Sunday, February 16, 2014


Yesterday Anne-Marie and I had a conversation wherein I found myself saying unexpected things about it. I assumed it was the "best job" I could ever have. I had always expected to eventually end up back at a university. Probably an American one. And what a great day that would be!

But why?

- Well, my training is theology and where else does one use advanced training in theology than in the university?

- And, teaching is a rewarding experience, of engaging and bettering young people's lives.

- And, one is duty-bound to pass on the knowledge one has received.

- The pay is (usually) good; at least you can usually live off of it.

These used to be very persuasive, practically self-evident, reasons for me wanted to end up back there. Yesterday I realized that I was questioning them.

I loved the actual experience of teaching. But looking more closely, I can see the psychological profile of the 'liking' is worth examination. Most people know when they are being really proud or vain or whatever. But probably not when they are so in subtler ways. We focus on what we wear to church, or special occasions. We focus on our conduct when we know were are being boastful. But we have it on the good authority of Scripture that pride and vanity are ubiquitous. The things we do confess and the things we could confess are greatly disproportionate.

So what did I actually love about teaching?

At first I think it was the all-eyes on me, look how much I have to share thing.

Eventually, being too often disappointed in students' commitment, I came to derive my pleasure from those few students who shared my enthusiasm for the subject matter and who did the work.

When I left teaching, it was only hard to say goodbye to those few, it seems to me. And it was the anticipation of being able to once again teach those few enthusiastic students that made me think that I would eventually like to return to teaching. But this is vain too, isn't it? If there is just one person or if there is a whole classroom who is interested in what you are saying - what difference? Is not the point that you are teaching something that makes the world better? But of course, I am just a man and so it's understandable that I would want people to be interested in what I am saying... but that's no excuse.

Either the stuff is important or it is not. In either case, the interest of the students is none of my business.

How much stock the administration was putting into class evaluations was bothering me. It turned the classroom into a place for entertainment, not education. And for as much as people would want to dissemble on this point, I know I am right: we are too much a mass-market culture for it to be otherwise. The majority is always right. That is how power works in the absence of the classical forms of hierarchy. Even for principled people is this the case - sooner or later the bills have to be paid, and right and wrong can't do that. Exceptions from the ideal have to be made.

But, on the other hand, do I want to live my life teaching the chosen few? Is what I have to offer so rarefied, so high, that to only the few will it ever make a difference? There is teaching like this - only but the select few will ever attain to the heights of the doctrine of the great spiritual masters, the more who gain access to their thought, the more diluted it is. Only the select few understand the cutting-edge science on black holes, the ins and out of Medieval Georgian, and all about Hypomachilodes (an insect genus); likely no one on earth all three of these. These specialized bodies of knowledge are worthy of human attention, but what can we say about the life dedicated to teaching exclusively about one of those things?

It seems to me that when we say knowledge is a good in itself, we mean something more than what the words seem to imply. A male of some insect species can detect a female of his species with far greater precision than I will ever be able to. So what? What does that kind of knowledge signify? Next to nothing. A computer has the works of St. Augustine memorized, and I do not. I would love to have them memorized, but having what the computer has is not what I want. Not merely anyway.

For me, reading Augustine, Plato, Newman, Nazianzus, whatever, is not all that different from what other people experience when they read Tolkien, Harlequins, teen pop fiction: it's fun for me. Augustine brings me the same pleasure Harry Potter brings another person. Sure, I ascribe to it an importance that I would not to Harry Potter - but it is precisely in that that I find some of my pleasure. I am reading something more important. But what's the difference - pleasing the many with Harry Potter, or pleasing the few with the Augustine I know, but very few others know?

I was amused and embarrassed when I was in an adoration chapel one time and saw a man reading a children's book on St. Francis. I was probably reading Augustine.

I used to look down on the study of literature. Compared to theology it was about rather trivial things. I entered into theology rather than history, because the same thing could be said there. If I was right to do so, then the more specialized, both intellectually and spiritually, I should be. Why bother with drinkers-of-milk, when you have solid meat to eat? We arrive at a moment where we must interpret this "other food" to eat that the Apostles knew not of. (Jn 4:32) How we interpret this passage will say a lot about how you will suggest I close off this discussion.

If Jesus is talking about secret teachings that the Apostles could not grasp because of their spiritual immaturity, you will advise me that teaching 'the masses' is a waste of time. If His food is to teach the Word of God (such as to the Samaritan woman) you will advise me to conclude that teaching is a worthwhile activity no matter at what level it is gauged.

