Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Speaking my Language

Being a school teacher, and having completed my degree relatively recently, I've spent a bit of time learning about a pedagogical philosophy (now there's a big word!) called constructivism.

The whole idea behind constructivism, is that people only ever really learn something new, if they can connect it in some way (or construct it) with something they already understand.  The implication for teaching, is that you need to start with what your students already know. If you're not helping them to build on their own existing understanding, you are not teaching them anything at all.  Makes sense to me! 

You can't teach the principles of multiplication, for example, to kids who can't count yet.  Or even to kids who can count, but don't yet fully understand addition.  Little ones just starting school have begun a journey that will take them to multiplication and beyond, but they are still a long way off.  They don't yet have the background concepts they will need.

So if this is the way all of us learn (and I think it is) what are the implications for understanding God as teacher?  If He is really about communicating with us, changing our hearts, and growing us from the inside...  wouldn't you expect Him to begin the conversation, in whatever form it takes, with what we already understand about the world?

I remember my bro, Josh (hopefully you'll meet him during the 'Rest' series) back when he was doing Bible College, talking about how God reveals himself to people through the lens of their own time and culture.  Kinda obvious, when you think about it.  How ELSE is He going to do it?  I mean, if an alien in a spaceship landed in your front yard and began speaking alien bleeps...  no matter how cordial the message, you'd probably just shake, run, or make a mess in your pants!  He/she/it wouldn't be speaking anything remotely like your language, so the message would be lost.

For me, this doesn't exactly make me feel comfortable about those bits in the Old Testament where God seems to be sanctioning genocide, infanticide, and other horrible atrocities, but perhaps it can provide some context that makes a little more sense.  (I feel weird even writing that sentence - because on so many levels those things simply do NOT make sense to me).  But bear with me, just for a moment.  If I look at the development of culture, first the Old Testament Jews, then the early Christians, I can see slow movement from warlike tribalism, to a community that placed limits on retaliation and punishment, to a community that left those laws behind, to follow the law of love. 

And on a more immediate level;  it also helps me make sense of the fact that God seems to "speak" to people in different ways.  He even seems to speak to people to whom, frankly, I wouldn't willingly give the time of day.  On the weekend I listened to some preaching that really grated.  At one point, the speaker related an experience where "God told Him" something that quite honestly, I couldn't agree with.  So does that mean God didn't tell him?  Does that mean I need to adjust my theology?  Maybe neither.  I mean, the preacher (or I) could have gotten it wrong, as I'm sure we often do.  But not necessarily.  When God is speaking to someone, He is speaking into their own understanding, their own context.  And on those rare and precious occasions when He's actually getting through to me - well, same!

Well, come on - what do you think?  Push back a little!!  (nobody's been discussing things much here, lately - but I love discussions, so I'm gonna keep trying! ;)

What are the implications, for the way we relate to others around us?

I can see some possibly scary implications - as well as some very freeing ones...

How do you know when you're really "hearing" from God??  What about the times we get it wrong??

Personally, I think we probably get it wrong a lot!  Is this a bad thing??

Does this raise other questions for you??

Okay - YOUR turn! What are your thoughts?

Image Credit:  http://inventivechange.wordpress.com/


  1. Kerry - you are asking some very big questions... Hmmm... when I was out promoting my book and talking about the concept of God's phone number, I tried to make a couple of points from what I had learned. One was that everyone has God's phone number... but it is not so easy to develop the capacity to hear God or the Divine. And that if one is receiving 'messages' then to really check and see if what you are hearing is serving the higher self, or more positive universe. Sometimes there are those folks such as the mass murderer here in the USA, the Son of Sam, who claimed that God was telling him to kill those people. God is not about murder though. So we have to check those voices in our heads... and generally it takes a very gifted teacher to help us discern. Or our moral, ethical self to discern. But I'm still just a beginner here with all of this... still on the journey on cultivating my Godspace, like many others. blessings. mare

  2. Mare! You jumped in!!

    I really do agree with you that it can be very hard to discern whether we are "hearing" God, or ... something else. And your test, to "check and see if what you are hearing is serving the higher self, or more positive universe" is a very wise one.

