The Gospel reading for this morning and tomorrow morning (Mark 8. 11 – 21) tells of the Pharisees asking Jesus for ‘a sign’ and his responses to them in terms of what they should be able to see, already.’Do you still not see perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? …’
Lately I have been thinking a lot about blindness and sight – especially that kind of sight which we call insight.
What does it take to gain, or to nurture, insight?
In a way, this is the age-old question of the getting of wisdom.
Have I got any wisdom to add to this quest?
I have been wondering about the kinds of teaching and learning which evoke insight amongst leaders and pastors: how do we come to have insight – if at all?
There are some who really seem to have deep insight into the nature of the life of faith and the nature of ministry and the church. They not only know what to do, but have the insight to work this out for themselves, in a way that includes others and can lead their people because of these abilities.
Others, who may have done exactly the same courses, seem to have little insight and few of these skills.
In several pulbished articles I have written that I believe that we need to be aiming to produce biblically formed and socially aware people, who are capable of thinking theologically. My contention is that this kind of thinking takes many forms, but is fundamentally about an engagement with God and the formation of character. It includes, centrally, reflection upon experience. It is the wisdom that guides Christian living and ministry.
What’s more, these things are not for ‘professionals’ only. In fact, often the opposite is the case. Those of us with degrees and official positions are sometimes blind to the deepest realities and truths, which are seen more clearly by the people we purport to teach.
I turned again to a great pastor and teacher, Henri Nouwen. In his little book Creative Ministry there is a section about spiritual blindness. In a chapter on teaching, he draws upon Bernard Lonergan’s observation that insight can both be desired and resisted.
We can actually avoid and resist insight. We can have blind spots, – called in classic spiritual literature ‘scotoma’. Scotosis is this kind of blindness of which Jesus speaks: it infects, perhaps especially, those of us who think we know something about God, and somehow allow that very knowledge to blind us from further insight.
Nouwen writes further about the things we do which sustain and strengthen our blindness!
First is ‘a wrong supposition’: and that is, we think it is better to give than to receive. We think we have something for others to learn, and we want them to receive it. First, Nouwen says, we need to think of what gifts they already have and might indeed have to offer us. To teach well and to enable others to learn (perhaps even from our experience) we need to begin with what they might have to offer us. In short, we need to learn to listen before we teach. But in this process we will also discover what we do have, of value for others, and ourselves. It may not be what we thought we had to offer, but it will be of value and grace.
Next, Nouwen speaks of the ‘false pressure’ of the modern education process, which stresses achievements and grades. This concern to get the degree, the honours, the next award, blinds us to what we are learning and becoming. It creates yet another scotoma.
Finally, Nouwen speaks of ‘the horror of self-encounter’ as the major source of our blindness. Only when there is a real willingness to engage with the truth of ourselves will we be avaialble to learn from experience. ‘Only if students and teachers are willing to face this painful reality can they free themselves for real learning’.
I have long felt that, in an important sense, as a theological educator and a trainer of pastors I cannot really teach anything. This is not a lack of skill or effort. Rather, it is acknowledging that somehow it is within people, within the spiritual reality of themselves, that this deep learning, seeing and hearing, of which Jesus speaks, will take place.
What I can do, I think, are two specific things: First, I can try to offer myself, for the teaching and learning process, willing for the ‘horror’ of self-discovery, but also the gift of others’ insights and experiences, which may challenge my own cherieshed ideas but also inspire and deepen me. Second, by my own example and attitude, I can encourage others to put themselves in the way of learning. That is, I can help them to find the insights that their lives and their stories are offering to them. I cannot make them learn. I cannot give them insight. But I can, I guess like Jesus, encourage them to see, to hear, to understand.