An Increased Awareness and Understanding

The Deep in the Burbs research question was: How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations? Therefore, we must first address the obvious question. Did the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity have any impact at all on the team’s ideation and praxis of spiritual formation? Then we can address the second, and more complicated question. If it did have an impact, how was it impacted? Once we have named the specifics of how the social Trinity had a direct impact on the team’s ideation and praxis of spiritual formation, then we can name certain implications that the DITB project might have for leadership in missional spirituality.

The first question is easy to answer. Yes. Every member of the team reported that they felt changed as a result of the project. This is an expected result. It would be highly unlikely for a group of people who spent twenty-two hours in large group conversation and nine months engaged in action projects to experience no change at all. So, it is not surprising that the process impacted the team.

However, before we move to the question of how the team was impacted, we must first pause and look more closely at the nature of the increased awareness and understanding itself. It is one thing to be aware of something. It is an entirely different thing to understand that thing. We asked how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the team. One thing that the team agreed on was that the project definitely increased their awareness of the social Trinity. None of the team members had previously heard the terms social Trinity, relational Trinity, or entangled Trinity. Therefore, the fact that they watched the videos and engaged in the subsequent discussion automatically raised their awareness. This was a success. However, it became painfully obvious that our success in understanding the social Trinity was questionable.

Many team members expressed a sense of confusion, and sometimes frustration, over their struggle to understand the idea of the social Trinity. Sharon’s statement was the strongest critique and serves as a representative of some team member’s thoughts. She said,

I think the instruction suffered. I felt like we needed more instruction to understand the basis, the project, the terminology…There wasn’t a good grasp of social Trinity. I don’t know that everybody was on the same level with what is the Trinity, who is the Holy Spirit, what is that. So, I felt, more instruction, using Bible verses on what is the Holy Spirit. What was his role with the apostles? What were some examples of the Holy Spirit at work after Jesus left the earth, would have been a better foundation to go to the next step.

A critique like this has an initial sting for the teacher. Did we fail? One could argue that the research was not valid because the team did not actually understand the social Trinity. Some of the team felt confused and frustrated by the vagueness of the question and the intention of the project. I must acknowledge the possibility that my chosen method of introducing the social Trinity was inadequate to the task.

I presented the social Trinity in three ways.[1] First, I engaged the team in Dwelling in the Word that was focused on the Upper Room Discourse in the Gospel of John. Second, I created four animated videos which we viewed during session four and to which the team had unlimited access on the website. Third, I presented a narrative during session four of how my encounter with the social Trinity impacted my understanding of spiritual formation. This narrative was followed by a group discussion. I did not choose to present a traditional lecture-style lesson or assign heavy reading to the group. However, the team was aware of the DITB blog and some engaged in my ongoing conversation and writing about the Trinity on their own initiative. I must be open to the possibility that these methods did not help the team increase in its understanding.

However, one could also argue that the fact that the team experienced confusion and frustration was not as much due to the methods I chose to present the social Trinity, but is due to three other factors. The first factor has to due with teaching methods. I stated in the Spiritual Formation frame, in the adult learning theory section, that I draw upon the theories and methods of Parker Palmer and Stephen Brookfield. Palmer contrasts the expert-teacher-centered model with the subject-centered relational model. In the first model the object of study is observed by the expert and is separated from the learners. The expert then turns around and inputs the knowledge of the object to the students, filling them up like empty vessels. The second model that Parker presents is the subject-centered model. Here the topic is not the distant object of observation but is the subject that sits as a conversation partner in the center of the circle of learners. The teacher, in this model, sits among the circle as a participant learner and simply facilitates the dialogical process of interacting with the subject.[2]

Parker Palmer's Diagram

Figure 5. Parker Palmer’s Model Of Instruction

Brookfield’s methodology similarly calls for communicative action in the learning environment in which adult learners are allowed the freedom to engage with the subject on their own terms.[3] Perhaps the RT expected the teacher-centered model and equated that model with “further instruction” based upon their experience in modern educational systems. My use of the latter methodologies, and their foreignness to some of the team members, may have contributed to the feelings of fuzziness and frustration.

The second factor that may have contributed to the sense of frustration is related to the topic itself. How can a finite human understand the Trinity? One might argue that we should be more worried about the instructional methods if there was not confusion and frustration. If the team members felt a full confidence that they completely understood the Trinity then that might be evidence that my presentations did not educate the team, but indoctrinated the team by colonizing them with a particular understanding of the Trinity. In other words, an authentic encounter with the Trinity should always leave the student with a certain level of confusion and frustration. This is true regardless of teaching style or the level of education—from catechism lesson to doctoral seminar. We simply cannot understand the mystery of Trinity.

The third factor that led to the sense of frustration may be related to the term understanding itself. Is it possible to measure understanding? Perhaps this speaks to the difference between the terms understanding and explanation. The modern mind has a desire for clarity.[4] It seeks to explain things through scientific language. However, there is a distinct, and theological, difference between understanding and explanation. To explain something is to approach the object with a sense of superiority and complete knowledge of the object. To understand something is to approach it as a subject, like another person, whose complexity defies explanation. To understand something is to come into relationship with it and to engage in an ever deepening, experiential knowledge of it. Parker Palmer says that the goal of the educational process is to know as we are known.[5] God knows us, not as an object to be summarized and explained, but as a person to be loved. Perhaps Sharon’s desire for more instruction was more reflective of the modern desire for explanation, than a true critique of our understanding. We, as finite humans, can never explain the Trinity. Her critique begs the question: How much further instruction would have been enough to reach an adequate level of increased understanding? There will always be fuzziness, vagueness, and a frustrating sense of mystery in the study of Trinity.

Heather offered a helpful perspective that brought balance to this question. She said:

It’s kinda of like, in those first weeks, you presented the ideas, and then, whether we examined ourselves, or not, I guess that had to kind of be up to us. You couldn’t have made any of us examine ourselves. And just by presenting the material. I mean the only logical place to go is to examine your own thoughts, you know, to see where it fits. So, I think you presented complex ideas and, presented them well, and then, like going into projects and things…there was…I’m not exactly sure how to say it…there was a vagueness to that. And I don’t know if you could have done anything different about it. But, sometimes it kind of felt floundering. And if you intersected, then that means we’re not letting the Holy Spirit, in a way, do it, you know. In some ways it would have been nice to have more direction, but in other ways…maybe its better if you’re not the one telling us what to do.

Was there an adequate increase in awareness and understanding of the social Trinity for the team to experience an impact on their ideation and praxis of spiritual formation? The completely honest answer is that there is no way to know. However, the data seem to indicate that the RT authentically engaged with the difficult subject of the social/relational/entangled Trinity to the point that it affected the way they think about and approach the practice of spiritual formation.

There is one saving grace in the way the question was presented. We did not set out to gain a complete understanding of the social Trinity. That, as we have already discussed, is impossible. We simply set out to increase the awareness and understanding of the social Trinity. Given the discussion above, it is safe to say that the RT did experience an increase in both awareness and understanding of the social Trinity that led to a change in the way they think about and approach the practice of spiritual formation.

Footnotes

[1] I will explore these methods further in the next section.

[2] Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.

[3] Brookfield, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions; Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching; Brookfield, Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices.

[4] Read Descartes’ desire to dissect the object to its basic components and, thus explain it with the clarity of looking through the optics of the microscope.

[5] Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.