Long before I heard the term, disequilibrium was a part of the process of growth in my life. It’s the term educational theorists use to refer to the discomfort or unease we experience when we learn and grow in some significant way.
Think of it this way: as we grow everything we learn falls into one of two categories. We either learn something that fits nicely into our view of life and the world, or we learn something that upsets and challenges our view of life and the world. In the first case we think, “Yeah. OK. Yes, that’s exactly right.” Or, we think, “What? Wait just a minute. No, that can’t possibly be right.”
The first kind of learning—when things fit neatly—is usually pretty comfortable. The new idea, person or experience is truly new to us, but somehow it also seems like we may have known it all along, even though we didn’t. The pottery teacher demonstrates how to score the clay to make the effect we were wanting, or a lover tells a story from their past that is exactly what we expect of them—all new, and yet each fits without trouble into what we already know.
The second kind of learning, in contrast—when things do not fit—can be disorienting and even deeply troubling. The idea, person or experience is not only new to us but somehow doesn’t seem right. It challenges us, our thinking, our view of things, and it doesn’t fit into our sense of how things are. The more we’re convinced it’s true the more troubling it is. We’ll have to change our mind about things, rethink things in order to make sense of it, and that’s upsetting. Upsetting enough, in fact, that when we can we usually find ways to keep from experiencing this kind of learning altogether. It’s why we prefer to read commentators who share our views and spend time with people who are like us and who share our opinions. It’s why Christians tend to read books on Buddhism not by committed Buddhists but by Christians who wish to demonstrate that Buddhism is deficient as a worldview.
Disequilibrium, then, is the term used by learning theorists to refer to the state of unease, sometimes severe, that occurs when a person experiences or learns something that does not fit their preconceived view of life and reality. This dis-ease prompts us to seek some way to restore equilibrium (another of their terms), which we naturally all prefer. Equilibrium is restored, they say, in one of two ways. We can either change or transform our worldview to include the new information, or reject and suppress the new data in order to maintain our old, inadequate frame of reference, thus refusing to learn and grow. It’s not merely that we all experience periods of disequilibrium as we grow (though we do), but that truly transformative personal growth cannot and does not occur apart from it. We grow most significantly when our assumptions and ideas are challenged and we are forced to expand how we think about and see life, truth and reality.
As I’ve aged, I’ve assumed that personal growth would become easier since I’ve gotten past the hard lessons you have to learn when you’re young. Not true. Disequilibrium is not just for the young, nor do we outgrow the need for it—disequilibrium ceases, apparently, only when significant learning and growth ceases.
The Christian will recognize that disequilibrium is essential to Christian spiritual growth. Both personal experience and biblical revelation reveals that repentance and conversion are often accompanied by deep uneasiness, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. In Psalm 51, a poem of repentance, David identifies his unease metaphorically as broken bones (51:8) that God must mend, and as a fear of being cast away from the divine presence that God alone is able to satisfy (51:11). “The sacrifices of God,” David muses, “are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (51:17). This statement is remarkable because if true David’s disequilibrium is not just noticed by God but precious to him, accepted as love gift to the divine.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Christ fills the office of a king in making us his willing subjects,” but in this case I prefer the older version. “Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself” (#26). Being subdued by the rightful king—is exactly right. My hubris makes me uneasy about being too much on my knees.
The Christian life is to involve a change in thinking, perspective, and life in a process of being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And St Paul reminds the Christians in Thessalonica how they “turned to God from idols” (1 Thessalonians 1:9) upon coming to faith in Christ. This was a transformation of belief and life, he said, that was so widely noted he need not comment on it (1:8). And God’s word is depicted in scripture as being a force for disequilibrium. The author of Hebrews notes, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). This text does not describe a painless operation, but one we believe is necessary and essential to God’s saving grace and to the believer’s growth towards full maturity—emotional, relational, spiritual, and cultural.
I would argue that Christian faith not only recognizes disequilibrium as a legitimate part of learning in a broken world, it embraces it as a necessary aspect of growth.
Disequilibrium is a central concept in the cognitive learning theory of Jean Piaget (1896-1980). In studying how children learned he identified “a process leading from certain stages of equilibrium to others, qualitatively different, and passing through multiple ‘non-balances’ and re-equilibrations.” Piaget observed that periods of disequilibrium produce growth by motivating a person to figure out how to make sense of what they are learning. Thus these disruptions of equilibrium, though uncomfortable, were valuable if a person was to grow towards maturity. Disequilibrium is not merely an occasional phenomenon in childhood but rather an ongoing and essential experience if significant growth in knowledge is to occur over the course of a lifetime.
