Exploring a Rule of Life 3: Learn

A Sermon Preached by Leslie Spatt on the Third Sunday of Lent

24th March 2019

How do we learn and what do we do with it?

(Rule of Life: Learn)

I wonder how much any of us remember from all the stuff we learned at school? And if we don’t remember a great deal of the information we struggled with, in order to repeat it back on exams over the years, what was the point of spending so much time learning it ? When we learn something what do we do with it? File it on the brain tape as something to add to our stored knowledge accumulation, a collection of assorted facts and figures that we memorise in order to pass exams – or impress people at pub quizzes– or do we take what we’ve learned and decide how it can be used, put into action. The action might be called a career, or a vocation, or a mission.

I really like the Book of Common Prayer Collect for the second Sunday in Advent which says, “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” …because this says something important. We hear, we read, take note, hopefully learn – but then we are supposed to “inwardly digest”. I think that means deciding what to do with the words we’ve heard, read, etc. And not just scripture!

The imagery of digestion is helpful, because digestion is processing material in order to break it down into usable components. Just as things like vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrate contained in our food get turned into energy, or building blocks of tissue repair or growth, digesting information is mulling it over in our minds, making judgements about what it means, filtering the raw learning into what might –or might not – feed us and help us to focus or inform what we do.

But a very basic question is: how do we learn? From reading, by being taught, or discussing it with others?  By being shown something, or trying things out hands-on for ourselves?

Well – we can learn a lot from reading. Once we can read, it’s an activity which isn’t limited to a time and place, doesn’t need other people to be able to do it, and gives us opportunities to cover a huge range of topics. However – a big “however” – when it comes to learning about our faith, there can be genuine problems. In the Acts reading we have an encounter between Philip and the eunuch – this important man having considerable authority – who is reading Isaiah and wondering what it means. Not just “what the Scriptures say” but “what does it mean.” Philip asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’

This is where we can easily get into areas where, if we’re reading on our own we just have no way of knowing if we’re getting the real meaning out of something or if it’s being filtered through our own existing predispositions or prejudices. And especially when it comes to religious writing, there’s a choice of authors who may present their own subjective views about theological interpretation. For example, unless we’re prepared to take the Bible as literally true and error free, interpretation is crucial. Even before getting to the question of translations, the problem with a literally-true belief is that the Bible contradicts itself so often that nobody really knows what to believe is “the truth”. We can’t pick and choose what to accept as literally true, it all has to be “true” or it’s all open to question. And what do we do about things of faith which can’t be found in the Bible? Who decides what is right or wrong? How do we learn if there even is a totally right or totally wrong?

We also learn by being taught. Before literacy was widespread, the only source of knowledge about the bible and Christian faith was the Church and its designated teachers. There was a huge controversy when Scripture became available to a much wider audience in the language of the people and more people could read. Should ordinary Christians even be allowed to read the Bible on their own, with nobody in authority there to tell them what to believe? Henry VIII decreed that an English Bible was to be placed in every church; but then quickly restricted who should be allowed to read it. After all, it wouldn’t do to have the uneducated common folk  – especially women! – having access to the bible to find out for themselves what it said. Were people entitled to decide for themselves what the words meant? They might challenge the Church’s interpretation!

Teachers were essential if believers were to be prevented from following what the Church decided were incorrect pathways or coming up with ideas which were positively dangerous to the Church’s authority and control. Back to Philip and the eunuch –  Who will do the guiding? Who can provide the real meaning? The need for a teacher and interpreter assumes that the one teaching, the guide, is knowledgeable and reasonably objective. And especially in a setting involving religion – where there are precious few provable facts and an awful lot of sometimes very prejudiced opinion – having the best guide possible is vitally important to learning. What’s taught to vulnerable children and enquirers about God, Jesus, the Christian faith and the bible can either inspire, put them off, or at worst, scar them for life.

Learning with others can be a great help. Many people do respond well to dialogue, puzzling out meanings together. It’s certainly one of the very valuable aspects of house groups and small gatherings, where an atmosphere of mutual trust enables people to read, hear or see something and then ask difficult or awkward questions; and knowing that they’re not going to be thought silly or stupid if they offer an answer or opinion that others disagree with. Everyone learns together. A leader is useful to hold things together in group learning, not only letting everyone have their say but also facilitating avenues of discussion.

Personally, I learn non-academic stuff best by doing things. I can read a description in a book but it isn’t until I try out what the writer is outlining that I really understand it. Merely reading instructions for assembling an IKEA flat-pack is usually hopeless – it isn’t until I get down on the floor and try to put it all together that I can learn how to do it. I interpret and then put the assembly “facts” into action. Just thinking about how to do it will do me no good whatsoever! When learning to drive, reading about the theory of driving is fairly useless without practicing in a real car, on a real road; with other drivers on the road who may or may not stick to the written rules. Experience counts!   The same is true of practical spiritual learning. Like prayer. We can endlessly read lots of books about “how to do” prayer; but that isn’t really learning much past the surface level. And we can be taught how to pray, but maybe our teacher prays in a way which isn’t helpful for us. We learn how to pray by actually doing it and figuring out what works best for us in growing our relationship with God.

What do we base our learning and our faith on: reliance on experts either acknowledged or self-proclaimed (with or without evidence), or something which has been proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” …which would eliminate much of science! or maybe by example, seeing things being done which work; personal experience, where results can be observed at first hand. And perhaps we filter our learning to discount things we feel we can’t accept as true, even when we’ve been taught that it must be so because “this or that authority says it is.” The miracle stories throughout Scripture are good examples of this – can we, with 21st century minds and background, really believe that Moses waved his staff around, the waters of the Red Sea retreated and the Israelites just walked to the other side? Do we believe that Jesus walked on water, or drove demons out of a child?  Even more crucial, there’s the perpetual questions about how to believe in the Resurrection and salvation when there just isn’t any one complete definitive teaching. We’re asked to learn, in our own ways, the deeper meanings of these stories that we can reach out to tell and teach others about God, or Jesus.

One purpose of a rule of life could be to learn and inwardly digest in order to inspire others to develop and grow their own faith more deeply. Jesus teaches us to build our houses on the rock of putting his words into action, not on the sand of inaction and apathy. To learn how to anchor our faith onto the meanings of what he says to give us strength, not just repeat the words. He’s teaching all of us, both his original disciples and his future followers, to learn how to get on with it without him personally being there or supervising. Our job of learning is to figure out what he’s saying to us, and decide how to use his teaching as a guide for how we live and proclaim our faith, and bring others into that way of living.

Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Think about it, use the discerning powers God has given us to learn about Jesus and what building the Kingdom means, but don’t stop there. Keeping learning to ourselves doesn’t help others or help make the world a better place. It doesn’t much matter whether we learn from reading, being taught, with others or practical hands-on; it’s not how we learn but that we learn – and share that learning as honestly, widely and generously as we can.

©Leslie Spatt 2019