An approach for recovering Jesus’ vision of fullness of life for today:
The world of today is characterized by a rapid pace of social and technological change, incessant inundation by media, and a radical plurality of cultures, worldviews, and visions of the human good. Living in this environment, many people find themselves at once overwhelmed with input and lacking in deep meaning. Conditioned by superficial interactions and presented with countless alternatives, increasing numbers of people are failing to find meaning even in the great religious traditions that have given meaning and purpose to the lives of human beings for most of human history.
Old methods of handing on faith are no longer adequate in this context. More than simply transmitting a static body of teachings and sacred texts, religious communities must invite transformation in the very way people make meaning of faith and life. They must instill habits of meaning-making that both draw upon the deep meanings of the Christian tradition and meet the mental demands of living in the world of the 21st-century. Inspired by Jesus’ teaching and informed by contemporary research, the SEE approach offers a means of facilitating such transformation.
Movement 1: Stimulating the imagination
As practitioners of transformative, engaged, mindful, and contemplative pedagogies all know, meaningful learning invariably begins with focusing learners’ attention and recruiting their active involvement. The first movement of the SEE approach therefore stimulates activity at the level of learners’ mental images where enduring changes in thinking and behavior originate. Key to this movement is presenting images and questions that prompt learners to actively imagine reality as they experience it and encouraging learners to give expression to their mental images in their own terms. Learning exercises in this phase might include viewing interesting videos or artwork or hearing stories that evoke themes of vital importance as well as learners producing their own art, stories, skits, questions, and conversation. Through these exercises learners cultivate new habits of meaning-making including greater inquisitiveness, enhanced attention, and more fluid, flexible thinking.
Movement 2: Expanding the imagination
Having activated and engaged learners’ imaginations in Movement 1, Movement 2 aims to challenge their current imagining so as to open them up to ways of imagining that are more adequate to the demands of the 21st-century world and of authentic Christian faith. This movement involves questioning and/or activities that problematize or expose limits in learners’ current manner of constructing meaning as well as exploring key symbols, stories, practices, and teachings from the Christian tradition that potentially offer greater depth of meaning and coherence. New habits of meaning-making cultivated in this phase include critical self-reflection or self-awareness, intentionally drawing upon sources of deep meaning, and critically yet appreciatively interpreting such sources.
Movement 3: Embracing new ways of imagining
After Movement 2 has disrupted learners’ more limited ways of imagining and posed the possibility of more adaptive ways, Movement 3 presents the opportunity and support needed to forge a new, more adequate imaginative synthesis. Key activities in this movement include exercises that promote growth in awareness and control over learners’ imagining as well as opportunities to render personal judgments about the adequacy of their orienting symbols and those of the Christian tradition and to make decisions about their lives based on those judgments. Through these exercises, learners develop enhanced capacities for meaning-making like making critical, well-reasoned judgments, exercising “self-authorship” or responsibility for one’s own life and decisions, and the ability to re-integrate a vision for life when old meanings and visions break down.
General notes on the SEE approach
– Teachers and learners may progress through the three movements within a single class period or over the course of a week or even a semester.
– Given the arduous work involved in transforming the very manner in which people construct meaning, this approach is most effective when learners engage it regularly over an extended period of time (ideally throughout one’s lifetime).
– Although designed specifically to address the needs of people in later stages of cognitive development (i.e., adolescents and adults), following the basic pedagogy of the SEE approach is entirely appropriate and beneficial for younger learners.
– Utilizing the SEE approach does not necessitate abandoning other methods. It may be beneficially utilized in conjunction with a variety of techniques and models.
Modeled on Jesus’ teaching
Recognizing that the problems of the world spring from distorted human hearts and imaginations, Jesus taught in a manner that touched hearts and imaginations, not just the intellect. At the center of his teaching was a call to interior transformation or “conversion”—a transformation of what we love, how we look at reality, and, subsequently, our way of being in the world. Jesus summed up this invitation thus: “the kingdom of God has come near; repent [or be converted], and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15; Mt 4:17).
In order to draw people into a vision and experience of God’s reign, he told stories. Jesus’ parables tend to follow a three-fold pattern: First, he activates the audience’s imaginations (for example, in the parable of the good Samaritan, which begins on a familiar road that his audience could readily picture in their minds). Second, he disrupts and expands their accustomed way of seeing things (for example, by having the hated Samaritan rather than the priest or Levite come to the victim’s aid). Finally, he invites them to embrace a new way of seeing (for example, by asking the audience which one was neighbor to the victim and inviting them to do likewise).
The pedagogical effect of this movement from the familiar to the unexpected to a choice is, in the words of Scripture scholar Amy-Jill Levine not so much giving meaning as “soliciting our meaning making.” Rather than attempting to describe what cannot be adequately described, Jesus invited people to “come and see” (John 1:46) and told stories that draw the listener into an experience of the reign of God. In this sense parables are better conceived as exercises of the heart and imagination than as ethical lessons. They shake us out of distorted desiring and closed thinking and invite us to join Jesus in actively envisioning a new reality that God is bringing into being before our very eyes. Built upon the foundation of these three movements, the SEE approach aims to effect a similar transformation in learners.
Grounded in contemporary psychological research
Jesus’ pedagogical genius has been confirmed by contemporary psychological research, including that of renowned Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan. Kegan (1982) identifies three essential functions of “holding environments” that support people in the work of reconstituting their ways of making meaning:
1. confirmation – providing a sense of safety and assurance
2. contradiction – challenging to let go of inadequate modes of thinking
3. continuity – integrating new meanings and growth with previously held meanings
As Kegan (1994) explains:
“People grow best where they continuously experience an ingenious blend of support and challenge . . . Environments that are weighted too heavily in the direction of challenge without adequate support are toxic; they promote defensiveness and constriction. Those weighted too heavily toward support without adequate challenge are ultimately boring; they promote devitalization. Both kinds of imbalance lead to withdrawal or dissociation from the context. In contrast, the balance of support and challenge leads to vital engagement.”
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