On Being a Learner

 

On Being a Learner

 

Last week Kay and I went to the memorial service for Brian Klemmer. A model of health and amazing activity, Brian died suddenly on April 7 at a very young 61 years of age. His company Klemmer and Associates, which he founded almost 20 years ago, is one of the world leaders in personal transformational training. Throughout his career Brian has touched millions of people, tens of thousands directly through the seminars, and millions through his books. His biggest seller was The Compassionate Samurai which was, for several months, number one on the New York Times business book bestseller list. He was a man driven by his passionate commitment first to Jesus Christ, and a mission: “To Create a World that Works for Everyone with No One Left Behind.” The key to accomplishing his mission: leadership by character rather than technique.  This is the message of the Compassionate Samurai.

As I arrived home I had a question about some detail of Brian’s life (nothing big- I can’t even remember what it was.) I went online and Googled  “Brian Klemmer.”  Just below the top three or four websites which were associated with Brian and Klemmer and Associates, there were a host of sites claiming that Brian and his organization were Scientologists.  As someone who knew Brian as an acquaintance for several years, and someone who has read his books and listened to him speak, I shook my head in disbelief.  Brian was an individual who was personally sold out to Jesus Christ.  But he was one of those rare believers who could work with people who did not share his commitments.  He was not afraid of the world outside professing Christendom.

He was aware of how stuck we are in our own structures of understanding, our own belief systems, and how these structures, these preunderstandings, warp our reality and even obscure the truth from us, as it did for those who made ridiculous charges about Brian being a Scientologist.

This is a theme that is often mentioned but seldom grasped.

C.S. Lewis, and the Dwarves in The Last Battle.

I was first introduced to the Chronicles of Narnia in an English literature course when I was in college. Before that time I had only known Lewis through his work Mere Christianity. Several years later I purchased a boxed copy of the entire set of the Chronicles of Narnia and over a period of several weeks read all seven volumes. I was utterly captivated. Although billed as children’s stories, Narnia captured my imagination as a young adult. (And it has continued to capture the imagination of many adults throughout the succeeding decades. In fact many Lewis scholars see the Narnia tales as a crucial part if not the key to the understanding of the Lewis canon.) In The Last Battle, the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia,we see the final battle between good and evil, between the forces of Aslan and those of the demon god Tash and the end of Narnia. In the middle of the battle the Dwarfs (note: Lewis spelled it Dwarfs—Tolkien loudly protested insisting that it should be dwarves, but to no avail) come to recognize that they have been deceived. As a result they become cynical and distrusting anything unfamiliar to them. They refused to take sides in this great battle between good and evil. Their mantra: “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” As things develop we find that this is more than a slogan. It becomes a way of seeing.

In the last battle the Dwarfs refuse to choose sides. Neither do they remain neutral. They become the third Army which wars with both the Narnians and the invading army from Calormen. The Dwarfs are captured by Calormen soldiers, bound and thrown through the door to the stable beyond which is thought to lay the angry Calormen god, Tash whose presence means certain death.

Later in the battle the heroes too are captured and cast into the stable. But through the stable door they find not Tash, not a filthy stable; but green grass, bright blue sky and delicious fruit on the trees. The stable door is the door into Aslan’s country. And here our heroes, the Kings and Queens of Narnia, find the Dwarfs not wandering around in wonder at the beauty of Aslan’s country. Rather,

They were sitting very close together in a little circle facing one another. They never looked round or took any notice of the humans Lucy and Tirian and were almost near enough to touch them. Then the dwarfs all cocked their heads as if they couldn’t see anyone but were listening hard and trying to guess by the sound what was happening.

“Look out!” said one of them in a surly voice. “Mind where you’re going. Don’t walk into our faces!”

“All right!” said Eustace indignantly. “We’re not blind. We’ve got eyes in our heads.”

“They must be darned good ones if you can see in here,” said the same Dwarf whose name was Diggle.

“In where?” asked Edmund.

“Why you bonehead,in here of course,” said Diggle. “In the pitch black, pokey, smelly little hole of a stable.”

