In a Facebook forum, I’ve started posting quotes from Sara Little’s classic book To Set One’s Heart: Belief and Teaching in the Church, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983. Sara was Professor of Christian Education at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and completed her PhD at Yale studying under Richard Niebuhr. Since the Facebook posting is going to bet too lengthy, I thought I’d transfer it over here.
This was a textbook from my Master’s in Religious Education in the mid-80’s and remains very formative for my understandings.
Here are the two quotes posted:
“Ministry is a form of service, a person’s response of gratitute to God’s gracious action and being. Therefore teaching is always done as a responsive activity, it is never a matter of seeking control. What the teacher does is also to seek truth, to risk giving expression to what is percerived, but always in such a manner that the freedom of the student is not obstructd. Neither teacher nor student creates truth, nor is free to flout it. Theirs is a freedom to come to know it, to exercise all powers of intellection and volition and understanding in responding to it.”
“Belief is not the same thing as thought, and believing is not the same thing as thinking. But thought is surely a major component in belief, as belief is in faith. Note that belief is multi-layered, that it has affective (feeling), volitional (willing) and behavioural (acting) components, as well as cognitive (thinking). … Our “belief” is closer to what Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gassett meant with his reference not to “ideas which we have but ideas which we are.” In fact the term “credo”, translated from the creeds as “I believe,” literally means “I set my heart.”
From here, the next part becomes a bit harder to just lift sentences from, so let me summarise as well as quote.
Little looks at a few sources to describe beliefs that are central or core, intermediate or clustered beliefs, and peripheral beliefs. Some core beliefs are primal, such as how we see the world, based on parental love or lack there of, and our experiences of safety and security, as well as those understandings which form the basic building blocks of language (a table is a table). Some of these core beliefs (Do I feel lovable based on how I was treated by my parents?) aren’t necessarily fixed but may be very difficult to change. Core beliefs, including our fears and phobias, may define us, but they are not necessarily “true”. They may in fact, narrow our perspective to the point of idolatry or fanaticism.
Intermediate or clustered beliefs may derive from core beliefs and the the “givens” of social norms and rules. Little says “They are the linkages between primitive beliefs and the expanding world of the growing person”. These beliefs will vary over time more than our primal or core beliefs, yet they provide structure for our thinking and acting day to day.
Peripheral beliefs are either unexamined beliefs or inconsequential beliefs – things that we merely accept in the day to day running of our lives. These may be givens such as 24 hours in a day, or our sporting loyalties, thought fiercely defended, nevertheless not of ultimate consequence(!). Some theorists define core beliefs as more intrinsic to who a person is than others. To what extent do those beliefs to which we hold most tightly shape our psyche, our personality, our actions?
“Beliefs” in this sense are articulations of what shapes us, a glimpse into the less visible self. Beliefs can’t contain or fully describe who we are. Do we define our beliefs or do they define us? More on this later.
“Core beliefs move out into clusters of beliefs, and clusters into peripheral beliefs. They do not constitute logical systems, although relation between beliefs may be logical.”
(Little, explaining Thomas Green)
Thomas Green suggests that teaching is partly about the modification and formation of belief systems. He suggests that “the number of core beliefs should be minimised,” since the more core beliefs one hold, the less open one is to learning.
“On the other hand, the personwho has a limited number of core beliefs has a beginning point for organising, assimilating, and dealing with new ideas, and can therefore be open to learning. Green’s concern is that teachers work on these enabling beliefs, as much aware of how beliefs are held as of what is the content of the beliefs.”
There is more to be said, and it is clear from the book that these theorists vary in their views about how we hold beliefs. Suffice to say that we are partly talking here about how we cognitively structure both our experiences and also the demands and opportunities in everyday life. This is distinct from whether such beliefs may be “true” – what matters to us is that seems true to us!