Who are “the least of these”?

Posted August 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



Who are “the least of these”?

Martin Luther King Jr. asked this question of North Americans in one of his famous speeches in the civil rights movement. He was referring to Matthew 15 v 40.

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

The point is that, when Christians meet the needs of the poor, hungry, thirsty, marginalised and in trouble, they are ministering to Christ himself.

Now there is a tendency today to refuse to see our students as poor, thirsty, needy and in trouble. This is rightly seen as an old, “top down” view of teaching, and Henri Nouwen himself castigated teachers who see themselves as spreading a rich table of truths for the poor, needy students who come to them as empty beggars to receive. He was concerned to stress that students also come with great gifts to the teaching situation, in their own experiences of life and God.

And this is true but it is not the whole truth. Theological education is a complicated business and we need to hold a number of attitudes in tension. Eschewing the pride of the teacher which Nouwen was keen to combat, we can also say that students are needy, and our job is to meet their needs.

They need re-assurance that they do hold something valuable in the situation; they need guidance in their thinking; they need the raw material of what others have thought on the issues we are discussing; they need a good model to follow. Sometimes they get into difficulties with their faith and they need re-assurance and hope. Occasionally they need rebuke.

Then there are students with particular needs. Some struggle more than others academically, for instance, and there is a debate going on as to how far we should respond. After all, if we spend many more sessions with one student than others, are we not becoming unfair because they will all sit the same exam? Here surely pastoral responsibility must triumph over academic process (provided there is equality of opportunity to access all the help each student needs).

But the key issue before us is how we respond to what must surely be a startling truth of theological education.

Provided we relate to students as those in some way in need, which we must, then what we are doing for our students, we are doing to and for Christ himself.

How can we respond to that? With two things; with carefulness, to ensure that we do care and do act in love to our students, as Christ asks us, – and with joy. I am sure many Christians have dreamt of caring for the man of sorrows as he walked this earth. The theological educator can do this, for Jesus would say “for as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers, your students, you did it unto me”.

Now that is an encouragement with which to start the new academic year which will be, no doubt, full of “student problems”.

Lost in Space

Posted June 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Lost in Space

We all know that the physical space in which we teach can be stimulating or deadening for our students but, since Nouwen and Palmer, we now know the even greater importance of the psychological space we create by our intentions, attitudes and relationship with our students. They talked about a free and friendly space without fear but with boundaries, in which authentic encounter can take place with the teacher, with the truth, and each other.

A forum for theological educators from across South East Asia took place in Bangkok in May this year organised by a small group of concerned practitioners. It explored the matrix between learning, space and relationship and one key issue to come out of the discussions was the importance of seeing our learning and teaching taking place within a space that is fundamentally Christian. But what does that mean?

Firstly, it means that we cannot buy into the secular enlightenment university paradigm of teaching theology and biblical studies, which regards them as just a few more objective scientific enterprises which do not need faith or the Holy Spirit to succeed. We must assert that they are to be done by Christians for Christian purposes. In the words of Aquinas, they are faith seeking understanding.

Secondly, it means that we see our calling in theological education as a form of ministry, for God, to our students. Our objectives for them are as for ourselves, that they may love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and their neighbour as themselves. As such, all the great passages in the New Testament about Christian ministry become guides, challenges and encouragements to us in our work.

Thirdly, it means that we consciously create the space for encounter; for the students to encounter us teachers as fellow Christians striving, with them, to please God; with each other in real Christian community; with the fellowship of past and present scholars; and above all, with God. We teach and learn in the conscious presence of the God we talk about. We are not just looking for knowledge about God but greater knowledge of God.

Fourthly, it means that we model for our students a real engagement with society and lead them into that engagement. We do not create “locked away” Christian space that has no interface with the world, we create real “discipleship in the world” space. This means, among other things, a deep and full and free engagement with the academic enterprise of society, academia – working at its level, heeding its quality control rules, engaging with its questions and being a respected partner. Christian space is open space, not narrow space.

This does not exhaust the concept of Christian space and I would encourage readers to extend it in the comments section below.

We must now do two things. We must work out just what this means for our practice in teaching. And we must, because it is the harder and less safe option, have the courage to try to create just such a Christian space for ourselves and our students.

In the words of Captain Kirk, “to boldly go……It’s teaching, but not as we know it….”

Students that Shine

Posted May 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Students that Shine

We talk about a student “shining” in class. Do we know what that really means?

For this we must go back to what is now a common description of the task of theological education – teaching for transformation. This widespread concept has a problem; the emphasis seems to be on changing the student, that we must transform them from what they are to what they could or should be. But is that the full story?

What if we used the word transfiguration instead?

