Constructed Realities, Divine Incomprehensibility, and the Vocative Self
: Towards an Epistemology for Christian Education

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by UHI)


The doctrine of divine incomprehensibility presents significant challenges regarding human language about God, and for Christian education in particular. How can one teach that which is beyond human understanding? This thesis explores modernist philosophical and theological projects that sought to downplay God’s transcendence, noting that God resists such domestication. Nonetheless, these projects made ‘God’ more understandable, bringing him within the rational conceptual frameworks that human beings utilise to construct a stable sense of reality. In so doing, they made the practice of Christian education more straightforward. Positioning themselves as the logical conclusion to Modernist thought, the secular educational theories of Jean Piaget and Radical Constructivism make the case, persuasively, for the constructed nature of reality, centred around the individual subject. They argue that no access to ontological reality is possible, and that ‘reality’ is, therefore, the result of the mental operations of assimilation and accommodation of the experiences one undergoes. These operations result in the formulation of concepts by which the subject organises her existence, with education serving as the means to cognitive equilibrium. If, however, God cannot be made to fit within a concept, nor within any subjective construction, assimilation and accommodation cannot be appropriate epistemological categories for Christian Education. Furthermore, Radical Constructivists suggest that knowledge can only be classified as negative or positive, with their insistence being that it can only ever be the former. If no positive knowledge is available whatsoever, the need for an alternative epistemology for Christian Education is heightened further. James E. Loder provides a way forward, allowing for both the subjective construction of reality and for knowledge of God, arguing that all knowing is theologically patterned after the logic of the Spirit (his analogia spiritus). In such a scheme knowledge can be classified as exhaustive (complete) or inexhaustive (partial), with the emphasis solely on the latter. Loder demonstrates that knowing can be transposed to a theological level wherein the subject is decentred in moments of disequilibrating divine encounter which defy conceptualisation. More appropriate theological epistemological terminology, that respect divine incomprehensibility without equating it with unknowability, are discussed in detail: mortification and vivification, brokenness, faith (as that which augments reason), mystery, revelation and awe. A proposal as to the proper disposition (studiositas) required for seeking knowledge of God is provided, along with the corresponding understanding of the self of the one engaged in Christian education, namely as one declined in the vocative in response to the divine initiative. Ritual practice will be shown to form an educational paradigm that provides non-propositional and non-conceptual knowledge, consequently resisting the logics of assimilation and accommodation toward stable equilibrium. Rather, rituals provide knowledge that is experiential, participatory and relational. As such, it will be argued that Christian education ought to be structured around a curriculum of ritual practices.
Date of Award10 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJamie Grant (Supervisor) & Innes Visagie (Supervisor)

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