He pictured the process of learning with four simple terms: schema, assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium. Schema refers to the “cognitive structures” or mental categories an individual develops in order to name, organize, provide meaning for, and make sense of reality. It is similar to what we mean by a person’s worldview. Assimilation occurs when the learner’s environment presents new information or data that is absorbed seamlessly and without conflict into their existing schema. Some new data, however, does not mesh with the individual’s existing schema but instead conflicts with the mental categories they have in place. This requires accommodation to occur, whereby the existing schema is refined, made more elaborate, or even changed so greatly as to represent an essentially new schema. When either assimilation or accommodation is complete the person is once again in a state of equilibrium.
Piaget recognized that no one’s worldview (schema) fully accounts for all of reality so ongoing assimilation, disequilibrium, and accommodation over a lifetime of learning are necessary if a person’s understanding is to become increasingly adequate and mature. Though we all naturally prefer equilibrium to disequilibrium, uninterrupted unruffled, easy equilibrium would represent the end of really significant learning and transformative growth in a person.
Disequilibrium is the term that best describes a deeply disorienting period I experienced in the Sixties. What I was learning and experiencing in college did not fit what I had been taught by my religious upbringing. My cognitive unease—to use the terminology of the learning theorists—soon spiraled into a crisis of faith. My schema (worldview) had been formed by a dispensational fundamentalism in which a sacred/secular dichotomy was not just assumed, but was explicitly taught. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the tradition in which I was raised was profoundly Gnostic. Spiritual activities (e.g., reading the Bible, prayer, witnessing) were to be preferred over the things of the world (e.g., reading a novel, movies, art). One time my father found me reading a novel, and asked with obvious distaste, “why read a good book when you can read the best book?” The college classes I most loved—art, anthropology, literature, history and philosophy—were all subjects I had been warned were most firmly rooted in a secular, not a sacred realm of existence. Thus, my schema dismissed culture as having no eternal significance and identified my love of such things as proof of a dangerous worldliness that had crept into my soul. To ask about such things was not encouraged, and when I did great concern was expressed over the lack of depth in my devotional life.
I remember one day on campus sitting in stunned silence at the end of art appreciation class. Slide after slide had been projected onto a huge screen in front of the room while the professor in a monotone had recited a facts and ideas about each work of art, speaking with his back to the class. At the end the lights came back on, the professor walked out, and overwhelmed by the beauty I had seen, I realized I had not taken a single note. I wondered why I had never felt this amazement while I dutifully performed my daily devotions of prayer and Bible reading. Since it was not safe to ask questions, my questions morphed into doubt, and began to slide towards disbelief. It was not long before I was wondering if Christianity could possibly be true or relevant to life in any meaningful way, and that threw everything I knew and believed and lived into a sense of chaos.
It is difficult to describe my unease or sense of disequilibrium without sounding a bit melodramatic. It went on for several years, and was profoundly demoralizing and disconcerting. Though it motivated me to pursue the truth, at times I feared there was no way forward that did not involve rejecting my faith, and thus everything that had so far provided meaning. One path—championed by church leaders and family members who feared where my questions would take me—was to simply dismiss my newfound appreciation for culture as unbiblical. I tried, but could not dismiss my questions. Instead my doubts deepened, and I yearned to find answers so that things could fit together and make sense. Existentialist philosophers, all the rage, caught my attention when they identified permanent dis-ease as the innate human condition.
My disequilibrium was resolved as I accommodated—unconsciously at first, very slowly, after much reading and reflection, painfully, and with great intellectual and spiritual wrestling—a new schema. One of the first glimmers of hope came as I read the newly published book by a strange man named Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There (1968), who wore knickers and mispronounced words. It was difficult to face the fact that I had been taught unbiblical ideas, and more difficult to face the fractured relationships that resulted when I moved from what I had been taught, from a Gnostic spirituality to biblical orthodoxy. In the end, however, in a way I now understand as quietly superintended by God’s Spirit, my schema was transformed so that my love for art and culture was no longer dismissed as worldliness but could be embraced as essential to true Christian faithfulness.
