Posted in brain and spirit, spirituality

Where there is no vision, the people perish

I’ve got a problem, and it’s caused by you – you, reading my blog (immediate family excepted, of course). The problem is that you pay attention to what I’ve got to say, and remember it, and might even quote it back at me. So what’s the problem, you might say – surely in your job you would hope to have people listen in. And you’d be quite right; part of a bishop’s job is to teach the faith, and to speak out about issues in contemporary life. That’s not where the problem lies.

The problem is that another part of my role is to help the church deal with change, and to lead in mission. As well as being at the centre of the church, a focus for unity, I should be at the edge, an innovator – or at least be promoting and inspiring creativity in the people of God. There is a prophetic part of my calling.

(Incidentally, I’m not claiming that it’s only bishops who have these callings in the church. But that’s another discussion.)

The reason why the co-existence of those two things is a problem, is that it’s very difficult to do both well, and it would seem impossible to do them at the same time. At least, if you accept that there’s a direct link between the prophetic, edgy part of ministry, and creativity. There’s certainly a very strong link between being a public figure, and (in most cases) thinking more carefully about what you say. As a bishop, people do tend to weigh your words; I remember doing it to bishops myself before I was one. So as you become aware of that, you slow down, you check over what you’re about to say. And it would seem that you can’t do that, and be creative, at the same time.

The evidence? That great BBC institution Horizon. The recent episode on brain science showed how knowledge is developing about the areas of the brain which light up when creative activity is happening. The research shows that in moments of creativity, the ‘self-censoring’ parts of the brain are turned down several notches. It’s perhaps the neurological equivalent of that ground rule of brain storming sessions – no one is allowed to criticise anyone’s idea while the brainstorm is happening.

So, if I’m to be creative, I have to switch off my caution. But if I’m to exercise my role with proper care, I have to make sure I don’t say things that can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. So now I hope you see why there’s a problem.

And if there’s a problem for the Bishop of Croydon, think how much more difficult it must be for a Prime Minister, or an Archbishop, or a Pope. Both demands are accentuated to a far greater degree than I will ever have to experience. The bodies you lead need creativity, flair and imagination. But no-one allows you to brainstorm. As soon as you say anything, it’s analysed to death for its significances; as soon as you say anything different, it’s a u-turn, or a defeat. You certainly can’t float an idea – as soon it passes your lips it’s a policy.

And finally, it looks like it’s not easy to switch between the two. Caution is habit-forming, creativity likewise. Maybe that’s why I can’t end this post with a solution; maybe I’m losing the knack of creativity. But there’s always the verse from Proverbs which makes the title of this post: the verse runs in full: Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

An interesting parallelism there, if we allow ourselves a creative re-interpretation of the text. (Paying no attention to original context, accuracy of the translation, etc.) The first half sounds to modern ears like creativity and innovation; the second half like conformity and caution. Maybe there are ways of holding both – and another part of the Horizon episode might illustrate the way. We can open the path to creativity by consciously relaxing those parts of the brain that act as self-censors; and meditation is one of the ways to do it. Taking time out from the public eye can be the space in which creativity can begin to flow. The heart of this contradiction is that paradoxical activity, prayer.

So I think the remainder of my thoughts this evening will, with all due courtesy to my patient readers, remain my own.

3 thoughts on “Where there is no vision, the people perish

  1. Thanks Jonathan – a very thought provoking piece. We can, and must, hold both things in our brains – or at least continue to be nimble in switching from one to the other – if we are to make a difference. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks for your wise words. Hard to put into practice, but if we trust and give it our best shot god will bless us.

  3. I really enjoyed this, found it very helpful and thought provoking- also reminded me of work I read years ago by bill torbert who wrote about leadership and on that occasion he was doing so by proposing a kind of heirarchy of ways people can be in leadership. The technician for example would be fair low down the scale as a leader who could do the job, follow the rules but was a bit uninspiring and perhaps even too legalistic. The wizard on the other hand was top of the tree and had managed to do the job well whilst being very creative- lets hope that new hat of yours helps you to synthesise the synapses to bring about your wizardry!! Love x

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