Curses! The Curse of Knowledge and the Curse of Seeming Spiritual

I’m down to the last few sessions in our revision of Confirm not Conform for Adults and it is taking me longer than I expected. I’m excited about how it’s coming together, but I find myself fighting two tendencies, one that plagues anyone trying to teach, and one that plagues Christian Formation specifically. The first is the Curse of Knowledge, and the second is the Curse of Seeming Spiritual. I shall explain. 

The Curse of Knowledge I’ve known about for some time, thanks to the Heath brothers whose book Made to Stick is a must read if you are trying to do anything that imparts information from your brain to someone else’s. (Preachers, I'm looking at you.) They define the Curse of Knowledge thusly:

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.

I remember teaching a CnC Adult class and nattering on about some Old Testament passage or something when Molly Darling, who was co-teaching, interrupted me to point out that there were some people in the room who didn’t know what the Old Testament was. In my excitement about my presentation, I had neglected to start from where these folks actually were, drawing assumptions about their previous knowledge that I would have known weren’t there had I simply paused to see the looks on their faces. 

If you’re a Christian Educator steeped in Christian knowledge and Christian lingo, it’s sometimes hard to remember that many people are stepping into this world for the first time. We may need to spend more time offering the basic definitions and terms rather than assuming we’re all speaking the same language.

The second Curse is one of my own devising (and I wish I had a spiffier name) and is, to be honest, merely my opinion. But to my eyes, The Curse of Seeming Spiritual pervades a great deal of Christian Education material across the spectrum. How often do we put a prayer or a passage of Scripture or a moment of silence into a program, not because they are germane to that program, but because we feel we ought to in order to make the program seem Christian-y?

One of the things I think we need to remember is that when Jesus was teaching his followers by using stories and parables, they were not yet Bible stories! They were, at that time and in that place, completely secular: tales of workers and seeds and birds. One thing I hope we can learn from the Gospels is that God can be present in our teaching even when we don’t use the authorized texts in the proper ways. When we ask ourselves what we can say to explain what the kingdom of God is like, we don’t need to draw only from the properly vetted spiritual vocabulary – which now depends upon workers and seeds and birds. Can the kingdom of God be like a television program? Or a shopping mall? Or an air conditioning unit? Or the Oakland A’s? I’m just asking. 

We also need to remember that when Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, it too was not an Authorized Prayer for Use in Daily Worship™. It was short, it was simple, it covered all the basics, it got the job done. It doesn’t appear that Jesus asked his followers to allow their hearts to attune in silence to the One who Is. And please don’t get me wrong: if that is what brings you closest to God, then mazel tov, and I can understand wanting to share that with others. The problem is when we feel the need for a prayer to seem spiritual by conforming to our personal preference or our preconceived notion of what spiritual looks like. 

We need to be aware that for some people our favored spiritual practices will not work. We need to acknowledge that there is a wide range of spiritual practices available to people. We need to trust that sometimes spirituality can look uncomfortably unspiritual. The thing Jesus always seems to do and that we need to keep before us is that as teachers we need to offer what his disciples need to draw near to God, even when to us that feels weird and perhaps even irreligious.