Assimilation or Accommodation?

There is a saying among the Zen Masters “when the student is ready, the teacher will be provided”.

That has been the story of my life. I look back over the last 20 years of ministry and with consistency I can mark easily 10 different major intersections with people who became coaches, mentors and resourcers in my life that altered the very arena or trajectory of my ministry experience.

I have been introduced to a new world in educational learning theory and human development that is life altering. That sounds dramatic but is the honest truth. The learning and insights for the discipline of human development and transpersonal psychology (only around for about 30 years) have such monumental implications for spiritual formation that until we integrate some of those insights we will continue to pass on information with little hope of transformation (think Gallup and Barna research indicating our pathetic life change quotient).

So let me share one of my new learnings that is altering my journey and the way I teach and coach.

Some educational theorists believe information has to go through 6 levels of change before it can be transformational….check this.

Information – discreet pieces of bits, bytes and facts. Think number facts.

Knowledge – involves the development of systems of information instead of just those discreet pieces. Gaining knowledge means constructing patterns of information and implies the basic ability to use information. The deepest knowledge involves comprehension and master over a domain or skill. Think Math Genius.

Intelligence involves the ability to use information and knowledge AND ALSO the ability to create it; intelligence shapes, changes and constructs knowledge. The capacities for critical examination and evaluation open up closed systems of knowledge; through the use of an intelligence, knowledge and info can be taken out of context, recontextualized, and constructed for one’s own uses. Think Bridge Builder using calculus to calculate the volume of the tunnel needed for water flow.


In our educational system this tends to be the end game and as far as I can tell this has been the end game in the church as well.

Master the domain of the bible….Know as much of the information as possible. Put it into a coherent system (that is the step into knowledge) and then help people contextualize the mastered truth into their specific life contexts. That is intelligence.

The next step is to move toward “understanding.”

Understanding though literally means ‘to stand among’. This implies crossing boundaries inherent in standing apart from and moves toward intimacy and empathy. This opens the door to richer perception that transforms information and along with it the self who is perceiving it.

Martin Buber the great Jewish philosopher says “all real living is meeting” when we are talking about understanding we are talking about this activity of meeting.  Understanding then requires a fundamental shift in the way we know.

Understanding comes when we empathize with the other, lean into the other and suspend our distant self separateness for a moment. As we do so, a recognition of interconnection may emerge.

Expressed another way understanding is learning to see through the eye of the heart. The heart of understanding is cultivated through empathy, appreciation, openness, accommodation, service listening and loving presence.

This is qualitatively different than the object/subject distinction we learn to make in school.

We even makes those distinctions with people…

Understand is an all out call to return to no boundary existence. Where we see the sameness in each other. Understanding is seeing with the heart not the head….if you will and heartfulness involves a shift in our being.

The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living –we will never lack the will for information, but we lack the will to wonder and awe.  Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel.

Much of contemporary knowledge does not invite meeting or understanding this is largely because of the domination of the assumptions of contemporary science.  The notions of objective knowing has led to a new level of control (domination) over the natural world and it’s presuppositions have flooded into spiritual practice.

The opposite of the subject/object Cartesian dualism is UNDERSTANDING which involves connection, relatedness, intimacy, even oneness

Think of Jesus’ Prayer for oneness…we tend to think in modern terms of doctrinal oneness or purpose and vision oneness and that is ok but not far enough.  We need understanding in our world. ONENESS of ‘standing among’.

Remember Seeing ONE from our last post.

Let me introduce a distinction that I have found incredibly helpful.

Assimilation is the cognitive process of assimilating the new…event, piece of info or even person, through evaluating them in relation to previously determined categories of meaning (me, not me, good –bad, animals plants, like me, not like me).

It enables evaluation from the objective position without the evaluator having the experience of the thing without ever really meeting it.

The flip side of this is accommodation…

This is when we don’t allow already established categories to provide the whole grid or when something we encounter does fit into previously held categories. Instead of fitting into existing categories new schemata and new understandings are created and we are literally changed in the process.

In this way, every accommodation becomes a potential revision of my identity. When we cease to demand that everything translate into our system and schema we are open to the possibility of transformation.

Will we assimilate to our current categories…or accommodate into a new “standing among” them?

These are the kinds of topics discussed at Spiritual Explorations Live every Sunday night. Join us this Sunday, September 14th as we begin a new series about the missing component of spiritual formation. Go to the home page at http://www.velocityculture for details.


