Cognitive Dissonance As a Teaching Method

Don asked me to contribute a short series building on Michael’s recent exploration of cognitive dissonance. Michael covered themes such as grace and judgment. Don specifically requested that I examine the teaching methodologies Jesus might have used during His ministry.

As Michael eloquently discussed, cognitive dissonance frequently appears in Christ’s ministry, exemplified by phrases like “the first will be last” and “love your enemy.” This concept also extends to actions, such as offering the other cheek if struck or giving one”s cloak if asked only for a shirt.

At the start of Christ’s ministry—in the Sermon on the Mount—we see an immediate dive into cognitive dissonance as a teaching tool. The Sermon begins with the Beatitudes, presenting paradoxical blessings that challenge conventional understanding, such as “blessed are those who mourn.” These teachings seem designed to create a mental struggle, forcing us to reconcile seemingly contradictory ideas.

Over the next few weeks, I aim to discuss these teachings from an educational and instructional perspective, seeking your input on their effectiveness. A critical aspect of education is not just to introduce cognitive dissonance but to resolve it. Unresolved, it can lead to instructional frustration, where learners become overwhelmed and disengage.

This situation is akin to teaching calculus to a second grader or expecting someone unfamiliar with Spanish to learn from a Spanish-only textbook. Such approaches create excessive cognitive dissonance, leading to frustration rather than fruitful learning.

So, the question arises: Did Jesus, in His ministry, not only cause cognitive dissonance but also provide ways to resolve it? If so, what were these methods or insights? Understanding this could help us address our own cognitive dissonance and avoid reaching a point of educational frustration. In essence, can we identify and apply Jesus’s strategies to enhance our own instructional methods?

In a previous class, we delved into the concept of seeing and understanding God, a journey that involves moving beyond cognitive dissonance. As a recap, and to set the stage for our upcoming discussions, we examined the transition from concrete to abstract thinking. This shift takes us from basic knowledge and memorization to more sophisticated levels of learning, such as analysis, evaluation, and creation. This progression is vital in education for resolving cognitive dissonance, moving learners from concrete facts to abstract concepts to facilitate deeper understanding.

A crucial step in this educational journey is establishing prior knowledge. This foundation forms the basis for further learning, helping students navigate through cognitive dissonance. Once a common understanding is established, we progress through Bloom”s Taxonomy, advancing from basic memorization and understanding to application and analysis. These stages in learning help resolve cognitive dissonance.

A key educational strategy as we ascend through Bloom”s Taxonomy is to solidify prior knowledge. This concept is also evident in Christ’s ministry. We must ask: What tactics did Jesus use to establish prior knowledge, and how did he lead from knowledge to application and analysis to address cognitive dissonance?

Our focus today is on identifying and understanding the prior knowledge that Christ established in his teachings. To do this, let’s turn back to the beginning of His ministry. We’ll examine three pivotal elements that contributed to establishing this prior knowledge: the ministry of John the Baptist, the Temptation of Christ by Satan, and the healing spree Jesus undertook before the Sermon on the Mount.

John the Baptist’s role before Christ set a foundation of understanding. Next, the Temptation of Christ presents specific insights, potentially pivotal for grasping subsequent teachings. Finally, Jesus’ healing actions before delivering the Sermon on the Mount might have been instrumental in setting the stage for the cognitive dissonance that follows.

After reviewing these three aspects, I invite you to consider what prior knowledge Christ might have been aiming to establish through these events. How do these foundational experiences inform our understanding of His ministry and teachings?

We start with John the Baptist”s ministry. In Matthew 3:1-13, John the Baptist is depicted preaching in the wilderness, urging repentance for the coming kingdom of heaven. His message, as foretold by Isaiah, is to prepare for the Lord’s arrival. John, known for his ascetic lifestyle, wearing camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey, attracted crowds from Jerusalem and Judea, baptizing them in the Jordan River.

A critical moment in John”s ministry is his encounter with Pharisees and Sadducees. He challenges them to show “fruits worthy of repentance,” emphasizing that lineage to Abraham isn’t enough for righteousness. John foretells the coming of one greater than him, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, separating the wheat from the chaff. This narrative sets a foundation for understanding Jesus’s ministry and can be viewed as a starting point for establishing prior knowledge.

