Farewell speech: what I have learned about learning
8 November 2017 | 9:48 pm

They had a farewell service for me in Sydney yesterday and I gave this short departing speech.

I came here for a job and what I got was a vocation.

When I arrived at the college nine years ago I was new to teaching. That is hard for me to imagine now. I cannot form any picture of what kind of person I would be if I was not a teacher. The discovery of a vocation to teach has been one of the great events of my life. It has become so ingrained in my identity that if you asked me why I teach I would not know how to answer. I would say that I teach because of who I am. I teach because I am alive. I teach because the things I value most in this world are all bound up with that amazing thing that happens in the classroom.

What is the classroom? It’s a place where people come together and start to learn something. Then, sometimes, they start to love what they are learning, and they are changed by that love.

Really the teacher is a kind of midwife to love. I can’t force anybody to love the doctrine of the Trinity. All I can do is help students to take a look at that doctrine for themselves. I can challenge some of their prejudices and assumptions. I can question some of their hasty conclusions. I can help them to slow down a bit, just long enough to pay attention. If they give this doctrine their attention, if they really start to look at it, then sometimes their hearts will respond spontaneously. They might start to love what they see, and then to look even more closely, and to love even more.

When this happens – when learning gives rise to love – it can be so unexpected that the teacher is more amazed than anyone. Where does that love come from?

It’s not something that can be taught. It’s not a technical skill. I can’t show you how to love something. I can remove certain obstacles. I can encourage you. I can cheer you on when I think you’re looking in the right direction. But when you see something for yourself and start to love it just because it’s there: that’s not something any teacher can impart. So where does it come from?

Some of the church’s great thinkers have puzzled over this. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine: they reached the conclusion that the only real teacher is Christ. Every time the light bulb goes on in a student’s mind, that light is Christ, the Logos “that enlightens everyone who comes into the world” (John 1:9). To open yourself to any part of reality is always to open yourself, in some measure, to the Logos. Whenever you really start to pay attention to something, to understand something and to love it just because it’s there, you are in some way inclining your heart towards Christ.

That might seem a bit overblown as an explanation of how learning happens. But you have to admire those ancient thinkers for taking learning so seriously, and for being so awed by its mystery, that they were willing to conjure up a whole theory of creation just to explain what’s going on in the classroom.

Learning – real learning – is a kind of miracle. It is a gentle, delicate, interior process by which the soul comes into contact with something beyond itself and reaches out to it in love.

That doesn’t happen every time students shuffle into the classroom at 9.30 on a Friday morning. But it does happen. I know it happens because I have witnessed it. I have seen it: right here in these classrooms, time and again, over nine years of my life. It is why I love the classroom. It is why this community, a theological college, is sacred to me. It is why the teacher-student relationship is, to me, more holy than any church or temple.

We often say that theology is meant to serve the church. I have said it myself. But since I’m leaving I can tell you the truth: I don’t believe it. If theology serves the church, then it is a means to an end. But when you consider what learning is – real learning – how could it ever be a means to an end? That’s like saying that love and joy and life are means to an end. Would you say that joy serves the church? Or that life serves the church?

Sure, theological learning enriches the church; it supports the church; it challenges the church. Those are its wholesome by-products. But they are not the reasons for learning. They are not what it is for. Learning is a way of being alive. It doesn’t serve the church or the church’s mission. It serves the human heart and the glory of God.

Anyway, that is how I have come to understand my vocation and the vocation of this college. For sharing all this with me, as students and colleagues and friends, I say: thank you.

Melancholy lines upon the death of a dog
30 October 2017 | 6:56 pm

No dog lives forever but I hoped he would be the first. Kola, my Labrador. Kola, my trusted friend and confidant these 7 years. Kola who has seen my children grow, almost since they were babies, and has loved them every minute. Kola, the glory of his breed and the friendliest member of his household. Kola, bone-chewer, ball-chaser, beach-swimmer, humper of male dogs and feared destroyer of several chickens.

He was named after a teddy bear that my son had when he was two years old. The bear had come all the way from China with a tag that bore the name of Kola. I don’t know why they called it that. Maybe they were trying to spell Koala. My son loved that bear, it slept beside him and he dragged it around in the dirt wherever he went. He must have imagined that getting a dog was the same kind of thing as having a teddy bear. So the day the puppy came bounding into our lives – the first pet we ever had – my little son declared that the dog’s name henceforth would be Kola. And that is what we called him.

