Monday, July 13, 2009

A Case for Contextualism

In the early 1990's I was asked to work with a group of parents in Lincoln, Nebraska who were concerned about conveying spirituality to their children. In the weekly discussions held in the home of one of the couples, several interesting perspectives emerged. For one, I was struck by the sense that, though these parents were relatively content with their own beliefs and practices, they were concerned that their children needed something better, deeper, or "right". It is likely that there is a connection between this concern and the tendency to rely on "the experts" in such matters, rather than trusting our own insights, experiences and abilities. This theme, touched on in a previous posting, merits further exploration at another time.

Another prominent issue in these discussions was the parents' desire for fixed points or spiritual absolutes to convey to their kids. The terminology used was "building blocks". What are the building blocks for spirituality, for faith, or for ethics? This question became the central focus of our discussions, and the main point of contention.

You might think the point was contentious because we had different notions of which building blocks to employ. For example, some would proffer the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments as foundational, while others might propose the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount. Some might go so far as to argue that the Bible itself is one, coherent foundation. (I'm reminded of the sermon title once displayed on the sign of an Indiana church: "What the Bible says about God." Do you think the good pastor got that one done in 20 minutes?)

In fact, the "building block" point was contentious because I argued that there are no building blocks. The image of a "firm foundation"or "building blocks" is based on the solid rock of a static world view, where change is discounted or ignored entirely. I remember quoting financial planner Joe Dominguez of the New Roadmap Foundation, who drew upon the illustrative image of trying to navigate through modern Seattle using an 1880's road map. I also told the parents that, in raising children in a fast changing world, it would be better to offer them swimming lessons than attempt to build them a platform in the midst of the current.

On the whole, the parents were unconvinced. One dad argued that his kids were taught that 2 plus 2 equals 4, and that upon such a foundation all subsequent math knowledge was based. I replied that, in base three, 2 plus 2 equals 11. The problem, as I saw it, was that out of a desire to offer our kids lasting values, we fall prey to providing our children with simple "building blocks" that they are bound to outgrow. Though adolescence is associated with such metamorphoses, sometimes the kids move beyond our efforts even earlier.

Though the best example of this phenomena may be in regard to the existence of Santa Clause, I am struck that it is also reflected the effort to teach creationism or intelligent design in the public schools. Parents realize what will happen when adolescents learn in school that the literal story of creation they were taught at church is contradicted by the theory of evolution. The brightest and best embrace modernity. As for the rest? Some remain literalists and reject evolution and science with it. Others become what I term "spiritual schizophrenics", maintaining two sets of beliefs simultaneously.

My dad had an uncle who was just such a spiritual schizophrenic. He was a student of geology, and a fundamentalist Christian. He could tell you that a rock strata dated back millions of years, but also argued that the world was created only 6,000 years ago. When asked about this apparent conflict, Dad's uncle stated that there was no conflict: when he was a geologist he was a geologist, and when a Christian, a Christian. Spiritual schizophrenia.

I can't do such philosophical gymnastics, and I don't believe we should expect our children to do so either. But if we are not to teach our children lessons they are bound to outgrow and forced to reject, we will have to shift our orientation as well. It comes down to the question of whether or not we accept the concept that change is real. If we accept the idea of a continually shifting reality, we will be required to move from solid, black and white foundations of rules and laws that govern thought and action, to the challenging gray area of foundational principles, which need to be applied in an ever changing context. Challenging stuff, this, and not for the faint of heart. But we really have no choice.

When you get down to it, It's About Time....

No comments:

Post a Comment