God Cannot Be Learned
God is unknowable. So, the things of God cannot be learned – they must be revealed.
What does it mean to teach our students to wait for the revelation, to be aware of the revelation, to find joy in the revelation, to trust in the revelation? In what ways might students be better taught to recognize the ubiquitous and concealed revelation? In teaching that which cannot be learned, what is the role of imagination and wonder?
Fortunately, many beloved teachers have journeyed with me throughout my lifetime. Two dear professors are Jack Seymour and Maria Harris. I met Jack in Nashville, Tennessee while in graduate school. He taught a course whose content miraculously realigned my way of thinking and knowing. In other words, it healed me. The course was Ministry and Imagination. In the course we read the novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. This novel is a beautiful story which transports the reader to the dawn of modern human beings and makes privy the lives of peoples who call themselves The Clan of the Cave Bear. Many course sessions were spent discussing the world created by Jean Auel. The final assignment was to think of our own tradition as an unexplored universe, a new world, and in so doing, take a new kind of expedition into that world using imagination as a tool of meaning making. New doors of thinking about identity, culture, and relationships were opened by the time I completed this assignment. Rather than taking the usual analytical scalpel and pick-axe to look at issues of church and society, Jack challenged us to use our storytelling abilities and artistry to discover what we already knew, but which was yet to be understood. Jack taught me that imagination was not supplementary to ministry, but essential if liberation, transformation and revelation were to be.
I first met Dr. Harris as a professor in a continuing education program in New York City. I enrolled in her course on imagination and ministry. I have vivid memories of paying as much attention to how Maria taught as I did to the content of her teaching. I remember admiring her audacity of presence and brazen-ness of speech. She so boldly spoke of God in a way that felt genuine, sturdy, and intimate - all while she was whirling around the room providing life-giving energies. She gave large, deep, and profound answers to questions which, from my hearing, were small and insignificant. She had the patience of a Sufi master. Maria’s answers were bedazzled with quotes from literature, contemporary politics and ancient philosophy. She provided layers and layers of meaning - all seeming to flow through her from a mighty river or a distant star. She, in her freedom, gave to us generously, brilliantly and lovingly.
Under the guise of imagination, Maria Harris taught me about God. In so doing she said, “Mystery is not that about which you cannot know anything; mystery is that about which you cannot know everything.” God is unknowable, mysterious… but glimpse-able. You must wait for the revelation – the profound glimpse of God.
On the fourth day of our intensive course Dr. Harris took the class by public transportation to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in northern Manhattan. We were instructed to bring a sketch pad and pencils. Once at the museum, she encouraged us to look around and get acquainted. After a time, she gathered us back and gave these instructions. She said, find some artifact which speaks to you. Once it speaks to you – consider that as an invitation to sketch it. Sit with the artifact; sketch it so you will come to better know it. Then, she went on, set the sketch aside, linger with the object, and if you have been a hospitable guest, the object will speak to you about important things. She ended her instructions with this command, “Listen deeply.” That day I learned that the common, everyday ways of humanity can be tools for mystical encounters of grace and mercy – for those who know how to listen deeply.
Since then, like all teachers, I teach what I know and how I know it. It just so happens that, thanks to Jack and Maria, I know some of the ways of imagination and wonder. It has been my pleasure to teach a course entitled Ministry and Imagination seven times over the last sixteen years. Along with students and with many different co-teachers, I have learned, grown, and had mighty-good fun. Together, we have grappled with that which cannot be learned, but shall be realized.
This is the 10th post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).
Anthony Pami says
Would love to take that course if it rolls around and can fit with my schedule.
Love this post. With the sermon being the most obvious current form of teaching that often occurs in our churches and given my love for preaching and the “art of the sermon,” I take this certainly as a challenge. How can I (and others) be more about creating the space and energy in our preaching that leaves people with more questions for the journey than answers. It seems as if preachers and congregations have been trained to give and expect answers but what a gift to, rather, be a sojourner with our congregations inviting them into questions and relationships and a bigger view of reality vs. providing answers which just shrink reality.
Grace & Peace,
Nilsa Olivero says
I appreciate your inviting us to respond to the final message for the course, The Art of Teaching Life, has been that and more. One outstanding concept that I am grappling with is the element that becomes realized but not learned. Instinctively, I worked on the photographs for the exhibit and used imagination, curiosity and wonder. The I wonder if I tried this and that or wonder over a myriad of life events that occurred through the semester that continues to leave me with a question about role of a minister when everything is becoming chaotic in the world. And as I have grown to keep the faith found the patience to allow for awareness and realization brings syncrinicity. That has been in my path for awhile with a growing faith in the mystery of our God. It is true that we cannot know everything in life but we can be sure of an existence of inner knowing that lies in each of us. With time and patience, meditation that factor that moment emerges. I have had the priviledge of being mentored by a Dr. Harris and you have served as an ideal mentor with allowing yourself to be yourself. Thank you for your wisdom. Should you decide to continue with this blog I will try to respond.
Stay blessed throughout the holidays.
Jane Bowman says
Your class on Ministry and Imagination also forever changed how I thought and think about ministry. Thank you for continuing the revealing! Years ago I was challenged by a mentor to look for God everyday in the everyday moments of life. She too inspired me to ‘listen deeply’ and it has made a difference in my life and I strive to reveal that same advice to all that I know and meet, especially my youth. Revelations abound! Amen.
Annette V Williams says
Dr. Westfield, I loved what you say about the things of God cannot be learned. I would even say they cannot be taught. They can be revealed. But in our word society a three or even younger can experience God, but will the words they use resonant in the adult world? For Christian Educators we may not see the fruits of our labors for quite awhile. That is why I work with adults now!