New Ways of Thinking — Part Two

I finished drafting the chapter I wrote about last week (on schedule!). The second half of the chapter explores a couple of ideas from social psychology. While my intent is to help students remain open to learning new things, there are broader implications for the evangelical community.

I began with the concept of schemas. Social psychologists see these as mental structures we use to organize information. I conceptualize them as similar to the file folders in my computer. There is a particular structure that we have learned and we try to fit any new information into the existing structure. Most of the time this works well. But sometimes it fails. The situation that we thought was just the same as some previous encounter proves to be nothing like that at all. There is a balance drawn between our prior knowledge and the new information being processed.

For a college student recently moved from home, the abundance of new information can be challenging and result in a higher error rate than will be true later on. Some things will be misinterpreted and others will just be missed.

Occasionally, the new information is nearly impossible to incorporate into existing schemas. This is one of the important functions of a Christian university: helping students navigate the re-ordering of their schemas. We expect that to happen and have constructed mechanisms and support groups to aid in the hard work of restructuring.

Heuristics are related to schemas. Think of them as master categories that shape what we attend to. Much of our contemporary political discussions are heuristics. We begin with a paradigm and fit information into that. We need mechanisms for sorting out new information and heuristics give us rules for evaluating our schemas.

Finally, I discussed the work of Sharon Daloz Parks as it relates to meaning-making. Like other developmental approaches I explored in the first of these posts, she sees the  transition away from authority based meaning as critically important for young people. Following a brief period of relativism, she says that individuals move through probing commitments through tested commitments to convictional commitment. The period associated with college and emerging adulthood is best matched with probing commitment. Parks argues that questioning is essential to personal growth.

Just as I did last time, I see these mental processes operating in most of our discussions about evangelicals, fundamentalists, and the larger culture. There are many examples I can pick from, but let me focus on a couple.

First, I’d argue that the challenges evangelicalism faces when dealing with social change comes from an overly rigid schematic structure. Because the mental structures are tightly constructed, there is no room for new information. Scientific advances become problematic so even more elaborate alternative structures must be constructed (see intelligent design). Social change is denounced because the mental structures get confounded with a number of non-scriptural assumptions (see Rachel Held Evans’ Year of Biblical Womanhood). Political shifts are seen as evidences of slippery slopes (see same-sex marriage, demographic change, or religious pluralism). A more flexible approach to information would allow more faith in God’s leading and an openness to new paths of outreach. I’ve consistently written on how young evangelicals are particularly pushed away by this cognitive rigidity.

Second, heuristics are big in the religious world. The biggest of all is “what the Bible clearly teaches”. Any number of writers have pointed out the challenges of exaggerating the role of scripture. My “respectful conversation” colleague Vincent Bacotte pointed out the problem when “sola scriptura” is exalted above other considerations. Zack Hunt had this excellent piece last week. Scott McKnight has a number of excellent pieces but this one from yesterday was particularly good.

Third, Parks’ approach to meaning making demonstrates the importance of process in our testimony. If she’s right, and I’m persuaded she is, then the shift from authority-based meaning to relativism isn’t some dichotomy, but simply one step in the journey. It seems that conservative protestantism could benefit from a good dose of probing commitments. We may prefer for people to engage from convictional commitments but without working through that meaning process carefully as Christian disciples, we adopt positions we think we’re supposed to take. Because these aren’t well grounded in our mental structures, they come off as forced pat answers.

This morning Jamie Smith tweeted the following question: “How would a Christian account of pluralism look different if we assumed that Christian proclamation could actually be persuasive?” I think it’s an excellent question. The more we have worked through informed processes of mental structures and meaning-making, the better Christians will be able to engage a changing world.

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