Thursday, 9 November 2017

Farewell speech: what I have learned about learning

They had a farewell service for me in Sydney yesterday and I gave this short departing speech.

I came here for a job and what I got was a vocation.

When I arrived at the college nine years ago I was new to teaching. That is hard for me to imagine now. I cannot form any picture of what kind of person I would be if I was not a teacher. The discovery of a vocation to teach has been one of the great events of my life. It has become so ingrained in my identity that if you asked me why I teach I would not know how to answer. I would say that I teach because of who I am. I teach because I am alive. I teach because the things I value most in this world are all bound up with that amazing thing that happens in the classroom.

What is the classroom? 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.

Really the teacher is a kind of midwife to love. I can’t force anybody to love the doctrine of the Trinity. All I can do is help students to take a look at that doctrine for themselves. I can challenge some of their prejudices and assumptions. I can question some of their hasty conclusions. I can help them to slow down a bit, just long enough to pay attention. If they give this doctrine their attention, if they really start to look at it, then sometimes their hearts will respond spontaneously. They might start to love what they see, and then to look even more closely, and to love even more.

When this happens – when learning gives rise to love – it can be so unexpected that the teacher is more amazed than anyone. Where does that love come from?

It’s not something that can be taught. It’s not a technical skill. I can’t show you how to love something. I can remove certain obstacles. I can encourage you. I can cheer you on when I think you’re looking in the right direction. But when you see something for yourself and start to love it just because it’s there: that’s not something any teacher can impart. So where does it come from?

Some of the church’s great thinkers have puzzled over this. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine: they reached the conclusion that the only real teacher is Christ. Every time the light bulb goes on in a student’s mind, that light is Christ, the Logos “that enlightens everyone who comes into the world” (John 1:9). To open yourself to any part of reality is always to open yourself, in some measure, to the Logos. Whenever you really start to pay attention to something, to understand something and to love it just because it’s there, you are in some way inclining your heart towards Christ.

That might seem a bit overblown as an explanation of how learning happens. But you have to admire those ancient thinkers for taking learning so seriously, and for being so awed by its mystery, that they were willing to conjure up a whole theory of creation just to explain what’s going on in the classroom.

Learning – 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.

That doesn’t happen every time students shuffle into the classroom at 9.30 on a Friday morning. But it does happen. I know it happens because I have witnessed it. I have seen it: right here in these classrooms, time and again, over nine years of my life. It is why I love the classroom. It is why this community, a theological college, is sacred to me. It is why the teacher-student relationship is, to me, more holy than any church or temple.

We often say that theology is meant to serve the church. I have said it myself. But since I’m leaving I can tell you the truth: I don’t believe it. If theology serves the church, then it is a means to an end. But when you consider what learning is – real learning – how could it ever be a means to an end? That’s like saying that love and joy and life are means to an end. Would you say that joy serves the church? Or that life serves the church?

Sure, theological learning enriches the church; it supports the church; it challenges the church. Those are its wholesome by-products. But they are not the reasons for learning. They are not what it is for. Learning is a way of being alive. It doesn’t serve the church or the church’s mission. It serves the human heart and the glory of God.

Anyway, that is how I have come to understand my vocation and the vocation of this college. For sharing all this with me, as students and colleagues and friends, I say: thank you.

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