One Method of Theological Reflection

December 2, 2011

This post is my 100th for “Bringing the Word to Life.” I was not sure when I started this project in late July that it would be a discipline I could sustain. It has turned out to be a discipline that has sustained me, and I am grateful to have had the time and venue for writing. Today I would like to reflect on how such a discipline can make a person a better Presbyterian and more thoughtful Christian.

Whether the mode is blogging or journaling or jotting notes in one’s calendar, the act of reflecting on a daily basis on interesting events is a fruitful exercise. When one sets pen to paper, or in this case hands to keyboard, one is stopping for a moment to think about what just happened, what was said, how that jives with what one knows already, and what it contributes to one’s faith and life. The goal is to learn as much as possible from the moment or circumstance, to process it in light of God’s Word and our Reformed heritage, and to judge whether there is anything of value that can shape one’s life and ministry.

My triggers for theological reflection are personal experiences, articles published online by Presbyterian Outlook, The Layman, Presbyweb, or fellow bloggers, personal conversation, or even a Facebook post. Whatever it is, it raises questions for my Christian faith and my Presbyterian practice. Reflection simply is time and effort dedicated to seeing how this new thing fits in with what I know already and where it challenges me to act or perhaps change my mind.

One method that aids this kind of reflection is known as 4-MAT in educational settings. 4-MAT suggests four steps to aid in reflection of particular material (a book, a talk, even an experience).

STEP 1.   Abstract: What is the content?

Summarize the content of the material. What is the basic thesis or claim? What principles seem to guide the author’s thinking? What message is the writer conveying? What patterns do you see? What conclusions can you draw?

STEP 2.   Concrete: How does the content connect with your life?

Make the ideas personal. To make sense out of one’s life experience one must “do theology.” Through memories, questions, and events, connect what you are reading and discovering to what you have previously experienced.  Identify with happenings and ideas, and write down how this material connects with past and present realities. How do these events, attitudes, values come alive in you and your history?

STEP 3.   Reflection:  Reorganizing your internal structure of reality and knowledge by integrating an idea from the material

As you link the above ideas with life experiences, become aware of the internal changes that take place in you. Reflect on this awareness. List questions that arise—what bothers you about this topic or what new possibilities does it offer?  How does it expand or cut across your present reality? What does it mean for your way of living? Are there questions you would like to explore further before deciding to integrate it into your life? What does this information provoke? What could you do to respond?

STEP 4   Action: What will you do as a result?

Every human vocation which is committed to the service of God and of the people must lead to response—whether through transformation of your inner person or your living out new understandings. Here describe what you simply must DO as a result of what you have now discovered. What changes in your perspective and ministry as you integrate this new information into life and how does that affect what you do?  What step will you take to begin living as though this were true?  What do you intend to do about it (however small the step)?  When will you do this or how have you already done so?  Who is your accountability person?

In the next few months, Presbyterians are going to process a lot of input as the denomination prepares for General Assembly next summer. I suggest adapting 4-MAT to the volumes of material you might be reading in advance of that grand decision-making time: commissioner nominees’ statements, overtures, judicial commission rulings, statements of faith offered by candidates and minister-transfers, or Presbyterian media accounts, for starters. Ask yourself the four basic questions: What does it say and mean? How does this relevant to my life? What resonates in me or repels me if I were to make these ideas my own? What am I going to do as a result of being exposed to this material?

Write this down as you go, and you will begin to “get your wits about you” in the sea of Presbyterian information and happenings. Then you can blog or journal, too, and discover a discipline that might just accelerate your own spiritual and intellectual growth.

Tomorrow: Another model for theological reflection, called “Hot Off the Press”


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