Begotten, bewildered, and beholding:

The practice and promise of learning in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

There are neither sufficient words nor enough minutes in this luncheon program to express how much this recognition has touched me—and moreover, how my relationship with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and with Disciples Divinity House and its great cloud of witnesses (among them, all of you) have shaped my mind and heart, and blessed my life and my vocation. I am by nature and by profession a watcher, an instigator, and an encourager of the insights and visions, the projects and lives of others. Rarely do I pause to take stock of my own. For this singular opportunity to remember and recall; for a lifetime of companionship, conversation, and collaboration; for the wisdom and witness of our DDH forebears; and for the wisdom and witness that lives and moves in the creativity and courage of each one of you gathered here today—I am so grateful. Truly, this award is not, in the end, about any one of us. It is a celebration lively community of learning and service that has been, is being, and will be Disciples Divinity House.

Has been, is being, will be Disciples—that’s the phrase I’d commend to our reflection for just a few minutes this afternoon. The word disciple, before it gained partisan inflections aligning its subject with this teacher, or that school, or a particular denomination, takes its meaning from the Latin verb discere, to learn, to discern, and from a related Latin verb, discipere, "to grasp or comprehend; to dispute or debate.”

What might it mean not simply to identify as Disciples, capital 'D,' but to practice being disciples, lowercase 'd'—that is, to live and move, to engage and to love this world that God so loves, as learners?

If you are thinking, right now, that there’s nothing more predictable than a Divinity School professor touting the virtues of learning, you may be right—but just hear me out. The roots of my preoccupation with lowercase 'd' learning reach far beyond my last twenty years in the classrooms of the Divinity School, or even my twenty years in the pulpit, before that.

When I use the word learning this afternoon I’m reaching for something bigger, less routinized, more organic. I’m thinking of learning, here, as that curiosity, that restlessness, that eagerness to engage, to explore, to understand, that is an essential part of our creatureliness; that is a sliver of what it means to be made in the image of God, a spiritual practice more akin to breathing, seeing, yearning, or loving; a thoroughgoing orientation to life, of which the practices of our beloved academies are a part, but can never be exhaustive.       

There’s an iconic image from our faith tradition that comes to mind when I imagine what this learning looks like. Let me take you home with me, for a moment, and I’ll show it to you. I was born and raised in Jacksonville, Illinois, a sleepy midwestern county seat when I was a child there, but much earlier in its history—in the decades leading up to the Civil War—a hotbed of progressive thought, home to a community of abolitionists who were active in the underground railroad. A certain Barton W. Stone moved from Kentucky to a farm near Jacksonville around 1832, choosing to live in a free state with free-thinkers—and then (as one does), he founded a church in his new hometown, a congregation which eventually came to be called Central Christian Church. Over a hundred years later, I was baptized in the sanctuary of Central Christian Church one Easter Sunday, at the ripe old age of nine (nine was the “age of reason," according to the church elders of my childhood, who knew?) What so distinctly shaped my young understanding of the life of faith was not that dramatic immersion, but rather, the stained-glass window that stretched high and wide just above the baptistry, and just below the gilded stenciling of our founders’ polar star of unity.

The nineteenth-century images in the window above the baptistry did not depict Jesus’ own baptism nor any of Christianity’s other “greatest hits”—not Jesus’ birth, last supper, death, or resurrection; not his teachings or his miracles. Rather, the ten-foot-tall image commanding the place of honor in our sanctuary was an intricate rendering known as Jesus in the Temple: the twelve-year-old Jesus, center stage, surrounded by the teachers in the temple. Both boy and elders were absorbed in conversation, leaning in, reaching towards one another and a large open text, the seemingly living presence around which they were clustered.

The colorful scene was brightly illuminated most Sundays by the morning sun such that it often caught the attention of at least one twleve-year-old who might not have been paying attention to the morning’s sermon. As a kid, I was fascinated by this scene and lost myself in it on a regular basis. The expressions on each face, the child and the adults, were not saintly or dispassionate, as was characteristic of the art of that era; they were animated, alive with the curiosity, intensity, and wonder that a rich and challenging discussion might engender, ideas flowed between young and old as the roles of pupil and instructor shifted back and forth. As an argumentative and opinionated child (again, who knew?) I was intrigued by the possibility proclaimed by that window. Maybe religion was more than tired propositions of truth spoken, sung, or prayed over the heads of passive hearers. Perhaps this was an illustration of the life of faith: a vibrant conversation, an energetic give-and-take inclusive of all ages and perspectives, an immersion in deep listening and hard questions that takes our relationship to God and God’s creation seriously, even as it is always pushing towards more—more beauty, more truth, more wholeness, more justice. 

What if learning—that is, discerning, debating, reaching to make sense of ourselves, our communities, our cosmos and our Creator, and then considering and ordering our relationships and our responsibilities to all of these things—what if such learning is the very essence of our personhood, of life in community, of our worship of God?

And, if that is the case, then what might a community that calls itself Disciples—faithful folk who understand themselves to be learners, first and foremost—have to offer our own context, our time and place, when the very activity of learning itself has become instrumentalized, commodified, computerized—even, of late, suppressed—in a sensorium that values comfort over contestation, easily-accessed information over carefully-cultivated wisdom, and labels, brands, and slogans over complexity, nuance, and comprehension?

In a word, I believe that what disciples—life-long, curious, careful learnershave to offer a frightened world, a violent world, a world-on-fire (literally and figuratively) is the life-giving, world-changing power of humility. Humility, from the word humus, meaning earth, soil, rootedness, from the same root as human.