“Are you blind?” said Tirian.

“Ain’t we all blind in the dark!” said Diggle.

“But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs,” said Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look around! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and flowers? Can’t you see me?”

“How in the name of all Humbug can I see what is there? And how can I see you anymore than you can see me in this pitch blackness?”

“But I can see you,” said Lucy. . . .

“Oh those poor things! This is dreadful,” said Lucy. Then she had an idea. She stooped and picked some wildflowers. “Listen Dwarf,” she said. Even if your eyes are wrong, perhaps your nose is all right: can you smell that?” She leaned across and held the fresh damp flowers to Diggle’s ugly nose. But she had to jump back quickly in order to avoid a blow from his hard little fist.

“None of that!” He shouted. “How dare you! What do you mean by shoving a lot of filthy stable litter in my face? There was a thistle in it too. . . “

Shortly hereafter Aslan comes on the scene.

“Aslan,” said Lucy. . . “could you— will you — do something for these poor Dwarfs?”

“Dearest,” said Aslan, “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the Dwarves and gave a low growl: low but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the dwarfs knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in the stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of turnip and a third said he found a raw cabbage leaf. They raised  goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a  donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” . . .

“Well at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.

“You see,” said Aslan “they will not let us help them.  They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. . . ”[1]

Lewis clearly saw that in addition to what we have been taught, we can and do choose what we believe based on fears, our reactions to disappointments and betrayal, our own group interests, or even our own self-interests.  To put it another way our reality is not based solely upon objective “truth” but also on our heart condition and commitments.  This has profound implications in every area of our lives. But in this discussion I want to focus on our theological understandings.

Theologian Michael Bauman, addressing the idea of theological paradox develops the idea of “the fortress mentality” in theology, mirroring from a bit different perspective the point Lewis has made in the section quoted above…

Theological paradox is a mirage. When we see it—or think we do—we may be assured that somewhere along the theological path we have taken at least one wrong turn. Things theological begin to look like things paradoxical only because we have led ourselves into a hall of mirrors.

We have a very good excuse for our distorted perceptions: we ourselves are distorted. (italics and bolding added) When a theologian tells me that certain theological propositions appear paradoxical to us because we operate with a fallen intellect, that theologian is right. In that light the theologian, not theology itself, leads us into the cul-de-sac. And the theologian had better get us out, or at least try. Therefore, I admire those theologians who, once they reach a dead end, back up the bus and try another route. Those theologians may find themselves in a dead end once again, or they may find the one route that leads out of the maze. That route does exist. God, at any rate, seems to have found it. While it may be that we never will, we ought to continue to try. Some theologians, however, being either unable or unwilling to pursue their quarry any further, become entrenched in paradox. They learn to tolerate unremedied paradox when unremedied paradox should be shunned. Perhaps they do so because to them the prospect of going back (perhaps even to the beginning) is too unsettling and too daunting. Rather than striking out in a new direction, or pioneering uncharted territories in search of the doctrinal Northwest Passage, they hunker down and plant settlements in comfortable valleys, having decided at last that they will never reach the sea, or even continue to try. They have forgotten that, in this case, it is better to travel hopefully and never to arrive than to settle prematurely. To that extent, then, their theological settlements are a failure of nerve. Fatigue and uncertainty have made it seem more desirable to plant roots than to look around one more doctrinal bend or to climb up and peer over one more theological hill. The spirit of pioneering thus gives way to the spirit of dogmatism.

Once a pioneer becomes a settler, he starts to build fences. Fences are soon replaced by walls and walls by forts. The pilgrimage has become a settlement, and those within the walls become suspicious of those without. Outsiders think differently, talk differently, act differently. To justify their suspicions, settlement theologians begin to think that they belong in doctrinal fortresses. They develop what I call the “Ebenezer doctrine.” “Was it not the map of God—our Bibles—that led us here?” they ask. In one sense, of course, they are right. The Bible did in fact lead them this far. But not the Bible only. (italics and bolding added) Their misreading of it is what led them into the valley of paradox. Their lack of strength and their insecurity led them to settle there and to build a fort. In despair of ever finding their way to the sea, and discouraged by the prospect of going back, they traded their theological tents for creedal tenements and their doctrinal backpacks for dogmatic bungalows. Traveling mercies were exchanged for staying mercies. That is because fortress theologians interpret the intellectual security they have erected for themselves as the blessing of God. The perceived blessing of God becomes to them the perceived will of God. “Hitherto the Lord has led us” becomes not only their reason for staying, but also for fighting. They become the victims of a besieged mentality nurtured on autointoxication. Those who settle elsewhere or not at all are perceived to militate against the truth of God. They must be stopped, the fortress dwellers believe. If the settlers had their way, none of us would reach the golden sea. Only there, on that distant shore, should we plant our flag, with an entire continent of theological exploration behind us and the ocean of infinity throwing waves at our feet. Only after we’ve seen the sun setting beyond a watery horizon, only after we’ve awoken to the smell of salt air and the sight and sound of sea otters playing on wet rocks, can we cease our theological quest. Lewis and Clark did not gain fame for quitting in St. Louis. Columbus did not turn back at the Canary Islands. Theologians who settle in the valley of paradox do not deserve acclaim.

Nor ought they to be dogmatic. Any theology that lives comfortably with paradox cannot be labeled “the whole counsel of God.” Those that advertise their systems in this way—I could cite examples—give evidence by doing so that they are settlers now, and pioneers no longer.

I believe such theological premature closure is due not only to the emotional weaknesses to which we theologians are subject as fallen people, but also to the systems of thought we adopt. Before I say anything else, I want to say that although I am aware that every theological traveler must proceed according to some method, or some system, I am wary of systems. They are necessary for controlled navigation. In that way they are good. But theological systems also tend not to accommodate the unexpected, the exceptional, and the untimely-things that can be crucial to our continued theological progress. That is, rather than facing an odd fact in all its rigid wildness, they domesticate it; they tame it; they shave it down and plant it foursquare in the middle of their mental settlement. By assimilating an odd and unruly fact in this deplorable fashion, these systems have made that fact something other than itself. Theologically speaking, one of the worst possible things that could happen has happened: the road signs have been changed to fit the route as it exists in the head of the traveler, rather than vice versa. Mental maps ought to be shaped by the landscape, not the other way round. By such “faith” some systematicians have been saying to this mountain, “Be thou removed, and be thou tossed into the sea,” and it has been done, all by divine promise, they flatter themselves to think. But such a topographical rearrangement of the theological terrain was not included in the divine intention that we should have dominion over the earth and subdue it. We ought to abandon our theological earth movers, get out our compasses once again, and rediscover magnetic north.

Fortress theologians are dangerous because they are trying to do the inadvisable, if not the impossible. They are trying to reduce the multifarious complexities of God and his universe to the truncated confines of their own mental paradigm, despite the fact that the world and its Architect resolutely resist that sort of reduction. Fortress theologians want to be mapmakers before they have truly been explorers. Nevertheless, exploration precedes cartography. Cartographers need to know the lay of the land before they try to reduce it to scale for drawing. In the same way, exegesis precedes systematics. In that light, fortress theologians offer a prefabricated structure in which to place one’s theological beliefs, but they offer no viable method whereby one could actually do good theology. Their pedagogy says that about them. So long as they reduce training in doctrine to indoctrination they shall remain, and continue to produce, fortress theologians who are unable to extend the frontiers of theological truth. In the meantime, theological endeavor suffers because we do not need more or stronger doctrinal fortresses; we need more viable theological procedures.

Put another way, I fear the theological system that has a life and mind of its own. No theological system ought to be allowed to do the work of exegesis, for example. But they do. Hard data are not explained, just explained away. (italics and bolding added) Rather than the theologian having a theology, the theology has him. Such systems, rather than being supple and pliable, become omnivorous. They do not take the shape of the data’s mold into which they ought to fit. Rather, in what looks like a feeding frenzy of cognitive dissonance, they devour every uncomfortable bit of external opposition. They beat them, grind them, and soften them until they are sufficiently palatable, and then they eat them. Theological systems, if they are not kept perpetually humble, will become incurably expansionistic. Theological systems, if not held in check, if not continually made receptive and teachable, will become imperialistic. They will colonize every fact, compatible or not, that presents itself. Left uncontrolled, they operate like cancer.

The surest sign that a theology is out of control occurs when that theological system itself becomes the theological method, which is the hallmark of fortress theology. In such cases, that system usurps many prerogatives not rightly its own. That system not only colonizes biblical exegesis, it becomes its own measure of truth. What does not fit cannot be fact. If it does not fit and fortress theologians want it to fit, they make it fit. I say it fearfully: the worst thing about such theological methods is that they are almost always implemented unwittingly. Few theologians, if any, would either admit to the practice or endorse it. Most theologians, however, if not all, do it—me included. When we do so we fail. We must not allow our theology to be turned into a hermeneutic. We have things exactly backwards when we make external reality subject to our own particular brand of theology. [2]

Bauman suggests wisely that rather than conceive of our theology as a fortress, it should be likened to a backpack (I would add coupled with a compass) to nourish and guide us on our journeys and explorations.

Our precommitments, our systems, our paradigms of understanding on the one hand give order and sense to our world, but on the other hand limit our growth and discovery of anything new, anything beyond our mental categories.  They also give us a false sense of safety and security.  This is a phenomenon that I, having  grown up in the fundamental and evangelical community, have both experienced and witnessed firsthand.

I recently read an essay by the late evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm (d. 1992) in the book How Karl Barth Changed My Mind. He too, addresses this same issue from a more personal perspective. He speaks of becoming a Christian in the latter years of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies that characterize American Protestantism during most of the first half of the 20th century. Contemporary evangelicalism arose out of fundamentalism beginning in the 1950s. But it continued to carry the baggage of fundamentalism: particularly being defensive, and protective of its received theology and suspicious of any deviation. Ramm confesses that he too held these attitudes “I did fear open-doors and open windows. It was a great temptation to live one’s theological life within the confines of a very small fort with very high walls.” (Bernard Ramm, “Helps from Karl Barth.” How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald McKim [Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998], 121.) Ramm tells us that despite this fear and defensiveness he spent the academic year of 1957 – 1958 in Basel, Switzerland listening to Karl Barth lecture. One day Barth made an offhanded comment saying that “if we truly believe that we had the truth of God in the Holy Scripture we should be fearless and opening any doors or any window in pursuit of our theological craft.”

I never had the opportunity to study under Ramm, but, one of my most respected seminary professors also spent a year studying under Barth about the same time as did Ramm. It was something that he believed he had to do, but it was also something which frightened him greatly. He was afraid that going to Basel and studying under Barth would make him a liberal. And he requested several of his fellow professors to pray for him that he would remain true to the faith even when studying from someone of a very different perspective than his own. The tradition in which he and Ramm were trained, and which I was trained was one of the “fortress mentality.” It produced an “all or nothing” mentality.  It is a mentality that breeds a spirit of conflict with those who do not agree with us on all points and discourages further exploration and discovery. This spirit of exploration and learning is I am convinced a key aspect of the theologian’s job description.  To say or imply otherwise is to imply that we have transcended our finitude and fully comprehended the not only created reality but the mind of God as well.

As I have stated elsewhere:

Theologians/explorers discover new territory and relate it to the known world. They begin with the backpack of received truth and strike out beyond the pale with a burning desire to extend their horizons in search of new knowledge. They will discover fantastic new things that have to be incorporated into their structure of reality. They may even change the world. While they remain close to home, their discoveries will generally be of the curiosity variety, the “Oh, isn’t that interesting?” type of discovery that adds color and depth to their intellectual and spiritual world. But as they venture into areas uncharted by their community, as they “boldly go where no one has gone before,” their vision of reality itself will go through radical readjustment. The old vision of what reality was cannot contain what has been discovered. This is the phenomenon of paradigm shift articulated by Thomas Kuhn in his landmark work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Explorers are going beyond the theological and ecclesiastical fortress out into the world of broader general revelation, a world their discipline and training in exegesis has often left them unprepared to meet and incorporate into their understanding of reality.