This word refers back to the time when Jesus appeared to three of the disciples, shining in his glory. But the glory was not given to him, it was what he possessed, what he was, what he would be – because that is what he is. Jesus was not transformed from one thing to another, he was transfigured. It was just that his reality was, for a few moments, allowed to shine through.  It was a display of what was there, but hidden until then.

It seems to me that this is a very important thing to say about our teaching of students. We have the task of providing the opportunity, encouragement and help for the glorious things inside the heart and mind of the student to shine out. There is plenty of talk about creating the right learning “space” for our students (not so much physical space as mental and psychological space). The objective of transfiguration says that we need to create space for our students to shine.

What sort of shining? There is no doubt that all our students will all shine one day. They will be restored by the power of the resurrection to what humanity was intended to be. Then there will be plenty of shining glory around them, plenty of dedication, plenty of clarity, plenty of creativity, plenty of sweet reasonableness – they may even be on time to lectures if lectures are still allowed in the new heaven and the new earth! All of this is there in the seed now and we want it to flower before then. We want glory before glory. To achieve that is the job of the teacher.

So, this creates a number of key questions: What is the glory already there to be displayed? How will it be different for each student? What keeps the glory from being revealed? What can the teacher do to create the space where it can be revealed?  These are vital questions but a different set of questions which arise from the transformation concept we are used to dealing with.

Now we had better come down the mountain. Sometimes the only thing shining in the lecture room is the data projector. Students are often not what we would like them to be, let alone what they really are, glorious in Christ. We need transfiguration but we also need transformation.  We have to bring something, the teachers have to cart in the glory sometimes. Students also have to become what they presently are not.

But, when all’s said and done, transformation concepts are not enough. Transfiguration is the flash of glory for a while, which we pray for and work for, and which leaves us, with Peter on the mount, longing for it to be permanent in our students.

We will have to wait for that and, meanwhile, we could do with a bit more transfiguration ourselves.

Are We Necessary?

Posted April 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Are we necessary?

Against the right expressed by the Catholic church to possess the authoritative interpretation of scripture (and therefore the right to define doctrine), the reformers asserted the right of private judgment. With William Tyndale, they wanted the boy who follows the plough to read scripture for himself and decide what it says. For that, they also had to assert the perspicuity of scripture – that the meaning of the text is clear to the ordinary Christian. Why then do we need lecturers in biblical studies and theology?  There are two frequent responses to this question.

Firstly, there is that of the cynical onlooker.

This assumes that we have decided to make things complicated in order to make ourselves indispensable. In other words, our job is all part of an enlightenment professionalism which refuses power to traditional authorities and instead creates a knowledge elite. This has power over ordinary people by being the only ones who have the knowledge and understanding that those people need but do not possess – in law, medicine and the church. It is just such a role that many in emerging churches reject today and so do not use traditional theological colleges as they otherwise could.

Secondly, there is that of the horrified historian.

This says that the Reformation, in asserting the right of private judgment and the perspicuity of scripture actually led people to see so many different truths that today, if David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopaedia is to be believed, we have over 20,000 different denominations. This view holds that even the reformers realised the consequences of their assertions and quickly put in place statements of faith to constrain the interpretation of scripture. Soon after that, some of them started killing each other for exercising the right of private judgment.

Clearly neither of these responses is adequate. Can we find a space between perspicuity and authority within which we can operate as teachers?

Parker Palmer says some useful things about this. “A learning space has three major characteristics, three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries and an air of hospitality”[1]and “The teacher is a mediator between the knower and the known, between the learner and the subject to be learnt.”[2] We can say that it is the learner’s job to learn and she can do it. In that respect, we hold to perspicuity. Yet it is also a task that should not be done alone. It should only be done “together with”.[3]

Firstly, it is done together with the Church – that has been doing it for a long time now and in many different cultures and situations. A hermeneutical community of one walking behind a plough reading the New Testament is in an un-necessarily weak situation.

Secondly, it is done together with an informed guide who, in the categories of Palmer, encourages openness, sets boundaries of speculation and creates a hospitable space where the work can be done together. Such a guide makes available the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church over two thousand years and among as many cultures, and creates the learning space which makes the work of the student possible and joyful.

That is our necessary task.

[1] Parker Palmer, To Know as we are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p71.

[2] Ibid. p29.

[3] Ephesians 3v18.

Call the Midwife

Posted March 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Call the midwife

Every job has its occupational hazards and one such hazard for lecturers is thinking too much of ourselves. We stand in front of people day in and day out. They listen to us (well most of the time). We can require things of them. We have letters after our name. And we are very useful – how would students learn without us?

Many of the models we use to describe our work feed this attitude. Teacher, example, guide, leader. Maybe what we need is a model which puts us in our place.

Rosemary Guenther writing about spiritual direction uses the model of midwife. Apply this to our job and immediately we are in a different atmosphere. The midwife does not give birth to something new, the midwife is not the focus of attention nor is she as important as the one giving birth.

Of course, she has seen it all before. Hopefully she also has given birth, and here she is now, standing by to help this wonderful process take place safely and well in another person.

The birth of new understanding, new relationship with God, new abilities to serve, will happen not in you the teacher but in the student. You can be a great help in these processes of giving birth. Your enthusiastic presentation of the concepts involved, your very person as an exhibit of what the students would love to be – academically, spiritually and in ministry – is often greatly used by God in their formation. But it will happen in them.

And, fundamentally, it will happen not because of what you do in the classroom but because of what the Holy Spirit does in the mind and heart (although, thank God, the two are sometimes linked by His grace).

I don’t know whether Mary had a midwife, but if she was around when the angel came to Mary, perhaps the angel would have said to the midwife also “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost – but thanks for helping”.

Don’t tell your students the truth

Posted February 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Don’t tell your students the truth

Let me say at the beginning that keeping the truth from your students is a good idea. Students don’t deserve the truth just by registering for the course. Some sit there in front of you thinking that they do; that they have spent good money to buy the truth and now you should deliver; that your job is to give them the product they have purchased.

But if they want truth, you should make them work for it. Teaching theology is not just saying things that are true. It is helping students see and experience the truth for themselves. You are not there to convey them up the mountain on the ski  lift of your lecture but to help them climb the mountain for themselves, with you beside them and holding the rope.

Or, to put it another way, you are not a rich kind uncle, but a poor cunning educator. You are helping them with a process not giving them presents. The earlier in a lecture you give them the truth as a present, the less of the educative process you are able to conduct.

And sometimes the best way to the truth is through what is not true, so why not sit on the edge of the desk, look them in the eye and show them the power of the arguments for the wrong position? Lead them up the garden path and, when it is clear that all they have arrived at is the compost heap, guide them back and show them the right way forward.

Now, I know that there is a role of truth telling in theological education. Truth has been entrusted to us and we have to be faithful stewards of that truth. But students also have been entrusted to us and we must attend to their development into thoughtful theologians and Christians as well as filling their back packs with the golden bricks of theology. We do them no favours for the future unless we show them that there will be a difficult theological task to be done throughout their ministries – enabling the Word of God to speak into the complicated and varied situations they encounter, thoughtfully and with power. And it would be good to get into the habit of thinking deeply about it now.

This has relevance, not just for future ministry, but also for the classroom situation in the present. If you want your lectures to be “interesting”, it will not be enough to show lots of funny, pretty pictures on the screen. You will have to lead your students into the dangerous dark wood of ideas. Or to use yet another metaphor in this already ridiculously metaphor-laden article, you are the ship pilot whose job is to take them out into the storm before you lead them into the harbour – since that is the best way for them to understand the harbour. Now that is interesting, and a lot of fun for both sides of the desk.

But there again, maybe much that is in this little article is not true, just an example of what we are talking about.

Kissing and theological education

Posted December 31, 2012 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Kissing and theological education

At first sight, these two pleasurable activities do not seem to have anything in common so let me say first what I am not trying to say. The management mantra KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is of little use when you try to apply it to such a complicated task as theological education, except in a very reductionist way. Nor do I wish to fall into the contemporary trap of using sentimental or even romantic language to describe our relationship with God. So, what do I mean?

The Poet Robert Bridges speaks of a kiss as “passion with peace” – and anyone who has had a loved one in their arms knows exactly what he means when he talks of this strange combination of feelings.

Not that we encounter either of these, that often, in the classroom. However together, just as they best describe a good kiss, so they also describe good teaching. Am I pressing the analogy too far? Maybe a little tongue-in-cheek? I don’t think so. They are the two things students recognise quickly and to which they most enthusiastically respond.

Passion for the subject is well documented as a key component of teaching which produces good learning. It makes possible, even inevitable, the interest of the class. And almost always some of the passion for the subject rubs off on the students.

Peace? Yes, certainly. It is the sense that you, the teacher, are there where you should be, at peace with yourself and the students – that you don’t fear the students or their questions but you are peacefully open them. Even that you are having a good time. This is a key pre-condition for student engagement and enjoyment.

If I was to give two fundamental reasons why teaching doesn’t work, they would be a lack of passion for the subject and a lack of peace in the teacher.

Now, all this is a far cry from the crude measurement of the feedback forms we usually use at the end of a module. These assess the quality of our notes, our timekeeping, how comprehensively we cover the subject, our use of visual aids (even if they are more of an impediment than of use) and so on. They generally miss all the important things which make teaching outstanding – a bit like a kiss reported on afterwards using a feedback form!

In this new year of 2013, maybe we can all look for more “passion with peace” in our lives as well as our teaching.


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