“We grow,” James Plueddemann notes, “as we wrestle with the issues and problems of life in light of the Word of God.” Since God’s word in creation, scripture, and Christ speaks to all of reality with equal truthfulness, the precise source of the disequilibrium that motivates us to grow does not matter. That art professor identified himself as an unbeliever, but he was mightily used of God and I have long wished I could thank him for that class.
Both Job and Habakkuk can be read as extended case studies in disequilibrium, ordained by God so that both would come to a clearer understanding—a new schema—of God and his ways. The first involved a personal crisis, the second an international one, but both induced a transformation of perspective. On the other hand, the wicked king Ahab was reduced to going “about dejectedly” when confronted by the prophet Elijah with God’s word of judgment (1 Kings 21:27). Ahab refused to learn obedience, adamantly holding onto a schema of belief and patterns of behavior that led not to human flourishing but to destruction.
James Hanigan observes that Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple (Isaiah 6), St Peter’s encounter with Jesus at the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5), and St Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) were decisive, “converting” events. Since coming to know Christ is central to Christian faith, Hanigan argues, such encounters are normative for the Christian, though they need not include miraculous elements. They can, he says, be understood as events of cognitive and psychological disequilibrium. They involve a process of being thrown off balance—it is noteworthy, that both Peter and Paul fell down—and then restored to equilibrium on an entirely new basis, which requires considerable getting used to. One way then of describing the Christian way of life is as a gradual and complete change of the equilibrium of the self.
Disequilibrium involves unease, but the unease need not always be severe nor does the disorienting dilemma need to be of epic proportions. We might hear something in a sermon that contrasts with what we thought a certain Scripture means, or we might hear something about someone that does not match what we had known about them. Our unease might be so slight the new information is simply buried in the busyness that infests our days, until what we have learned perhaps reappears with new urgency. Living with contradictory information is hardly an unknown phenomenon. King Herod, it is recorded, “feared John [the Baptizer], knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20). This is said about a man who never actually acted on the truth of John’s message.
Perhaps, for example, someone was convinced upon reading Denver Seminary professor Douglas Groothuis’ comment in Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick that, “the [Harry] Potter series is steeped in a thinly disguised occultism.” If so, they just might experience a bit of disequilibrium upon reading of Covenant Seminary professor Jerram Barrs’ enjoyment of and appreciation for the Harry Potter books in Echoes of Eden. “Christians should thank God,” Barrs says, “for J. K. Rowling and for her clear presentation of the central values that are at the core of Christian faith and practice.” Though different believers will likely react differently to the discovery of this set of contrasting views, it is plausible that for at least some a measure of cognitive unease could result. This is not necessarily a “converting” experience, but it can still be embraced as an opportunity for significant learning and transformative growth.
It is worth noting that Piaget’s approach to learning was rooted in a distinctly humanistic perspective. This caused him to see infants as blank slates, with initially empty schema that are subsequently molded by their environment. In this view, knowledge is reduced to mere data, and the process of learning is a naturalistic interaction between the organism and its milieu in an impersonal universe. This set of presuppositions does not render his observations on human learning false, since a person made in God’s image lives in the reality created by God even if he happens to refuse to acknowledge it. From a Christian perspective, however, a naturalistic perspective is always a diminished one, since it reduces the richness of reality to only that which can be made subject to scientific experimentation. In contrast, a Christian understanding of human learning is far more dynamic. It affirms the revelation of truth from God in creation, in Scripture, and in the person and work of Christ as an expression of God’s essence, mission and work. It insists learning involves the work of a convicting, active and personal Holy Spirit, under the providence of God in the midst of a creation that bears the marks of its Creator in learners that bear his likeness. This view means that knowing and doing are irreducibly related, and that there is responsibility in knowing. By definition then, our understanding of disequilibrium as Christians will always be set in a more expansively vibrant context of a supernatural universe even if that context is not always explicitly noted in the discussion.
