On learning

A few weeks ago in a teachers training, we read the first few paragraphs of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.”  In it, Nietzsche outlines the bleak philosophy (Nietzsche, bleak?!) that all (human) knowing is but prideful deception.  As is my typical reaction to such existentialism (and which tapped into my fears that my life spent as a graduate student has been little but frivolity), I sensed a dark cloud hovering.

But as I’ve ruminated on the depth of Nietzsche’s claims these past few weeks, I’ve realized with deep refreshment, that while perhaps knowing often goes hand in hand with self-deception, learning can remain a joyful, humbling pursuit.  

Over those next few weeks of teacher training, which I had dreaded for their presumed repetitiveness and monotony, instead, I discovered how much I was learning from my peers about both teaching writing and my own writing process.  Diving back into my dissertation project and having others read and respond to my work has positioned me not merely in the realm of expert but also budding novice.  Finally, in composing a sermon this past week, in which I imagined reading the story of the Good Samaritan from the perspective of the wounded man rather than the thoughtful Samaritan, I was reminded that seeking to serve others often begins with listening, receiving, and learning.

The D&R canal in the summer.  My photo.
The D&R canal in the summer. My photo.

I remember in college, when I took an elaborate spiritual gifts inventory, how surprised and rather deflated I was to find one of my top gifts listed as curiosity.  Is that really a spiritual gift, I mused?  What good is curiosity about others and about the world to God?  Many years later, after pursuing higher education for nearly fourteen years, I often wonder the same thing.  I worry that the career of a graduate student, at which I have spent almost the last decade of my young life, is not an exercise in self-deception, futility, or frivolity.

But when I think on what fascinates me about the world, what drives my curiosity, and that is not a deep understanding or knowing, but a desire to know and understand, I consider that anthropology might just be my calling.  When I recall that being in the position of graduate student, one is always in pursuit of knowledge, but never quite the apprehender, the expert, or the master of that knowledge, I relish the deep passion and humility one must have for apprenticeship and learning to be a student.  And when I remember that all ministry begins from a place of common humanity, and how much I learn day in and day out from others, I feel quite at home.

I realize how blessed I have been to be able to be a diligent student of ministry and anthropology all these years, and how essential it is that when I step into those roles of preacher and teacher that I do so with the heart of a student.  God is always teaching, and we are always learning.  It’s when we become certain of our knowledge and prideful of that fact that life, as Nietzsche warns, and we, become a tangle of twisted lies.

May we always be curious, may we always be humble, may we always be eager to hear the voice of God in those around us.  May we be life-long students who never tire of the mysteries of God and life and the joys of learning.  Amen.

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