Long before I ever had an idea that I would be a seminary professor—let alone enroll in seminary—I was a high school chemistry teacher. Instead of beginning each year with the proverbial “BANG!” of an explosive demonstration, my classes performed chemical reactions on their first day. In an adapted lab activity, using tiny amounts of dilute solutions that would not cause bodily harm, students mixed a series of colorless, odorless liquids to produce a variety of results: some bubbling, some colorful, some smelly, and others that were less dramatic. The activity ticked several pedagogical boxes. It piqued student interest for the subject, and it allowed them to get their hands dirty and their minds engaged as they made and recorded observations as well as theorized on the difference between physical and chemical changes.
A quick review to refresh high school science memory banks: a physical change is one in which a substance changes in size, shape, or state. It does not change at the molecular level. A chemical change, however, produces a new substance. At the molecular level, the initial energy added to the system actually generates more energy as chemical bonds break and reform, creating new and different substances. If the ordinary kitchen were a chem lab, steam escaping from a boiling tea kettle constitutes a physical change. That steam, when cooled, returns to liquid form as it condenses. At the molecular level, water remains H2O regardless of its physical state. However, a marshmallow (sugar in the form of sucrose or C12H22O11), when burned over an open flame results in a chemical change. As the marshmallow grows hot, bonds holding the sugar molecule together break causing more energy to be released. Hydrogen and oxygen bonds reform as water, escaping as steam from the marshmallow. We see the remaining carbon of the sugar molecules become a golden brown before eventually becoming black charcoal when burned too long. If water is reintroduced to the system, it does not reconstitute the marshmallow. At best, it just produces a soggy s’more.
So, what is the connection between high school chem class and Christian discipleship?
In a series of posts, I’ve been examining pertinent insights from adult learning theory as it relates to Christian discipleship. Transformational learning theory stipulates that the transformational process is initiated by a “discrepant event” that sparks the imagination. However inspiring or promising the potential might be, transformation is not guaranteed. Just as a chemical reaction relies on energy added to and then produced within a system in the breaking and rearranging of chemical bonds to produce a new substance, transformational learning theory identifies two separate but related process—critical reflection and rational dialogue—as necessary if a learner is to come to new understands and ways of being in the world.
Critical reflection is the examination of long-held, often socially constructed, underlying assumptions persons have acquired as a result of living in the world. Critical reflection might imply an internal or individual process, but learning theorists maintain it is a corporate endeavor fueled by a community that offers challenge, support, and encouragement as a person questions the integrity of what they have believed about the world. For the Christian disciple, human effort on the part of the individual and the community would never be sufficient on its own merit. Therefore, critical reflection would include revelation from God, whether it be through Scripture, prayer, or other means.
Rational dialogue refers to the medium through which persons articulate meaning. It is necessary for anyone arriving at new insights to be able to share them with others. Rational dialogue may imply a certain mastery of logic and rhetoric, but learning theorists include poetry, music, visual arts, and other varied art forms as bona fide means of communicating new learning to others. For the Christian, prayer journaling or simply being in prayer with God would qualify as valid meaning making.
Together, critical reflection and rational dialogue create a dynamic process that helps foster transformation. Similar to the energy that breaks and reforms molecular bonds in a chemical reaction, critical reflection and rational dialogue generate greater possibility for transformation as a learner deconstructs prior knowledge and with new insights, reorganizes what they know that they might construct as a new way of seeing and living in the world. In a mutually reinforcing relationship, critical reflection and rational dialogue engage Christians in a meaningful process of what it means to pursue Christlikeness in a hurting and broken world. Part and parcel with these processes is the presence of a trusted community. In our Wesleyan tradition, the ideal community would be the class and band meetings, where persons covenanted to “watch over one another in love.” Such a context provides an ideal sacred space—a crucible—in which disciples can invest the energy necessary to reconsider their lives and reorder them renewed and transformed in the image of Christ.