WHEN I LOOK BACK ON MY EARLY YEARS as a professor in higher education, I feel a sense of awkwardness and embarrassment. With my learning behind me, I came to the role knowledgeable and eager, thinking I had so much to offer students. I thought, if they bring their empty glass to my full jug, they will be blessed!
I also presumed to know how schools operate, how administrators should function, and how institutional decision making ought to occur. My Ph.D. had not only given me competence in a particular body of knowledge, but I could also feel the pull toward quiet omnicompetence, with a low dose of omniscience and a sprinkling of omnipotence!
In the subsequent 40 years — after heading up a couple of departments, being a dean of students, vice president, academic dean, and president — I learned two valuable lessons about theological institutions. First, in the absence of experience, it is easy to be an expert in functions you have never assumed. Second, we all need to confront the reality that each of us lives in bliss with a limited perspective.
It is the second lesson that is the focus of this article.
Storytelling almost always involves a narrator. A third-person narrator tells the story from either an omniscient or limited perspective, or some combination thereof. By definition, an omniscient narrator knows everything about the context and the individual participants, including their inner thoughts and motivations. When an omniscient narrator speaks, you know everything that is going on. When we read J.K. Rowling’s stories about Harry Potter, we are, in a sense, omniscient about all that is happening.
In contrast, the writers of the Gospels wrote from a limited perspective. When we read what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had to say, we are not granted insight into all that is happening. We do not always know what Jesus is thinking or feeling or why he makes particular choices. Instead, we know, with limitations, what the four writers saw and heard and what they considered essential.
The truth is, every one of us has only limited experience with so much of what is happening. You would think this would produce greater humility, reflection, and a tell-me-more spirit. Sadly, it does not. Too many of us live in blissful enjoyment and ease, believing our perspective is omniscient when, in reality, it is limited.
Examples and Illustrations
From a limited perspective, we connect dots, blissfully believing that we are correctly linking them. Often we are joining the wrong dots, functioning in unconscious incompetence, not even realizing other dots would make for a better connection. And most frightening of all, we sometimes forget that we are not unobtrusive observers, but we are playing a significant role in the situation and are, in fact, one of the dots ourselves. Consider these examples:
• A president who, out of insecurity, always needs to be in charge often complains that faculty members are uncompliant and challenging.
• A board chair does not try to find a single voice on the board, but instead privileges individual voices and has offline discussions with those people.
• A long-standing faculty member complains that none of the seminary deans can be trusted to do their job well.
• A board member feels alienated by the chair but is unaware that the chair has heard a lot of negative feedback about that board member’s behavior.
Changing our Ways
Given the pervasiveness of the limited perspective in theological schools, we need to remember and practice an alternative way of being.
• Acknowledge that we all have a limited perspective. None of us knows everything, nor all of the connections that flow from everything.
• Be aware of a high need to know. While we may have a high need to know, it does not necessarily follow that we should be told everything.
• Recognize that revealing and concealing is necessary in every community. In a culture that overvalues authenticity, chaos is inevitable if everyone knows everything about everything.
• Be aware that privacy legislation adds to the number of disconnected dots. With privacy becoming a mandated factor, we need to grapple with the reality that there will be an increasing number of situations where we cannot know what happened.
• Concede that trust is often more about the observer than the observed. When the dots do not connect for us, a lack of confidence in the other may say more about our history and inner dynamics than their character.
• Welcome your colleagues’ varied competencies and gifts. Administrators, staff, and faculty have their areas of expertise and responsibility, so mutual respect is crucial for the system to function well, especially when the dots are not connecting.
• Accept that community allows for a tell-me-more spirit. If the dots are not connecting, it is better to ask and clarify rather than criticize.
• Assuming we know someone’s intent is the most superficial way to relate. When we do not like an action, it is all too easy to question motive instead of asking a question.
• Welcome limited perspectives as an invitation to humility. While it is easy to slip into an all-knowing mindset where our template is central, we need to hold our viewpoint with humility.
• Confess that our limited perspectives can become deeply entrenched over time. As we get older, we tend to think our views are more accurate and reliable. Others, however, see us and our views as immovable.
It might be wise for us as theological educators to remind ourselves that in the bliss of our perspectives, only the triune God is omnicompetent, omniscient, and omnipotent.
Dr. Rod Wilson is a consultant and teaching pastor in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is also a faculty coach for the In Trust Center’s Wise Stewards Initiative.