Seeing and Teaching
by Guest Author, Edmund Miller
The Gospel of John tells the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who goes out at night to find and to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can work the signs that you work unless God is with him”(3:2). Jesus’s answer seems to come out of nowhere, with no direct relation to Nicodemus’s statement: “Amen, amen I say to you, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus affirms Jesus as a great teacher, then Jesus responds with vague references to seeing and being born…. What’s going on? When the reader, however, plugs in the setting of the narrative, a pattern begins to emerge: Nicodemus comes out at night, meaning, simply, that he is in the dark. We then recognize that he is still in the dark about who Jesus is. A teacher from God is a good thing (I wish someone could say that about me!), but it’s a long way from being God himself—which, of course, is the nature of the one he has come out to visit. Nicodemus’s problem, then, is that he doesn’t see. While he thinks he has come to see a great teacher, he actually looks upon—but does not see–the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus should not be blamed too harshly for his failure. There are layers of seeing involved in almost everything we meet in the course of our days, layers through which very few of us pierce. At the other side of the table at which I now sit, for example, there is a wooden chair. That is what I see at the first level. Looking farther, I see that it is an older chair, made probably in the 1940’s. Then I see the metal rods that pass from leg to leg—structural support added to the chair when it began to age, added to the chair some 3o years ago by a Saturday afternoon handyman. Now a little story is beginning to evolve; it is still a chair, but more than a chair, something with a history, something that has been valued and protected.
On a more academic level, the study of a poem illustrates the same process. At first we see words, arranged perhaps in a somewhat peculiar pattern, under the title “On the Silence of Live Oaks.” Some, perhaps, would never see anything more. Others might notice that the poem’s words are arranged in a single stanza, a stanza thicker and longer than most. The poem’s shape, apparently, imitates the poem’s subject. As the reader further recognizes elements of sound, rhythm, and image, layer after layer unfolds; he sees more and more of the poem.
If, though, one cannot penetrate beyond the first, most obvious level of either chair or poem, each remains fundamentally valueless. The chair is old; throw it out. The poem is obscure, containing no practical information; dismiss it.
We can’t blame those who fail to see past the level of “old chair” or “useless, obscure poem.” It’s not their fault. A seventh grade teacher recently decided to reward her students with a movie, one that could not fail to capture the attention of otherwise restless boys: The Return of the King. Half-way through the movie, in dismay she said to me, “They won’t be quiet! Not even for The Lord of the Rings!” Well, they’ve seen the movie before, you think. Yes, they have. Still, there is always some detail of background or dialogue that one missed before, provided one has the ability to focus and find those details. However, not only do many students lack that ability, actually they have been trained to lack that ability. I stood at my kitchen window a few days ago watching a group of teenage boys in my backyard standing around a fire. Roasting marshmallows? No. Staring at the flames? No. Poking the fire, or maybe twirling smoking sticks in the air? No. Three of the boys held cell phones; two were texting while the third was taking video clips. A fourth boy, with little wires coming out of his ears, held an i-pod and was doing some kind of semi-obscene dance. Technology, sold to the world as a means of conquering the space and time dividing most people, has in truth intruded itself into human communication. It has given us high speeds growing daily higher, graphics more distinct and colorful than nature herself, images which move with an alacrity foreign to those subject to gravity, and sounds which claim to “surround” but actually bombard. We don’t look out the window anymore when we ride down the road; we stare at the screen. We don’t pay attention to Professor Humdrum; we stare at the screen. Now even when we check out or pull up to the pump, we stare at the screen. Of course, to keep our attention, the screens must move faster, and faster, and faster….
With all the staring, we are not doing much seeing. The staring occurs where the sensory impact is most immediate and seducing. The seeing, however, involves a process of penetrating beyond what, usually, is an unremarkable exterior. Perhaps that exterior is an old chair, a single stanza poem, or a quiet, faded painting. But does it matter, I wonder, if high impact media really does damage the ability to penetrate, the ability to see? After all, the world lives at the high impact level; and in those circumstances where the processes remain rather slow and deliberate—the day to day educational process, for example—the brain can be chemically altered in order to temporarily assist its focusing. If the primary aim were merely to accommodate the brain in assimilating some history facts and geometric proofs, then I suppose we could go ahead and dose up. But by failing to teach students how to penetrate, how to see, will they—like Nicodemus–fail to see the kingdom of heaven?
Nicodemus failed to see the kingdom of heaven when he did not recognize the divine nature of the man to whom he spoke. If we believe the story of that man, we believe that his coming was an invitation for all of us to participate in that same divine nature. The invitation itself marks us as holy, set apart (“the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist”). Failing to see the kingdom of heaven, then, means that we fail to see it in each other. Is the failure to see the holiness of another person significantly different from the failure to see the rich layers of a 14 line poem? I think not. In both cases one reaches certain conclusions based not just on what is immediately apparent, but on a trust in the evidence of established patterns. In the case of the poem, any poem, the reader assembles what he has observed of shape, rhyme scheme, metrics, images, sounds—and putting together those elements, he sees a pattern. When we come face to face with another person, though, perhaps our seeing fails to penetrate beyond the immediate: this is a mechanic, a barber, a bum, a fetus, a hoodlum. In other words, we don’t see beyond the person’s role in time. How often can we say of the other person, or more to the point, how often can we act towards the other person as to affirm his call by God and his role in God’s plan of salvation? If the seeing of another person is boundaried by the inability to look beyond time and time’s pattern of cause and effect, our judgment of the person will likewise be boundaried by considerations of his power to affect the chain of cause and affect. More simply, he will be judged according to what he can do. One who is judged according to his membership in the kingdom of heaven, however, is considered in relation to his place in a pattern already established, a beauty already realized. He is judged, then, according to what he is.
