This is Only a Test

1NBMLabyrinth

Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

When I walked out of my comprehensive exams at graduate school, it was a beautiful Southern California day and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. No more exams!” Of course, I was wrong, which is concrete evidence of how much I still didn’t know. Life is a series of tests, none of which we can cram for and many of which we will not see the results of until long after we’ve forgotten what we were tested on.

It’s not that I hated exams; I rather enjoyed the opportunity to explain, describe, and analyze complex issues. It was the build-up to the exams that brought anxiety, the persistent feeling that no matter how thorough your preparation there would always be some question designed not to show what you knew but to punish you for what you didn’t know.

When I started teaching, I kept in mind how I felt about exams. I steered clear of minutiae and tried to design questions that gave students an opportunity to take a long view. I made it clear I expected accuracy in portraying the positions of others, honesty in expressing one’s own position, and clarity in writing. Nobody was getting paid by the word; brevity and conciseness were virtues. On questions of ethical practice as distinguished from analysis of ethical theory, I blessed responses that were exploratory and forward-looking. I encouraged students in philosophy and ethics to use their imaginations as well as their reasoning and analytical powers. Above all, I asked them to see themselves as both teachers and learners.

How would they describe and explain what they knew to someone who was deeply interested in what they had to say, but lacked their foundational knowledge on the subject? Could such a person pick up their written responses and understand them? Could those responses be the starting point for a deep and exciting conversation? Could they lead others to see what they had learned? And could connections be made in all directions from the subject they were studying? What had they learned in their American history class that their ethics might address? Could their ethical theories apply to their health practices, their economics courses, and their intercultural communication?

“There is only one subject matter for education,” said A. N. Whitehead in The Aims of Education, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

***

There are two kinds of exams in education. One tests what we have learned (summative assessment) and the other tests what we need in order to learn (formative assessment). Generally speaking, the life of a spiritual wanderer, someone seeking the Water of life, is a process of formative assessment. If life is for learning, then we can look to every day as experimental research into that which helps us learn of God, of ourselves, and of others.

“Speculation does not precede faith,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man. “The antecedents of faith are the premise of wonder and the premise of praise. Worship of God precedes affirmation of His realness. We praise before we prove. We respond before we question.”

For those who have been on this path all their lives, and who find themselves no nearer knowing God than when they began, this may almost sound like mockery. How can a person in their fifth or sixth decade of life on this planet regain this wonder? “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus (Jn. 3:4). We get worn down by life; our capacity for wonder ebbs and our willingness to suspend our disbelief diminishes in inverse proportion to our need to appear objective and aloof. All the evidence that the world is indifferent to our struggle swarms before our eyes and we shake our heads in exasperation. Experience cannot be reverse-engineered back to innocence.

Heschel invites us to look again: “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived.” Our very lack of what we seek takes on the outlines of a God-shaped vacuum in our lives, the via negativa of the medieval mystics and contemplatives.

But we are twenty-first century people who respond more readily to the merest factoid, rather than venturing beyond our skepticism. The trust that is the DNA of faith does not come easily, despite the brave face of certainty that we profess when pressed. Instinctively, we believe that a testimony given must be anchored, not understanding that a profession of belief without the trust of commitment can sometimes be a grappling-hook thrown heaven-ward to draw us up.

Doing can result in being, a genuine form of faith.

But there are some caveats to the formative assessment of our education in faith. “Knowledge is not the same as awareness,” notes Heschel, “and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness.”

It’s a risk worth taking. Heschel assures us that “To the prophets, wonder is a form of thinking,” a way forward when faced with the numinous, with the burning bushes, and the whispers of God within the hurricane. “Our certainty,” says Heschel, “is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can for ever ignore.”

For Christian existentialists, of whom I am one, authentic faith is a leap beyond what can be wholly certified through reason. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” suggests poet Mary Oliver. That challenge comes in the form of questions put to us by God, corporately and personally. Some of them are formative: they shape us going forward. Others give us a needed pause on this journey, a timeout to catch our breath and look around us. They are summative of what we have learned through our experience.

***

These are some of the questions I am seeking to be shaped by and to answer to.

“Where are you?” – Genesis 3:10

“What does the Lord require of you?” – Micah 6:8

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” – Matt. 6:27

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” – Matt. 14:31

And the most important question of all . . .

“Who do you say that I am?” – Mk. 8: 29

We are questions to ourselves. Life itself throws us demands that we may field as questions. The ones that draw us in, turn us inside out, and lift us higher come to us from the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10).”

Photo: Barry Casey

Practicing Conversation

Convo1:william-stitt-224297-unsplash

“It is not enough to relate our experiences: we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport.” — Michel Montaigne, The Art of Friendship

“This is only my opinion, but. . . .”  Lately, whenever I hear that in the classroom, in a conference, in a faculty meeting, or in casual conversation, I want to tear off all my clothes and start screaming. Since that is against most social norms and my better judgment, I signal my displeasure by the merest arching of an eyebrow.

How did we come to this point in common discourse? Why is it that when we edge ever closer to subjects of significance and weight, points that ought to be argued, elements of life that divide and conquer people, we retreat with a disarming smile into a cloud of unknowing?

The rules of engagement in these battles are followed to the letter. First, the disclaimer: “This is only my opinion. . . . “ Translation: I’m sorry if you take offense at anything I say, but everyone has the right to their own opinion.” This is followed by the actual opinion, which varies in its relevance to the discussion, but usually reflects the unconscious prejudices of the opinionator. Finally, there is the idemnification clause, intended to protect against the disagreeable opinions of others fired at point-blank range: “You may disagree, that’s okay—everyone is entitled to their own opinion—but I’m just saying. . . .” Then the speaker usually lapses into passivity, content to have said his piece, but uninterested in any extension of the argument unless it challenges his right to express his opinion.

This signals the death of dialogue and the throttling of democracy, which relies on the free exchange of ideas. But how can ideas freely circulate when they come walled about with petulant assertions designed to shore up fragile egos? We have lost the art of “conversation,” a word which can be traced back to its Latin roots in the idea of living in company with others, literally, ‘to turn about with.’ Another ancient root, a scriptural meaning, relates conversation to a ‘manner of life,’ or a way of being, never merely as a means of communication. It signifies a willingness to trust one another, to extend to others the means of grace whereby genuine learning can take place. It assumes that conversation takes time, that it evolves, and that it is so much more than mere assertion.

Robert Grudin places this squarely in the realm of liberty and calls these conversational skills the ‘arts of freedom.’ In a fascinating meditation entitled On Dialogue, Grudin says, “Once gained, moreover, the arts of freedom must be kept fresh by thought and action, taught to the young, bequeathed down generations.” Otherwise, he warns, the posturing demagogue and the ravenous mass-marketer “will turn liberty into its own caricature, a barbarous fool driven by fear and greed.”

It might seem a long leap from a classroom discussion to the foundations of democracy. We must also be wary of blaming the end of civilization on the young and restless. But Grudin, a professor of English at the University of Oregon, believes that these arts can and should be taught. “The operative pedagogical philosophy is that skill in these arts will enable people to make decisions and follow courses of action beneficial to themselves and society. In other words, people can learn freedom. Freedom is useless without a rational and emotional instrumentation that gives it substance.”

What I often see in classroom discussions is more a clash of egos than an exchange of ideas. Many times those who speak up are so eager to claim their point of view as theirs that the point—if there even was one—is lost.

Teachers don’t help much either. When I worked in faculty development I saw many syllabi which laid out elaborate rules for classroom discussions. I was struck by the pervasive fear which ran through the assumptions behind these rules. Students had to be protected from the sharp edges of differences between them: once you entered the classroom there were no races, genders, or cultures. Reference to these social categories was taboo: each person was simultaneously an individual so autonomous that she perceived reality in exclusively personal terms and she was a member of a massive, amorphous, egalitarian lump. No doubt the intentions were that no student should feel discriminated against—something no one should have to suffer—but the effect was to limit discussion to the confident few who wielded their vorpal swords for sport. These parts of our identity help make us who we are and we ignore them at our peril. They come back as labels and epithets if we don’t take their influence into consideration.

We learn with each other: that’s what conversation is. We are social beings, which is to say we find out who we are through interaction with others as well as reflection by ourselves. Self-awareness and self-reflection, though, are learned behaviors, brought about through practice in hearing about ourselves from other people as we dialogue. When we don’t practice at listening before we speak we panic when spoken to. Our desire to be known for ourselves rises up and before we know it we are chanting the mantra of the blindingly obvious: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. . . .” Whereupon we deliver our opinion as a verdict rather than an invitation.

I once went to a conference for men held at a large hall in downtown Washington, D.C. It was led by Robert Bly, a poet and self-styled men’s mentor, who had just published a book entitled Iron John. It was a manifesto on being a real man without becoming a slack-jawed, brutish jerk. During the course of his presentation he gave some time for statements and questions from the floor, but placed some conditions on the speakers.  They had to keep their contributions to three sentences in the interest of time and they could ask questions—but any sentence that was not a question had to be a simple, declarative sentence. It was issued as a challenge: say what’s on your heart without hedging it about with qualifiers. I took it as a request for open, sincere, and rugged conversation.

Nobody could do it.

Virtually everyone who spoke danced about their subjects, adding implied questions, footnotes, self-referential phrasing, and jargon. Bly was disgusted and berated us for our narcissism.

I have often thought of that experience for it revealed some principles I’d like to live by. We need to think before we speak; we need to listen to others; we need to give each other grace so that we have a space in which to learn from each other. That’s not my opinion, that’s my invitation.

Photo: William Stitt, Unsplash.com