More than Incantations: A Relational Approach to Learning & Change

Article by: Bridgehaven Team

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 5:15-16

“All knowing is knowing with, knowing in the presence of, implicitly before the face of, knowing under the caring guidance of—a covenant friend.”

Esther Lightcap Meeks


                  Reciting a fact or truth does not produce change. That’s called an incantation. This sounds silly, but it’s remarkable how prevalent this approach has become. The sirens of the Enlightenment have inoculated the Church, and the impact is silent but pervasive. The Church, especially Protestants, have been influenced tremendously by this sort of rational philosophy to the point, we are not aware that we are swimming in water.

                  The Age of the Enlightenment ushered in a new period of human understanding. We began to question the existential and religious. Empirical study began to dominate the academic landscape. Human progress slowly became the ultimate. A focus on the rationality of humanity became the prominent view of a person. Our collective worldview had become less enchanted.

                  As humanity became more full of itself, our view of God became less personal and involved. We became the focal point of reality. And this transition in philosophy affected not just public culture in general, but the church in particular. Our theology became less God-centered, and more concerned with the development and progression of a person.

                  Certainly lots of good has come from the Enlightenment. The developments within the field of science and technology have provided humanity with unfathomable tools and advancements in a plethora of spheres as a society. Cultivating the human mind intellectually is not a bad thing, nor is growing as a person. But when those pieces become the end, we have missed the point.

                  One of the implications of this rationalized worldview is the church’s view of change. We have relegated growing in grace to learning how to recite facts. Now don’t hear what I am not saying…the truth and sound doctrine are of vital importance. However, simply being able to regurgitate truth or sound doctrine does not change a person. We look at people with a problem, and assume that by giving them the appropriate information, they will be transformed. You hear these undertones in advice like, “preach the gospel to yourself.’ This is not to diminish the value of preaching the gospel to oneself, but to assume that by merely reciting what is true, that sustainable transformation will occur is reductionistic.

                  Far too often, Christian counseling is resigned to a ‘religious cognitive-behavioral’ approach. Cognitive-behavioral therapy basically proposes that our actions are based on false beliefs and wrong thinking, and that if we replace those with true beliefs and right thinking, our behavior will change. And at some level, this is true. Our beliefs are incredibly important as the foundational structure to orient our lives. The problem is that persons are more than just beliefs, so change requires more than simply thinking well. Learning and change include not just our thoughts and beliefs, but also relationship, narrative, desires, emotions, imagination, volition, communication, and action.

                  The Church has been influenced tremendously by this sort of rational philosophy to the point, we are not aware that we are swimming in water. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how people learn, and how people change. People are not primarily rational but relational. We have made in the image of God. We are first and foremost defined by our relation to Him. Therefore, learning and change happen within the context of relationship. There is a certain embodiment involved with transformational learning and change. A sort of commitment and participation are essential in order to ‘know.’

                  In her brilliant book, ‘Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology,’ Esther Lightcap Meeks describes this more textured approach to learning and change, “All knowing is knowing with, knowing in the presence of, implicitly before the face of, knowing under the caring guidance of—a covenant friend.” This implicit related-ness intrinsic to learning and change requires other people. It requires dialogue and interaction. This embodied engagement into the lives of others provides us a context to be impacted, cut to the heart, connect the dots, imagine alternative scenarios, evaluate our response, and walk that out in and through community. There’s a commitment involved in these relationships that allows us to securely be vulnerable, and put ourselves out there to learn and change.

                  I am continually amazed at how privatized and rational I approach my relationship with God. So often, I relegate Him to mere doctrine that I can memorize like the statistics on the back of a baseball card. This informs the way I am prone to wander in helping those around me. I can short fuse the process, and reduce change to knowing the right answer. May God give us mercy, grant us repentance, and wisdom to begin to learn and change more comprehensively.

Chris Ball

Executive Director, Raleigh Bridgehaven Counseling Associates

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