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  • Exploring the Epistemological Challenges Underlying Civic Engagement by Religious Communities

Religious communities vary widely in their commitments and practices, but nearly all of the world's major religious traditions have distinctive ways of "seeing things whole," that is, of integrating facts, values, and strategies into holistic patterns of engagement. These patterns are being sharply disrupted by shifts in authority, authenticity, and agency that are catalysed by digital media. Paradoxically, while these shifts are creating sharp disruptions in established religious communities, they are also opening up new opportunities for engagement in civic action.


civic engagement, good society, epistemology, digital media, authority, authenticity, agency

I am finishing the draft of this paper on Earth Day in 2017, shortly after participating in the "March for Science" that took place in Toronto, ON. The juxtaposition of exploring what some term a "fact/value split" in this paper with the protest signs of that march was particularly poignant. Many signs, for instance, shared out Neil deGrasse Tyson's quote: "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it" (Tyson 2013).

I am a theologian, with a permanent faculty appointment to a Lutheran seminary, as well as numerous short-term appointments to Catholic faculties. [End Page 305] Most of my communities would take very strong issue with this quotation, because for us a robust understanding of truth requires a commitment to belief; it requires what Parker Palmer describes as "pledging one's troth" to an underlying, grounding, epistemology: to cite the title of his classic text, "we know as we are known" (Palmer 1993). But at the same time, most of my communities take science very seriously and believe that it is a genuinely worthwhile vocation. Our challenge comes in finding ways to articulate how "facts" and "values" are interconnected, and how they give rise to specific, concrete strategies for action in public spaces larger than specific religious settings.

That this is a challenge is largely due to the common default understanding that there is a sharp dichotomy between "facts" and "values." You can see how this "fact/value split" is operative in diverse Christian settings. For instance, some communities of Christians (the shorthand often used for such, although I do not find it descriptive, is "conservative evangelical Christians") routinely refuse to engage science in respectful terms. Examples would be denial of climate science, treating evolution as a fanciful theory, propagating fears about vaccines, refusing engagement in public education in favor of home schooling, and so on.

In other groups of Christians (here the shorthand would be "mainline liberal Protestants," again, a phrase I no longer find descriptive) there is either no understanding of how to speak in theological terms about science, or there is a strong fear of using specifically religious language in the context of engaging science. These communities prefer to treat their religious beliefs as deeply private and even at times irrelevant to their public engagement. Examples here would be people who have commitments to environmental justice, political advocacy on behalf of reproductive health, support for integrated public education, and so on.

All of this is to note that my personal experience of the "fact/value split" is situated very specifically in the Christian communities of which I am a part, growing out of my embeddedness as a theologian and religious educator in St. Paul, MN, and Toronto, ON. I note this context at the start of this paper because I am fully aware of how little familiarity I have with the depth and breadth of the secular literatures on civic agency, let alone the broader discourses of political philosophy.

Having articulated that caveat, however, I also want to note that I have been energized and inspired by the work coming out of the The Good Society journal, as well as the MacArthur Foundation's digital media and learning program. There are distinct resonances arising across multiple [End Page 306] sectors of scholarship, and as Eoyang and Holladay note, when faced with complex challenges it is crucial to scan the environment for emergent patterns (2013). I believe that there are patterns emerging in our current landscapes that are crucial to recognize.

In what follows I have four distinct points to make. First, that there is a specific epistemology present in Christianity that has crucial relevance to contemporary questions of civic engagement. Second, digital media are reshaping the terrains in which we practice Christianity, thus making this epistemology newly relevant. Third, one can see the fruits of this reshaping around notions of agency, particularly in the midst of struggles over environmental and racial challenges. And fourth, that for Christians we have to take seriously God's agency in the midst of communal action in civic settings, even when specifically theological language is not welcomed.

