According to Henri Nouwen, the bestselling spiritual writer, every Christian is a minister—trying to live his life in the light of the Gospel. Creative Ministry is a thoughtful examination of the various complex tasks that are part of that way...
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According to Henri Nouwen, the bestselling spiritual writer, every Christian is a minister—trying to live his life in the light of the Gospel. Creative Ministry is a thoughtful examination of the various complex tasks that are part of that way of life.Separate chapters treat each of the five areas that Nouwen considers the primary responsibilities of the minister: teaching, preaching, counseling, organizing, and celebrating. He shows how these main functions are inextricably tied to the minister’s spiritual life and why they must be directed toward a creative dialogue with other Christians if they are to be rewarding. It is also essential, he maintains, that the minister leave himself open, take risks, and “lay down his life for his friends” in order to give new life.“There is today a great hunger for a new spirituality,” observes Nouwen, a hunger that requires new and creative forms of ministry. Citing numerous examples from his rich experience, the author offers practical advice for infusing daily pastoral work with meaning. The result is an insightful presentation and a resonant spiritual guide for every man and woman who wants to be of service.
The internationally renowned priest and author, respected professor and beloved pastor Henri Nouwen wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. He corresponded regularly in English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish with hundreds of friends and reached out to thousands through his Eucharistic celebrations, lectures and retreats. Since his death in 1996, ever-increasing numbers of readers, writers, teachers and seekers have been guided by his literary legacy. Nouwen's books have sold over two million copies and been published in over 22 languages. His books include The Return Of The Prodigal Son, Here And Now: Living In The Spirit, In The Name Of Jesus: Reflections On Christian Leadership.- Publisher.
Beyond the Transference of Knowledge
From a Violent to a Redemptive Way of Learning
There was a time when God sent angels from Heaven with an urgent message for us. God still does. A few months ago, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk came to Holland and one day walked into the house where I lived. He was a thin man whom you would be afraid to touch. But his clear, fearless eyes radiated an insight so deeply impregnated with affection that the only thing you could hope for was understanding. While he looked straight into my eyes, he said: "There was a man on a horse galloping swiftly along the road. An old farmer standing in the fields, seeing him pass by, called out, 'Hey, rider, where are you going?' The rider turned around and shouted back, 'Don't ask me, just ask my horse!' "
The monk looked at me and said: "That is your condition. You are no longer master over your own destiny. You have lost control over the great powers that pull you forward toward an unknown direction. You have become a passive victim of an ongoing movement which you do not understand." It seemed as if he carved his message on my skin like a tattoo and then asked me to let it be seen wherever I go.
When we look at the situation of those who teach and those who are taught, the same question comes to mind: Do teachers and students really know where their horses are going?
Students are men and women who are supposed to be in the exceptional situation that allows them to reflect on themselves and their society under the guidance of competent teachers. They have set aside a certain amount of time in their lives to look explicitly at their own condition, and at the condition of the world in which they live, in the hope of being better able to understand and act accordingly.
But when we realize that today a "school" is no longer a "schola," which means free time, but has become a highly complex industry that prepares people for an even more complex society, we might become receptive to the words of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. If teaching means providing people with enough academic weapons to outdo other people, to make more money, to have a better career, and to get more esteem in the neighborhood, we had better start asking ourselves if there is any word from God that supports this approach.
The most universal and most appreciated role of the Christian ministry through the ages has been teaching. Wherever Christians went to be of service, they always considered teaching as one of their primary tasks because of their conviction that increasing insight into the human condition and the world is the way to new freedom and new ways of life. And although Christian churches frequently failed to live up to this conviction, even prevented the free growth of science and limited the fearless search for new fields of knowledge, Christians have always read in the Gospel a call to develop the human potentialities to the fullest through ongoing education.
The ministry of teaching has never limited itself, therefore, to the teaching of religion. Education is not primarily ministry because of what is taught but because of the nature of the educational process itself. Perhaps we have paid too much attention to the content of teaching without realizing that the teaching relationship is the most important factor in the ministry of teaching.
In this perspective, I raise the question: What do those who call themselves teachers or students really claim to be when they look at themselves in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? In order to respond meaningfully to this question, I would like to describe two basic models of teaching--the violent model and the redemptive model--and then explicate our main resistances against learning.
By speaking in models, I will never do justice to individual teachers. I am not trying to. I only hope to map out basic structures that can help us to discover where we ourselves are and in which direction we want to go.
I. Teaching as a Violent Process
If we look at the overall educational situation today, it seems as if students are constantly confronted with the complicated problems of their world and almost daily presented with new skills, methods, and techniques to get these problems under control. In fields like medicine, sociology, psychology, chemistry, biology, economics, and even theology, there is an amazing preoccupation with manipulative devices and the degree to which they satisfy immediate needs, relate to urgent problems, and keep an acceptable balance in the style of our lives. "Getting things under control" is what keeps most teachers and students busy, and a successful teacher is often the individual who creates the conviction that humans have the necessary tools to tame the dangerous lion they will face as soon as they leave the training field.
As long as teaching takes place in this context, it is doomed to be a violent process and evoke a vicious cycle of action and reaction in which we face our world as new territory that has to be conquered but is filled with enemies unwilling to be ruled by a stranger. The teacher who enters this arena is forced to enter into a process which by its nature is competitive, unilateral, and alienating. In short: violent.
Let us have a closer look at these three characteristics of teaching as a violent process.
Competition has become one of the most pervasive and also destructive aspects of modern education. The way some students look at other students and their teachers, the way they expect their grades and degrees, the way they prepare for their exams and take them, the way they apply to college and graduate school, and even the way in which they spend their free time; all this and much more is impregnated by an all-embracing sense of rivalry. You only have to walk on a college campus during the last week of a semester to pick up the mysterious "A, B, C, D, and F" language that seems to be on everyone's lips. The sadness of all this becomes clear when you see that a student is only happy with a high grade when other students have lower grades. It is obvious that in a system that encourages this ongoing competition, knowledge is no longer a gift that should be shared, but a property that should be defended.
Students who are aware of the fact that all their accomplishments, not only academic but athletic and social accomplishments as well, will be compared with those of others, and who realize that their grades will decide their further schooling, their future job, and even their military status, understandably can easily become victims of paralyzing fear.
This fear makes many students oversensitive to the reactions of their friends and teachers. This fear makes them extremely self-conscious, highly defensive in their relationships with others, constantly concerned about the possibility of failure, and very hesitant to take any risks or do anything unexpected. Often this fear becomes the unaccepted ruler over everything they write, say, or even think. Through this fear, competition prevents students' free development as complete human persons.
To show how deeply this competition has permeated the educational system, I would like to take a closer look at one of the teaching methods, which at first glance seems to be the least competitive: the classroom discussion.
When you enter a college classroom today you will see that discussions have become an important part of modern education. The presupposition is that students learn more through discussion than through the absorption of ready-made information.
But is this always true? Quite often a closer analysis of an ongoing discussion shows that what in fact is happening is a sort of intellectual battle from which people tend to return more close-minded than when they entered it. Students sitting around the table, asking questions of their teacher or phrasing their ideas and opinions before each other, are often more like soldiers charging with rifles than friends shaking hands.
Quite often the process goes like this: A student enters into the discussion without knowing much about the subject to be discussed, but with both a desire to know more about it and a fear of showing ignorance. As soon as someone states an opinion, the most common reaction is not the internal question: "How can I understand his opinion better?" but "What is my opinion?" So, too, does silence often mean more an occasion to prepare an answer than to enter the train of thought of the other. At once two, three, or more opinions are stated and the primary concern becomes defense of the chosen position, even when it is hardly worth defending. And so we see how after a while people try to convince themselves and others of ideas that in the beginning they hardly wanted to consider as their own--ideas that were only meant as hesitant attempts to participate in an exchange of thoughts. And how could it be different when teachers are looked upon as those who are going to tell students, sooner or later, how much they are worth, and when fellow students are rivals in the big fight for academic survival? Who wants to be weak and vulnerable in such a situation? More importantly, who can really learn in this way?
