Perspective and Positionality: Learning As an Act of Reverence

Oct 6th, 2015 | Category: Faith/Learning, Featured, Lutheran Education Commentary
By Yurimi M. Grigsby

A lesson in perspective

The famous meditative garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, is a dry landscape that illustrates the importance of considering perspective. This rectangular Zen garden, surrounded by low walls on all sides, attracts hundreds of people every day. Within the garden confines, 15 large stones sit on patches of moss among small, white pebbles. The pebbles are carefully raked into linear patterns all around the larger stones and are said to represent waves of rippling water. Visitors to the garden can view the stones from a veranda and see 14 stones from any vantage point, but never all 15. Trying to see the fifteenth stone will cause another one to disappear from view.

Its meaning has never been made explicit, but contemplating this unique feature of the garden reminds me of the words of Rene Magritte, a Belgian artist who lived from 1898-1967: “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” In the busy tedium of teachers’ daily lives, it can be easy to forget to look beyond what we see to what may be hidden, and arduous to find spots on the veranda that will allow us to see all 15 stones.


This article is informed by a sociocultural approach to positionality and learning as reverence. In particular, the article draws its theoretical underpinnings from a perspective advanced by religious scholars in the tradition of lived religion (Ammerman, 2013; Hall, 1997; Marty, 1998; Orsi, 2002), which focuses “on the levels of everyday life and personal experience in religiosity” (Hovi, 2014, 80). Through this framework, I seek to understand learning as an act of reverence.

Orsi defines this body of work as “the work of social agents/actors themselves as narrators and interpreters (and re-interpreters) of their own experiences and histories, recognizing that the stories we tell about others exist alongside the many and varied stories they tell of themselves” (2002, xxxix). In other words, when we engage in this type of narrative inquiry, a truth will emerge that is both similar and different from each of the narrators’ perspectives.

Ammerman’s (2013) study looking at “everyday religion” tells the stories of people who exhibited a certain ordinariness in their answers of what it means to be a religious person. Their insights into their lives did not resemble “the exotic religious wildflowers that researchers so love to study” (2) and neither “did they seem to think that religion was simply something to be kept within the four walls of religious institutions” (3). Narratives emerged in which people interpreted religion and spirituality as part of who they were, the places they went, their relationships with others, and the activities in which they spent their time. In essence, in many of Ammerman’s stories there was a “spiritual sensibility in the domains of everyday life” (21). In the same way that Ammerman’s participants thought of religion and religious practice as an event that happens inside as well as outside a church, temple, or mosque, learning is often viewed by others as happening inside as well as outside the classroom.

Perspective and positionality

It is impossible to reflect on perspective, the understanding of our mental states or others’ (called “perspective-taking”) (Southall and Campbell, 2015, 194), without also considering our positionality. Takacs (2003) helps us view the significance of positionality when he asks, “How does who you are shape what you know about the world?” (27). Understanding that how we view the world is the result of forces and influences, the shaping of experiences and effects of relationships, can help us see how a particular perspective is not an inevitable outcome of a linear path.

By encouraging the issue of perspective, we allow students the opportunity to flesh out their own biases and allow them a chance “to hear points of view they might not have heard before” (hooks, 2010, 100). As hooks says, “We must teach students to first see that perspectives vary depending on the degree to which any of us have been socialized to have blind spots in our thinking of race, gender, and class” (2010, 100).

Positionality may be the stones we see at any particular time as we stand and look out from the veranda. It takes effort and movement to see the fifteenth stone, the part of an issue hidden by what we see and therefore “know.” Borrowing from duo-ethnography studies, the goal in pursuing and problematizing positionality is not necessarily to discover findings, but to “promote more complex and inclusive social constructions and re-conceptualizations of experience” (Sawyer & Liggett, 2012, 631).

When we “ask students to learn to think for themselves and to understand themselves as thinkers —rather than telling them what to think and have them recite it back—we help foster habits of introspection, analysis, and open joyous communication” (Takacs, 2003, 28). As teachers and students, we seek knowledge and regard wisdom as generally a good thing to strive for. As a teacher educator, I have often witnessed that students actively engaged in the processes of learning experience a “refreshing” reaction. As Romans 12:2 says, we are “transformed by the renewal of…mind” (New International Version).

With learning comes renewal. Therefore, learning can be regarded as an act of reverence, similar to other acts of reverence that involve sacrifice, action, time, and focused attention. Perceiving learning as an act of reverence supports the important and difficult work that teachers do and honors the hardships that students must endure, as each one brings strengths, weaknesses, different motivations, and fears into the classroom learning environment. Learning, deep learning, is a commitment and takes more time than we oftentimes have, as well as more effort than we want to allow. Learning is a path of roadblocks of other responsibilities that compete for one’s time and energy; it is full of twisty turns as course content and one’s own synthesis (the combination of perspective and positionality) meet and wrestle; it is a journey that is appreciated largely in hindsight, as we consider our nascent beginnings and later development.