In what follows I am going to draw on explicitly religious language to describe how a religious epistemology can be drawn on to support civic engagement, one that deliberately and consistently resists a "fact/value" split. I offer this argument not as a definitive prescription, but rather as a case study of sorts, as an example of the way in which one very specifically situated community—that is, Christians in the upper Midwest of North America—can enter this broader discussion and bring useful resources along with it.


First, I need to make clear what I mean by suggesting that there are specific epistemological commitments at work in Christianity. Perhaps the simplest way to describe the contrast I wish to draw is to note the difference between an instrumental view of knowing–one in which data can be gathered from a static object of focus without any need to acknowledge the contextuality of perception– and one which many scholars term "relational." The latter way of defining knowing recognizes that "objectivity" is a myth that does not adequately describe the complex ways in which perception occurs, and that instead we have to acknowledge the many interconnected, interpenetrating and entangled ways in which knowing emerges. [End Page 307]

An objective focus asserts that information can be gathered from an "object" which is under study by an expert, who then "passes on" that information to amateurs who take it in. A relational focus, in contrast, asserts that there is a dynamic interconnection between not only the subject at heart of study and each knower involved in such study, but there is also a connection between each knower, which (in turn) shapes what is learned. Further, the "object" that is the focus of an instrumental form of knowing has no agency; it is a static "thing" about which the same information can continually be gathered, while it is more accurate to speak of a "subject" at the focus of a relational model of knowing, because studying a specific topic, or subject, changes as it is studied. That is, the "subject" is not only a "topic" about which to learn, but a central focus that changes knowers, even while it is also changed by knowers.

It is perhaps also important to stress that these are epistemological models, not pedagogical models, although obviously how we envision knowing is central to how we think about teaching and learning. Still, I have far too often encountered reception of these ideas that reduces an instrumental form of knowing to something about which one can easily "lecture," while a relational form of knowing must somehow demand a pedagogy which utilizes small-group techniques. Clearly there are talented lecturers who can draw you so deeply into the topic at hand that you are changed by that topic, while your engagement with it also shapes the topic. And there are also poorly designed small group processes that simply give pride of place to the loudest, most opinionated person and thus reify a focal point, rather than illuminating it.

Parker Palmer, in pointing to these epistemological distinctions, rightly labels the first way of knowing "the myth of objectivity" and the second, a "community of truth." He argues that a relational model for knowing draws deeply on the early desert mothers and fathers within Christianity (Palmer, 1998, 100 and following) and I would highlight that as Christians we affirm that the central knower, the central subject in which, through which, and by which we come to be known—and hence know—is Divine Transcendence, that is, God.

I will return to Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' later in this paper, but here let me quote a few pieces from that document which elaborate and clarify this epistemological model to which both Palmer and the Pope are pointing (Pope Francis 2015):

#11: If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that [End Page 308] exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

#106: The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.

Many secular commentators have engaged this encyclical for its pragmatic advice on measures to be enacted (JESC 2015), but unless you understand the fundamentally relational epistemological commitments at the center of Francis's teaching here, you will miss the keystone of this encyclical—not to mention misconstrue everything else Pope Francis has written since becoming Pope.

This way of thinking about knowing, an essentially relational rather than objectivist or relativist process, is at the very heart of Christian conviction. There is a line in the apostle Paul's first letter to the community gathered at Corinth that captures the essence of what it means to know in this way. Writing to a community struggling to discern how to live amidst a culture that is at odds with their confession of faith, Paul writes: "When I came to you, sisters and brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (NAB: 1 Cor 2:1–2). Of course Paul goes on at great length through several letters that form the heart of the first systematic exposition of Christian faith to state what he believes this form of knowing demands. But it begins—and ends—in his confession of the fundamental mystery, the fundamental "not knowing," with which humans encounter the Incarnation.