Over time, then, in large issues and small, we are being confronted with new facts, ideas, data, and experiences. At no point is this process apart from the superintending ministry of God’s Spirit, even if we remain in the dark concerning his purposes. Thus, for example, we read that “the Spirit… drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness” to be tempted by Satan (Mark 1:12). This was an experience of deprivation and conflict—and we can assume, disequilibrium—that ended only when “angels waited on him” (1:13). Whether our new learning occurs during a period of spiritual conflict involving temptation, or in being confronted by a friend about some wrong we have committed, or in discovering the Scriptures are opening our mind and heart to mysteries we have never before imagined, we can confidently believe that our disequilibrium is marked by the Spirit’s presence even if all we can see at the moment is wilderness. If we seek to escape this process because we prefer to sidestep the unease, we are intentionally shutting ourselves off from growth. Doing so imprisons us in a perspective that to some extent denies or ignores some of the truth of life and reality, revealed in creation, Scripture and Christ. In the midst of busy lives it can be tempting to sidestep the unease of disequilibrium for the sake of personal comfort, failing to comprehend that our dismissiveness is resisting the grace of the Spirit in leading us on to greater maturity.
Jesus used probing questions to intentionally introduce disequilibrium in his listeners. When he asked his listeners who “proved to be a neighbor” after telling the story of the man mugged en route to Jericho, he forced his Jewish hearers to identify with a Samaritan, who by the cultural prejudice of that day could not be “good” (Luke 10:24-37). Jesus also used expressions in his teaching that were so disturbing to his hearers—e.g., “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54)—that his disciples grumbled and some even ceased following him altogether (6:66). This text demonstrates Jesus’ willingness—even insistence—to induce cognitive unease in those who sought to follow him. “The better we understand” Jesus’s sayings, F. F. Bruce observes, “the harder they are to take.” One Sunday, Rev. Ewan Kennedy, in an exposition of John 8, showed how Jesus “systematically pushed their buttons” to help his hearers face the truth. “If God is offending you by what’s in the text,” he said from the pulpit, “it is a sign that God is dealing with you. If you are comfortable with God’s word, get nervous!”
Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Wired magazine considers disequilibrium to be so essential that he included it as one of his “Nine Laws of God.” The laws are his attempt to capture the essence of creativity in a technological society, with one law being, “Seek persistent disequilibrium.” “Everything difficult,” Scottish preacher and storyteller George MacDonald (1824-1905) insisted, “indicates something more
than our theory of life yet embraces, checks some tendency to abandon the strait path, leaving open only the way ahead.”
During the discussion period of a workshop I led on disequilibrium at a conference, a man told the story of the death of his son. A soldier who had served in Iraq, the young man had returned to a warm welcome from family, neighbors and the members of the family’s church. Then, one day when apparently his memories were overwhelming, the young man took his life. The father said the believers in the church weren’t certain how to respond and after the funeral their reticence caused them to act towards the family as if nothing had happened. They acted naturally because they didn’t know what else to do. The man spoke without bitterness, but described the soul wrenching loneliness he and his wife have endured since their son ended his life.
From the perspective of Piaget’s learning theory, this man’s friends, fellow believers and neighbors sensed that to try to reach out to him and his wife would necessarily involve a period of disequilibrium. They didn’t know what to do, or how to do it, and walking intentionally into such a situation is never easy. I can identify. What should I say to this grieving couple? What should I be careful not to say? What questions should I ask, and not ask? What should I offer to do, or not offer? Could I simply be adding to their difficulties by inserting myself into their life? What if what I say and do and ask turns out to be all wrong—how can I learn what I should say and do and ask, and am I willing to go through learning it? What if I offer but they really need someone else? And what if I offer to help and they ask me to do far more than I have time or energy to give? And couldn’t befriending them require me to bear the burden of their grief, when I already feel burdened enough by the disappointments of life?
As I listened to this man’s story I felt great grief, and my grief increased when I faced the fact that I would likely have abandoned this dear couple just like their friends and neighbors did. I would prefer to not disrupt my equilibrium with the difficulty of walking into an experience fraught with so much potential pain. It’s not that I would necessarily think about the situation this explicitly. I probably wouldn’t. It’s just that the couple would represent pain and uncertainty and the unknown and that would probably be enough, along with my own busyness, for me to act like nothing had happened.
The fact is that I’m not sure I’m willing to learn what I would need to learn to be the sort of friend I wish I could be to them. I would probably sidestep the disequilibrium, and have plenty of reasons why I’ve made the correct choice.
