The Informational / Formational Paradox

Once upon a time there was information.

Actually, if we want to be precise there was knowledge. It was something to be gained, something to be pursued, and the acquisition of knowledge was seen as a source of personal power. With the coming of the enlightenment, the age of reason and science, the pursuit of knowledge was seen as an ultimate goal in life, and many societal institutions lifted up the pursuit of knowledge as a primary task.

The church was one of those institutions that fell into the trap of adopting a knowledge based form of learning and growth. The church had been through many different ways of knowing about and experiencing God through the ages. Early on it was focused in the relationship of the community. Later, as Christianity became more legitimized in society (thanks to Constantine and his mom), a hierarchical model was adopted which put an emphasis on a trained clerical class who were granted access to the special gnosis (what Tom Wolfe called “The Masters of the Universe” in The Bonfire of the Vanities) and then informed the masses how they were to understand God. Yet, even from the beginning, there was this sense of importance to learning knowledge about the faith, seen most clearly in the catechism. Christians were expected to learn certain things — creeds, scriptures, etc. — and this gaining of knowledge about the traditions and theology of the church would lead to a deeper relationship with God.

Western Protestantism, formed in the crucible of the Enlightenment, bought into informational based models of faith development. As a “Word” centered faith, spiritual well being was seen in the ability to acquire information about the Bible. The “great” leaders in faith were renowned for their ability to memorize the words of the scriptures, or their ability to expound on the meaning of them. The Sunday School movement was developed in the belief that education focused on acquiring information about the scriptures and the world (in the early days of the movement) was part of seeking the desires of God. This movement influenced church education in the 20th Century and almost all models of Christian education focused on gaining information about the scriptures and traditions of the church.

As the 20th Century began to come to an end, and the influence of modernity (Enlightenment influenced thought) began to wane, Christian educators began to question the informational based modes of developing persons into disciples of Jesus Christ. They realized that there were many who knew a lot about faith, the scriptures, and the traditions of the church, however these persons were lacking in a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ and an ongoing experience of the living God. As they reviewed the stories of Jesus, they recognized that Jesus’ model of leading his disciples focused less on teaching about the history and traditions of the faith and more on forming his apostles into people that took on a new lifestyle. This formational approach to faith development emphasized experiences and practices over the acquisition of information. The goal was the development of a lifestyle rather than a knowledge base.

The problem, as is so often true for the church, is in our tendency to over correct in reaction to the negatives with a particular movement. For some reason known only to God (and probably influenced by the assumptions of modernity) we church folks tend to be “either/or” kinds of folk. So in the desire to be more formational in our educational approaches, we often found ourselves denigrating information based education. Likewise, those who continued to resonate with informational schemes wrote off formational approaches as “touchy-feely”. Our need for categorization sometimes leads us into opposing camps, rejecting the value of the other as we hold up our own as given by God.

The fact is that holistic education requires both the acquisition of information AND the formation of the individual through experiences and practices. Experiences and practices without an understanding of the traditions and scriptures in which they arise leads to self absorbed faith with little connection to the larger story of which we are a part. Acquiring information helps us know the story, but offers little place for inserting our selves into that story. Growth in the grace and knowledge of God requires both informational and formational approaches to education, something that seems to be paradoxical in our world today, but is in fact complimentary approaches that are held in tension with one another.

 The task for those of us engaged in the formation of individuals into disciples of Jesus Christ is to recognize that tension and attempt to develop approaches to faith development which utilize both methods. In a coming post I want to share a vision of a curriculum that I am working on that attempts to do both, and invite your participation and help in designing that curricula.


4 thoughts on “The Informational / Formational Paradox

  1. I occurs to me that original Methodism could be seen as an early alternative to information-based modes of fostering Christian discipleship, with it’s emphasis on spiritual accountability groups: classes, bands & select societies. Unfortunately, the “method” was largely abandoned in the 19th Century.

  2. I might also suggest that from an educator’s standpoint there is a third emphasis, namely epistemology. Helping Christians understand how, or why, they “know” what they “know” is key to this progression through church history as well. Content knowledge, as I will refer to it, and the interpretation thereof, was guarded as an instrument of control and perhaps even oppression. That remains today within more fundamentalist expressions of the faith.
    Thus, there needs to be an elevation of not only content knowledge (Biblical materials and Creeds, etc.) and experiential knowledge (Growing faith & practices, etc.), but also something I will call epistemological skills, or critical thinking. In other words, as an educator, I believe there is a significant void in the ability of thinking about how we think, or critiquing what we “know” and how we got to “know” it.
    To be honest, I cannot say that I know clearly what the church’s role is in that process, but since the subject of informational aquisition came up, I thought I would toss out my two cents worth.
    Thanks for the wonderful thoughts, Jay!

  3. I am fascinated by this entire postulation. Now, being a man who has not been formally trained in Theology (i.e. – no academic Bachelors, MDiv or such in Theological or Biblical Studies), I have a unique perspective to Jay, Jim Ruby and others.

    I clearly see the definition of Jay’s postulation of a need for a combination of the two “schools of thought” – knowledge based learning and “experiential/practical.” I also agree with Jim’s addition of epistemological skills – that third area that acts like a backdrop to both.

    But for me, a non-ordained layman of Christianity, I feel that many of those who are steeped in Christian theological knowledge AND experience (pastors, professors, etc.) should consider the consequences of such a debate on people like me.

    While I believe it has people like me in mind, Christians looking to “go deeper’ or answer God’s call to basically “come closer,” it can often also result in a non-intended impact or consequence – the intellectualizing and “complicating” of Christ’s work and Great Commission.

    I.E. – when I read scripture, gain historical and theological contextual knowledge of Christ and the time He lived in as well as personally pray and seek to encounter the living God in my own active life, I don’t see Him requiring this “extensive” of a journey through the understanding of how the example of the living, dying and resurrected Christ should affect how I live my life and how I love and respond to Him.

    Perhaps I am reading this blog wrong and need to understand it from a different paradigm. Perhaps this blog is metaphorically like the discussion between the playwright, actors and backstage technicians before a production. What I will (and only should) ultimately see is the finely crafted play that visually, verbally and otherwise guides me through a focused journey to better understand or wrestle with a particular topic or issue. But if I were to see the rehearsals and backstage discussions and process of the professionals who put on the final, finished piece, I would not be seeing what I was meant to see.

    So, perhaps I shouldn’t interject myself into a professional discussion between those who seek to help guide me on my spiritual walk with God (because people like Jay and Jim do an excellent job of that for me) when they are “working on the play (i.e. – curriculum).”

    But, I just wanted to throw my 2 cents in and say that, while pastors, preachers and teachers have done more than I can ever say for helping me in both areas (knowledge development as well as experiential), they have also tended to make me feel (only some) that there is always more “depth of field” for me to go through to “arrive” at that place I need to be.

    And, when I encounter Christ’s words, life, teachings and “living relationship with me,” it isn’t so “involved.” It’s much simpler. He just says “come closer, ” “know me more,” “love like me.”

    But I am fascinated by the discussion and would like to see what an amalgamated curriculum looks like that combines both approaches along with a third branch that also keeps my epistemological growth in mind as well.

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