Jesus was a constructivist???

I was recently at a conference and heard a presenter declare that Jesus was a “constructivist”.  This declaration was based on a “biblical” analysis of Jesus’ teaching and interactions with others (eg, Christ’s conversations with St. Photini, the woman at the well, and the young rich man).  The presenter assured us of his credibility as a pastor and PhD.  While I can agree that Jesus was a master teacher adept at reaching learners in ways that often had them deconstructing their previous understandings and arriving at new understandings, I am very reluctant to identify Him with any particular type of pedagogy or philosophy and am deeply uncomfortable with any attempt to put Him in a pedagogical or philosophical box – especially when scripture is abused in order to do so.

I left the presentation thinking that one could easily have several other presentations with just as much “biblical proof” saying that Jesus was “_____________” (fill in essentialist, traditionalist…)  You can go to the Bible and prove just about anything is true that you want to be true, if you want to abuse the scripture in that way, if you think that truth is dependent “proof texts”.

What made me even more disturbed was the underlying need of the presenter to make something “Biblical” in order to be comfortable with accepting what their reality was teaching them was true – that there is something real about the social construction of learning, something appealing to a teacher who really wants to help learners learn.  I was probably disturbed by this because I have felt this same need in my previous attempts to have the right Christian thinking about everything.

The presenter started out by saying that many Christians are uncomfortable with the post-modern tenets of constructivism, so he developed the  presentation in order to bring comfort to those who are already drawn to this pedagogy, but may be uncomfortable with how this fits with “absolute truth” as understood by “biblical Christians”.  The reality is that, no matter how hard you try to find it and prove it, the Bible doesn’t say very much about constructivism or any other educational theory for that matter.  What is a faithful Christian teacher supposed to do when the Bible doesn’t say clearly what is right and wrong about every educational theory?  Some resort to individual interpretation, drawing lines to connect dots as clearly as we can back to the Bible so that we can make a picture that makes sense to US and is “biblically” true.  We then make ourselves feel even better by convincing others to connect the same dots in the same way.   Some come to the realization that scripture was never intended to be used to support our always paltry theories.

Scripture is about Christ – all of it!   Its intent is to point us to Christ, and to help us participate in the loving life of Christ, His Father and the Holy Spirit.  Scripture is not a “stamp of approval” brought out to support or convince or argue.  Scripture is written for open hearts, not grasping minds.  Scripture, when understood in light of Holy Tradition – what has been believed by the Church always, by all people, in all places – can help us see how truth glitters in all created reality and can help us discern what brings life and what brings death.

Theories, ists and isms, are our best human thinking at a point in time.  They always carry both truth and untruth because we “see through a glass darkly.”  They should be held onto lightly because they are usually developed in response to holding too tightly to another theory.  Theories are ideas – not reality – and, as Simone Weil says, they hang in the middle of the air, neither rooted in reality or eternity, and never perfectly realized or even fully consciously applied as we offer ourselves to God, all others, and His creation in every given moment.  To try to do so would make us absent from the present and unable to attend to the other.  Theories do help us reflect and correct and deconstruct and construct.  They serve a purpose, but they are not our salvation, or “rocks” on which to stand.

Jesus is the Son of God, the one who saved us, is saving us and calls us to be saved.  The one who gives Himself to us to make it possible for us to be in right relationship with God and others – not theories.   How dare we say He was a Constructivist or any other “ist”?

4 responses

  1. Thank you, Kim, for pointing out that we cannot categorize Jesus, and that such futile attempts only result in us missing the ultimate meaning of God’s wonder-ful, amazing, and unlimited grace that we possess in Jesus Christ. Thanks also for pointing that our thinking is always limited and subject to correction, even when we base it on what we believe to be a biblical foundation.

    I have always had difficulty with those who try to reduce the Bible to a scientific text, or a philosophical text, or a pedagogical text, or even a moral text. Such attempts tend to downplay God’s majesty and providence, the deep meaning of being ingrafted in Christ, and the sanctifying and continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in society. That is not to say, of course, that the Bible does not have anything to say about science (Psalm 19), about philosophy (1 Cor. 1; Col. 2), about education (2 Timothy), and about morals (Ephesians 5). But such passages speak in the first place about the greatness of God and how we can learn to live in His grace and wisdom.

    The best book I have recently read about constructivism is “The Call to Know the World,” written by Christian educators from Holland, South Africa, and Australia. They start by saying that Christians have generally demonstrated “fuzzy thinking” about constructivism (including some though not all of what I wrote in the first edition of Steppingstones!). They are, interstingly, disturbed by modern constructivists categorizing thinkers like Piaget as constructivists (and would be appalled by the claim that Jesus was a constructivist in today’s educational meaning of the term). To give you a flavour of their thinking, let me give you a few quotes:

    “Our objection to constructivism is not that it views human beings as constructing knowledge but that it denies a reality outside of us with inherent order and meaning. . . . Human knowledge is, indeed, a human construction but, contrary to constructivism, one [resulting from] human interaction between humans who have a common inherent structure that includes the faculties of reaon, imagination, faith, and intuition. The construction of knowledge must provide insight that is the result of a faithful response to a given and already ordered reality. [So] learners have to be guided towards a sytematic observation of created reality, of the world in which they live. They then have to be assisted to think critically and creatively in ways that will add to their existing body of knowledge. . . . Constructivists are right that learning must be primarily an experience–but such experience must include challenging our knowledge of ourselves, our motivations, striking at times the innermost core of our being. The learning experience should ultimately be a meeting, a communion with God. Through His grace, we may gain true knowledge of our competencies and learn meaningfully from that, but not without the reminder of our fallibility in cognition and affection.”