We soon learned that a dog is even better than a teddy bear. Because a dog is not a thing. He is not a person either, I understand that, but he dwells somewhere in the borderlands of personhood. Anyone who doubts that animals have souls has never reckoned with a Labrador. Whether the dog brings his soul with him into the world or acquires it through constant communion with the human soul is a moot point. At any rate the dog is more susceptible to humanisation than any other animal. He feels joy and doubt and affection and cunning and anticipation and contentment and shame – what human ever felt more?

The creature of whom I speak used to sneak under the covers of my son’s bed and lie there on the forbidden mattress, a huge Labrador-sized lump under the covers beside a sleeping boy, hardly daring to breathe in case I found him and banished him to the unwelcoming floor.

Once when I had taken him to the beach he saw me body-surfing and was seized by a sudden terror for my life. He snatched the leash up in his mouth – I had left it lying on the sand – and plunged into the waves and swam out to me, whimpering horribly until I consented to take the leash in my hand, whereupon he turned and swam to shore, pulling me behind him. I thanked him for rescuing me, it was a considerate gesture, and I informed him that I would now continue swimming. But he – he who loved beaches and knew them so well – was very distrustful of the waves that day and sulked mightily when I tried to get back in the water. So I trusted his instincts and lay down on the sand instead and he laid his wet head upon me in satisfaction. And I never drowned that day, so maybe he was right. Who knows how much a dog knows?

Once, when I had left a carton of eggs on the kitchen table, he crept into the room and climbed up on the chair and somehow got the carton open and removed the little unfertilised parcels one by one without cracking the shells or making any mess. One by one he smuggled the eggs outside. I saw the carton right where I had left it on the table and saw that it was empty. I searched the premises and eventually found the crime scene: a black dog, looking rather bloated, lying in an orgy of eggshells in the back yard, licking his dripping whiskers in mournful self-reproach. “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”: Shakespeare must have been thinking of Kola and the eggshells when he wrote those words.

Today he died.

He left our lives almost as suddenly as he had arrived. They said it was a cancer of the spleen, it happens sometimes they said, the invisible malignant growth advancing secretly and one day bursting and then, before you can say fetch, the Joy of Nature is lying very still and watching you with infinitely patient eyes and telling you in little whimpers that he is sorry but he cannot get up, not today, that he does not feel like playing anymore, that he will not be needing breakfast, not today, not ever again, that you should go along to the park without him and let him lie there in the shade a while with the ants and beetles creeping all around him.

By the time we got him to the vet he was nearly dead. We gathered round him, my children and me, and whispered our sweet nothings in his floppy ears and caressed his good kind face and anointed his gentle paws with our tears.

We did not lie to him. That’s not how we do things around here. We did not tell him everything would be all right. We told him that we loved him and he was dying and we would never see his face again and we would never forget him. He had walked his last walk, he had chewed his last bone, he had fetched his last slobber-filthy tennis ball. He looked me in the eyes and trusted me completely, in dying as in life. He had never died before but he knew I’d get him through it.

Apart from dying, it had been one of the great weeks of his life. For it was only a few days ago that he, Kola, the somewhat fat and lumbering Labrador, caught a young rabbit that had been grazing on the lawn. A hundred years of selective breeding came good at last. He caught it. He brought the rabbit to me. He nursed it in his mouth as gently as an unbroken egg. It hung from his jaws, alive and apprehensive, the two long bunny-ears twitching in dismay. He stood before me: Kola, catcher of rabbits. He laid the bunny at my feet as worshipfully as the Magi bringing gifts. His eyes burned with a holy pride. I paused from washing the dishes and looked at him and told him to take the goddamn thing outside this minute: which he gladly did, and with all ceremony.

I think of him now with that rabbit and I thank God for it. I am glad the dear boy finally got a little taste of heaven before he left this world. He had caught chickens before but that was years ago and it was only practice. The real thing, as everybody knows, is Rabbit. The prophet says that in the world to come “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). If that is true, then even as you read these tear-stained lines you must picture Kola curled up with his big face resting on his paws, lazy as ever, sleeping like a dog beside the tender and ever-living rabbit in that peaceable kingdom where cancers never grow, only joys, where all the leashes are lost, and where every hour of the day is breakfast time.


Leaving Sydney
17 October 2017 | 2:23 am

After nine years in Sydney I have taught my last classes and said my prayers and am moving on.

There comes a time in a man’s life when what he really wants is to be able to teach Plato and Shakespeare as well as Calvin and Augustine. That time has come for me. So I’ve accepted a job at the Millis Institute, a liberal arts program of CHC in Brisbane. My job will be to direct the various liberal arts degree programs as well as to teach in philosophy, theology, and literature. The classes there involve no lectures and no textbooks. Each class is a Socratic-style discussion of primary sources. That, reader, is my true love and forte, and it’s the same approach that I’ve tried to bring to theological education in Sydney. The first thing I did when I got off the plane in Sydney nine years ago was to abolish all textbooks and to replace them with primary sources. Then I unpacked my bags.