This confession demands a deeply humble approach to faith and its witness in the world. Secular readers of this paper may be surprised by such an assertion, since human propensities for sin—read arrogance, violence, desire for power over, and so on—have often taken that expression and embodied it in human institutions which combined with state power to become deeply oppressive. Indeed, Willie James Jennings's book The Christian Imagination (2010) (winner of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, the closest thing to a Nobel prize in my field) lays out that history in compelling detail, noting that every time Christianity has privileged orthodoxy ("right belief ") over [End Page 309] orthopraxy ("right action") and aligned itself with state and/or colonial powers, the tradition became blasphemous.

While this is true, Jennings also notes that there have always been—from the very beginning of the movement following Jesus—people who live instead within what Anglican solitary Maggie Ross terms "the deep mind." She writes that "to be centered in the deep mind is to have access to the direct and inclusive perception that everything is interconnected" (Ross 2014, 139).

Richard Rohr puts it this way:

Dualistic thinking, or the "egoic operating system," . . . is our way of reading reality from the position of our private and small self. "What's in it for me?" "How will I look if I do this?" This is the ego's preferred way of seeing reality. It is the ordinary "hardware" of almost all Western people, even those who think of themselves as Christians. The church has neglected its central work of teaching prayer and contemplation, allowing the language of institutional religion itself to remain dualistic and largely argumentative


It may well be that the common forms of the "fact/value" split that have so plagued contemporary Christian communities are a product of this neglect. That is, in losing awareness of this profoundly nondual way of thinking, an epistemology so thoroughly at the heart of Christianity, contemporary Christian communities have fallen into patterns of dualism that support rejection of science—or a similar rejection, on the other side, of explicit religious conviction engaged publicly. Whether that is an adequate explanation is beyond my area of competence, but I would note here that we are entering a period of time in which the question of what constitutes "truth," particularly of how one discerns what is factual, and what to do once that discernment has been made, is once again highly visible in public debates.


This brings me to my second point: the advent of digital media in our midst has dramatically shifted certain dynamics that impinge on these forms of knowing. My shorthand for these shifts consists of three "A words"—authority, authenticity, and agency (Hess 2013).

In the Roman Catholic context, the impact of digital media on how we understand "authority" is easily described. Catholicism is a hierarchically [End Page 310] ordered, documentary tradition. That is, the most authoritative versions of documents were originally promulgated in Latin and released in Rome. Subsequent to that release, documents were translated into vernacular languages in the midst of specific conferences of bishops who in turn passed them down to parish priests who shared them in congregations. At each turn contextualization was important. Nowadays, a document such as Laudato Si', which as an encyclical carries a very strong assertion of teaching authority, is posted on the Vatican website in multiple languages simultaneously. Most people—even within the Catholic church—hear about such documents via commercial news media, and then access them directly on the website, if they even bother to read them. This flattening of hierarchical authority is only one of the many ways in which digital media have had an impact on issues of authority.

Coupled with, or perhaps it is better to say entangled with, this shift is a corresponding rise in the ways in which "authenticity" has become a key criterion for determining authority and credibility. Here again Pope Francis provides an interesting example. News media tend always to look for the defining narrative around a public figure. When Pope Benedict was elected, his public narrative was already well formed from his time as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in former times, the Inquisition). Benedict's strict philosophical training and inclinations, coupled with the anxieties and fears living at the heart of shifting religious contexts, meant that he was immediately perceived as a dogmatic and stern, conserving and narrow teacher of the faith.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, was a largely unknown quantity to most of the news media. That unfamiliarity meant that they immediately began looking for narrative "hooks" upon which to hang their reporting. Every element of Francis's steps onto the international stage were closely scrutinized and analyzed. The story that began to be glimpsed was one of humility, recognition of relationship with all—particularly those who are hurting and marginalized—and mercy. From then on, every story looked for elements which matched that narrative, and the story of Pope Francis emerged. Although in essential ways both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are teaching the same core truths of the tradition, Francis has been quite brilliant in building on this media narrative—whether he is doing so intuitively and organically, or deliberately and intentionally is a question I won't venture to comment upon—but he has effectively shaped a coherent message that has power beyond the Catholic Church. In large measure he has been successful in doing so because his actions are congruent with his words and his teaching congruent with [End Page 311] scripture. He is perceived as being deeply authentic, and consequently, has authority in these broader spheres.

To state this concisely: facts have authority in a digitally pervaded public frame when they are congruent with the values that are espoused. Similarly, values have power to the extent that they align well with actions taken in actual situations, with the "facts on the ground," so to speak.

Francis's work might be an example that can speak to liberal mainline Christians who need to find a way to speak of their faith in relation to issues of science. But what of conservative evangelical Christians? Given the longstanding history of antagonism and prejudice between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, it is unlikely that the Pope's assertions hold much authority in that space. Instead, this shift, which defines authority largely in terms of authenticity, can be glimpsed through the contesting descriptions of the role of science in relation to theology. That conflict has led many conservative evangelical Christians to retreat into a kind of "biblicist" literalism that refuses the uncertainty and deep humility demanded by the mystery of God, settling instead for a rather more brittle reliance on personal conviction rooted in narrow confessions of faith. A conservative evangelical critique of technology is far too often conflated with more foundational science, and at that point it morphs into one side of an either/or dichotomy, where truth cannot exist in both places at once but must either be in the Bible or in science. Posed in that way, these Christians cannot risk the personal anxiety of critiquing the Bible, and thus refuse science instead.

Further, when living within that stance conservative evangelical Christians can find many spaces on the web which provide mutually reinforcing narratives—stories enough out of touch with facts on the ground that a recent PRRI poll noted that white evangelical Christians are more likely to say they face a lot of discrimination than they are to say that Muslims do.1 This is an example in which the authenticity of personal experience is layered on top of an already "closed set" understanding of scriptural authority, leading to what becomes a necessary refusal to engage any facts that contradict personal experience (Hess, 2016).


The third element in my triad—agency—is also at the center of my third main point: that is that "agency," particularly as understood in terms of knowledge in action, is being experienced in ways that are new to this century, at least in terms of communicative action. [End Page 312]

Here the example I want to use comes from experiences within the Movement for Black Lives in Minnesota. In 2013 an unarmed African American teen, Trayvon Martin, was shot to death by someone claiming he was "protecting his neighborhood." Subsequently this man, George Zimmerman, argued in court that the "stand your ground" provision of state law exonerated him. When the court refused to find him guilty of a crime, three Black community organizers—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—started tweeting their anger, frustration, and pain using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in response to what they believed had been an intentional action which devalued Black lives (Cobb 2016).

In the following four years, the hashtag became a catalyst for national organizing, making possible the widespread sharing of individual stories of violence and even death at the hands of police, deeply contextualized within a vibrant affirmation of Black identities (Demby 2016). The movement has highlighted the painful reality in the U.S. that there are sharply differing perceptions of racialization (Fiebiger 2016). Multiple polls repeatedly emphasize how pessimistically many Black communities view policing, versus how optimistically many White communities do (Lauter and Pearce 2015). At the same time that national polling has made clear how sharp this divergence is, it is also possible to see in digital media the invitation to listen across such lines.

It is in the context of representations of collective action where the Movement for Black Lives is particularly interesting for my argument. Digital media have been an essential element of the movement's impact, and have created room for representation, resistance, and demonstration of collective agency, as well as granting authenticity and hence authority to what had been, up until this moment, highly marginalized voices. But that kind of collective agency is unlike much of what has been previously recognized.

As Ethan Zuckerman, one of the most trenchant current commentators on digital media, notes (2013):

If we want civic participation that is thick, impactful and scaleable:

  • • We need to get beyond distinctions between politics and activism and think about agency—our goal is to help people bring about the change they want to see in the world.

  • • We can not just develop new digital tactics—we need to think about levers of change and understand who we're hoping to impact and why we believe they can help us make change. [End Page 313]

  • • We need to help people climb ladders of engagement while broadening their understanding of issues, so they can build their own ladders for others to climb.

  • • We need to understand that thick participation at scale means devolving control away from the center and trusting that the people we are inviting into our movements will shape them going forwards.

He said this during a talk he gave at a digital media and learning event in Chicago, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. That digital media can play this kind of role in sparking collective action by drawing on participatory forms of communicative agency is clear in the Movement for Black Lives. What began as a hashtag used by three women as a form of individual expression in Twitter, quickly became a tool for organizing broadly and organically and doing so in such a way that the impact of the movement was deeply felt even in the midst of the 2016 U.S. political campaigns. But even beyond pushing national figures to discuss issues they otherwise would not engage, the Movement for Black Lives is actually drawing people into collective action that is deeper and wider than mere consumption (Brooks 2016). Indeed, there have been some analyses that suggest that the ascendance of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency can in large measure be traced to racist backlash against this emerging consciousness (Taub 2016).

What the hashtag and subsequent movement has made possible is a national conversation about race—a conversation that as heated as it has been in certain settings has also been constructive. How has it done so? In part by taking seriously the open ended, utterly transparent nature of Twitter which has supported a distributed form of networked leadership that is difficult to constrain.

This digital tool has highlighted a kind of participatory communicative action that has grown into at least loosely shaped collective action. By sharing first person accounts of violence by police towards Black people and Black communities, often accompanied by the inclusion of video, the movement has used the hashtag to build awareness that defies suppression. Such accounts are easily distributed across multiple contexts, and they have galvanized specific shared action. Van Jones makes this point in the recent award-winning documentary "13th"—a film about the systemic rise of mass incarceration in the U.S.—when he notes that "the difference now is that somebody can hold up one of these [points to his smartphone], get what's going on, they can put it on YouTube, and the whole world has to deal with it. That's what's new, it's not the protests, it's not the brutality, it is that we can force a conversation about it" (Van Jones, as quoted by Ava DuVernay 2016, [End Page 314] approximately 9 minutes prior to the end of the film). That such a practice—sharing video accounts of events—can force a conversation has much to do with these underlying shifts in how we understand authority, experience authenticity, and make sense of our agency.

This kind of communicative practice—using audio and video captured by amateur bystanders—is also the best example in recent years in the U.S. of what global activists have labelled "participatory communication" (Sam 2015). I would note, at least anecdotally and in my limited experience in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, that these kinds of communicative practices are reshaping routine habits in communities of faith.


We must recognize, however, that these shifts being highlighted in the midst of digital media can have thoroughly problematic consequences as well. As Michael Wesch, an anthropologist who studies digital spaces has pointed out, there is a paradox here in which people both experience a degree of human freedom and connection never before possible, at the same time as the public performance of hatred is vastly enhanced (Wesch 2009).

There is at least as much opportunity to burrow down into isolating enclosures as there is to stretch out into transformative engagement. It is here that I have learned the most from both Pope Francis's approach and the work of the Movement for Black Lives. As danah boyd writes:

Exposing people to content that challenges their perspective doesn't actually make them more empathetic to those values and perspectives. To the contrary, it polarizes them. What makes people willing to hear difference is knowing and trusting people whose worldview differs from their own. Exposure to content cannot make up for self-segregation.


The epistemological assumptions at the heart of Christianity—certainly in Pope Francis's articulation, as well as in the deep bones of the tradition—give preference to a thoroughly relational understanding of human knowing and being. So, too, has the organizing around Black lives in Minnesota, where in particular the large public marches have been multiracial, and multireligious, and where nonviolent activists have worked hard to build and share communal understandings of what is at stake through sharing stories.2 [End Page 315]

Digital media tools have drawn people into these relationships by igniting curiosity about personal experiences, and by offering thoughtful reflection on larger meta-narratives.3 We are perhaps once again finding ways to experience what it means to live in the midst of the challenges—and also opportunities—of a refusal to accept a sharp distinction between "facts" and "values." When authenticity—the experience of congruence between knowing and action—becomes a key factor in how we determine authority, and further, when agency becomes bound up in the patterns of communicative practice by which we encounter each other, something is emerging which is much more congruent with the core assertions of Christianity than are modernist forms of rationalist thought.

This intermingling, however, carries with it its own challenges, as has been evident in the recent public outbursts over "alternative facts," whether science has any legitimacy, and so on. Here is where the final element of Christian thought rears its head in perhaps the most difficult way for a discussion that is largely being held in civic studies and political philosophy. That is, what of divine agency? Pope Francis and Christian traditions all confess an epistemology that puts God's being at the very heart of all of Creation, and very much at the center of any forms of knowing. God is the primary "subject" at the center of Parker Palmer's "community of truth" when viewed through a Christian lens.

That claim of divine transcendence and divine agency fundamentally relativizes all human forms of knowing—even those assertions about who God is and how God acts. Again, as the apostle Paul wrote, "When I came to you, sisters and brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (NAB, 1 Cor 2:1–2). This is an assertion that the only persisting claim, the only truth to be held as essential, is the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Flowing from that assertion, as I've already mentioned, are deep commitments both to relationality and to humility.

This is actually a freeing stance, and a base from which to live in love, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. It is a stance that energizes the mystical margins of Christianity, where it is constituted in the lives of the saints. It is also a stance that lives in the heart of the transubstantiation that is central to eucharistic celebration. This kind of knowing does not "make sense" in common parlance, but is an entangling of facts and values that leads to strategies of deep empathy and collective grace.

But it is also an assertion so at odds with many contemporary narratives that rather than allowing the tension to give rise to transformations in [End Page 316] understanding, many Christians retreat into fundamentalist captivity. Again, let me return to Pope Francis and his encyclical, Laudato Si'. That document begins in the central assertion of God's divine presence and agency, and the deep relational communion that follows from it.

#34: But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.

#208: We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other. Unless we do this, other creatures will not be recognized for their true worth; we are unconcerned about caring for things for the sake of others; we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings. Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment.

#221: These include the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light. Then too, there is the recognition that God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore.

#231: Social love is the key to authentic development.

#240: The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.

These are just a few of the pragmatic assertions Francis makes in the document. Much has been made of the commentators—some of whom are in the Catholic community—who want to dismiss his assertions because he is "not a scientist" (an ironic assertion, given that he studied chemistry [End Page 317] and worked in a lab prior to his entrance into religious life) (Reese 2015), or because "religion has nothing to do with economics," or because "poverty and environmental climate change are not causally connected." But these challenges fall apart when faced with the careful construction of Francis's argument. Yes, he is eloquent—many have commented on the lyrical nature of his prose—but what is fundamentally compelling is that he is asserting an epistemological stance which is congruent with people's real experiences of life in the twenty-first century, where relationship structures knowing, at the same time as he is making a larger claim about God's transcendent call to "care for our common home."

This is a relational stance that is much deeper than mere "fellow feeling," and it is a stance which demands—much as the Movement for Black Lives demands—action on behalf of sustaining and honoring that relationship. Pope Francis seeks to create a "third space" beyond a fact/value dichotomy by calling all of us who share the Earth to "care for our common home." Laudato Si' is unique not only for the intricate ways in which Francis engages science and economics, but also in his quotations from people and traditions outside of Catholicism. He demonstrates—thus adding "authenticity" to his "authority" through congruence—that richer forms of knowing lead to more compelling claims.

The Movement for Black Lives articulates this as:

We are Black people from all walks of life—young, elder, queer, cis, trans, differently abled. We have come together in the rich tradition of our ancestors to imagine new ways forward for our liberation. We are dreamers and doers knowing that our work draws on the best of our history but must go beyond it to forge a fierce, free and beautiful future together that we can only imagine into reality. (

Both Pope Francis and the Movement for Black Lives offer stories, powerful meta-narratives, to draw us into this keen sense of relationality. Scholars in many other fields do this as well. Elisabeth Soep invites us to "the release of imagination" as a necessary element of learning (2016, 304). Maggie Ross quotes Robert Bringhurst to remind us that narrative "means much more than telling stories. It means learning how to hear them, how to nourish them, and how to let them live. It means learning to let stories swim down into yourself, grow large there, and rise back up again. It does not—repeat, [End Page 318] does not mean memorizing the lines so you can act the script you're written or recite the book you've read" (Ross 2014, 45).