    So how does this relate to asking whether Jesus was a constructivist? First, as Christian educators we must support constructivism in one sense and reject constructivism at the same time. But, I believe, our tension is much less than that of either constructivists or that of traditionalists (and that’s likely why in most classrooms teachers are at neither pole!). Christian teachers realize that their insight is limited, but that in God’s grace, they can obey their calling to teach their students “everything that I have commanded you.” And, as Walter Brueggemann has described, the Bible uses a wide spectrum of pedagogical strategies. God’s providence, on the one hand, encompasses the special grace of new life everyday that we possess in Jesus Christ, and, on the other hand, the “common” grace by which all humans are still able to contribute to making our families, communites, and planet places where God’s hand and His handiwork is still evident in how we relate to each other and to God’s creation. God is the ultimate Constructivist/Creator. And as His followers we are allowed to be constructivists/creators. But certainly not in the sense that educational constructivists, especially the philosophical ones, have reframed the term for their own purposes. What gives us hope and courage is that we live in God’s well-ordered reality whichj we may unfold and can do so in many different ways. And that’s also true for our pre-service teachers and for their future students.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Harro. I think the fuzzy thinking comes from feeling the need to see whatever is real in the Bible first or to find something that the Bible says about ________. When we do that we come to the Bible with the wrong questions and spirit. We stop seeing the Bible as a hierarchical text with the gospel at the highest point – shining illumination on all other texts. The Bible then becomes a barrier to seeing the world and participating in the world – a blurry and confusing lens rather than an illumination.

  3. Thanks Kim and Harro for adding to this lively discussion.

    Jesus and constructivism, mmm, a wonderful topic which grabbed my attention. I like these discussions because they are “in-house” in the sense that we can agree or not due to the secondary importance it has compared to the central message of the gospel and who Jesus of Nazareth indeed claimed to be—the Ultimate Reality.

    It is important I think to define what we mean when we talk about “constructivism” and “constructionism” as they are often confused and sound similar. First, there are different types of constructivism, radical constructivism, constructivism, social constructivism and so on. For example, I think that the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), take a social constructivist view of learning math. Although, various versions of social constructivism exist, the requirement here is that mathematical objects do not exist until they are found, or mentally constructed explicitly, and this is common to many of them. Social constructivism in education falls under the philosophical tradition of postmodernism which essentially affirms truth as individual or constructed by society. And so Social constructivist educationists have rejected traditional mathematics, that is, the idea of remembering any domain-specific knowledge, and any hierarchy of knowledge, saying that knowledge is changing too fast, and the facts of today will be obsolete tomorrow.

    So what are the educational apprehensions with social constructivism? Well, social constructivists place reason rather than fact at the core of importance. Historically, some have said that social constructivism is a rebellion against the system of hierarchical authority. It places the learner at the center of importance and makes him solely responsible for his own actions, mental state, and wellbeing. The individual is the most important aspect; all purpose, truth, and meaning come from the individual. So if that is what they mean when they say that Jesus was a constructivist, I am not sympathetic to this philosophical category.

    Placing Jesus in philosophical categories is too restrictive. My understanding is that Jesus often spoke in non-philosophical terms. When Jesus says “I am the truth”, I think he saying something like, “I am the ultimate reality, or I am the real deal” or something of that sort, not “I don’t exist until I am found” (see social constructivism). And we often speak in non-philosophical terms like this all the time when we say things like, “this friend is true, this measure is true, this is true gold. Jesus as the ultimate reality still exists apart from our discovering Him and this is metaphysically compelling.

    Social constructionism on the other hand highlights how our culture shapes us to see things a certain way. So we see Jesus in our own cultural ways which I agree is often the case, although it should not be because Jesus is transcultural. The social constructionist would go so far to suggest that all our reality is socially constructed. For example, a chair exists only if I construe it as a chair. No perception is right or wrong and none is more valid than any other. One must be an ontological relativist. So if this is the view of Jesus being a constructionist then I am not sympathetic.

    Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate reality (the real deal) who exists apart from our constructing Him and who is at the centre of importance. His truths exist apart from our discovering them.

    How we come to discover Jesus as the ultimate Reality is of course an entirely different question.

    Thanks !


    • Thanks, Matthew for your perceptive comments. I wish more educators would understand the basis of both radical and social constructivism!

      What your contribution once again emphasizes is that we need to approach teaching and learning with reverence. As we learn about God’s created reality, we stand in awe of His marvelous work. And yes, we “construct” our knowledge, but it is grounded in and framed by His physical laws and His social and moral precepts.

      I love the fact that the so-called “God particle” was given this unexpected name by a book editor, not by a scientist. All particles, of course, are “God particles,” but this name about something we cannot see but can only observe indirectly by the fallout caused by particle collisions shows again the grandeur of the Designer–and the fact that whenever we discover something about our universie, it leaves us with more questions than answers. It’s perhaps not surprising that allegedly 90% of physicist believe in a Supreme Being, but less than 10% of sociologists do. The research of physicists leads them to approach their work with reverence. True social constructivists ultimately only revere themselves, and miss out on true reverence. Let’s pray that our education may nurture such reverence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: