Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice. Pt. 3)

I came across this quote by C.S. Lewis some time ago and have been mulling over what it might mean for an educator to take this to heart.  Certainly Lewis’ point applies to teachers of any sort, but what would it mean specifically for a theological educator?

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than a master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought to me by my pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t (Reflections on the Psalms [Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1958], 1-2).

At the very least, Lewis reminds us that good educators model honest inquiry. Fear must not dissuade us from asking tough, uncomfortable questions. This applies not only in preparation for courses, but in the presence of students as well. Nothing is more corrosive to cultivating a love of learning than giving the impression that you have it all figured out—you don’t, and you know it.

But there is more going on here. Lewis pulls out into the open—without naming it—an elusive skill of good educators. It is hard to put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it or when you experience it in the classroom. I don’t know what else to call it but empathy. Good educators empathize with their students’ struggle to learn; they enter into their labor with them, and in doing so they come to understand the students’ questions from their perspective. They come to feel again the tension of it, and are then able to address it.

For the theological educator I think this boils down to loving students. To empathize with them is to enter into the struggle of their unknowing;  I struggle out of my supposed knowing and enter into their place. I suffer the cost of pushing back into those questions that are long-settled in my mind, and this is costly. I would go so far as saying that for the theological educator, empathizing with students is a form of embodying the love of Christ. In me, I hope they see something of Christ’s willingness to suffer the cost of entering into our place as finite, human, unknowing, creatures.

Said differently: for a Christian, theological educator the doctrine of Christ should have a pedagogical function, shaping one’s philosophy of education at a more fundamental, basic level than general theories about teaching, learning, and higher education.

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7 thoughts on “Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice. Pt. 3)

  1. Kent,

    As I prepare this the last couple of weeks before I begin teaching one of the hermeneutics sections for beginning students at Denver Seminary, I find myself struggling as an educator at exactly this point. I have been a teacher for many years in other contexts and I recognize the dynamic you described all too well. Some call it teaching “from the 60,000 foot level.” One thing I have learned is the conclusion you reached: I have learned to love my students more than I love the approval of others for putting everything together and tying really nice bows. I have learned that “love covers a multitude of [pedagogical] sin.”

    Thanks for the reminder, my friend. As I go over the PowerPoint slides and try to fine-tune the presentations to include the latest developments in hermeneutics and face the temptation each day to unload the whole dump-truck—because I find it exciting and because, in the final analysis, it is important—I will keep your ruminations in mind and try to listen carefully to what’s going on in them before answering questions that aren’t being asked.

    The other thing I have realized anew in these intensely frustrating recent exchanges with Brett is that teaching hermeneutics entails first doing theology. It has come upon me with ever increasing weight that even though I “just” teach hermeneutics, I end up nonetheless being a theological educator, and that carries proportionally weighty responsibility (Jas 3:1) . . . yet another source of humility for those who, like me, are so prone to abide in that rarefied atmosphere at 60,000 feet. I’m so thankful for the faithful men around me who have committed to “sanctified heel-grabbing” and keep pulling my feet back down to earth each time my theological hot-air balloon begins to gain upward momentum. And this theological educator is all the better for it.

    • You are right Jim; there is no “theology-free” zone (thankfully), historical, hermeneutical or otherwise. Blessings on your teaching, and we are glad for your company and conversation here.

  2. Hey Kent,

    I love this. When reading it I guess I was drawn more towards thinking of teaching in church rather than academically but I wonder whether all to often, we get preachers and teachers teaching (as lewis puts it) “what is understood already” and failing to dig deeper and answer the questions that continue to go unanswered in the church.

    Equally perhaps sometimes we go too far in trying to answer the ‘unanswered’ and fail to teach the basics…its a fascinating balance.

    • Jamie, so good to hear from you! In this series of posts on “theological educators” I actually have more than just college profs in mind (although that is the perspective from which I am writing). Everything here should apply to preachers and those who teach in other church settings as well, even if the details might look a bit different based on the context. But the principles should carry through.

      Worship leaders have a teaching responsibility as well, something you and I talked about often. Any ideas for how this might apply there?

  3. Thanks for this, Kent. It resonated deeply with me, particularly your penultimate paragraph and, within that, particularly this statement: “In me, I hope they see something of Christ’s willingness to suffer the cost of entering into our place as finite, human, unknowing, creatures.”

    I have long been frustrated at experts who cannot teach well because they know too much, are overly enchanted by their subject matter, and don’t have the ability (or sense) to discriminate between all that they know and what student needs to know. The most handy example of this for me is IT people who try to show tech-idiots like me how to use new software or new equipment. But the problem shows up in our field(s), too, and becomes even more egregious because of the gravity of our subject matter. I have seen it in teaching labs where masters level students have to practice teaching and perpetually “overteach;” everything they know is of enormous significance to them and they take an almost compulsively dumptruck approach. Then, we become more than poor teachers; we become condescending and cynical toward those teach because we perceive them to be superficial or in some way “they just don’t get it”. As educators we face constant pressures, both internal and external, to have things figured out and get past the scandal of our own unknowing. When we accept and respond to those pressures (and I sure do) we fall prey to the very vice and disconnectedness that you and Lewis describe. Only when we own and teach through our own unknowing can what we do know have any real significance.

    Thanks for the insightful and prophetic reminder, brother!

  4. I guess in terms of the teaching responsibility that worship leaders have, there is firstly the need for relationship – if you are going to learn from someone you need to feel like you can trust them. Another thing is more and more we see people learning their theology through the songs that they sing. With the rise in popularity of christian music, it is the songs from a sunday morning that people are singing through the week in their cars, around the house etc.. This is by no means lowering the impact and need for teaching but this is something that I have been very aware of when writing, selecting and leading songs..

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