Culture Shock

When I taught in Colombia, I taught a more or less even mass of people all of whom were quite happy to be spoon fed. There were among them a few who aspired to more, but their aspirations did not ordinarily rise very high. There were trained people among them, but they remained peripheral, and what one taught was the even mass of those happy to learn as long as it involved no great effort on their part.

Such people, I think, will usually be most of the congregation. It has its advantages and its frustrations, but it is the reality with which any teacher has to deal. And a good teacher aims to bring them along as far as is possible. What is more difficult here is that there is quite a larger number of the more keen and admirable. Because they are admirable and eager, one is tempted to draw ahead with them, leaving the mass behind.

The shock comes here: I have had response to my teaching above what I expected. I had one elder show up for class yesterday with the first volume of the 38-set, Ante, Nicene and Post collection. I had people asking about the reference in a text I was talking about; I didn’t have it, this guy looked it up and read the footnote for us, prompting a small and rather esoteric exchange. I also had the experience later on in which somebody just off the top of his head challenged my reading of something Eusebius of Caesarea wrote. It came form an unexpected quarter–a young father of five who is not in any kind of academic job and is learning Greek to be able to home school his kids to read Greek and who is patiently working his way through those 38 volumes during his lunch at work (and, morevover, has not given up on Irenaeus of Lyons after going a good way in).

It represents a challenge and a temptation for me, for this reason: what motivates me, I have come to understand, is honor. I seek honor the way some seek money or pleasure. Like those who seek money or pleasure, those of us who seek honor must understand what real honor is. Like treasures in heaven, or solid joys and lasting pleasure, the honor those of us who are moved by it should aspire to is the honor of God. That goes for this circumstance of teaching, in which there are various sources for gratifying one’s quest for honor, but only one that really counts.

I do not want to be shown up in class–though there is honor in humility. At the same time, I can’t leave the bulk of the people dangling. The solution is to honor God–not that that is as easy as it sounds. One hates to be the sort of teacher who gives up on those who are really hungry in order to feed those who will eat what is put in their mouth but no more (was it Plato who talked about it, letting the eager teach themselves, leaving the dullest behind, helping the middle class? I don’t agree with him–not yet at least). One has a duty to the majority of the class, on the other hand, that seems incompatible with the personal satisfaction of climbing higher with the few who would provide the joy and camaraderie of more competent exhilarations. But God sits over it all, calling those who teach to teach every group well. Not to leave the eager alone, not to leave the slow behind, but somehow to provide all things for all of them.

It is, perhaps, one of those things which is placed before us in order to try us by being too great for a present satisfactory solution, but edifying in that is stretches us more than we would because it makes us try to overcome what cannot be overcome in this life. I think a lot of this life is like that, and that it is a mistake to give up just because the problem appears intractable. After all, we are not made for just this present, most limited, and altogether brief phase of our existence. It is a training ground, and a nursery, and we will grow out of it and begin the real task of our existence after this part is all settled and done with. Does it not stand to reason that if we are to be greater beings in the resurrection, that we are therefore presently as children are to the outsized furniture of adults in our present circumstances? I think it is an important part of the Christian attitude to realize that this life is in not the settled part of our existence. And I wonder if this problem of teaching with a more mixed group is not part of that. I do not believe there will be less, but more hierarchy in our lives in the world to come, and I believe that very much.

(And I have been listening to Perelandra, hence my diction.)

Anyway, it has left me with a bit of culture shock and something to think about. I had forgotten, so long has it been since I’ve taught, how much energy teaching requires. I have the week off for an Easter breakfast next week, and books coming due that I can’t renew, and this consideration as I work on the lesson plan. Enough to keep one’s life engaged.

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6 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. I’ve been thinking about this hierarchy idea (problem?) since finishing Lewis’s “The Last Battle.” It may just be me, but the Narnian beasts come across as simply being stupid in that book. Even most of the good-hearted ones manage to misunderstand and botch everything. When they all make it to the real Narnia, it’s a curious thing how far each of them gets. As far as I can see, the good old bear who never understands anything gets as far as the first beautiful fruit tree (where “he found something he understood very well”). But there’s no word of him traveling on with the Pevensie children (“further up and further in!”) or making the marvelous discovery that they are in the real Narnia. Even among the seven humans, Lucy and Digory are ahead of the others in figuring things out.

    The really interesting thing, though, is that Lucy seems to be at the top of the hierarchy, but also seems to be the one most concerned to raise up everyone else. When the humans run into the group of dwarves who think they’re still in the stable, Eustace doesn’t want anything to do with them, and neither does King Tirian, until Lucy explicitly urges him to help her talk to them. She even intercedes with Aslan for them. I wonder if that’s Lewis’s way of saying that the hierarchy in heaven is a hierarchy of servitude — the lord of all must be the servant of all, etc.

  2. It has? Hierarchy does strike a chord with me — apparently more often than I realize.

    Perhaps it’s because in my early college days I was a rabid feminist/egalitarian. The problem was that I could see natural hierarchy in the world and I couldn’t do anything about it. You know, I almost apostatized when I realized that there was hierarchy in the Trinity? All the arguments I hated so much about some people being functionally inferior to others applied straight across the board to the Son and the Father. So it seemed to me that God and reality must be fundamentally unjust, or that hierarchy itself somehow had to be good.

    I forget when I started to warm to the idea it was good. Partly while reading Lewis, I think, but I also had to run into it several other places before I really began to believe that it was.

  3. Well, charity is the chief good. Somehow inequality of powers had to be consistent with love and friendship. That was what I struggled with. Lewis & Tolkien, medieval chivalry, the “cordial consent of being to being,” the footwashing in John, all seemed to be gesturing toward how such a thing could work. But it was very difficult to visualize clearly.

  4. Hierarchy means order. In Perelandra there is an open and clear recognition of greater and lesser beings. Each is honored for his own place on the understanding that it is given to him by God. There is a wonder and joy in apprehending the intelligence–the logos, because as I’m learning it is a very Hellenic attitude–of the order, the brilliance with which each part is designed and fitted into the overall structure. That sounds more like a machine that it should, though there is elegance in some machinery. It’s more like a plant, or like the living, intelligent cosmos.

    The charity of the eldila is portrayed by Lewis as completely untouched by natural affection. They are not begetting beings. That is the hierarchy and and charity that fascinates me. Of course, we’ll always have natural affection because we have started as begetting beings, but it seems to me that increasingly as we age, we’ll have more of the sort the eldila experience. Not only a charity of impulse based on deep running but hard to examine intuitions (and constantly threatened by sentimentality, helping the poor little blokes under us–the stuff I do not warm to), but more clear and mental, a spiritual one, causing us to see all things in the light of the dignity of the purpose given them by the profoundest wisdom.

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