How We Learn

Reading 1

Two Kinds Of Intelligence
Rumi

There are two kinds of intelligence: 
One acquired, as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others in regard to
your competence in retaining information.
You stroll with this intelligence in and out of fields of knowledge, 
getting always more marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet, 
one already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. 
A freshness in the centre of the chest. 
This other intelligence does not turn yellow or stagnate. 
It’s fluid, and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through the conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out.

 

Reading 2


Excerpt from an essay entitled “Making Sure There is a There There”
By Judith Frediani

People have many needs—intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual—but the faith community must keep uppermost in its mind the religious gifts that are no other institution’s primary responsibility or intent. 
The potential for meaning making is so great, and our time together so short, that we must constantly ask ourselves, What religious needs can we serve that secular schools, challenging careers, loving families, and political and social organizations do not fully satisfy? 
Helping people develop spiritually and act religiously is our unique responsibility… Together, making meaning of life and living a life of meaning constitute the there we must make sure is there.

 

Sermon


This morning, I’d like to share some thoughts about spiritual growth and learning. Certainly, religious or spiritual growth is central to our community.  We come here, at least in part, because we seek to explore that part of our lives and our selves that we call spiritual – the part that seeks unity, connection, meaning, purpose, and a relationship with the transcendent.  Judith Frediani’s words from our second reading point to this key purpose of the religious community “Helping people develop spiritually and act religiously is our unique responsibility.”

Along with spiritual growth I’ve deliberately included the word “learning.”  Spiritual growth and learning.  To some, learning may seem a natural word to include along with religious or spiritual growth.  To others, learning and education conjure up only the image of a classroom – perhaps a Sunday School classroom – where we are told what we are supposed to believe and to memorize bits of information that seem meaningless and seep out of our memories almost as quickly as they are instilled there.

Let’s take a broader look at learning though – one that has little to do with that tedious classroom where the hands of the clock seem to move so very slowly and where there never seemed to be any air whatsoever. As the Roman philosopher Seneca, recognised a few thousand years ago, “we learn not in the school, but in life.”

Learning in a spiritual or religious context is much more than absorbing a set of dates, names and stories. It must be far more than indoctrination. And religious learning is for people of all ages – it is not just for the young.  Learning is how we adapt to our ever-changing environment. It is how we get to know and understand one another. It is central to how we recognise what is truly of value and meaning in our lives. Learning is the ongoing process of transforming what our senses take in and using it to grow toward wisdom and wholeness. 

Since learning, in this sense, plays such a pivotal role in our spiritual growth, we must consider what our spiritual community, this congregation, does and what it can do to facilitate learning.

It is well-known and widely accepted that different people learn best in different ways. Some need to hear information to learn it. Some grasp it more readily when they see it.  Others must have their sense of touch involved to create a powerful learning experience.

Different types of knowledge and understanding call for different ways of learning.  Learning dates or historical facts will chiefly involve a verbal component – words to hear or read and review.

Other learning takes something very different.  Imagine that you had never tasted a lemon and I tried to teach you about this fruit.  I could explain its thick, bitter, fragrant yellow skin.  I could tell you that a lemon is juicy – that it has a very sour taste that can make you pucker your lips. I could get more scientific and tell you the acidity of its juice, and the fat, protein, and carbohydrate content of the average lemon.  Despite all that, your first real taste of a lemon in real life would still be a revelation!

A story from the Jewish tradition:

In a small village, a man went to see his Rabbi. He said, “Rabbi, my daughter and her husband have moved in with us, the other children are older, and our house feels too small but I have no money. What can I do?” The Rabbi replied, “Take your chickens in the house with you.”

The man left, feeling confused, but the Rabbi was wise and so he accepted the advice. In two days, he was back. 

“Rabbi, I came to you to complain that our house was too small and you said to take the chickens in. I did that and they make a mess and it is noisy and even more crowded.”

The Rabbi said, “This is harder than I thought. If you want this to be better, take your goat in the house also.”

The man left, more confused than ever but he trusted his Rabbi and took the goat in. Within a few days he was back.

“Rabbi, I came to you to complain that our house was too small and you said to take the chickens in. I did that and they made a mess and it was noisy and even more crowded. So I came back for advice and you told me to take the goat in as well. Now, it is even worse.”

The Rabbi thought, and thought, and then he smiled and said, “This can only get better if you bring your cow into you home.” The man looked like he was going to argue but the Rabbi was back at his studies so he left for home. Even though everyone complained, he took the cow in as well but, by the next day, it was impossible, so back he went.

“Rabbi, I hate to bother you but I came to you to complain that our house was too small and you said to take the chickens in, then the goat, and now the cow. We can’t move, everyone hates it, and it is even more crowded than before.”

The Rabbi told him, “Take the cow, the goat and the chickens back to where they belong.”

The next day, the man came to see the Rabbi and thanked him and thanked him. “With the cow, goat and chickens all gone, the house seems so large!”

Of course, the Rabbi could simply have told the man “listen, it could be worse.” He could have tried to instil a sense of gratitude in the man for what he had. 

But, as Oscar Wilde said, “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
This is especially true of the kind of learning that is relevant to our spiritual and religious lives.  Our deepest beliefs and yearnings have to do not with an invisible, unknowable transcendent being, with belief separated from experience, but with the life we can see and touch.  We care about connection, about justice, about the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and about understanding our place in the big messy and wonderful world we live in.  

When we learn such things without the benefit of experience, they feel flat and without depth. They are abstract and have not been tested and tempered in the fire of real life.

If experiential learning is essential to religious and spiritual growth, we must ask: what does this community do to foster this learning?  What can we do?
There are many experiences to learn from in this congregation.  Our recent Seder is one example. The Seder tells the story of oppression and liberation, but it does so with tangible symbols that help to make it more of an experience than simply a lesson. The regular Tuesday evening poetry programme involves the experience of interacting with poetry. Instead of teaching facts or values or religious principles, we each discover these for ourselves in the experience of interacting with powerful, evocative texts.  Even when we sing together, in our singing group or in worship, we have an experience that we can learn from.

Perhaps the most important religious learning experience we have here is not one that is structured at all.  It is in how we are together as a community.  Every interaction with another human being is an experience that may shape us. And we can learn from the negatives as well as the positives. If we are included and treated as a valued part of the community, we may learn how affirming that can be and it reinforces and deepens our understanding of our emphasis on being an inclusive faith.  If we are excluded, we learn the pain that brings, and we may become more committed to living out this value in our own lives.

As I described the way in which we can learn from experiences within our community, I deliberately used the word “may.”  “We may learn.” “We may become more committed.”  I did not use the word “will” because there is more to experiential learning than just having experiences.  The other essential element is reflection – the deliberate consideration of our experiences and the understanding they may offer us. 

My colleague John Tolley speaks about the importance of reflection in this way:

     The ways in which we typically act…leave out […] reflection. Consequently, 
     we move from stimulus to action and back to stimulus and the next action. 
     Our lives become a series of goals to achieve instead of a process of
     maturation, enrichment, and enlightenment.”

Without reflection, for example, an experience of exclusion is just a bad experience.  With reflection, it can become a learning experience that causes us to clarify our values and perhaps even commit to changing our own way of being.  Reflection can take place in many ways.  It can involve writing or journaling, it can involve solitary thought, and one of the most powerful ways is through discussion in an open, safe, and non-judgemental environment.
Learning is risky business.  Hungarian-born psychiatrist Thomas Szasz emphasised this point when he wrote “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily...”  

Learning is threatening because learning something new means admitting to ignorance, and worse, it often means admitting to being wrong. A prerequisite for deep learning is a feeling of safety.  If we suspect that revealing what we don’t know will reduce the respect others hold for us or cause us to be dismissed or even ridiculed, we can not move forward.

There is a tremendous opportunity for religious growth and learning in this congregation. Ours is a commitment to open-minded exploration and exploration of a diversity of influences and beliefs.  With our strong foundation of shared values and our growing commitment to acting in ways that help to create a place where all can feel safe to express themselves and to be themselves, the right environment is within our reach. 

Imagine then a community that shares emotionally and spiritually challenging experiences together – that goes out into the world to make a difference both outside and within our own hearts.

Imagine a group of committed Unitarians who join together to work side by side to help alleviate suffering in the larger community.  They might serve food to the homeless, help victims of torture, visit prisoners, or sit down to talk with youthful gang members. 

These and many others are powerful and poignant experiences that encourage us to engage again and again with our own deeply held values and understandings. They can shake or reinforce some of our most deeply held beliefs.  Can our belief in the worth and dignity of every person withstand contact with a violent criminal or the heart-rending stories of those who have been abused? Where do such horrors fit in our sense of a coherent life and an underlying unity and connection?

Imagine this group returning together to a quiet space like this one. After a time of silence and meditation or prayer, they begin to share their feelings and their thoughts, openly, and respectfully. There is pain and doubt and confusion, there are tears and there is laughter, and there is also a deep sense of respect and love in the room. Differences are raised, heard, and considered respectfully.  It is a place of deep growth and learning – a place where growing toward wholeness becomes a tangible reality.
Imagine such a community. Imagine what it could mean for you and for each one of us.

May it be so.