Imaginative Gridlock and the Spirit of Adventure

History can teach us some of the key lessons we need to learn for leadership in the church today. “The Nuremburg Chronicle of 1493 describes Europe as depressed. Published in one of medieval Germany’s most important centers of learning and innovation, the Chronicle epitomizes its era. On the one hand, pioneering with the new, innovative hardware of movable type, it faithfully reproduced engraved portraits of the major cities of Europe and the Holy Land. On the other hand, it described a civilization with little vision or hope.

Contributing to the general malaise was a combination of political, social, economic, and theological “downers.” Late fifteenth-century Europe, despite its glorious cathedrals, emerging artists, and developing network of universities, was a society living in the wake of the plagues, the breakdown of the feudal order, and the increasing inability of an often hypocritical and corrupt church’s capacity to ring true. There had not been a major scientific discovery for a thousand years.

Then, as if suddenly, Europe is all agog. The depression lifts like a morning mist, novelty begins to shine everywhere, and the seeds of the Renaissance that had been germinating here and there for two hundred years sprout vigorously. The imaginative gridlock that had largely beclouded Europe’s inventiveness for more than a millennium dissolves forever. Over the next half-century, more radical change occurred in every field of human endeavor than had ever happened before, or, with the possible exception of the first half of the twentieth century, since.

While there have been other half-centuries of extraordinary progress, few have involved such fundamental change of direction all across the board. A person born in 1492 could have witnessed in their lifetime:

• An extraordinary flowering of artistic imagination concerning form and perspective in painting, sculpture, literature, architecture;
• The Reformation led by Luther and Calvin, ramifying out into almost every subculture and presaging the way religious differences would be formulated for centuries to come;
• The invention of the watch, enabling an unheralded fine-tuning in the measurement and coordination of daily time periods;
• Observations of space and experimentation with lenses that would lead to the creation of the telescope; and
• The dissemination of the first newspaper, initiating the effects of widespread information-sharing within a community.

Underlying all of this artistic, philosophical, and scientific upheaval was an even more basic, all-embracing change: the two worldviews by which European civilization had oriented itself for almost fifteen hundred years (based largely on the scholarship of the second-century Greek thinker and mapmaker, Ptolemy) were turned on their heads. One misperception was the view that the land mass on our planet was situated entirely above the equator, extending contiguously from western Europe to eastern Asia, with the Indian Ocean a land-locked lake. The other was the notion that our planet’s relationship to the rest of the planets and other heavenly bodies was “geocentric” – that is, the other planets and stars revolved around the Earth, which according to this orientation was situated at the center of the universe.

Anyone who has ever been part of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system knows that more learning will not, on its own, automatically change the way people see things or think. There must first be a shift in the emotional processes of that institution. Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently. Without this understanding, it becomes impossible to realize how our learning can prevent us from learning more. After all, when Galileo, a century later, tried to reorient the cosmic perspective of his world, he offered in rebuttal to those who were unwilling to learn what he had learned: a look for themselves through his telescope. And there were people who not only disagreed with his views but, when offered the opportunity, even refused to peek.

While it can be said that Columbus’ voyage would not have been possible without some of the accumulated learning that preceded him, European history after 1493 does not logically follow from all the knowledge or creative imagination that had been gathering in the previous three centuries. The slow pace of advancement could have continued at that same slow rate of progress for another three or even five hundred years. The quantum leap that occurred around 1500 was a direct result of a complete reorientation to reality initiated by Columbus’ discoveries and the subsequent exploration of geography.

Similarly, though some have said that the Age of Discovery was merely symptomatic of the cultural and economic advances occurring at that time, the catalyst for those other imaginative breakthroughs was the “nerve” of the great navigators who led the way. Europe’s imaginative capacity was unleashed not by the discovery of learning, but by the discovery of the New World, while the enormous awakening of European civilization’s inventiveness was the direct result of the effect those new horizons had on an Old World.

Columbus’ voyage was a hinge of time. It swung open a door barely ajar, and for the next hundred years after 1493, no significant cathedral, unless previously planned, was begun. The effect of America’s discovery on the European imagination was as though God had been hiding a piece of land bigger than the known world since the dawn of creation. The great lesson of this turnaround is that when any relationship system is imaginatively gridlocked, it cannot get free simply through more thinking about the problem. Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first. This is equally true regarding families, institutions, whole nations, and entire civilizations.

But for that type of change to occur, the system in turn must produce leaders who can both take the first step and maintain the stamina to follow through in the face of predictable resistance and sabotage. Any renaissance, anywhere, depends primarily not only on new data and techniques, but on the capacity of leaders to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional climate so that they can break through the barriers that are keeping everyone from “going the other way.”

What our civilization needs most is leaders with a bold sense of adventure. Our nation’s obsession with safety ignores the fact that every American alive today benefits from centuries of risk-taking by previous generations.”

Excerpted from A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman

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