The second characteristic of the violent form of teaching is that it is, in the final analysis, a unilateral process. Even the many discussion methods, which suggest that people learn from each other, can quite often be easily unmasked as simply more acceptable ways to get a definitive message across or to sell a so-called indispensable product. And when different forms of discussion prove to be not much more than cheap methods of advertisement, it is not so surprising that many students become quickly irritated by them, complain that they do not learn from them, and prefer straight lectures--which at least dispense with reading another book.
This all goes to say that underneath many methods of teaching is still the prevailing supposition that someone is competent and that someone else is not, and that the whole game is to try to make the one just as or nearly as competent as the other. When this ideal is realized, the teacher is no longer considered as a teacher and the student as a student, and both can depart with not much more accomplished than the ability to tell stories about each other as entertainment in their later years.
In this context the teacher is strong: the one who knows and should know. The student, however, is weak: the one who does not know and should want to know. The whole movement, therefore, is from teacher to student, from the strong to the weak, from one who knows to one who does not yet know. It is basically a unilateral process.
Finally, the violent process of teaching is alienating, because the eyes of the student are directed outward, away from the self and toward relationships in the future where the "real" things are supposed to happen. School, then, comes to be seen as only a preparation for later life, for the "real" life. One day the classroom will at last be left behind, the books will be closed, the teacher forgotten, and life can begin. School is just an indoor training, a dry swim, a quasi-life. It is not surprising, therefore, that many students are bored and tired during class and are killing time by anxiously waiting until the bell rings and they can start doing their own thing. Nor is it so strange that many say they have nothing or little to do with what happens at school and must go by blind faith that one day they will be thankful for the knowledge they received.
It is not so strange then, that many teachers are looked upon as belonging to a world that is not the world of the students and that a hidden hostility often grows from this, expressing itself in a total lack of thankfulness toward those who have given much of their time, energy, and concern to prepare them for society.
This whole process is alienating because neither students nor teachers have been able to express their individuality or use their regular relationships with each other as a primary source of learning. They have been pulled away from their own experiences; they are staring out at the horizon, expecting something to appear there, while at the same time they have become blind to what is happening right in front of them.
When many people spend about twenty years in school, it can be asked how valuable their lives would have been if they were to die at the end of those twenty years. Do those twenty years serve only as a preparation for another twenty years which, in their turn, have to make possible a final twenty years of retirement? But when we do not really live here and now, why should we look forward to living somewhere else later? This is the core of alienation, a reality that is all too visible in the lives of many students and teachers.
We have now described the violent process of teaching as one that is competitive, unilateral, and alienating. While it might never be found in its total naked destructiveness, it should, nonetheless, be clear that elements of it can be detected in many of our contemporary educational methods.
Now we are ready to look at an alternative model, which I have called "redemptive." I would hope that the foregoing elaboration has created the desire to hear more about it.
II. Teaching as a Redemptive Process
If it is true that in many instances we have become the passive victims of an educational process whose impact on us we can hardly appreciate, it is imperative that we ask what exactly it is that has happened to us. As my first general impression, I suspect that too often we have lost contact with the source of our own existence and have become strangers in our own house. We tend to run around trying to solve the problems of our world while anxiously avoiding confrontation with that reality wherein our problems find their deepest roots: our own selves. In many ways we are like the busy executive who walks up to a precious flower and says: "What for God's sake are you doing here? Can't you get busy somehow?" and then finds the flower's response incomprehensible: "I am sorry, but I am just here to be beautiful."
How can we also come to this wisdom of the flower that being is more important than doing? How can we come to a creative contact with the grounding of our own life? Only through a teacher who can lead us to the source of our existence by showing us who we are and, thereby, what we are to do.