Next, let’s consider the Temptation of Christ. Before beginning His ministry, Jesus faces three temptations in the wilderness, each countered with scripture. His responses: “Man shall not live by bread alone,” “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” and “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve,” lay a foundational understanding of His teachings.

Lastly, before the onslaught of cognitive dissonance in Jesus”s ministry—illustrated in the Sermon on the Mount and various parables—there’s a phase of healing and casting out demons. This period of miraculous activities possibly sets the stage for the challenging teachings that follow.

Reflecting on the opening of Jesus”s ministry, I invite you to consider how these events—the ministry of John the Baptist, the Temptation of Christ, and the initial healing miracles—serve as the groundwork for the cognitive dissonance to be addressed later. What prior knowledge, do you think, was Jesus establishing through these actions, before we dele into the more complex aspects of His teachings?

David: Jesus’s ministry certainly induces cognitive dissonance, but only if you think about it. To me, it induces the very opposite: Spiritual harmony. Take the Beatitudes, for instance. They may be cognitively perplexing, but they evoke a profound sense of Truth and spirituality that transcends cognitive analysis. Jesus’s teachings repeatedly urge us to listen not to our intellect but to our inner voice—the heart, soul, the Holy Spirit, call it what you will. This is not at all a cognitive process. The directive to live “not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” seems to me to underscore this. In Jesus’s time, the New Testament did not exist; so the Word of God as Christians understand it today had to be discerned internally, through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, I argue that it is not a matter of cognition, but of spirituality. This, to me, concludes the debate.

Jay: I don’t believe it concludes the debate. Reaching a state of harmony from cognitive dissonance requires a foundational principle or prior knowledge. In an educational context, prior knowledge is essential for this transition. My question then is: Do the examples given—John the Baptist’s ministry, the temptations, and the healing—provide that foundational basis for moving from dissonance to harmony? 

Michael: Jesus often prefaced his teachings with “You have heard x, but I say to you y.” This, to me, is where he established prior knowledge and then introduced cognitive dissonance. He acknowledged existing beliefs before presenting his radical reinterpretations. It seems the prior knowledge Jesus was establishing hinted at imminent change, challenging the existing religious teachings. This notion of impending change is echoed in John the Baptist”s message and the miraculous healings.

Donald: My foundational question revolves around the nature of spiritual matters. Are they inherently obscure, a test of faith? If spiritual truths were clear and concise, one could simply learn, understand, and live by them. But it seems we are often incapable of fully grasping these truths and must accept them on faith. I recently attended a service focused on peace, which resonated with the idea of a utopian world, like the one depicted in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, contrasting this with the often violent narratives of the Old Testament, I’m left contemplating the disparity between utopia and reality. Is heaven meant to be a utopia, something beyond our cognitive understanding? Such discussions are challenging and meaningful, but they also leave us pondering unanswerable questions, which I believe is the essence of this class.

Don: What Michael and Donald have pointed out is insightful. It’s not just about cognitive dissonance but a radical shift in thinking and understanding something spiritual. Donald seems to suggests that Jesus’s teachings imply that the way we’ve learned things might be completely wrong. If our prior knowledge is flawed or erroneous, that’s pretty significant! It’s not merely about resolving cognitive dissonance but recognizing that our deeply held beliefs could be fundamentally incorrect. That’s a profound and somewhat disturbing realization.

David: The concept of prior knowledge has always been present. For instance, the directive to “turn the other cheek” might not always seem logical or appropriate, but when we read it in the Bible, we find it profoundly beautiful. How could we do so, without prior knowledge of the Truth? This isn’t just about cognitive dissonance; it’s about recognizing an inherent truth within us. We instinctively know that teachings like turning the other cheek are True. This prior knowledge resides deep within us. But if we try to intellectualize these teachings, try to comprehend them solely with our minds, we fall short. As Donald suggests, some things may simply be beyond our intellectual grasp.

Carolyn: One thing that has really struck me is the notion of becoming like little children. Children don’t possess extensive prior knowledge; they have innate truths written on their hearts. They’ve had limited schooling. This aligns with the admonition to adopt a childlike approach in understanding spiritual matters.

