Making maps of understanding

map-yorkI have been thinking about the issue of new learning. Sometimes we have to find different ways of acquiring knowledge, particularly in the situation when we are trying to move on from the corrupting effects to the intellect caused by a high-demand group, Christian or otherwise. The word re-education has suggestions of mind-control, Communist indoctrination and forcible de-programming. We cannot possibly want to imply that such processes are part of the discussion. Then I listened to my six year old grandson talking about finding his way around the village where he lives and seeing something very important about the process of learning in his remark. I realised that as little as a year ago my grandson probably thought about the places he knew, school, shops and swimming bath, as places mysteriously just there when he visited them. Now at the age of six he was able to see them as connected. He was beginning to create for himself an internal book of maps which demonstrated to him that the places he knew were joined together and that to reach them he had to travel down certain roads. He was developing the sense that every place in his world was reached by travelling along particular routes which the grown-ups in his life understood.

Maps are a very good description of the way human beings learn. Whether literal or metaphorical maps, they are the means to see how knowledge of all kinds in interconnected. New knowledge only becomes useful when it is linked to what we already know. One of the things that I did not have when I began to study the Bible as a 19 year old undergraduate was an internal map of how the Bible fitted together. Among other things I had no overall understanding of the time-frame in which all the historical events recorded there took place. For me then, as for many Christians today, the Bible contains a series of disconnected blobs of story and narrative which have no particular way of connecting with one another. Without a decent working map of the whole Bible it is almost impossible to learn what the whole thing is about. By the time my final exams arrived, I had acquired an understanding of the way that links could be made right across Scripture. I remember writing an essay for my final exams on the way that the city of Jerusalem captured the imagination of the writers of both Old and New Testaments. I was proud of this essay as it justified my method of revision which was to be sensitive all the connections that I had found in each book of the Bible. What Paul thought about the Passover, for example, was relevant to what the early accounts in Exodus had recorded. The words of the prophets could not just be understood in the way that Matthew understood them. They had an integrity of their own. Each of the prophets had to be studied in their original historical and cultural context. Matthew’s understandings were of course important but they were not the last word. The map of understanding the prophets had to include both perspectives and understand the connections that bind them together.

In recent years as my interests have changed to embrace new areas of study, I have found it important, for example, in my studying of social psychology to create new internal maps in order to master a little of their content. For my recent paper in Stockholm, I found that it was important for me to grasp that a particular article was one that many writers on ostracism looked to for their authority. It was like finding a landmark on a map, a place from which to find one’s direction. It is like this whenever one studies a new subject. The first thing one has to acquire is a working outline map of the subject so that the detail has a framework in which to be inserted. Without that framework the new information floats around as disconnected material. One cannot use information that is not able to be connected to other information.

Why have I written this long introduction about internal maps in a blog on Christian abuse? It is because this understanding of the learning process will help us to distinguish between learning and indoctrination. According to this model, indoctrination is going to be the imposition of a map or reality on an individual. It is a map that insists that all the connections are fixed and determined. The conservative teachings about the Bible do not, for example, readily allow the prophets to be studied in the context of the religions of the Near East. Rather the study of the prophets is infiltrated by the dogmatic insistence that each and every one had an interest in the future, and that future was the coming of Christ. For me the relationship between the classical prophets and the coming of Jesus has to be expressed in a highly nuanced way. It just will not do to declare that the prophets looked forward to the coming of Jesus without any qualification. That kind of statement from the pulpit does not do the cause of understanding or learning any favours at all. If people are forced into the acceptance of ‘maps’ that insist on numerous conservative ‘landmarks’, their ability to learn and grow of the Bible is severely compromised.

Everyone learning a new subject needs, as I did, to acquire a ‘map’ in which to place all the information that they acquire of that discipline. The original map may be a simple one, having only a few landmarks marked at the beginning. Each person will do their own learning and filling in the detail as they go through life. What this blog is suggesting is that some maps are profoundly misleading and with them the process of learning can never flourish. To take one example from above, how can an ordinary Christian develop a keen appreciation of the Old Testament prophets, if their ‘maps’ have allowed them only to be understood as witnesses to Jesus? For myself, I am, constantly noticing new things about the prophets. Last Sunday we heard the passage from Amos about God showing the prophet a plumb line. It occurred to me how much of religious tradition has depended on its teachers having visions with a strong visual content. Could Amos be seen as a shaman, a seer of visions? Such a question is allowed in my map of Old Testament reflection, as my mind is sensitive to seeing connections wherever they happen. Another ‘map’, imposed by a conservative of the bible would not allow me even to contemplate such a thought!

Maps and seeing connections in the enormous world of knowledge is the way we make sense of reality. Without the maps that we make for ourselves and which reliable teachers give us, we cannot navigate across this ocean of knowledge. The important issue that each of us have to determine is whether our maps are reliable. Do these maps enable learning, the intelligent organisation of information, or do they impede it? Are our maps a reliable guide to reality, or do the maps we have in our heads actually obstruct what we know.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

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