    I think that's where a healthy faith community can also be a valuable safeguard - wise people to share your questions and insights with. NOT to dictate, but to walk alongside.

    Thanks so much for contributing!!

  3. It has been said "When you talk to God, its prayer, when God talks to you, its Schizophrenia". I personally find it hard to believe that the "stuff from which the universe was made" can find the time or be even bothered to talk to me. Is it our imaginations gone a bit wild? Thing is I know deeply that many of the Christian people I associate with and love, are definitely not insane.

    I agree with Mare, when we hear that voice deep in prayer, It has to be a higher spiritual cause, even if it is us imagining it to be a higher spiritual cause.

    That Pastor who said "God said to me..," and you felt that Clash with your sense, was probably because he was imagining answers from his lower, baser self.

  4. Hey, Stuart,

    I'm not sure that was the case, (with the pastor, I mean). It wasn't something nasty - just something I happen not to think is relevant. Maybe, for him, at the time he "heard" it, it was.

    If I look back at the times I have believed I heard from God (whether it be a gut feeling, or a thought that seemed to come from nowhere - once it was audible - but don't tell THAT to my shrink ;) I think in some instances, I may have just been subscribing to the "group think" that was around at the time. There are times when I think it was just wishful thinking - but the times when I was most sure (including the audible one) were borne out by what happened afterwards. There was confirmation that what was said was right and true.

  5. So very, very, hard to discern. On the one hand we are told, that audible disembodied voices or thoughts we don't think that are our own, that we think are someone or something else's; are signs and symptoms of mental illness. Every atheist will tell you this, and almost every mental health practitioner. One the other hand, our Christian teachers will tell us to listen to our small inner voice, or our conscience, some Pastors will tell us directly, that God talks to us in Prayer, or through the Bible.

    As for gut feelings, these are more acceptable to most people, as nearly everyone has gut feelings. However, Gut feelings are visceral responses, based on emotions that include love and fear and could include anxiety.

    If we get our inner voices and feelings wrong, and we act upon those wrong voices and feelings in a way that is dangerous to ourselves or others, it is a one way ticket to a secure psychiatric ward or jail.

    As for wishful thinking, and group think, I must confess I have done that. But, like you if I hear my small inner voice telling me things will be ok, like when my Father was near death or relationship problems, it has been followed by overwhelming peace, which in itself is a visceral all over body feeling. They have always been true.

    However I seen quite a few Christians with "mental illness" being that their behavours and actions are incongruent/insane, being guided by inner voices. I have spoken to many mental health professionals who speak about the intense religiosity of their clients, who (the clients) constantly claim that they talk to God. Intense religiousity in itself is a sign of insanity.

    On the other hand (mmm i must have 3 hands) I know many sane Christians.

    Every time I have heard the small inner voice I am confident in, it has been deep in prayer - meditation.

  6. Sounds to me, like you know the voice of God, Stuart. And I think that 'peace' is a sign that it is really Him.

    I know what you mean, about the nuttiness of people "chasing for signs" and "hearing things" all the time... For me, it is mostly as you describe - the still, small voice, and inner peace / conviction that things are settled. That one time (the audible voice time) was a very long time ago... and very much an exception. Tell you about it one day :) But in saying that, no more dramatic or decisive than the "still small voice" has ever been.

    I think it is worth remembering that God is with us in the ordinariness and physicality of our everyday lives. We need not look for him in the dramatic or the supernatural. He is already with us.

  7. Good to hear Kerry. Even horrible old skeptical agnostics like me can still hear the "still small voice".

    I think many of the problems with communication with Atheists, is that spiritual Christianity (and other religions i reason) is very much a subjective experience, where the spirit is felt, not just thought about, and "The Still Small Voice" is an alien, un-experienced phenomena.

