Four years ago, I sat in a lecture hall as a college sophomore on the first day of class feeling like a nervous wreck. The course was Biblical Exegesis – even the name sounded scary – and the class had a reputation for being the make or break course in the religion department. Moreover, the professor had a reputation for being the most austere and demanding instructor anyone could ever hope to know. We were about to meet him face to face.
The door swung open and he came in the room with poise and immaculate posture. He slammed a pile of books down on the lectern with a loud thud. And then he paced slowly to the front of the room and stared us down without talking. And the man that would later become my mentor, confidant, and friend said something I’ll never forget. At the dawn of one of the most difficult courses I’ve ever taken, he proclaimed, “I have an instruction for you. This year, don’t you dare,” he said to us dramatically – “Don’t you dare let your studies interfere with your education.”
We all blinked, double checking what we just heard. Looking back, I wish I would have taken those words more seriously.
I’m tired of learning stuff. I have a weariness in my bones from learning stuff. And I think it’s because I didn’t heed my professor’s warning. But I’ve decided that learning stuff just isn’t for me anymore.
Recently, I read two questions in a book that changed my life. They’re not complicated. They won’t make me sound smart. And they definitely wouldn’t impress any professors. But they’ve been following me around, whispering in my ear like a holy ghost:
“Knowing what you know now, what are you going to do about it?”
“Is it possible to get all A’s and still flunk life?”
These questions were written by Steven Garber in his book Visions of Vocation. I almost wish I could forget them – it would make going through grad school a lot easier. If I could forget that I read them, I could go about business as usual: I’d go to school because I have to learn stuff to get grades to get a degree to get a job to get economic stability to get a house to get a family to get…retirement? Happiness? (Some of those will be harder than others, esp. #’s 3,4,5,7, considering I go to school to be a pastor.)
Interestingly, when I think of vocation, I think of a calling that demands of me to become something – all my mind, body, and soul. Yet this calling has to operate within an educational system that just demands that I learn stuff. I don’t care what the university slogans and pretty signs say. All I’m really asked to do is learn stuff. And I’m tired of it.
Typically, as Steven Garber says, we either become stoics or cynics when we learn stuff. Of course, these are words we throw around all the time. But they are rooted in philosophical traditions that go back centuries. Quite literally, when people learn, they tend to think like the stoics – learning head knowledge about how the world operates on its own devices, and then deciding to stay distant and removed – or they think like the cynics, falling into a tradition that looks at the mass of information available, sees that everything not done out of self-interest is vanity, and then spits at the world. They’re really not all that different if you think about it.
It’s funny that before these two traditions existed, the Hebrew people had their own understanding of what happens when you learn stuff. They even had their own word for it: yada, “to know.” Yet for the Hebrew people, it’s not just about head knowledge – it’s about responsibility. When you know something, you’re responsible for what you know. You can’t just learn about the needs of the poor and remain a distant and removed stoic, thinking nothing will change. Once you know, you’re responsible. You can’t just hear about the evils of racism, human trafficking, mass incarceration, disease, etc. and become a cynic, deciding that efforts to confront evil are not in your best interest. Once you know, you’re responsible. You can’t just learn about what your calling demands of you in the world, how your skills intersect with God’s mission in the world – and then settle down comfortably. Once you know, you’re responsible. At least that’s what the Hebrews said. You can’t just learn stuff. You look at everything you’ve learned about the horrors, needs, and demands of this shattered world, and you have a responsibility – a vocation – to make a decision to love that world anyways, a love that demands your whole mind, body, and soul – not just your head. Becoming implicated in what you learn is what it means to be fully human.
Maybe that’s why school makes me feel half-human. Students all over the world are asked to use their brains to learn stuff. That’s how we’re told we will make it in the world. Of course, professors say it’s not about the grades, but rather learning – but we know what is really being asked of us is to maintain scholarships, keep academic integrity, uphold the respect of our professors, and build a competitive resumé that has twelve degrees and fifteen summer internships listed just to get a job after graduation. We’ve come to accept that we’re not being asked to take responsibility for what we know, to be implicated in what we have come to learn – we’re really being asked to accept the reality that grades are what it’s all about, that the grades we get will be in direct proportion to the amount of anxiety we’re willing to carry, and that being humans in healthy relationships has little place in the environment of higher education. If we want to make it, we’ve gotta learn stuff so that we graduate with a dual degree in stoicism and cynicism – but at least we have a job by the age of 37, just in time to take another spit at the world around us.
Knowing what you know now, what will you do?
Is it possible to get all A’s and still flunk life?
Isn’t it interesting what God does when God learns? God learned something about a group of oppressed people in Egypt. God saw, God heard. God learned stuff. But then God operates by that silly Hebrew word again, yada, knowledge with responsibility. “I’ve seen…I’ve heard… and I’m coming.” Just like that. God dove right in. God ignored every academic sensibility and dove right into the mess.
And then there’s that incarnation thing. I’ve learned stuff about the incarnation – about that time God saw all the helplessness of humankind and decided to be implicated in everything that could possibly be known about human brokenness. God learned about the world, and then took it one step further. God came down into the mess of what God learned. Christ knew the brokenness of humanity more than any human ever could.
What would the world look like if God operated under our educational models? What would it look like if God just learned stuff? What would it look like if God knew the world fully – but chose not to love it anyways?
“God knows us and still loves us. That is the heart of the incarnation.”
Garber’s quote has become a sort of mission statement for me. I’m fed up with learning stuff. My prayer is that whatever knowledge I gain will implicate me in the problems of the world, that I won’t remain a cynic or a stoic as I learn God-facts in school to get grades to get a degree to blah blah blah, but that education will become a training of mind, body, and soul to jump into the mess of the world’s problems as God works to redeem them.
I pray that my studies won’t interfere with my education.
Education will help me love the world better. Learning stuff will get me a degree. Education is a passion – and right now, a calling – that I pursue. Just learning stuff makes me feel hollow. If God just learns stuff, have we any hope at all?
This past summer, I helped with communion one Sunday morning at the church I served during my internship. A dad and his young son, about five years old, also helped serve, with the boy holding on to his dad’s belt loop. Somehow in the mix of things, the boy didn’t get served the elements. When the service was over, he came up to me alone, crying. Caught a little off guard, I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “I didn’t get the cracker and juice stuff.” I turned around and saw that the elements had already been taken back, and the preacher was headed to the next service. For a half second, I filtered through all the stuff I learned in school to discern if it would be pneumatologically/ecclesiologically (look how smart I am!) appropriate to serve the elements again. Then I decided I didn’t care. So Will took my hand, and we went back to the kitchen. I knelt down on my knees and said, “Will, this is the body of Christ broken just for you, and this is the blood of Christ shed just for you.” He said, “Thanks,” like he had just been fed an after school snack or something, and then ran off to find his dad.
You know, at age five, I don’t think Will had learned that much stuff about the sacraments before. Come to think of it, I hadn’t either, really. And somehow, despite all the stuff we hadn’t learned, God incarnate was present in the cracker and juice stuff, knowing the two of us fully and loving us anyways.
May it be so for all of us who want something more than just learning stuff.