures blindly. We are required to engage our reason, to sift through the texts, understand their composition, their context, their authors, and then to make sense of them for our time and for our place. This process is less easy than one thinks: it requires that we understand the original context so that we can appreciate what the original meanings might be. This is a task requiring immense respect and sophistication. Someone once cleverly said: “Any text without its context is nothing but a pretext.” How many times have we heard sacred texts quoted out of context as “proof texts” for a preferred ideological position? Then we sift out what continues to make sense, what needs to be adapted in terms of our time and conditions, while remaining faithful to the original insights.


2. Tradition: We are not doing this process alone, nor for the first time: the history of our faith tradition is but an on-going sequence of such interpretations and re-interpretations, along with original insights and experiences from the holy ones and the learned ones from within (and from without) the tradition. Most world faiths have long traditions – some two, three, and four thousand years old! To think we recover the original texts in their pure form is an illusion! We are all products of tradition; we were raised in tradition; we see our sacred texts through the complex lenses of tradition. We engage our reason on these texts within the context of the tradition.


3. Experience: Then we have our own experience to contend with. We too have experienced the Holy in some form or another. We have experienced our own life and its context. These experiences must be understood within their context, and we often use the concepts of our own faith community to make sense of our experiences. Similarly, we use our experiences to make sense of our faith context. Again, our experience is never “pure”: it is already pre-interpreted for us by our culture and our tradition! And so we engage in the complex critical process of sorting out what might be authentic in our experience. We do this through sharing: how much of my experience of the Divine is genuine, and how much might be delusion; how much of my experience is self-serving, and how much might be a true call to go beyond myself.


4. Reason: And through all this, I use what I have at my disposal – for better or for worse: my reason. My flawed, easily influenced and distracted, not terribly well disciplined reason… It’s all I’ve got and I must use it. But I use it in humility and with “fear and trembling.” Pride has no place in the reason life of the seeker! We do the best we can, and we need to be painfully aware of our limitations. (We do well to remember that the very founders of Protestantism declared that we were “depraved” and that little good could come of the use of our reason alone… Perhaps that was their argument for obedience as the alternative… Even though we can’t go there any more, we do well to head their warning: our reason is so easily influenced by our needs…)


So all four – Scripture, tradition, experience and reason – are brought to bear, with equal weight, on our personal search for meaning.


Here are some suggestions of how one might go about a responsible appropriation of one’s faith:


i) review the beliefs you have taken for granted

ii) check them against your experience

iii) make sure you understand these beliefs in their best context

iv) discuss your ideas with others and especially with people whose experience and wisdom you trust

v) read responsible studies on the issues that concern you

vi) make sense of your experience as best you can in light of what you know from your tradition

vii) discard or modify what you need to optimize the internal logic of your view

viii) test it out in humility, prayerfulness and openness

ix) constantly recycle this process