  8. I think anyone can hear it, Stuart. But yes, it is mystical - not scientific.

  9. Have you ever seen End of the Spear or Beyond the Spear. That convinces me, more than anything, that God is a contextual God. He speaks to us in a way we understand. When I first came to know him, he was my unchanging hope in a time when nothing seemed reliable. Now, he's something totally different to me. But that doesn't mean he's changed; it's me who's changed, after all.

  10. No Adrian, I haven't - but will look for it now! I'm only guessing, but sounds like it might be along the lines of one of my very, very favourite books, by Don Richardson - Eternity in their Hearts - REALLY worth a read, if it isn't old news to you already!

    And yes. We change, our understandings change, and God is still gracious enough to relate to us where we are. My hope and prayer for myself, is that my understanding is being guided by Him as it changes. I guess that is always going to depend, though, on how open I am to that.

    Really curious about End of the Spear now... gonna go youtube it!

  11. I don't often recommend books, but when it comes voices only we hear I recommend My Stroke of Insight by neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor. In it she describes her stroke and the effects on her thinking and perceptions. It is very much a 'religious' experience.

    Mirroring these experiences is the work of Sudbury, Ontario, neuroscience researcher and university professor Michael Persinger who has built a sort of magnetic helmet to recreate what he describes as 'neurotheology', meaning he can recreate many kinds of religious experiences by activating specific magnetic interferences in localized areas of the brain. In other words, everything you and others are describing but attributing to 'god' are well known physiological effects from impaired brain activity. But don't think the 'impaired' description negatively; rather, think of it as a way to alter our perceptions (which we do intentionally with physiological effect through both prayer and meditation... we reduce blood flow to certain areas of our brain).

    In addition, keep in mind (ha!) that we have a bicameral brain that really does send and receive messages from the other hemisphere. The voice you hear may very well be the disembodied voice of yourself from areas of the brain in competition with other parts.

    Anyway, all I know is that religious belief about the supposed divine cause for these kinds of 'spiritual' experiences does not translate into use knowledge that is true for everyone everywhere all the time. It is highly subjective and variable and inconsistent, often leading us away from reality and into mental illness without any guidelines to allow us to know which direction we have gone. What does offer us a great deal of knowledge is neuropathology and on this path we have made much progress.

  12. Hey, Mr T - I'm very interested in that kind of research.. Remember hearing some stuff on ABC radio once about the "Third man experience" that was also fascinating...

    I'm sure some of the experiences I've had that were "religious" or "spiritual" were exactly the kind of phenomena you've described. Sometimes we can get a bit silly about it all (and that's where being part of a healthy family and community is so very necessary)

    The thing that continues to confirm for me, that there is more than just physiology, however, is the fact that on a number of occasions, the "inner voice" or whatever you want to call it, has revealed things that neither side of my own brain could have possibly known.

  13. Well Hello Tildeb. Thank you so much for calling us brain damaged. I am well aware of the research, the book and the subject of Neurotheology.

    I also remember Richard Dawkins, the Gnu Atheist's Gnu Atheist took part in a Neurotheology experiment on TV which achieved absolutely no results for him.

    I wonder if all Gnu Atheists have the same brain deficit?

    You dont hear the still small voice, Tildeb because you've never tried to access it. Perhaps you lack the capacity to think in that way Tildeb. Like Kerry's constructivism, you may need to start at the beginning, and accept you dont know everything.

    Now Kerry, as you know everything to me is natural, even still small voices, everything natural is spiritual, everything spiritual is natural. There is nothing beyond nature, no supernatural, but that doesnt mean we know everything there is to know about nature.

    So Tildeb, you dont hear a still small voice? Perhaps you are brain damaged. Or as you put it, exhibit negative symptoms of Neuropathology.