Humility. Perhaps that’s not the word you were expecting to fall from the lips of a professor from the University of Chicago espousing the cause of learning. You were expecting, perhaps, to hear yet again about “rigor”? I mean no disrespect, here, to the advocates of critical inquiry. I am deeply indebted to the teachers and mentors who trained us to be disciplined and strenuous scholars. Indeed, the fruits of such “rigorous” exercise are many—and that’s precisely my point. Some of learning’s greatest gifts have been undervalued, I think, by a culture so driven by acquisition, control, and mastery.

Among the less-celebrated fruits of a life-long practice of learning is the constant recognition—our re-cognition—of our God-given place in the scheme of things, our earthly, humus/humble/human relation to all that is. The core practices of learning—paying close attention; submitting ourselves to texts, discourses, persons, communities, events and places, both those near to us, and those whose locations are so different from our own; shifting our emphasis from acquisition to inquisitiveness—these practices demand that we de-center our own assumptions, our own experiences, our own causes and even our own altars, to be humbled by the daunting prospect of not-knowing.

I don’t mean, here, the not-knowing that is rife in our culture right now—the “I dunno,” “who knows,” or the “I could care less” sorts of not-knowing—those are decisions not to know or not to care that reject the fullness of our humanity and devalue of our abilities to wonder and to care. Rather, I mean to say that to be disciples—and Disciples of Christ, at that—means to approach every aspect of our experience from a stance of humility, open to both the course-corrections and the endless possibilities that arise from our thorough apprehension of our own limits, rather than from the need to defend, augment, or promote ourselves by possessing or weaponizing knowledge.

Three attributes or attitudes are characteristic of this humble discipere learning, this learning-as-not-knowing, this learning-as-spiritual practice.

These three are vitally important as we live, learn, and lead congregations, communities, and movements for change in the world that is and is to come.

First, such learning acknowledges that we are begotten, as the old English would say it, that is, we are none of us here on our own reconnaissance, but by way of the lives and loves of others, the creativity and faith of others, and for the blessing and flourishing of others. We are not self-made, not self-taught, not self-directed nor self-realized. In fact, our very selves (and they are multiple) are the reflections of others’ apprehensions of us. We are not our own, nor is our knowing our own certain and sure possession. What we know, and what we do not yet know, is knowledge gained at the feet of, and on behalf of, the whole creation.

Second, such learning acknowledges and even promotes bewilderment. The word means, just as it sounds, being in the wilderness, perhaps even being ‘wilded’ (Isn’t that a lovely possibility?) It’s not a word we use much these days, perhaps because there’s too little wilderness left to wander in, or perhaps because there’s not enough wild left in us. But it was at the height of its usage at about same the time our Disciples forebears Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone were moving west through the American wilderness. At about that same time, a Kentucky pioneer is said to have asked Daniel Boone if he ever got lost in the forest, to which Boone is reported to have replied, “No, not exactly lost. But I have been bewildered a few times. Why, once I was bewildered for more than a week, but I just kept on going.”

Those early Disciples forbears displayed a Boone-like embrace of the wilderness and their own bewilderment, as they pushed past the limits of conventional wisdom and doctrinal politics to plant communities of lively learning across the frontier. There were obstacles, arguments, tragedies, a Civil War, but they just kept on going.

Nearly a century later, their inheritors pushed past the limits of conventional theological education to collaborate in the planting of a Divinity School in the heart of a major university that was just taking root in a wild and bewildering young metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan. Our Chicago forebears were bewildered for much more than a week—in fact, they had the temerity to call themselves a house, Disciples Divinity House, a full thirty years before there was an actual house to inhabit. There were obstacles, arguments, tragedies, one world war and then another one, but they just kept on going.

It is of the essence of learning—and it is also the very substance of faith—to be, by seasons, bewildered and to just keep on going. Just to keep on going toward that which is more true, more beautiful, more just, more capacious; toward that which we are still straining to imagine, to see, to actualize; toward the God who keeps on imagining, keeps on creating, keeps on reaching towards us.

Of course, there’s a word for that, too, my friends—the third attribute or attitude of holy, humble, discipere learning—and that word is behold. Behold is used nearly 1300 times in our scriptures: in Hebrew, hinneh; in Greek, eido; in Latin, ecce. In all three languages, it means not simply to look, but to see, to be sure to see, to observe, to perceive—and in such a way as you are changed thereby. Lifelong learners, disciples of Christ, embrace their begottenness and allow themselves to be bewildered, so as to behold—not to miss—the Kin-dom which is always near at hand.

I hope, by now, that you are recognizing yourself and one another, as learners who have been begotten by the imaginations of those who came before us, and who are willing to brave bewilderment.  If you’ve made your way to this room today it is because you cannot resist the lure of this at once holy and humble practice of life-long learning which is close, so close to the Spirit of God herself, the spirit sometimes called Sophia, Holy Wisdom.

As I look around this room today, I am once again fascinated by vibrant images of disciples—not in stained glass, this time, but in the flesh, each one of you leaning into your own encounters with teachers and students, congregants and patients; with texts, and communities, and powers. Images of disciples engaging your begottenness and allowing yourselves to become bewildered, in the name and for the sake of the one who says, “Behold, I tell you a mystery, Behold, you shall conceive and bear a child, Behold, I make all things new.” Behold, new models of higher education, new forms of church, new venues for ministry, new expressions of Christianity, new partnerships that uncover deep continuities with other traditions and disciplines besides our own—new language, new commitments, new worlds—the works of your hands, the charism of life-long learning, the life of lively discipleship made visible in all of you. Behold. Behold.  Amen.