Search
  • Steven Delpome

The Santa Claus Teacher


I will regularly read daily meditations posted by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk in Albequerque, New Mexico. Part of what makes him so fascinating is the way he is able to draw connections between societies we often think are seperate, whether they be religion by drawing similarities among Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism, or comparing the development of the self with the development of society through Spiral Dynamics, or the link between God and humanity.

You read enough of these and you can't help but see similarities everywhere and his post from today seemed to be as much about teaching and learning as it was about spirituality. So I tried writing it that way. What follows is my teaching edit of Fr. Rohr's piece follwed by his original post.

A Santa Claus Teacher

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I strongly believe that good teaching has two important tasks: to keep all people free to learn and to keep learning free for all people. In my opinion, most schools do not allow learning much freedom. Learning is always so much bigger than the pedagogical and schooly boxes we build for it. Without recognizing it, many people have an operative image of Teachers as Santa Claus. They’re “making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” We reward the good kids with toys (As) and punish the bad kids with lumps of coal (Fs). If you don’t have a strong self image where you can be honest about learning, you’ll end up being a Santa Claus Teacher, and the learning becomes a cheap show of reward and punishment. That’s not learning in any meaningful way! A child who inherently wants to learn is capable of so much more than such a simplistic trade off or buy out.

Bringing social acceptability to Schooling has not helped in this regard. After mandatory public schools were established, the vital concepts of discovery and exploration gradually were controlled by formulas and technique. Schools cannot afford too much exploration or discovery. Soon the school created equations: this much learning results in this many points toward your grade; this test score results in this much extra time you must spend in school. Meaningful learning became a juridical and distant concept instead of deep realizations and understandings.

Disobedience to school came to be seen as much more sinful than any failure to learn or understand.

The work of the teacher became behavior management much more than the marvelous work of serving the understanding of children that we come to believe teaching is. School largely became a “worthiness attainment system” managed from without, instead of a transformational system awakening us from within.

When learning becomes a weighing and judging process, then we who are in charge can measure it, define who is in and who is out, find ways to earn it, and exclude the unworthy. We have then destroyed the likelihood that people will ever experience the pure gift of learning that comes with deep realizations and understanding.

When you fall into the ocean of understanding, you stop all counting and measuring. In fact, counting and weighing no longer make sense; they run counter to the experience of learning. As long as you keep counting, you will not realize that everyone is learning all the time anyway.

I recently visited the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. A huge waterfall drops down into the darkness of a lower pool whose bottom you cannot see. It struck me deeply as a metaphor for what learning is: understanding eternally pouring into a darkness, always filling an empty space. Understanding fills all the gaps in us that we wish to try to fill, though we can never be full. Counting and measuring can only increase the space between things. Even better, water always falls and pools up in the very lowest places, just like understanding starts from nothing. And learning is just understanding in action.

A Santa Claus God

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I strongly believe that good theology has two important tasks: to keep all people free for God and to keep God free for all people. In my opinion, most churches do not allow God much freedom. God is always so much bigger than the theological and churchy boxes we build for “him.” Without recognizing it, many people have an operative image of God as Santa Claus. He’s “making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” He rewards the good kids with toys (heaven) and punishes the bad kids with lumps of coal (hell). If you don’t have a mature spirituality or an honest inner prayer life, you’ll end up with a Santa Claus god, and the Gospel becomes a cheap novel of reward and punishment. That’s not the great Good News! An infinitely loving God is capable of so much more than such a simplistic trade off or buy out.

Bringing social acceptability to Christianity has not helped in this regard. After Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire in 313, the great biblical concepts of grace and forgiveness gradually were controlled by formulas and technique. Empires cannot afford too much mercy or forgiveness. Soon the Church created equations: this much sin results in this many years in purgatory or hell; this much penance results in this much time released from purgatory. Grace and forgiveness became juridical and distant concepts instead of deep spiritual realizations.

Disobedience or disloyalty were seen as much more sinful than any failure to love or serve or show mercy.

The work of the priesthood became sin management much more than the marvelous work of transformation and inner realization that we see in Jesus’ ministry. Church largely became a “worthiness attainment system” managed from without, instead of a transformational system awakening us from within.

When forgiveness becomes a weighing and judging process, then we who are in charge can measure it, define who is in and who is out, find ways to earn it, and exclude the unworthy. We have then destroyed the likelihood that people will ever experience the pure gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.

When you fall into the ocean of mercy, you stop all counting and measuring. In fact, counting and weighing no longer make sense; they run counter to the experience of grace. As long as you keep counting, you will not realize that everyone is saved by mercy anyway.

I recently visited the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. A huge waterfall drops down into the darkness of a lower pool whose bottom you cannot see. It struck me deeply as a metaphor for God: mercy eternally pouring into darkness, always filling an empty space. Grace fills all the gaps of the universe. Counting and measuring can only increase the space between things. Even better, water always falls and pools up in the very lowest and darkest places, just like mercy does. And mercy is just grace in action.