  14. Ah, Stuart, still jumping to conclusions based only on what you believe, I see. C'est la vie.

    I got a lot out of Spirituality for the Skeptic by Robert Solomon (exploring the thoughtful love of life). My only beef here is attributing these transformative experiences to some kind of Oogity Boogity long before we actually know much about how our brains work that produce them. I deeply suspect the attribution to The Almighty (TM) is premature.

    Because I have had to work very closely with 'cognitively impaired' people, I share your interest in our developing knowledge about how the brain works and the kinds of experiences it produces. We're all impaired by negative formative experiences, physiological and chemical damage, even lesions and poor blood flow, but most especially from trying to perceive the world through our inaccurate mental constructions of it. When it's out of alignment good things do not happen! And reality is doing its level best to let us know that something is out of whack. Sometimes, we even listen, and that's usually when better things start to happen.

    Yes, I also read some articles about the Third Man Factor and it is very interesting. I wonder what's really going on? The soldiers I've talked to have a fascinating list of people who have showed up to 'help' them out of very bad, very dangerous situations. Do I really think Abe Lincoln popped by for one fellow? No, I do not. From these same people I also heard stories of those who followed Third Man advice that ended tragically in spite of the best efforts from others. This tells me what we're probably dealing with is a personification of part of our brain insisting for control. Because the ones that follow bad advice usually die, we should expect to hear stories that end successfully.

    But this is not constrained only to near death experiences: when we allow ourselves to follow our brains, we more often than not surprise ourselves to find the 'zone', that state of relaxed but focused mind on performing at extraordinarily high levels where every decision is exactly right, executed effortlessly, producing excellence. Because we're already in the zone, we don't need to create a personification; we're living it.

    I just think we need to exercise more scepticism about any source attributions that go beyond the minds from which these experiences originate. I don;t know about you, but I have enough challenge dealing with reality! I'm sure Stuart will be first in line to agree with that assessment!

  15. Well yeah Tildeb. Reality can be hard enough to deal with. I don't think the personifications hurt sane people, when it starts to do damage is when people get it all mixed up with their desires and motives, basically because they haven't been taught how to deal with their thoughts properly.

    In neurotheological research they showed yes that some parts of the brain shut down, but other parts lit up. It also showed that prayer used different parts of the brain than meditation.

    I maybe a skeptical old agnostic, but I am defensive of the Church as a whole, and those who are in the Church, from attacks from Gnu Atheists such as Richard Dawkins. Why? Because firstly rational people who believe in a God are my allies against dogmatism and fundamentalism. Secondly but importantly, Christian people have shown me friendship, love and care, when no one else could be bothered. The church, widely known, has a lot of faults, but there is no atheist equivalent at the grass roots. Not where i have lived anyway.

    It also upsets and annoys attempts by Gnu Atheism to typecast religious belief as a disease symptom of delusion. These people of the church live productive creative lives, they are not by any real measure, insane.

  16. Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say some parts 'shut down' but research from both Newberg (sp?) and Harris show differential blood flow in prayer and meditation. My point is simply that the feelings of unity and oneness reported by many in many religions may be caused by induced spatial disorientation, very much a physical effect from a physical process that can, indeed, be studied by further scientific inquiry. Kerry had suggested that this was not possible.

    I find it ironic that anyone would attempt to battle dogmatism and fundamentalism by supporting some lighter version of them! In this sense, I think respecting any version of faith-based beliefs is a root problem from which all kinds of symptoms like dogmatism and fundamentalism emerge. So, too, does superstition and various kinds of woo associated with magic and healing. So I don't think there are any allies against this root problem to be found from those who respect some 'lite' version of a faith-based belief.

    And you're absolutely right about no equivalent grass root atheist 'church'. There are many secular organizations that do equivalent work whose members do indeed form a sense of community. But as far as not having any kind of central institution drawn from non belief I think is a good thing!

  17. Hi Tilden I suggest you read Kerry's latest post "an atheist on religion" about the uses of religion. I thought it quite good and rational.


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