Donald: Spot on. We’re attempting to reach understanding intellectually, but perhaps that’s where we falter. This isn’t a mere academic exercise with clear learning outcomes; it’s about regressing to a more fundamental state of understanding, which in itself is a form of cognitive dissonance. We’re conditioned to always move forward, yet here we are asked to go backwards.

Sharon: I wonder if the term “cognitive” might be somewhat misleading in this context. Could what we’re experiencing be more accurately described as emotive or relational dissonance? It seems broader than just rational or cognitive elements.

Donald: That”s why I used the term “obscure.” It’s straightforward if taken at face value, but attempting to intellectualize it makes it blurry. Perhaps the more we learn, the blurrier it gets.

Reinhard: Reflecting on John the Baptist’s role, he heralded the coming of Jesus and emphasized repentance. The prior knowledge held by the Jewish people from Moses to the Pharisees was challenged by Jesus’s teachings. Jesus came to revolutionize and correct their religious practices, which was a significant cognitive dissonance for them. Their established beliefs and practices were deeply ingrained, making Jesus’s teachings about a closer, more personal relationship with God difficult to accept. This was the conflict that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.

David: Building on Reinhard’s point about repentance, it’s not just about remorse or regret; it’s about changing perspectives and ways of thinking. John the Baptist’s call for repentance was a directive to abandon traditional interpretations and embrace a new understanding; it was a call to go beyond mere remorse. This represents a profound and deeper shift in thinking.

Jay: Two concepts have emerged from our discussion. The first is the notion of impending change, suggesting that our foundational thought processes are evolving. Accepting this change could be a key element of prior knowledge. The second concept is the idea of an innate, higher knowledge within us, something beyond technical learning, which Christ’s ministry might tap into. In the examples we’ve discussed, do we see evidence of this innate knowledge? And what specific changes do we see being alluded to? Don mentioned that our prior knowledge could be flawed or erroneous. How do we identify this change and the innate understanding that might be being hinted at here?

Don: A question that arises for me is whether change is normative. Is this concept of change specific to the first century with Jesus and His ministry, or should we expect and manage change in the present as well? Is change a constant factor in our spiritual journey?

Jay: Shifting from a teaching to a learning perspective, I’ve noted that we often approach spiritual development with linear thinking. We envision growth and understanding as a straight path, adding more knowledge incrementally. However, this linear approach doesn’t seem to accommodate much change—it’s more about accumulation. Instead, I’m considering a different model, perhaps not exactly circular, where the journey seems repetitive, perhaps more like a spiral, where one revisits themes at a deeper level. This might better represent the nature of spiritual growth, which is not simply binary or black and white. Spiritual matters are abstract, not confined to concrete, linear thinking. We might need to embrace a non-linear approach to truly understand the spiritual journey and the changes it entails.

Michael: I’d like to suggest that the “innateness” David referred to might be better termed “spiritual knowledge.” While cognition relates to cognitive knowledge, innate understanding should perhaps be considered in a spiritual context. This distinction could help us better grasp the concept we’re discussing.

David: I see Jesus”s teachings on spiritual matters as very binary. It’s a clear choice: Turn the other cheek, or don’t. There’s no halfway. It’s unequivocal. This binary nature is evident in the spiritual realm, but becomes complicated when we apply cognitive processes to try to understand it. And we don’t need to do that because, deep down, we know that turning the other cheek is the right thing to do. The choice between good and evil is stark.

Carolyn: Could someone provide a definition of “cognitive” as we are using it today?

Jay: In our discussion, “cognitive” refers to the thought processes we engage in. Cognitive dissonance arises when we encounter a new way of thinking that conflicts with our existing thought processes. This dissonance creates a tension that needs resolution. However, as our conversation evolves, it seems we”re exploring a different kind of dissonance, perhaps one that goes beyond mere cognitive conflict.

Donald: “Becoming like a child” appears to be more circular than linear. Linear growth implies aging and maturation, but returning to a childlike state suggests a circular journey. The more we try to fit spirituality into a linear model, the more we limit it. Christ’s teachings often challenge us to think in opposite terms, which is difficult for our linearly trained minds. This raises the question: does change continue in heaven, or do we achieve a state of harmony where change is no longer necessary?