Some of my happiest memories here are of the books that I’ve been able to read and discuss with my students. When I cast my mind back over the years I am astounded at the number of these books, and even more astounded that SVS Press has never paid me a commission for forcing so many students to buy them. The ones I can recall using as class texts include:
  • Melito of Sardis, On Pascha
  • Athanagoras, Resurrection of the Dead
  • Irenaeus, Against the Heresies (books 1 and 3)
  • Tertullian, Against Hermogenes
  • Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator (selections)
  • Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks
  • Origen, Commentary on John (books 1-10)
  • Origen, On Prayer
  • Origen, Exhortation to Martyrdom
  • Origen, On Pascha
  • Origen, Commentary & Homilies on the Song of Songs
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, Spirit and Fire (Origen anthology)
  • Athanasius, On the Incarnation
  • Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus (on the Psalms)
  • Didymus the Blind, On the Holy Spirit
  • Basil, On Social Justice (selection of homilies in the SVS Popular Patristics series)
  • Basil, On the Human Condition (ditto)
  • Basil, On Fasting and Feasts (ditto)
  • Basil, On the Holy Spirit
  • Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations
  • Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations (selection of homilies the SVS Popular Patristics)
  • John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life (ditto)
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Augustine, The Trinity
  • Augustine, City of God
  • Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (a few tiny selections)
  • Julian of Norwich, Revelations
  • Calvin, Institutes (in Elsie McKee’s translation of the 1541 French edition: with this edition available, no teacher can be forgiven for asking students to read so much as a page of Beveridge or McNeill)
  • Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans
  • Karl Barth, The Word of God and Theology
  • Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, §59.1
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
  • H. Richard Niebuhr, Responsibility of the Church for Society (selections)
  • James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power
  • Jürgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom
  • Jürgen Moltmann, Spirit and Life
  • Tom Smail, The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person
  • Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life
  • Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology
  • James H. Evans, We Have Been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology
  • Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament
  • Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology
  • Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions (selections)
  • Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity
  • Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture
  • Mark McIntosh, Mystical Theology (selections)
  • Mark McIntosh, Discernment and Truth (selections)
  • Mark McIntosh, Divine Teaching
  • Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit
  • Eugene Rogers, The Holy Spirit (anthology of sources)
  • Ian McFarland, Creation and Humanity (ditto)
  • Alister McGrath, Christian Theology Reader (ditto)
  • Sam Wells, Christian Ethics (ditto)
  • Ford, Higton, Zahl, Modern Theologians Reader (ditto)
  • Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church
  • Frances Young, God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity
  • Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology
  • Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology volume 1 (selections)
I have loved these books – most of them anyway – and have loved to see the effect they have on my students. There are books that amazed me with their power to provoke meaningful disagreement and rich discussion. In this respect Augustine’s Confessions towers over all other Christian books that I have tried. That makes the Confessions a uniquely valuable thing to have in a classroom.

There are other books that I rejected after trying them once in the classroom because they seemed only to mirror back what students already thought (or worse: felt), and therefore provoked no debate and no real learning. In my experience Moltmann’s books are especially egregious for classroom use: though I admit that a different (more conservative?) student demographic might respond quite differently to Moltmann. The main rule is to avoid those books that leave a student nodding in agreement and saying: Ah yes, it’s just as I thought.

Other books have moved me deeply by their power to teach. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation and Calvin’s Institutes are, for me, the highlights in this regard. These great books seem first to alienate students by plunging them into a totally different world and a totally different way of thinking about life. I have never met a student who appreciated anything about Calvin in the first two weeks of reading him. But then, by slow degrees, these books seem to take matters into their own hands and to teach students how to read them. Without ever having to dismiss their prior understanding of the faith, students begin to integrate their own view with the wider vision of the text. They find language and concepts to describe things that before they had only dimly intuited. By a mysterious act of spiritual recognition, it dawns on me that what Calvin is talking about is my faith. Once I have had that epiphany, even my disagreements with Calvin will be meaningful disagreements based on shared commitments, very different from the arbitrary and trivial disagreements of strangers. I always feel that students have begun to think theologically – that they have become theologians – when for the first time they are able to articulate a meaningful disagreement of this kind.

So that is what I will miss the most about Sydney: these many books and the many students who have read them with me. And it’s what I’m looking forward to the most in Brisbane: more books and more of God’s friends to share them with.


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