Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Unique Look at The Pastoral and Prophetic

There is much written about the pastoral and prophetic roles of religious leaders.  One of the faculty members with whom I am excited to study at divinity school is a professor named Leonora Tisdale.  Her most recent book is Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach, which is due out August 9th. It's on my "I can't wait to read this" list.  Though I haven't read it, hearing her speak about it makes me feel confident in recommending it to you.  Along those lines, let me reflect for a moment on the pastoral approach to a prophetic voice, from my perspective as a religious educator. 

Over the years, I have developed an interest in forming a neurologically-grounded understanding of learning.  My interest has stemmed from multiple sources:

1.  A special interest in neurology developed during my study and brief work in public health
2.  Foster parenting a number of different children, during which time I observed the interdependent relationships between neurology and learning
3.  My own neurological challenges
4.  The learning needs of my children

A few years ago, I began studying the work of Judith Bluestone, a neuroscientist who herself had autism (sadly, she recently passed away).  She developed a method of "gentle enhancement" to improve the life experiences of people struggling with neurological issues that make them feel uncomfortable in the world.  In her book The Fabric of Autism, Weaving The Threads Into A Cogent Theory (which deals directly with autism but indirectly with any number of "atypical" neurological experiences with the world), Judith wrote two things in particular that provide an important frame for my understanding about learning:

First, she said, everybody learns.  Everybody, no matter their issues, is capable of growth.

Second, she said, all behavior is communication.  When a behavior is no longer needed, it ceases.  Meanwhile, it provides information about the experiences a person is having.

Judith was using these points to address educational challenges of "autistic people" or "people with autism" (which version is most respectful varies by personal preference, so I'll use both), but I began to test these assertions through observation, not only with myself and my children, but also with the folks in my congregation.  As her assertions are universal declarations, in order to be true, they must be true for all people in all cases.  I've been trying to find a case where her assertions are not true, and the only exceptions I make are for cases of coma.   

It has taken me much practice to become even minimally fluent in behavioral communication, and I have a great deal still to learn, but I've yet to truly disprove Judith's assertions.  Meanwhile, as I have incorporated these understandings into my work, I have been better able to minister.  So regardless of whether these are accurate statements, they are pragmatically helpful.

Some questions, however, arise.  For example, if all people are learning, what slows or dampens the learning experience and what optimizes it? Is it impossible for it to halt altogether, for a brief period of time?

As an educator, I have known one universal "brake" on the learning process: fear.  When people are afraid, learning ceases.  If they are fearful for long enough, they will return to learning, but they will learn abnormally.  That is, they will learn according to their fear.  In  fact, I shouldn't say "abnormally," as it is more accurately described as normal learning in abnormal conditions.

My anecdotal guess at the "brake" for learning is corroborated at least in part by another theory, called "brain-based learning theory."  This theory purports, among many other things, that a state of "relaxed alertness," or an absence of fear even in a highly challenging environment is necessary to lasting internalization of information.  When people are behaving anxiously or fearfully, then, it is helpful communication that learning may be slowing or even temporarily ceasing.

Bringing this full circle, the prophetic voice is one that most likely calls people out of the place of comfort and into the place of challenge.  Except in cases where the moment is exactly right and people are completely ready to receive the message, in order to be heard, and internalized, the pastoral voice is needed in the prophetic message.

Being challenged is one thing.  Being made fearful, or having one's anxiety level rise to a non-productive level is another.  The religious leader's responsibility is not just to speak the word of God, but to create an environment conducive to it being heard. 

To throw in another poorly articulated metaphor (advance apologies), the wise religious leader lives out God's breath through two lungs: the pastoral and the prophetic.  With each inhale and exhale, there are two sources.  The "master" is able to breathe sometimes more from one lung or the other, but the key is knowing from where to breathe, how slowly, and how gently. 

Here is to us each growing into greater mastery!  (I'm visualizing a "yoga master" when I speak her of mastery. What are you picturing?)

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