Love and Education

Worth Revisiting WednesdayThis post originally appeared on August 31, 2014. With a new school year beginning, it is worth a revisit!

On Father’s Day, I posted a piece on God’s paternal love for us, drawing from both the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex 34:6-8) and the New Testament (Lk 15:11-32). Recently, I read a presentation delivered by Pope Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, entitled “The Educational Process” which describes the relationship between teacher and student in similar terms. In this paper, Pope Francis describes the difficulties which teachers, especially college and university professors, can encounter that derive from the contemporary culture which we inhabit. These difficulties include facing special interests within the educational system which “are alien to education itself,” and the ever-increasing phenomenon of the participants in the educational process (i.e., students, teachers, and parents) becoming disengaged with their own formation and the formation of those in their charge. “We have become spectators,” Pope Francis writes, “and ceased to be protagonists of our personal history and our life.”

Supper at EmmausTo bridge these divisions, Pope Francis proposes a pedagogy of “encounter.” By this he means that the educational process ought to be characterized by a type of love. Drawing from the New Testament, and the Greek learning inherited by the early Church, Pope Francis distinguishes between three types of love. Eros is a type of love which seeks its own satisfaction. Naturally, it has come to be associated with romantic love but is certainly not limited to that sphere. Whenever we have a deep desire which seeks consummation – and many of the mystics speak of the transformation and sanctification of this desire for God – it is, so to speak, erotic. Agape, on the other hand, is a type of love which is self-sacrificing. It expects nothing in return, but wills the good of the other. Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross is the example par excellence of agapic love; so much so that, in the early Church, the commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist was referred to as the ‘love (agape) feast.’

School of AthensBut education is not built upon either of these senses of love. A third type of love, which is the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter,” is philia. Derived from the Greek word for ‘friend,’ philia is a love which is neither totally self-seeking nor totally self-sacrificing. Rather, philial love is given with the expectation of reciprocity; thereby forming a communion of persons. “It is a love of relationship,” Pope Francis writes, “participation, communication, and friendship.” Pope Francis is not advocating, however, that professors become “BFF’s” with their students. Philial love in this context is characterized by a concern for the good of the student and a recognition of the good in the teacher. It is much closer to the relationship between a parent and a child than the relationship of peers to each other. It is, one might say, covenantal.

Pope Francis sees this love as the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter” because it is only within this type of friendship that both teacher and student can “encounter” each other as persons. Within this friendship, the student is not simply ‘student x,’ but Joseph. The teacher is not simply ‘my professor for subject y,’ but Dr. Mary. Again, as Pope Francis writes: “For this educational encounter to happen, we teachers […] need affection. Trust in your affection. Love what you do and love your students.”

Christs Charge to PeterIn closing, the type of love which Pope Francis speaks of as the foundation of education is most uniquely illustrated at the end of St. John’s Gospel (21:15-19). After his glorious resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Naturally, and as one reads in every scriptural commentary on this passage, Jesus asks this question of Peter three times as a way of redeeming Peter’s three denials of him on Holy Thursday. But what is lost to the English reader is that Jesus asks Peter if he ‘loves’ (agapas) him twice. The final question to Peter is: “Do you love (phileis) me?” In other words, Jesus twice asks Peter if he would sacrifice himself for him, but on the third occasion he asks Peter: “But are we friends?” It is not enough for Peter to repent of his denials by offering himself for Jesus. No. In order to “tend Jesus’ sheep,” the two must have an active, living relationship: a friendship. In order to form others in Christ, one cannot simply view one’s ministry as a sacrifice. There must be present a friendship with Christ that one wishes to share with others. Similarly, a true education cannot be founded solely upon the idea of serving the other – let alone the simple communication of data – but upon a living and relational encounter: a friendship.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Christmas Octave Saints, Liberal Arts, and the Problem of Suffering

St. StephenThe week after Christmas begins with the liturgical celebration of St. Stephen, martyred as a young man, and ends with the celebration of the long-lived Pope St. Sylvester. But St. Sylvester could very well have become a martyr, having begun his papacy just before the Emperor Diocletian’s widespread, horrific persecution of the Church. Both men braved the demands of leadership and the possibility of death for their faith and for those whom they led.

