This week Bob Trube of Emerging Scholars Network writes on attentiveness as the hallmark of both holiness and good scholarship.
It is a common modern misconception that scholars and saints (used in the sense of those seeking to live lives set apart for God’s service) have little in common other than our humanity. I want to contend in this article that there is an important disposition that both share and that for the Christian, this aids in the development of a “seamless” life—one without compartments, one as scholarly saints.
Consider one example:
A Scottish microbiologist was studying Staphylococcus aureus. He cultured the bacteria on several plates, leaving them to grow over the weekend. On return, he noted one of the cultures was contaminated with a fungus, and that the Staphylococci had been destroyed in the areas adjacent to the fungus. Alexander Fleming would name his discovery penicillin, and the result would be that millions of lives would be saved from bacterial infections.
And another from Christian history:
A German monk was assigned to lecture on the Letter to the Romans, and was mightily troubled by Romans 1:17, which he labored over for days. What did Paul mean when he said “the just shall live by faith?” He struggled under the weight of his own sins and God’s justice until he came to this realization:
“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon, I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”
That realization led not only to a spiritual rebirth for Martin Luther but to a new epoch in the life of church known as the Reformation.
There are more everyday experiences as well:
In prayer, a friend comes to mind, and as you pray for that friend, you have the strongest impression that you should call that person. It turns out they have just experienced a major setback that has devastated them and they need someone to sit with them.
You notice during Bible study that Alan is very quiet. No one else does but afterwards you approach him and learn that his wife has just announced she is leaving him. You walk with him through the emotional and legal struggles that follow, affirming his continuing worth to God and to your community.
The Common Thread
The common element in these stories is what might be called attention or attentiveness. Leighton Ford observes, in The Attentive Life, that “[p]aying attention is not a way by which we make something happen but a way to see what is already given to us.” The assumption is that God is present and at work in our prayers, our reading of scripture, our relationships, our research, and all of life. Attentiveness means noticing what I’m seeing, hearing, feeling—whether it is an impression in prayer, an anomaly in data, a structural pattern of injustice, an uncharacteristic response of a friend, or a phrase of scripture that catches our attention.
A significant part of our progress spiritually is awakening to that work, and how we may participate in what God is doing. Rather than trying to make things happen, God invites us to join Him in what he is making happen. Rather than trying to wrest the secrets of the universe out of darkness, God invites us through the disciplines of patient research, study, observation, and thought to watch, and wait for what God would show us, in God’s time.
Enemies of Attentiveness
I’ve identified two enemies of attentiveness in my life. The first is distraction. It may take the form of hurry, where I do not slow down long enough to meditate on a passage of scripture, muse on a phrase in literature, or really listen to what my friend is saying. Sometimes, distraction comes in the form of juggling so many things that I cannot give any one of them the attention they are due. Have you ever been in a conversation where someone furtively steals a glance at a phone, or appears to be looking over your shoulder at someone else in the room? Has that sometimes been you?
The other enemy is self-sufficiency. While being a self-starter and initiative-taker are good things of themselves, when we come to believe that everything depends on us, we tend to be less open and attentive to what God is doing. As bright academics, we are tempted to believe that if we think and talk long enough, we can solve any problem. It is often not my first instinct to pray, “God, what are you doing, and how may I cooperate with you?”
How do we cultivate this seamless attentiveness to God, to people, and to the world? It begins with spaces to think, reflect, and contemplate in our lives. Many of our spiritual practices are really practices of giving ourselves space to attend. Sabbath is God’s gift to take a whole day to stop, to savor our relationship with him, people, and his world. Prayer and Bible study offer opportunities to listen to God. Pausing before God when we are stymied in our studies or research may at least calm us if not bring new insight. Sometimes as we continue this practice, we notice patterns. Keeping a journal has been helpful for many, as is the practice of keeping a research journal in many fields.
The other step I would propose is to pay attention to the questions rising in us and to offer them to God. What does it mean that I am drawn to this phrase in scripture? What might it mean that this person has come to mind when I pray? What should I be noticing about this anomaly in my data? A valuable question, reflecting Paul’s urging to “always be thankful” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), is “for what am I grateful today?”
Attentiveness marks the lives of both scholars and saints. For the Christian in academia, the practice of attentiveness, rooted in the conviction that God is present in all of life, helps remove compartments in our lives. Attentiveness allows us to listen to and follow Christ, even as we listen to others and observe his world, drawing us into the seamless life of worship and Christian faithfulness in all things.
 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, Abingdon, 2013), p. 51.
 Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2008), 34.