58 Responses to “Assimilation or Accommodation?”

  1. Awesome, Shihan! It’s funny, but i had a similar discussion with a friend two weeks ago. In his generation, EVERYTHING is about constant “identification” (i.e. is this “me” or “not me”?). If it’s identified as “not me”, then it is rejected as outside, sinister, inferior. Accommodation is, by nature, “compromise”. Compromise is a form of weakness. Weakness cannot be tolerated, or, Heaven forbid, embraced. As a result, the entire world becomes a series of allies and enemies (very Ken Wilbur “orange meme”, isn’t it?) where enemies are, as you said, “dominated” or assimilated. But “enemies” should never be “embraced”. I mean…c’mon… that’s just stupid.

    … unless you’re Jesus.

    -samurai jack

  2. david leon card Says:

    there is a reason christ came as he did …

    it seems to me that if god wanted a simple (objective/orderly/systematic) conversion of the human race, then god would have elected to be born into some kind of royal family of some influential kingdom somewhere … you know?

    … why not be born a son of the caesar of rome?!

    logistically, this makes much more sense, doesn’t it?! … objectively/systematically: much more sense … christ would be free to spread his plan of salvation of a grand scale, teaching and preaching to masses of people … he would lay out the rules, and we would all go do what he said … assimilating everyone into the collective*

    … oddly enough, that’s not the way it happened

    god chose to be born into a little known town to no one of influence … instead of a ‘mega-church’, he chose twelve** …

    the wisdom of god truly confounds the logic of the past 500 years of modern thought … christ’s model for discipleship is personal, because no two people are alike, even within sub-categorized groups … no two alcoholics are addicted for the same exact reason … no two overweight people are overweight for the exact same reason … no two one-legged people lost one leg the exact same way … just as no two i.r.s. agents work for the i.r.s. for the exact same reason*** …

    jesus seemed much more interested in personal story; one might even say that his discipleship model was a sort of ‘understanding reverse spiritual-accommodation’ … instead of keeping a healthy distance from his sinning followers, he dove head-first into their lives (so close that eventually his spirit rubbed off on them) … his light overcame their dark

    his discipleship model looked more like “empathy, appreciation, openness, accommodation, service listening and loving presence”, and less like “object/subject, assumptions, boundaries, control, dominion, presuppositions” that so many of us grew up with

    anyway, just some thoughts … i hope i pulled all that together in the end …

    and now for a deconstructional statement: “i’d rather have my eyes opened in wonder, than a heart closed by belief”


    *startrek reference: “the borg” … (wiki that shit)

    **this is even more dramatic than it appears at first glance … remember, the twelve he chose were most likely rejected (politely) by another rabbi

    ***this is not true … if fact, all i.r.s. agents are the same collective dark/evil spirit living in many different bodies (just like the borg*)

  3. Loved your books. I joined your discussion board over a year ago, posted for a while, and got too busy to make it back. Glad to see you’re still here and still getting it right. So you know, I’m linking your blog from my site: Love to have you stop by.


  4. Okay – So are you saying the goal is elimination of epistemological categories? At first blush this seems like a lofty goal that is not possible for the human mind to attain. How does one practically accomadate rather than assimilate?

  5. No not at all Bryon, you are missing the nuance here. This isn’t elimination of categories but shifting of categories. Assimilation quite simply assumes the current structure or mental model is appropriate, accurate or worse the “right one.” When we live in that place there is only one way of seeing. Adult developmentalists from Kegan to Hart argue the structure of the mind determines what is seen and how it is understood. Accommodation is an effort to take in information that may not fit with my mental model and instead of forcing it into my current matrix allowing the new to re-form or re-mold my mental model. All adult development happens this way. This is precisely what Jesus was commending Nicodemus for in John 3. In the midst of Nicodemus being from a tribe that saw what Jesus was doing as demonic, (their mental model assimilated the works of Jesus as an unclean Jew doing things contrary to the law as sure proof, according to their mental model, that Jesus was doing works by the devil) Nicodemus said Jesus I SEE (Greek word) what you are doing as proof you are from God. Nicodemus shifted the mental model accommodated a new possibility and as a result saw the same datat in a very different way.

  6. bryonharvey Says:

    Thanks for the clarification. With this in mind, why do some people seem to be able to accomodate while others seem to only assimilate. I have a lot of other questions but I’ll stop with that one for now.

  7. […] What our worldview doesn’t expand to see is quite literally out of our perception.  (You may remember an earlier post ASSIMILATION VS. ACCOMODATION). […]

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