Take care that, no matter what, no monk presumes to defend or protect another…
How should we teach?
I was sat with a large group of young people leading them in a Bible Study on cutting off limbs (Mt 5:30, Mk 9:43) and there were a lot of questions being asked. I had not been a leader for longer and, althoguh I had experience of being a teacher, I felt out of my depth. I looked across at the paid youth worker who headed up the team I was on and looked pleadingly at him. I desperately needed his help to answer and guide us back on track as I was flailing in the metaphorical brambles! Instead of jumping in and either closing down the questions or deftly answering them he remained silent staring back at me.
Well, thank you very much!
I thought as I clumsily fought back the probing questions and steered us to end the time together to start an unplanned game.
After the young people had left I cornered the youth leader and said,
Could you not see I was in trouble there. I needed your help and you just left me to fail and it was really embarrassing!
He smiled and replied,
How are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet if I keep propping you up. You need to find your own way out of those kinds of messes.
It was one of the best lessons I learnt.
Skip forward eight years and I’m now ordained and leading a youth group in another church. I have a new leader who I am helping to train up and she was surrounded by young people asking difficult questions about miracles. She stuttered and struggled and then she turned to me and said,
I have completely lost track of what I was saying. Ned, how should I end this?
For a moment I was back at that moment when the youth leader let me struggle on my own and I learnt the valuable lesson of finding an ending on my own. As this student leader stared at me, totally overwhelmed, I faltered and stepped in to defend her. Afterwards I regretted doing that, remembering the great lesson learnt when someone didn’t protect me from embarrassment or failure.
It seems harsh reading this chapter, to be told not to defend another person. To leave them struggling doesn’t seem that kind or, to be honest, very Christian. The instruction, however, is to enable monks to learn the lessons they need as they journey the path of righteousness. How often we step into help someone and in so doing refuse them the opportunity to grow or deepen their faith?
As humans we love the opportunity to instruct and teach others in some weird narcissistic attempt to make them more like us. Imparting advice is a way we can extend our influence and intellectually procreate. In doing this, though, we rob another of growing or maturing. It’s the problem with our established pedagogy (way of teaching).
Paolo Freire, a liberation theologian and practitioner articulates, for me, the fundamental problem with the way we teach one another. The church is not immune to the oppressive approach to education which ‘becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.’
Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive , memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.72)
Students become passive participants who are, by the manner in which information is given to them, encouraged to accept the world as it is and not to hope for new revelations or transformation in reality.
Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator not re-creator… he or she is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty “mind” passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.75)
Discipleship must be shaped around a new way of teaching. A teaching, outlined in Freire’s writing, which encourages students to journey alongside another student. It is a focus on modelling how to interact, with curiosity and wonder, with the world around us. The teacher is no longer set apart, up front, depositing information but rather in amongst, a student amongst students, learning and asking questions with them about what they see, hear and experience around them.
In another book, ‘We Make The Road By Walking’, he summarises his point concisely.
The other mistake is to crush freedom and to exacerbate the authority of the teacher. Then you no longer have freedom but now you have authoritarianism, and then the teacher is the one who teaches. The teacher is the one who knows. The teacher is the one who guides. The teacher is the one who does everything. And the students, precisely because the students must be shaped, just expose their bodies and their souls to the hands of the teacher, as if the students were clay for the artist, to be molded. The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves. And in doing that, he or she lives the experience of relating democratically as authority with the freedom of the students.(Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) p.181)
Within this liberation framework we begin to see a way in which the abbot’s authority explicit throughout St. Benedict’s Rule, can be executed without taking away freedom from the monks. The guidance and teaching is one of accompaniment; yes, firm and un-wielding when necessary but allowing God to transform them through a process. Thomas Merton understood this approach.
A person is a person insofar as he has a secret and is solitude of his own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. If I love a person, I will love that which makes him a person: the secrecy, the hiddenness, the solitude of his own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (Boston: Shambhala, 2005) p.258)
I suspect that discipleship crisis in the Church (which has led us to mission and evangelism crisis) is rooted in the approach to how we teach. The time has come to throw away the educational philosophy described above as the ‘banking concept’ for what it creates is followers who are dependant on ‘experts’ to feed them the information they need. If they manage to fight through the passivity that is forced upon them they become oppressors themselves with the catalogue of deposits they have collected over the years.
We leaders and teachers must relearn how to guide people to become the person God intends for them to be. This is going to be hard for most of us as we are products of this old and autocratic educational process. We must come to see God through Jesus the teacher who allowed mistakes and failures, who brought out free enquiry in story rather than a syllabus of knowledge that needed to be memorised. The first disciples were not given, like the other rabbis of the time, a textbook to be learnt but instead received the Holy Spirit to inspire.
This new form of teaching must ripple through every aspect of the Church; through the pulpit, into small groups, into evangelism. Can we imagine the Church being at the forefront of education again by establishing this inquiry based, liberation approach to teaching the younger generation how to engage with the world?
Guiding God, through your son, Jesus Christ, we see you teaching us amongst us. You do not deposit diktats from above but instead walk life with us encouraging and leading with all gentleness, strength and faithfulness. We thank you that your desire for us is not just to know about you but to become like you and in that, find our freedom.
Come, Lord Jesus.