Michael: Jesus aimed to overturn two significant aspects with his teachings. Firstly, the societal norm that “life isn”t fair” and the idea of equivalent retaliation—”an eye for an eye.” Secondly, he challenged the religious understanding and application of law at the time. His teachings were revolutionary, not only in altering religious perceptions but also in reshaping societal norms about maturity and adult understanding. This was no small task; it required a profound shift in thinking.

Jay: A final question to ponder as we continue this discussion is whether Jesus was causing what might be termed “spiritual dissonance” as opposed to cognitive dissonance. Is this a valid categorization, or is it something different?

David: In my view, Jesus wasn’t creating dissonance at all; he was offering spiritual harmony. However, our own cognitive processes often disrupt this harmony. We create our own dissonance. Jesus presents a beautiful, harmonious spiritual vision, which I think can be seen in other great religious teachings as well. The challenge is not the dissonance; it’s our struggle to comprehend and accept this harmony without over-intellectualizing it.

Reinhard: Certainly, Jesus”s teachings were a direct challenge to the religious establishment of the time, especially his claim to be the Son of God, which contradicted their prior knowledge. The coming of Christ fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, such as the concept of the ultimate sacrificial Lamb, changing the need for ceremonial and civil laws. His teachings about loving your neighbor and showing forgiveness introduced significant societal changes, challenging the existing norms and laws. This indeed created a kind of cognitive dissonance, as his teachings differed greatly from the long-held beliefs since Moses. The early Christian Church, as seen through Paul’s teachings, grappled with these changes, such as the issue of circumcision, highlighting the ongoing struggle to reconcile new spiritual understandings with traditional beliefs.

Donald: I’m hesitant to say this, but the Beatitudes sometimes feel to me like a Hallmark card—beautiful but somewhat disconnected from our reality. When we leave the sentimentality of a Hallmark moment and face the world, there’s a stark contrast. Are the Beatitudes calling us to be different from how we currently are, to think in ways we ordinarily would not?

David: That’s an interesting perspective. While Hallmark cards evoke emotion, the Beatitudes go deeper, touching something more spiritual. We can track emotions neurologically to some extent, but spirituality lies beyond our full understanding. This distinction is crucial.

Donald: So, you’re suggesting spirituality is not an academic subject?

David: Exactly. Spirituality transcends academic analysis. It’s much more profound than that.

Donald: Then, our discussions, while stimulating, are more academic, not necessarily transformative or deeply meaningful?

Jay: I would argue that while spirituality cannot be reduced to an academic exercise, academic exploration of spiritual matters can still be valuable. Contemplation, even in an academic context, can lead to valuing, and what is valued can become meaningful. Our conversation is a part of this process.

Don: I would add that if we applied Jesus’s teaching methods today, we might see a more effective church. It’s not just academic—it’s practical and relevant. It raises the question of whether our current teaching methods effectively convey our understanding of God.

David: This is similar to what Michael mentioned about Bethlehem removing Christmas decorations in sadness over the suffering in Gaza. Such actions reflect a genuine Christian response, it seems to me.

Carolyn: Amen to that.

Michael: Jesus used cognitive dissonance as a tool to teach us about spirituality. He utilized a knowledge-based approach that paradoxically challenges our understanding. We’re trying to decipher this method and its impact on our spiritual perception.

David: I cannot agree that Jesus was engaged in an academic exercise or used cognitive dissonance deliberately. He was simply conveying the Truth. Any cognitive dissonance we experience is our own creation, an academic construct we use to rationalize our understanding, but Jesus’s teachings were straightforward. Everybody “gets” them—in their hearts. But ask the mind to “get” them, and the trouble starts.

Donald: Jason has certainly sparked an engaging discussion. It’s hard to stop pondering these ideas.

Jay: I’m glad to hear that. Let’s continue exploring these concepts, focusing on the idea of prior knowledge. I also want to delve into two specific teaching techniques—compare and contrast, and modeling—which I believe Jesus employed in his ministry. These methods might help us transition to more abstract thinking.

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