Last year in November, we enthusiastically engaged a room filled with bright young faces excited about the pioneering possibilities of a formation and education programme we had written called Teleios. Now, a year further on, the twists and turns of COVID have significantly ravaged our original intentions. Despite this, I look back on what grace allowed us to pull off over the internet (with both its horrors and miracles), and I am grateful.
As I write this, we now find ourselves busily preparing for the first in-person classroom context we will have been in since then. Included in this is investigating our obligations to the physical well-being of the gathered students and staff, which will likely require full scale mask-wearing, hand sanitising and social distancing. This has become par for the course in our COVID-impacted times, and has led me to consider how we might facilitate true learning in such an environment as this.
And is it even possible?
I trust it is possible, and I am of the unshakeable conviction that true learning requires community: a gathered people who are not primarily interested in out-thinking or out-smarting one another (as our competition-crazed education systems have taught us to do), but are learning to think together in order to live well together.
As Christians, all our activities are ordered around the two greatest commandments:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:27).
For those of us who claim the name of Christ, every endeavour we embark on is hopefully ordered towards these ends. Couched within this Christian narrative and conviction, learning is about growing in the love of God and in the love of neighbour.
The commandments threefold orientation gives us a good framework and trajectory for understanding how love forms us heart, soul and mind. Regarding our hearts, Christian love forms our affections and teaches us to be lovers of God and others. Understood in Christian terms, our soul is not, as the Greeks would have it, the most important part of us. It is the seat of our being, and can be understood as the place that grounds our dignity as image-bearers. It is the holism of personhood and the place where our habits and virtues accumulate and form us for better or worse. Our minds are for the type of knowledge that animates our communication and self-understanding. This love that has captured us is meant to be shared and to be given away. It is news that needs to be heard (and then experienced), as good. The Christian call is not only to foster an individual (and interior) experience of love but to proclaim it from the rooftops in persuasive and winsome words.
Tom Bloomer calls all education a power encounter. It is considered as such because education has a strong formation role in our lives. We were made for love and we become what we love. Consequently, the things we love (our loves) direct our lives. Therefore, because education can tend to direct us towards unlovable things (often things that can’t love us back), we have to consistently examine the loves that our hearts, minds and souls are being trained towards.
Ben Myers describes a classroom that would train our loves in this way when he says:
“It’s a place where people come together and start to learn something. Then, sometimes, they start to love what they are learning, and they are changed by that love.”
Anyone who has felt it, or been caught up in it, can attest that love is grace. Real love cannot be fabricated, but appears like a gift, like a fortunate fall. We make ourselves available to love and we orient ourselves to be captured by it, but it necessarily comes from a place beyond ourselves. Similarly, in a classroom/learning and formation space, all we can do is position ourselves to slow down, to pay attention, and to receive love. We seek to have the wounds caused by fear healed. And we seek to set aside the lazy objections and prejudices that have bound us in unthinking comfort zones.
Once again, Ben Myers gives us an inroad into what real learning is:
“Real learning…is a kind of miracle. It is a gentle, delicate, interior process by which the soul comes into contact with something beyond itself and reaches out to it in love.”
So we discover and begin to experience that learning is gentle and delicate as is the way of love.
Paradoxically, however, to evoke the Narnian account of Aslan, the way of love is not safe but it is good.
In more recent times, it has become popular to cultivate Christian places as areas of safety. I agree that a greater attentiveness to the dignity of one another and the importance of recognising that learning can only take place in a trust-filled environment is good and desirable. However, one of my concerns around this cultivation of safe places is that we conflate safety with individually construed standards of comfort and offence-taking. If Tom Bloomer is right when he suggests that education is a power encounter, then the reality is that we are engaged at the centre of the battle between good and evil, love and fear, right and wrong.
And that is not a safe place to be.
When we embark on a quest for learning and education, we step onto a battlefield. This is a contested place and the stakes are high. Good education (including in the classroom) makes space for each person to experience a measure of safety that allows for one’s partially formed reflections to come forth.
However, if all we do is feel safe, we will not learn.
There is a kind of forcefulness in the advancing of God’s rule and reign, and it begins within us. It is an uninvited “violence” and “offensiveness” that attacks our dearly-held convictions and perspectives of the world. And we need this. Scripture’s analogies indicate a radical in-breaking from the outside: blind eyes can now see and those who have died are being raised again…and these things propel us right out of our comfort zones.
This is a radical and uncomfortable transformation.
In Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis addresses this type of transformation when he says:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
Real learning is a transforming power encounter with Love Himself. As Lewis puts it, the change required “hurts abominably,” and this is the very change that Christian discipleship aims for. It is the long process of becoming more acutely aware of the way our dearly held beliefs and perceptions have blinded us. When this uncomfortable awareness takes hold, our eyes begin to see the “true light, who gives light to everyone" (John 1:9).
As it’s goal, Christian learning embraces the risk-taking adventure of knowing the God who isn’t safe but who is very good. It is within this community of God’s image-bearers (where our cracked-clay lives may not be considered a “safe” learning environment), that we begin to embark on this grand adventure together.
As the second letter to the Corinthians reminds us, we have a treasure within these jars of clay, and although learning together may have an element of unsafety, it can be increasingly wonderful and good…and absolutely necessary for learning and growth.