Engaging one another with open minds can be challenging, but we can view challenges as an opportunity, as they are cause for advanced engagement. Since “positionality is the multiple, unique experiences that situate each of us,” (Takacs, 2003, 33) we seek to understand and empathize with others and meet them in learning spaces that Pratt (1991) calls contact zones. Within them, we listen for understanding, in which viewing and valuing the opinions of others, investigating our own belief systems, and exploring the roots of conflict and injustice locally and globally happen in earnest dialogue, critical thinking, and reflective practice. “Education can have no more crucial function than helping students to function most productively and joyously in their communities” (Takacs, 2003, 38).

Learning as reverence

An example of perspective and positionality can be drawn from my own family experience. My grandmother worked as a young woman in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. The war had taken many of the men in their families and communities. With her own brothers and former schoolmates gone, she and her sisters found work in Oak Ridge to send money home to their parents. She was as shocked as the rest of the country to find out she and the other women had been working on the secret Manhattan Project.

Almost 30 years later, she sat in her kitchen with her family, looking at the celebratory headlines from the newspapers she had kept at the end of the war, of those that read “Japs Surrender!” and stories that detailed horrific accounts of the after-effects of the atomic bombs. Journalists told of the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and then the second one on Nagasaki, three days later. Historical comparisons of wars and political rhetoric were discussed. Only now, her new daughter-in-law was in the room, a cheerful, young woman from Okinawa, and her presence created an uncomfortable interaction that paved the path to a new sense of awareness and dialogue.

My mother had quietly left the room amid the discourse of “necessary” bombs that saved American lives and the justifiable means to ending a war. “After all, these were her people we were talking about,” my grandmother said. But afterward, my grandmother gathered up the keepsake newspapers that had once represented a joyous period of her life, when husbands, uncles, brothers, and friends had been able to come back home, and threw them all away. In gaining a new perspective, she saw a once-hidden fifteenth stone. Debating whether others would have made the same decision is to miss the point. My grandmother had looked beyond the boundaries of her own perspective and concluded she did not want to hold on to something that caused another person such grief.

The effort in engaging in acts of empathy and understanding can take on many forms and can be represented as our positionalities, or by the spaces between the stones. The movement between stones can be, and often is, miles wide. In between the spaces must be dialogue, both meaningful and merciful.

In telling me the story of that particular time, in which I saw my mother’s arrival to this country through my grandmother’s eyes, I learned as much from the context of what was happening as from the story itself. I saw the extraordinary negotiation of language and culture that had to be mitigated immediately between my grandmother and mother, along with the efforts of acceptance that had to be extended from both of them over the years. It was a story of a historical event, but also a sacred story, in that it marked in our family a paradigm shift, a new beginning of self-reflection, of an awareness of others perceived so markedly different from ourselves and finding the common ground of humanity.

What gives a place such as a church or temple its holiness, and what gives an act its piety, is the devotion that people commit to it. Learning requires just as much faithfulness and purpose as traditional acts of reverence, and the act is made even more sacrosanct when positionality is considered.


Ammerman, N. (2013). Sacred stories, spiritual tribes: Finding religion in everyday life. NY, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hall, D. (1997). Lived religion in America: Toward a history of practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

hooks, b. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hovi, T. (2014). Functions of narrative genres for lived religion. Approaching religion, v4(1), 80-88.

Marty, M. (1998). Half a life in religious studies: Confessions of an ‘historical historian’. In Jon R. Stone (Ed.), The craft of religious studies (151-174). New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Orsi, R. (2002). The Madonna of 115th street: Faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Pratt, M.L. (1991). Arts of the contact zone. Profession, 91, 33-40. New York, NY: Modern Language Association.

Sawyer, R., & Liggett, T. (2012). Shifting positionalities: A critical discussion of aduoethnographic inquiry of a personal curriculum of post/colonialism. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, v11(5), 628-651.

Southall, C., & Campbell, J. (2015). What does research say about social perspective-taking interventions for students with HFASD? Exceptional children, v81(2), 194-208. DOI:  10.1177/0014402914551740

Takacs, D. (2003). How does your positionality bias your epistemology? Thought & Action, v19(1), 27-38.

Author Information

Dr. Yurimi Grigsby serves as Associate Professor of Teaching, Learning, & Diversity and Principal Program Leader for ESL/TESOL in the College of Graduate and Innovative Programs at Concordia University Chicago.

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