Loves of Learning: Thoughts on Christian Education

Often a chance to look back on familiar territory from an unusual angle is the source of new insights. So it was for me when, on a recent mission trip to Africa to teach theology to church leaders, I had the unexpected opportunity to speak in a couple of school assemblies. It prodded me to think anew about Christian education from the standpoint both of the student and the teacher.

There is a poster one sees in Kenya that proclaims, “Literacy for Improved Food Production!”I told the students of St. Philip’s Secondary School in Kitale, Kenya, that I don’t doubt improved food production is a worthy goal and that literacy can help attain it. But there is so much more to reading than that! Reading makes available to us three things that are much harder to access without it: the Word of God, the world of ideas, and the world of imagination.

The Word of God, recorded in the Christian Bible, contains the personal revelation of the Creator of the Universe, including God’s wisdom, commandments, love, and plan for the salvation and eternal fulfillment of his creatures. The world of ideas gives us the cumulative experience and thinking of the human race in its history, science, and philosophy. If nothing more, it can keep us from spending our whole lives reinventing the wheel. The world of imagination shows us the creative stirrings of the human spirit, stimulating our own spirits to make creative responses to what we learn and experience.

Any of the three worlds to which reading gives us access—scripture, ideas, imagination—can expand the mind in such a way as to facilitate things yet undreamt of (including better food production). When we combine them together, their capacity to do so is increased exponentially. So we all should pursue the adventure of reading with all our might, both in school and out of it! My talk to the students of St. Philip’s was Newman’s Idea of a University recycled impromptu for an African context. And I don’t think it’s a bad exhortation for American students, either.

When traveling in Africa, your plans are rough ideas that may have little resemblance to the actual ministry opportunities that present themselves. I was expecting (since that morning) to address the students at St. Philip’s in an assembly at the end of their school day. But after they left, I was also unexpectedly invited to address the faculty in a separate meeting as they stayed behind.

“Why are we here?” I asked them—asking myself (in a different sense) the same question. “Why are we doing this?” I continued, as the Lord helped me see a direction in which I could profitably go. Teaching is not just another job, something we do to put food on the table. It’s not just a slightly more prestigious form of factory work. Unfortunately, many African teachers (and some Americans) look at it that way. At least the Americans are reminded every payday that they aren’t doing it primarily for the money!

So why do we teach? Only if we have a well-thought-out answer to that question can we hope to foster truly transformative learning. And the only answer that begins to be adequate is that we do it out of love. I encouraged the Kenyan faculty actively to cultivate three passions: love of the Lord, love of their subject, and love of their students. It is only when all three are present and intelligently integrated that transformative teaching can emerge.

Love of the Lord has to come first. Unless it does, love of the subject will degenerate into intellectual pride, and love of the students into corrupted sentimentality. But love for the Lord comes first not for those reasons but because he is the lord of glory, the eternal Word of the God of truth, and the sacrificial savior of our souls. We love him not for pragmatic reasons, good and adequate though they may be, but because he first loved us and because he is worthy of that position in our lives. If we cannot see this most basic of truths, what else do we possibly have to teach? What else could we teach with any accuracy or integrity outside that most basic of contexts? For the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, hence the beginning of learning—hence the beginning of teaching.

Love of the God of truth leads to love of particular areas of study, areas for which we have been given aptitude and to which we have been called to devote ourselves. We love our subjects. We take deep pleasure not just in facts, but also our subjects’ terminology and methodology,  grammar or structure,  history, lore, and heroes, and practical applications. We see all of these as things worthy of contemplation for their own sake as well as the sake of their Creator and of our fellow humans. Without this love deeply ingrained in our hearts, we will never overcome the demands on our time to stay fresh in the material, keep up to date on the most recent research, and impart it with enthusiasm. We cannot give what we do not have. Therefore, without this love we will impart neither learning nor the love of learning, being inevitably deficient ourselves in both.

Unfortunately, in America the pietism of some Christian schools does not sufficiently nourish this love compared to the other two. How could a mere subject compete in our affections with God and his children? There are practical problems as well as ideological ones. The economic resources and structures of the average Christian school do not sufficiently enable real love of the subject on a practical level, and the pietistic spirituality may even discourage it. A deep, abiding, and practical love of the material is essential nonetheless. All Christians are supposed to love one another; but not all are called to be teachers. Those who are called to teach are called to be learners and lovers of learning, first.

Love of the Lord and of the subject may suffice to make one a good Christian scholar; this is an excellent thing, not to be despised. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of fulfilling our whole calling. Without the third love, however, we will never be good teachers. We must love, not just students in the abstract, but our students, the sometimes difficult, but often wonderful people God has sent us We must truly love them for Jesus’ sake. How else shall we cut through their carefully cultivated ennui to reach them with the subject we love? Where else shall we get the combination of earnest zeal and endless patience that it takes? And why else would we expect them to listen?

If we have these three loves, we may be called to be teachers. If we are to be effective teachers, we must not take their continuance for granted, but rather cultivate them daily. Life has an almost infinite capacity to dull our hearts and minds, to bury us under trivial pursuits, to confuse us with the tyranny of the urgent, to wear us down by its daily grind. “A man, sir,” said Dr. Johnson, “should keep his friendship in constant repair.” It is good advice for those who would be friends of God, of learning, and of their students. How do we do this? We do it by being faithful in Bible study, prayer, and public worship; by scheduling time for the pursuit of our subject beyond the requirements of our lesson plans; by remembering that our students are “the least of these” for whom our lessons should be as “cups of cold water” given to Jesus himself; by keeping our lives uncluttered by trivial concerns that sap our energy, distracting us from the loves to which we are called. So we may love the Lord our God with all our minds, our subject as truth that manifests his glory, and our students as ourselves.

The love of God, the love of your subject, the love of your students: It is only when all three are powerfully present and intelligently integrated that transformative teaching can emerge. May the God of truth and of love make it so in our lives, to the glory of his Son! Amen.