Friday, August 26, 2005

Getting the Most Out of This Blog (or Any Other Form of Communication)

This week was my first week as a graduate student pursuing a degree in intercultural studies at Salt Lake Theological Seminary. Last weekend was orientation, and one of our sessions dealt with basic study skills. The interesting thing about the basics is they are often so basic it is easy to neglect them. I found one aspect of this orientation session relevant to those who would like to get the most out of the learning process, whether it involves interacting with the ideas on this Blog, or any other source of information.

The session on basic learning skills reminded us that learning and forms of communication are interactive processes. While the professor in a classroom setting, or a writer and speaker are often considered the active part of the communication process, the listener or reader often take a more passive stance. But this is an inappropriate posture for real understanding and learning to take place.

This session referred to Mortimer Adler's great book on how to read a book (again, a basic skill often taken for granted, and thus done inappropriately) where Adler uses an illustration from baseball as a parallel to senders and receptors in the communication process:

"Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different."

With this analogy in mind we see that truly understanding someone or something involves careful and appropriate activity on our part as receivers of the information. This activity may include an attempt to step outside our normal frames of reference and templates of understanding in order to understand new ideas on their own terms. Our mental grids provide a filter for ideas which may not mesh with our previous conceptions and experiences of reality. But rather than merely rejecting new ideas outright, those actively involved in the communciation process will take the time to fairly understand ideas on there own terms, as much as possible from the senders frame of reference, before raising criticisms. We must be able to say we understand before we say we disagree.

In my follow up reading this week for classes I was reminded of another important element to communication. In a book on the Great Tradition of Christian theology Roger Olson notes the importance of maintaining an irenic spirit. When we discuss foundational issues of great importance to us as individuals, particularly those touching on major aspects of theology and praxis, it is easy to get upset, and to respond to those sharing ideas we strongly disagree with in less than friendly fashion.

Being a disciple of Jesus in the postmodern Western world will be very different than the modern world of the twentieth century. Changes in culture demand that we be willing to take risks, think outside the box, push the envelope (you get the idea). It will be a messy process, and it may mean that some Christian thinkers put forward ideas that challenge the reigning paradigm for how we do church and ministry. This process has already begun, and this writer is self-consciously involved in this activity. Those satisified with the status quo will take issue with our ideas, and that's fine, but the way in which they take issue with us, and share their concerns are important. Let's make an active effort to understand before we say we disagree, and when we disagree let's do it with an irenic spirit. If we're willing to take these steps we'll get more out of the communication and learning processes, and we'll do so in ways fitting to the way of Jesus.

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