According to the origins of the word education (e ducere: “to lead out”), the purpose of education is to lead us beyond the boundaries of temporal cause and effect. While the objectives of most current educational processes stop with the acquisition of data, information, graphs and numbers, this acquisition is supposed to be only the beginning. The proper educational process connects the dots, shows us patterns, which link out to ever broader patterns, until one’s vision becomes dimly like what God’s must be. This is not a business of mysticism and private subjectivism. It begins with simple procedures like showing the connection between the subject of a sentence and the consistent verb form; or between the verb and the case form of the personal pronoun. Next it might teach the connection between something called the topic sentence and the other sentences within the same paragraph; and from there, the connection between the paragraphs and the topic of the essay. In other academic areas, the study of choral music demonstrates how three, four, sometimes six contrasting vocal lines blend to create a single melodic impression. History, if taught well, should be a story; students should be able to see how the dates and facts participate in larger historical themes and trends. And mathematics, most simply, is the art of putting numbers in relation to each other.
To carry the process of “putting together” a step further, students should recognize with ever-increasing clarity how the disciplines themselves contribute to each other. History requires a good sense of narrative. Written composition requires a sense of number and an ear well attuned to rhythm and sound. A study of religion and the Bible, even, calls for a developed literary sensitivity by which to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical. So, at first the connections are made within each discipline; then among the disciplines; then perhaps the student is ready to ponder the patterns of his own nature and place his own existence in relation to the patterns of history, nature, language, music, and finally the patterns of God himself.
Forming the patterns and seeing deep within the layers of existence is the essence of faith. The degree to which one sees is the same degree to which one has faith. The Samaritan woman at the well illustrates how the vision of faith progressively widens. As in his dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus immediately identifies the woman’s stumbling block as a lack of vision: “if only you recognized God’s gift, and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him instead….” The Samaritan woman demonstrates that she is caught on the level of the immediate, the obvious, when she asks Jesus how he will provide water without a bucket. Then, after Jesus reveals the truth about her marital life, her vision steps to the next level: “Sir, I can see you are a prophet.” Finally, after Jesus reveals to her the patterns of salvation history (“salvation is from the Jews”), she and the whole town are ready to accept that “this really is the savior of the world.”
Again, though, to see the divinity of Jesus is to see the divinity of man, whose nature he adopted. Human life is sacred, we say. The human person has an inate dignity independent of his “potential” or productive power. Therefore, from the moment of conception, his moral dignity is equal to that of any other person. Fine. But what about those who cannot see that dignity? What about those who know full well that the eighty-four year-old alzheimer’s patient sitting in the corner is a human life, but who fail to acknowledge the patient’s ontological worth? What about the man or woman entering the abortuary who has already seen an ultrasound image of his child, who admits that child is a human being about to be killed, but who simply doesn’t see why the child can’t be killed?
I am not describing a theoretical situation here. I am describing what I have seen and heard multiple times in front of abortuaries. As the years roll by (22 years now in front of abortuaries), I am finding more and more parents who are willing to admit that they intend to kill a child, simply because they want to and they can. Of course I have met the other kind of parent, too, the one who is affected by the image of the eight or ten week-old child, the one for whom the ultrasound image awakens a love temporarily shrouded by fear. Generally, though, the abortion ethic is not promoted by the ignorant. It is promoted by those who know. It is promoted by those who believe that power is greater than being, that potential outweighs essence. It is promoted by those dazzled by a flashy display, and who in turn attempt to impress with a high sounding rhetoric impossible to pin down and logically corrupt. For those who promote the sanctity of life, accuracy, images and knowledge are important. Yet they are not enough. Ultimately, to look upon the face of a uterine child and to affirm his place in the kingdom of heaven requires faith. We are being pushed to the point at which our enemies will say, “We know it’s a human being. So what?” And we will teach our children the correct facts and dogma, and we will warn them to stay away from certain sites on the web—perhaps we will even restrict their computer time; meanwhile, the portable DVD players, i-pods and cell phones multiply. And even with all the proper information and teachings, perhaps our children still will not see.
Edmund Miller, a graduate from Marquette University with a Master’s in American Literature, presently teaches at Spiritus Sanctus Academy, operated by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, MI. He also is co-founder and president of Guadalupe Workers, a sidewalk counseling ministry operating in the heart of Detroit. He has been consistently active in the prolife movement, primarily as a sidewalk counselor, since 1987. He is married to Monica, a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology and director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society. They have three adult children, Bernadette, Patrick and Joseph.
This article, Seeing and Teaching is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.