Faith and Disequilibrium

Cognitive-dissonance

Fall is my favorite season, and it’s really late this year. The summer has been long and hot and I’ve been slogging through it, arms wide open, toward the promised dream of fall. The cool mornings inside a world washed in color. The sweaters. The hats. The earthy smells. And it just. Isn’t . Happening.

 

The Pumpkin Spice Lattes are right in hand and real pumpkins and corn are piling up on porches and everybody is hauling out the flannel like they’re Paul Bunyan- but the temperature is still in the seventies.  Everywhere you go, the summer roadwork remains unfinished. Most of the birds are still hanging out on the lake. Even the trees are balking. Along our street, they’re shrouded in green, with tiny little clusters of red. It looks like acne. 

 And the season feels lost in this overlap. The space of magical change corrupted. And my arms are crossed now, because I know winter is going to come on right on time, and the whiplash will be so, very, felt.

~~

 

Noted psychologist Jean Piaget argued that we are born with an unquenchable desire to understand the world. When we’re as young as toddlers, we start to create thought patterns based on repeated visual evidence, which helps us to categorize and interpret the environment we find ourselves in. A dog is furry, has four legs, licks my face, yelps when he’s hungry- Dog. If I get scared and cry out in the middle of the night, my parents will come and hold me- How to be comforted.

 

These are called schemes and they help give children, and all of us, a sense of equilibration. Balance. Control. Schemes are the manual we reference when thinking of the name, of the purpose, of the meaning of the thing that is right in front of us.

 

Two things can and will happen: Assimilation, according to my grad school textbook, “takes place when we try to use our existing schemes to make sense of events in our world… the first time many children see a raccoon, they call it a ‘kitty.’” Accommodation shortly follows this when the child adds a new scheme to her reference of animals. We adjust our thinking. The world around us looks bigger, different than before.

 

But sometimes, these two processes fail.

 

Sometimes the new information requires too much change. And on the flip side, sometimes it’s negligible (ever brought up a complicated, high-minded question and heard a friend reply ‘that’s for the experts to think about. Makes my brain hurt.’) This is called disequilibrium. This is where we learn. 

 

As I was reading this chapter, I came across this line: “the level of disequilibrium must be just right or optimal- too little and we aren’t interested in changing, too much and we may be discouraged or anxious and not change.” And the words fell on me in a heavy way. 

 

I believe in my reflection paper, I actually wrote this line: “I grew up in evangelical Christianity, so yes, I know disequilibrium. I know it very well.”

 

And I do.

 

Christianity is very much the world that was insisted on us first. We memorized all the schemes: God made the world in seven literal days and the earth is ten thousand years old. Jesus came to save you from your sins. In the end, should you still be alive, God will snatch you away from the earth and take you to heaven where you shall live for eternity.

 

We went to public school and learned about science and the horrors of history, met Muslim kids and gay teachers and we felt as if we were being ripped in half. The schemes were inadequate, irrelevant, but could never be altered, because to do so would be to “backslide” straight into hell. 

 

Instead of listening to our questions, pastors were quick to question the godless public education system, and they were insistent about he adequacy of their schemes. Bestselling theologians developed counter-arguments to evolution and sexuality and religious pluralism, grounding all of it in a third-grade reading of a thousand year old texts, and what were we to do but memorize all their arguments? This identity was our deepest root. It was what made us, us.

 

Disequilibrium was the evangelical child’s holding cell.

 

But one day we got brave. We got angry. We got tired. We leapt away. 

 

Different things did it in for us. For me it was a cocktail of issues: Education. Coming out. Learning to listen critically beyond flowery sentiments to the faulty and harmful logic underpinning them.

 

And in the end, we learned it was okay to let go of old schemes, to collect new ones, to adapt our understanding of the world and of God with our experiences of both and our curious thoughts. We found the beauty in this struggle. We chose a God that honored it. A God that created us with an insatiable appetite for life. A God that nudges us in the back, says: “seek and you shall find.”

 

  • Roy Pearson

    Ben, your blog is one of the best I have ever read. Thanks for sharing your gift of words and your personal experiences with us. I look forward to your posts.

  • Rea

    Love this. Trying to press into the disequilibrium in my life.

  • Melissa Henn

    Ben! Education cracked me open. It took almost 2 yrs to leave my church, where the pastor is my dad. I reaped the whirlwind and then rode it out of town. 🙂

  • Sarah

    Thank you so much for this! I really look forward to reading your posts, and this one especially gets to me. You’ve described what happened to me in a beautiful, articulate and gentle way. I left my home fundamentalist church about 8 years ago and faith-wise I still feel like I am experiencing disequilibrium (great word!) on a very regular basis. If feels disorienting, tiring, like hard work, but it also feels very liberating. God is just so much more than I ever knew as a child.
    Thank you for posting your struggles and journeys. It helps me to know that I am not alone in this journey of trying to figure out which of the old schemes need to go and which ones to hold on to.