by John Ellis
Whenever “who has a question?” was floated by the teacher to the Sunday school class, I never needed to turn around in my front seat to know whose hands had shot up. And I also knew that most of them didn’t really have a question, but an opinion they believed the entire class needed to hear or they had the burning desire to correct and/or challenge something the teacher had said. Within the context of group discussion, especially in adult Sunday school classes, “who has a question?” is little more than the red carpeted steps leading to a soap box. As a pastor, I did my best to counsel Sunday school teachers against asking open ended questions and to ask specific questions that have specific answers instead. Even then – even when asking “where was Jesus born?”, for example – it was almost inevitable that the discussion would (A.) end up on a soap box, or (B.) sink to the lowest common denominator.
It takes a teacher with a specific skill set to ward off the devolution of group discussions. But even that teacher wastes the resources of time and knowledge through his or her efforts in keeping the discussion corralled and on point. In my experience, it has been a rare moment that I have left group discussions, especially in a Sunday school setting, without lamenting the lost opportunity for true knowledge to have been imparted and received. Over the years, though, I’ve also come to realize that the epistemological hubris that characterizes our age not only creates the problem but is also such an insidious problem as to render even knowledgeable, well-crafted, and well-delivered lectures mostly anemic on the receiving end.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, for starters, and the sole emphasis and really lone argument of this article, it’s a willingness to recognize that the problem exists. A Sisyphean task if there ever was one. Epistemological hubris is our Western birthright, after all, and it will have to be pried out of our cold, dead hands.
In 1637, Rene Descartes foisted on the Western world one of the most impactful and damning treatises ever published. The kernel that has sprouted into our full-blown epistemological crisis can be located in the very first sentence of Discourse on Method. “Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed.”
With that claim – that the cognitive abilities of a “vigorous mind” are possessed in equality amongst humanity – Descartes believed, among other things, that he was kicking off a method that would serve as an unshakeable bulwark against encroaching skepticism. A laudable goal, to be sure, but one with unintended consequences.
He was convinced that the reason why people draw incorrect conclusions and believe falsities wasn’t owing to lack of ability but to improper methods. He attempted to fix the problem. Instead, owing to his bad anthropology, he helped create the idolatrous monster of individualism (self-actualization) that has as one of its consequences an individualistic epistemology that doesn’t allow for any privileging. The death of expertise, to borrow a phrase from Tom Nichols.
Many defenders of group discussions in adult Sunday school classes have the tendency to steer into this, which is made even worse by the reality that the cart has been put before the horse. Dialectical wreckage litters adult Sunday school rooms. However, similar to Descartes, they believe that the problem isn’t inherent in the concept but in the concept’s execution. In other words, when conversations aren’t profitable or less profitable than they should be, it’s owing far more to the inadequacies of the teacher to lead and direct discussions and far less to the students’ cognitive and epistemic inadequacies. By nature, discussions will tend towards the lowest common denominator. Add in the variable that the “lowest common denominator” has its opinions and thoughts privileged, the group discussion will naturally be less productive than intended.
Borrowing another phrase, but this time from Yale University professor Michael Warner, the sociability of strangers is instructive. Admittingly massaging Warner’s concept, his points about the tensions and sacrifices birthed by the clash of private lives in public spaces stand. In our post-Enlightenment society, who we are in private has reshaped the public sphere, and vice-versa. Our modern individualistic disdain for hierarchies pushes us to interact as strangers when in public spheres. By that, I mean, and moving back into our context of adult Sunday school classes, that in a group setting, my private autonomy and its accompanying self-actualized worth is threatened if I acknowledge social and epistemic hierarchies around me. In discussion, I act (speech acts) as if I do not know that so-and-so deserves to have his or her opinions and thoughts granted more weight and deeper consideration than mine. I act as if we are strangers on mutual epistemological footing. A perlocutionary act of my illocution is belief that that’s true. Acting equals believing.
Interestingly, many argue that they are engaged in epistemological humility and not hubris. Except false modesty is pride.
By leveling the field, so to speak, and interacting within the parameters of the sociability of strangers, I may be able to convince myself that I am exercising humility by not privileging my opinions and thoughts above anyone else’s. In reality, though, in doing so I am elevating my opinions and thoughts to an undeserved position alongside my cognitive and epistemological superiors.
I understand that this is a hard ask; that it requires a deconstruction and rejection of philosophies and concepts that are baked into our social imaginary. My objective with this article isn’t the pie-in-the-sky hope that readers will begin eschewing group discussions in adult Sunday school classes. Instead, my objective is found in the hope that readers will be willing to wrestle with some of this and begin being more cognizant of how to engage in or lead group discussions. It’s the rare individual that doesn’t acknowledge with me, even if begrudgingly, the unproductiveness of many of the group discussions in adult Sunday school classes they’ve been involved with. Most of us admit that group discussions often devolve below where we’d like. I pray that my arguments for why that is will provoke further thought, both individually and corporately.
One final point: I’ve been intentional to add the descriptor “adult” to Sunday school class(es) throughout this article. With children, including teens, the teacher-student hierarchy is part and parcel of their everyday world. The problems that plague group discussions in adult Sunday school classes are greatly mitigated if not avoided in classes comprising of children and teenagers. Adults tend to resist identifying as students when in Sunday school classes. And that may be the best illustration/explanation of the problem.
 Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method trans. John Veitch (1912), 1. (FWIW my copy/translation is in the public domain and doesn’t have publishing information and I’m unsure of how to cite it … and I “wasted” time searching my copy of A Manual for Writers by Kate Turabian in hopes of citing it correctly, but nothing. So, I guessed.)