The Grace of Great things

Reflections on the work of Parker J Palmer, The Courage to Teach – Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, Jossey Bass, 1998, Chapter 4, pp.89-113.

The world really contains a whole array of great things. Great things are defined as subjects around which the circle of seekers has always gathered. They are things that capture our imagination, worthy of my energy and investigation. Great things have their own independent reality. All great things have inner lives that will speak to our own. We cannot know the great things of the universe until we know ourselves as great things.

Reality is sacred and the sacred is real. Knowing, teaching and learning are grounded in sacred soil. Sacred is the ineffable immensity beyond concept and definition, the numinous energy at the heart of reality, something worthy of respect. In a sacred landscape, with its complexities and convolutions, surprise is a constant companion. On the other hand, in a world stripped of the sacred, the inner landscape holds no mystery for it has no variety. Travelling through it one does not move from flat open plains to forest, to water from deserts to mountains to valleys, from plotted and cultivated to primal and wild. This desacralized landscape is utterly flat, bereft of texture and tangle, color and flair and traversing it becomes tedious beyond telling. We grow accustomed to seeing things approaching us long before they arrive, surprise is neither expected nor welcomed.

In one model of learning, let’s call it, the Objectivist myth, “Great things” become objects to be known. Truth flows from the top down, from experts, who are qualified to know the truth to amateurs who are qualified to receive the truth. This “truth” is a set of propositions about objects. An educated person is one who can remember, repeat the expert’s propositions. We can rightly call God, faith, spirituality great things. In this myth we look to priests and bishops, theologians and other experts to inform us what we should know. In this process, “Great things” disappear in the face of either absolutism or relativism. With Absolutism we claim to know the nature of great things so there is no need to continue in dialogue with them or with each other. The experts possess the facts and all that remains is for them to transmit these facts to those who don’t know them. Literalism is a significant issue in Religious Education. Students accept a very literal view of the world as very young people but as they get older it holds no value for them, and they abandon these ideas. With relativism we claim that knowledge depends wholly on where one stands so we cannot know anything with any certainty beyond our personal point of view. There is no need to continue in dialogue with great things or with each other – one truth for me, one truth for you and never mind the difference. All great things deserve better than absolutism or relativism. Faith and spirituality just as much. The spiritual is under such threat from both developments.

Alternatively, let’s think of a different myth. Think of a whole group gathering around a common subject, guided by shared rules of observation and interpretation. Is not about propositions. It is a subject available for relationship. When we know something as subject it is in us not at arm’s length. It becomes personal, something that matters. As we try to understand the subject we enter into complex patterns of communication – sharing observations, and interpretations, correcting and complementing each other, torn by conflict in this moment and joined by consensus in the next. This is not linear, hierarchical, and static knowing but circular, interactive, and dynamic. We can challenge norms, but we must be able to justify them. Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter.