Archive for October, 2013

Pedagogical Parameters

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Yes, my teaching “strategies” run the spectrum.

If I were to plot my approaches in the different courses I teach, they would vary from my introduction to world religions, in which I lecture for as much as an hour (in a 75-minute class) and then respond to questions, to my honors seminars, which begin with an opening question of my own, based on the day’s reading assignment, and then proceed in a largely Socratic, interrogative fashion. When I teach “Christian Theology” it usually ends up being closer to the former end of the spectrum, though involving more time for discussion, while “Faith, Doubt, and God” is closer to the latter, though involving more lecture.

You asked in particular about the course I’m teaching this term on “The Oxford Inklings” (Owen Barfield, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams). I’ve taught it before as an honors seminar, but this time around—as a “regular” Religious Studies course—I decided to position it pedagogically somewhere between “Faith, Doubt, and God” and the Socratic offerings. I’ve been lecturing for no more than half an hour, and then opening up for discussion and debate during the remainder of the 75-minute period.

As with all the courses involving at least some lecturing on my part, I take advantage of classroom technology (audio/visual instrumentation, internet access, overhead projector), and I spend a considerable amount of time preparing a set of slides for each class. I myself tend to be a visual thinker, and I find that a variety of diagrams, outlines, and images, projected on a screen behind me, help keep both me and the students better organized. It’s also very helpful for my charges to be able to see, and not only hear, the lengthier passages I might choose to quote, especially those coming (in this case) from the Inklings’ letters or other unassigned materials.

Here, to give you just one slice of the pie, are the slides from a presentation this past week on two short pieces of Lewis’s: an article, “Myth Became Fact” (from God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics), and a sermon, “The Weight of Glory” (from The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses). My aim was to highlight some important points in these two pieces themselves; to link them both with the Lewis fantasy we’ve been reading, Till We Have Faces; and to make a few additional connections with other writings of CSL not on the assigned reading list.

Once this material was “on the table”, I answered a few questions about what I had said and then posed my own question, based on “Myth Became Fact”:

Lewis claims that “to be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths”. What exactly does this mean? The Christian “fact” is that God entered the world around 4 B.C., lived as a man, was crucified, died, and raised from the dead, and ascended back to heaven around 30 A.D. What would it mean to “receive” this as a myth?

After a little probing and prodding of the students’ responses, I suggested we might do well to recall the conversation in Till We Have Faces between Orual, the Queen of Glome, and the Priest of Essur, in which, in response to her agonized question, “Has the thing itself [the deification of Istra] happened yet or not?”, he replies, befuddled by her insistence on historical linearity: “The sacred story is about the sacred things…. In spring, and all summer, she is a goddess…. All the winter she is wandering and suffering” (246). Does receiving Christianity as a myth, I asked, mean that the Incarnation (and its aftermath) is not a once-and-for-all past event on a unidirectional timeline, but a continuing process, repeatedly happening in cyclical fashion? If so, what does this in turn mean?

Well, as I say, you need to read the two Lewis pieces and his book to see where I was attempting to go with this line of questioning. I offer the example here simply to give you some sense of my pedagogical parameters.

Resolving the Tension

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Regarding a recent post of mine, you find as a Christian that a “strange inward tension” results when you try to adopt a “specifically Hindu term” like Witness, and you worry that it’s “somehow wrong for a Christian to accept anything other than the moral teachings of other religions”. You acknowledge that the idea of the Witness, like the Buddhist idea of Bare Attention, is not without its seeming analogies within Christianity: Eckhart’s intellectus, for example, or the Hesychast nous. You’re nonetheless concerned to make sure these terms all refer to the same “organ of contemplation”.

But is it really necessary to sort this out in a terminological way? Isn’t it enough to see—because we do “see”, do we not?—that there is something within us which allows us to stand back from ourselves? It’s a very subtle and fleeting something to be sure (much too fleeting, in fact!) and altogether impossible to pin down, for of course it’s always the one doing the seeing, even when we (vainly) try to whirl round and catch it in the act. Be that as it may, it seems to me there can be no doubt that it’s there, behind the curtain as it were. Don’t you agree?

I’m not sure what we stand to gain by naming it, however, or by determining whether traditional term A can be equated with traditional term B: Is Buddhist attention different from or the same as the noesis which permits us to open a conscious space between prosvoli (provocation) and pararripismos (disturbance) during a given bout with peirasmos (tempation), to put the matter in technical Hesychast jargon? Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood the import of your question, but I find that concerns of this order are simply distractions, just one more case of the mind wandering off as it so often does into another conceptual quandary, when what we need is to just be aware, to see what’s going on inside us right now, right here.

My instinct—and mind you, it’s only an instinct: proof would require a sobornost of adepts drawn from a representative sample of different religious traditions!—is that the traditional vocabularies, while all referring in some way to this capacity to “see” or “attend”, may be pointing to the operations of this capacity at different levels or depths, or to its varying degrees of effectiveness. I can step back from my body and see its movements and postures and states, but stepping back in order to see my thoughts and emotions brings me to a different, subtler, more inward place. Moreover, each of these “steppings back”, whether from the body on the one hand or from the thoughts and emotions on the other, are but two points along a line extending to yet greater heights (or depths) of vision and knowledge.

If I were forced to assign a given term, or set of terms, to the last—or rather, metaphysically, the first—point on this line, I think “Witness” (the term I used in my post) is as good as any, and I frankly can’t imagine that when Eckhart said “the eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me” he meant anything else. But again I ask: Is making sure these terms are synonyms really so important? What practical difference does it make what I call the acme of Self-seeing, or for that matter what I call any of the other points on the line? The truly important point is to realize that I needn’t be bound, as I too often am, to these bodily postures, these emotional habits, these recurring thoughts. I can, if only briefly, see them from a distance, however small that distance may be at the moment.

Do you think looking at things this way might help to resolve the tension you speak of?