The danger with having such a high view of the human vocation to know is that it cannot care to make distinctions about what exists on the lower level. This is the danger of Gnosticism. If a way of life is not the perfect way of life, then who cares? If you cannot be celibate, then be promiscuous, it makes no difference. Kill one person in a war, kill a million. Such is the psychology of the thing.

What do you expect knowledge to do? Over the years a few have registered their gratitude to me. I believed them. They would not have said so had it been otherwise. This number was small, but it pretty much corresponded to the difference I believed I was making. I had read things right, anyway.

A theologian struggles both to be relevant and to be intellectually rich. The great theologians of the past century - De Lubac, von Balthasar, Ratzinger, etc. - seemed to have both more of less wrapped up. I mean, they were more intellectually accomplished than they were 'for the people,' but judging from the case of the Ratzinger - and there is no reason to think otherwise of the other two I mentioned here - they were as committed to intellectuality, as they were to holiness, as they were to the holiness of the Church as a whole (by means of their teaching).

You get all these ideas about what theology means and how it can make a difference in people's lives, and how you will be appreciated for it. You discover that appreciation is a more elusive and complex phenomenon than you had at first thought. You retreat into intellectualism - writing for journals for the select few who love and appreciate the discipline as much as you do. And then, in the end, you are confronted with the thought - what's the difference, then? Is this why God converted me? I've seen Protestants doing a lot more useful things.

Are people benefited by knowing the Faith, even as a theologian knows it? You'd like to say yes, just like you'd like to say yes that your children are special, your mother an especially good one, etc.

I have found that people who talk the most about how important it is to have good catechism, theology, etc., are the most closed-minded, unteachable people. What they must mean is how important it is to get people to think exactly the way they do. I've been around the block.

I've been around the block enough to become cynical; probably not enough to move beyond that, as Ratzinger probably did.


  1. Well Colin, I was brought around to the Catholic Faith by *one committed Catholic teacher*.

    If it had not been for him, I might not be Catholic today. I shudder to think of all that wasted time. I started practicing Catholicism at 15 instead of in my 30s the way many people do. I am extremely grateful to that man.

    So what good does it do? It can save someone's soul. That is not a paltry thing.

    A lot of my time is spent engaging in abortion debates online. Whoa, talk about teaching the unteachable. But every now and then, people do tell me that I've influenced them, and I know that means there are others I've influenced who haven't told me that.

    I do this because I believe it is my vocation, that this is what God wants me to do with my time. I have fire in the belly for this. I don't always see the results. And that's the way it is with a lot of vocations/ministry. You don't see the results.

    But you can be sure that if you're good at what you do, and that you do it day in, day out (that's important!) you will have an influence.

    Perhaps writing in journals doesn't directly influence the masses. But it directly influences the other theologians who have influence on the masses. Benedict XVI has had a massive influence on the faith not because Joe Schlub reads his stuff, but the RCIA director has read his stuff and that gets passed on.

    Ask God what he wants you to do, and if you do it day in, day out, it will all add up. It's the same principle in any endeavour, not just faith.

  2. You are right, and it is good for me to be reminded of the good fruit of this work. I am sure that here and there "Catholic Studies" courses and such like have good fruit occasionally - and I guess that is all that matters. The temptation to retreat into academics without regard for the pastoral dimension is a strong one for the discouraged theologian. What else explains the great chasm between university and church?

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  4. Hello Mr. Kerr,
    My husband is a high school religion and philosophy teacher - I had to convince him to teach as I believed it was something he could do well in. He was seminary educated and pastoral lay work was really not his thing - but he kept saying he hated teenagers. He did go back to get his B. Ed.
    This week is reading week in most of the local universities and he has various dates set to meet up with students. I look at that as such a feat. It is a gift to have that sort of influence on students that have learned to embrace their faith through reason and logic but also to engage in adult conversations outside of the institutional school setting with a former teacher who they seek out to provide some direction.
    We have never met but I know you by reputation from former OLSW students and their parents.
    Your teaching had an influence on those I have spoken to.
    Hopefully, one day we get a chance to meet you.
    I enjoy your blog when I get a chance to read it.
    Pax Christi, Teresa B.

  5. Thanks very much, Teresa. That's very encouraging to hear. All the best to you and your husband. It takes a lot of selflessness to put people first, as your husband is obviously doing. To me it was always a fight of love of the material versus love of the student!

  6. Your very welcome.
    I will have my husband check out your blog.
    Enjoy the snow... or not.