How might they have prepared themselves to confront suffering and death? The scant information about either man’s life makes it impossible to know much. As a theology professor, I wonder if education had a role. St. Stephen’s brilliant defense of the Gospel before the Sanhedrin leads some to think he might have studied under Gamaliel. St. Sylvester, a Roman, might have received a liberal arts education and in any case governed St. Sylvestera Church led by bishops like St. Athanasius and Eusebius of Caesarea, whose family background, work, and writings give telling signs of their liberal arts training.

Ancient Roman culture relied on the liberal arts education to prepare its leaders, but today we struggle to show its practical value or wonder if it should have any. To enlarge my own perspective, I have begun reading through The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce Kimball. In his introduction Kimball explains that some have held the liberal arts tradition to teach an ideal conception of the human person, others have held it to teach eloquence through the study of language, literature, and rhetoric, and still others have held it to pursue knowledge of the truth of things, especially of the human person.

While recognizing the value of each of these three approaches, Catholic theological and philosophical traditions lean upon the last one because it seeks to know perennial qualities of reality, often denoted by “nature,” as in human nature. Belief in God encourages this search for the perennial qualities of things, which are created “good” by God. What is this goodness?

Let us consider another of these “big questions”— “What follows this earthly life?”—to illustrate the kind of thinking that the liberal arts wedded to the Catholic tradition seeks to promote. A liberal arts approach will examine various responses to this question and their implications. We can compare two approaches to care for the dying, one recognizing a Christian vision of the afterlife, Midwife for Souls: Spiritual Care for the Dying by Kathy Kalina, and a secular vision that remains agnostic, Living at the End of Life: A Hospice Nurse Addresses the Most Common Questions by Karen Whitley Bell.

In a nutshell, here is the difference between these two views of dying. If one does not recognize any life after death, then dying is about finding and celebrating a new depth of meaning in the life one has lived, as Bell illustrates:

For now, what I’ve come to understand is that we live among people who understand, not what will be after the last breath, but what can be with this breath, for this life, this moment. They live with a clarity of purpose, with compassion, kindness, and grace.… From them I’ve learned that it’s possible to live that afterlife – that paradise, that heaven, that rebirth – to forge a better existence, now (202).

By contrast, if one recognizes an actual life beyond this one, then dying can be a preparation for that life, even if one’s last years or months also involve discerning and celebrating the meaning of one’s earthly life. It is the time when the person not only detaches from this life but attaches to the next.

The “spiritual tools” of the caregiver help the dying examine their lives, and therefore easily draw upon the liberal arts tradition of leading an “examined life.” I do not know whether Kalina or Bell ever pursued such an education, but I do know that the liberal arts tradition offers rich versions of the spiritual tools each offers.

Take narrative for example. Bell teaches spiritual lessons primarily by telling the stories of her patients. She then adds open questions, often suggested by the stories and designed to help people explore their deepest values. Kalina too encourages the practice of “life review, sorting out the events of life and finding meaning” (20).

Given her theological convictions, Kalina’s primary tool is prayer and her primary narrative is scripture. Only God overcomes sin and brings the person into union with Himself. The caregiver asks God to receive the dying person into heaven and to help her help the dying and their families perform the spiritual work of preparation. For example, Kalina observes that some patients begin to moan at the very end of the dying process. She does not assume that this moaning is caused by pain because she knows from scripture that it could be the work of the Holy Spirit within the person: “as St. Paul explains in the Romans 8:26, ‘when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words’” (35-36). When Kalina hears this groaning, she first looks for indications that it has caused by pain. But if there are no such indications, she does not try to quiet the moaning and instead prays with the Spirit in the dying person. It might do productive spiritual work.

Whether one encounters the dramatic martyrdom of St. Stephen or the many trials of St. Sylvester, one handles suffering and death better with some personal preparation and with the help of others. The liberal arts tradition remains well equipped with narratives expressing the meanings people have found in life, suffering, and death.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Sick and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.