A telling example of this phenomenon was a series of articles in Christianity Today during the mid-1980s on how quantum physics was revolutionizing the concept of the nature of reality. To those with no previous exposure, the subject of the discussion was in some cases quite unnerving. The telling point here is not primarily in the articles themselves, but in the reactions that appeared in the letters to the editor in the following issues. One pastor wrote: “Mass that exists, then becomes non-existent in transit, then exists again according to our will? I don’t have to listen to this! Beam me up, Lord!” A layman complained: “How do the three articles discussing the New Physics apply to evangelical conviction? I wonder how many subscribers put their magazine down with disappointment and dismay because they lacked the knowledge and interest to cope with the far-out ideas.”

 But perhaps most disturbing was the example the author of the original article cited in his opening paragraph: “A few weeks ago an acquaintance of ours, a theologian, remarked in the course of a stimulating dinner conversation that he considered quantum mechanics the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity. In fact, he said if some of the results of this theory were really true, his own personal faith in God would be shattered.” Those responding to the new ideas reacted strongly to having their view of creation challenged with the new paradigm because, I suspect, their own faith and understanding of God himself were tied in an almost absolute way to their view of the nature of the created order, the physical world. To assent to the truth of quantum physics would be to destroy God himself. These reactions did not just come from lay people. They came from pastors and theologians as well, and therein lies the problem.[3]

 

I am convinced that in a very real sense many individuals, particularly within the fundamentalist/ evangelical tradition believe at a gut level that if they give up the absolute certainty of their beliefs that reality itself will come unglued.  To put it another way: it is our beliefs that hold reality together. If we dare to admit that even a small piece of our understanding of reality is not true, we can have no knowledge at all.

On one level we might ask, Is not this a sort of intellectual/spiritual megalomania, a substituting of my understanding of reality for reality itself? On another level it looks like an attitude grounded in deep-seated fear and insecurity.

The Enlightenment mentality, of which we are heirs, saw truth as objective and the same for all people at all times.  It denied historical contingency or the validity of multiple perspectives. As heirs of the Enlightenment we have forced reality to into two dimensional grids.  While these grids may be helpful and even a necessary starting point their very nature precludes understanding or even the validity of information that does not conform to the grid.

This perspective made certainty an idol.  However we define it, if some purported truth does not measure up to our standard of certainty the purported truth is rejected in toto.

This mentality operates on the formal theological level and is passed down to the semi-academic and the lay level. Witness the proliferation of extreme theological partisanship among wannabe theologians. The attitude here seems to be “take no prisoners.”

If we look at the gospels we see numerous instances of theological precommitments overriding evidence and causing individuals (particularly the scribes and Pharisees and other religious leaders) to reject out of hand the person of Jesus as Messiah and the message of the kingdom. Even in the face of miracles which they could not deny, they would not believe. They locked themselves in the filthy stables of their mind rather than even examining the possibility that they might have misunderstood something.

“Jesus casts out demons? It must be through the power of Satan.” “He raises the dead? Let’s kill him.”

When it comes to the ministry of the apostle Paul we see the same reactions. He comes to the Jews to their synagogues and the reaction is persecution, imprisonment, and even stoning. Reactions to his teaching incited riots. The one exception is among the Bereans. Rather than driving out the messenger, they went home and searched the Scriptures to see if Paul’s message was indeed to be found there.

For us today the issue is similar.  It involves as Bauman suggests not allowing our theological system (pre-understandings) to become our theological method.  Only in this way can we remain open to learn and grow.

 

 


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Harper Collins, 1984) 164-169. Bold and italics added.

[2] Michael C. Bauman, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 21-23. Italics and bolding added.

[3] M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 52-53

Copyright © 2007, M. James Sawyer. All rights reserved.