It is this kind of imagination that takes us beyond the self segregating, self isolating spaces that digital media can invite us into, and instead thrusts us into the energizing midst of transformative learning in those same spaces seen through a different lens.

To return to the dilemma with which this article began, in Christian religious settings I see a fact/value dichotomy present both in those Christians who refuse facts in favor of values (seen in their denial of climate science, evolution, and so on), and in those Christians who accept facts but then find it hard to express their religious values in public policy and advocacy settings.

There is a third place possible—and that is a stance rooted in assertions about knowing that claim deeply relational processes, knowing so intimately grounded in the mystery of God at the heart of all knowing and all relationality, that neither of these stances (delegitimizing facts or privatizing values) is adequate for the world we inhabit. It is a stance well articulated by Pope Francis. Perhaps surprisingly, it is also a stance articulated by physicist Arthur Zajonc, among many other scientists (Palmer and Zajonc 2010).

I want to close this article by recalling to mind the words of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001, 141), who lay out a set of assertions for supporting adult learning:

  • • There is probable merit to my perspective

  • • My perspective may not be accurate

  • • There is some coherence, if not merit, to the other person's perspective

  • • There may be more than one legitimate interpretation

  • • The other person's view of my viewpoint is important information to my assessing whether I am right or identifying what merit there is to my view

  • • Our conflict may be the result of the separate commitments each of us hold, including commitments we are not always aware we hold.

  • • Both of us have something to learn from the conversation

  • • We need to have two-way conversation to learn from each other

  • • If contradictions can be a source of our learning, then we can come to engage not only internal contradictions as a source of learning but interpersonal contradictions (i.e., "conflict") as well

  • • The goal of our conversation is for each of us to learn more about ourselves and the other as meaning makers [End Page 319]

These are clearly secular assertions that cohere and align profoundly with the convictions at the heart of Christian faith. And here we return, full circle, to where I began, because the recognition within some of the work being published in the Good Society discourse helps me to see the patterns emerging across the landscape, patterns that adaptive action theorists claim are so crucial to identify. For instance, Helene Landemere writes (2014):

The presence of uncertainty, however, defines an entirely new game. Uncertainty means that we do not know and cannot know what the future will be like, whether on the short term or the long term, and whether, in particular, it will be like the past or radically different.


Whereas inclusiveness of all is rational as a proxy for cognitive diversity in the face of complex problems requiring widely distributed knowledge and multiple talents and perspectives, political equality among the included is rational specifically for the reason that radical uncertainty is an ineradicable feature of politics.


Living in full awareness of uncertainty, and of the ways in which collective forms of knowing can be more fruitful for resilience in such a space, I would put it this way, drawing on Parker Palmer's community of truth model: the more diverse the knowers, the more robust the knowing. This is an assertion that lives at the very heart of Christianity, at least as Pope Francis and many others articulate it. But that same uncertainty, arising as it does from the rapid pace of change all around us, causes large amounts of anxiety, which in turn drive people back to the narratives with which they are most comfortable—often those which are authoritarian in nature. Finding the "third space" alternatives within our traditions, and sharing them out via the participatory digital media which exist, is now both a crucial challenge and a clear opportunity for renewing civic engagement. [End Page 320]

Mary E. Hess

Mary E. Hess is Professor of Educational Leadership at Luther Seminary, where she has taught since 2000. During the 2016–2017 year she held the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Visiting Chair in Religious Education at the University of St. Michael's College, in the University of Toronto.


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