The biblical imperative “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2), can be fulfilled very differently by different members in Christ’s body, given their calling, gifts and closeness to the bereaved. In such a setting it is also to be expected that most will have no idea how best to befriend and care for the grieving family. This means a few will need to intentionally walk into disequilibrium, to learn how to be a friend, what to do and not to do, and how to be a safe place for the couple to lament, to cry, and perhaps to rant, even against God. It will likely be an enduring disequilibrium in order to love another. It may even include someone approaching the couple only to learn that it might be best not to be one of those who will walk beside them in their grief. However the story unfolds the disequilibrium we endure for the sake of another could rock us deeply, causing us to learn things about others, ourselves, relationships, God, and about the reality of living in a pain-ridden world that transforms us in ways we had not imagined, nor necessarily desired.
In this we are following Christ into a broken world. He intentionally accepted the Father’s will that in his pain and endurance there would be grace to mend the awful wounds afflicting God’s good creation. In this light, the cross is the final disequilibrium in human history, and it is a cross we are to take up if we claim to follow him.
As Christians we can be a safe place for disequilibrium. The issue is not whether disequilibrium is occurring, but whether people feel safe to bring their disequilibrium to us. People must be safe to name their honest questions and know they will not be met with shocked expressions or stock answers but with honest listening. “In order for men and women to become mature, connected knowers” Richard Butman and David Moore note, “we need an atmosphere of community where questions can be raised and heard, where voices are freely expressed and not silenced, and where students are given opportunity to think aloud, including the freedom to express their doubts.”
Sadly, some venues in the church will perhaps never be safe places. A group whose members are quick to mention that “all things work for good” at any hint of difficulty may never be a place where more reserved individuals torn up by brokenness will feel free to share their story.
Rather than casting around to find situations in which we will experience disequilibrium, we can seek to be attentive to the opportunities that already exist in our neighborhood, our workplace, and our church. In each case we may need to walk into a situation in which we are uncertain of how to proceed, and unsure of ourselves. We will need to listen carefully, ask questions and listen some more. And we will need to be supportive of those intentionally undergoing disequilibrium for the sake of others. Since we may not know how to be supportive, we’ll need to have the courage of our convictions.
As I look around me, so many possibilities come to mind. Wounded people like the couple whose son took his life. Intentionally seeking to bridge the racial divide that in such a deadly way fractures our society with violence, killing, protest and distruct. Former Senator Bill Bradley has posed a question I find uncomfortably challenging. “Ask yourself,” he says, “When was the last time you had a conversation about race with someone of a different race?” Helping to bring civil discussion in the fractious political debates that cause neighbors to see one another as enemies. And in a religiously pluralistic world, developing genuine friendships with people who do not share our deepest convictions, values, and lifestyle.
The disequilibrium you may need to embrace will likely be different from the disequilibrium I need to willingly walk into for the sake of the gospel. But we both need to know that in this we are following Christ into the world, and taking a step that leads through discomfort and by God’s grace into maturity.
SourceThe Development of Thought: Equilibrium of Cognitive Structures by Jean Piaget (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1975, 1977) pp. 3, 12
“Genetic Epistemology” by Jean Piaget in Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas by Richard I. Evans, trans, Eleanor Duckworth (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1973) p. xliv
Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development: An Introduction for Students of Psychology and Education by Barry Wadsworth (New York, NY: David McKay and Company; 1971) p. 10
Intelligence by Jean Piaget quoted in P. G. Richmond, An Introduction to Piaget (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1970) p. 78
“The Power of Piaget” by James E. Plueddemann in Nurture That is Christian: Developmental Perspectives on Christian Education, ed. James C. Wilhout and John M. Dettoni (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995) p. 59
“Conversion and Christian Ethics” by James P. Hanigan, http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1983/v40-1-article3.htm (18 February 2004)
Foreword by Douglas Groothuis in Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick by Richard Abanes (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon Books, 2001) p. xi
Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts by Jerram Barrs (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) p. 145
The Hard Sayings of Jesus by F. F. Bruce (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983) pp. 16-17
“‘The Nine Laws of God’: Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control Techno-Utopic Program for a Wired World” by William Grassie (24 November 1996) http://www.users.voicenet.com/~grassie/Fldr.Articles/NineLaws.html (18 February 2004)
“The Word of Jesus on Prayer” by George MacDonald; Ewan Kennedy was heard when the author attended Westminster Presbyterian Church (Elgin, IL) on February 15, 2004. Ewan’s text was John 8:31-38, 48-59; “The Power of Perry and Belenky” by Richard E. Butman and David R. Moore in Nurture That is Christian: Developmental Perspectives on Christian Education, ed. James C. Wilhout and John M. Dettoni (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995) p. 118.