Unite the pair so long disjoin’d
Knowledge and vital Piety:
Learning and Holiness combined,
And Truth and Love, let all men see,
In those who up to Thee we give,
Thine, whole thine, to die and live.
We do not learn by ourselves. There may be an entire field of adult learning that lauds the “self-directed learner” and there are definitely parents who burst with pride because their child accomplished a particular skill all on their own—but such claims are incomplete. Regardless of the long hours spent in solitude to achieve their goal, whether it be earning a degree or riding a bicycle, each of us learns from someone or something already present in the world. And whatever it is that sparks our curiosity or ignites our imagination, when we accept the invitation that causes us to dedicate time and resources to the learning endeavor, we begin to live more deeply and experience life more fully. We are changed as a result of our encounter with the world and one another and we cannot unlearn what has been discovered.
At its very essence, learning results from sustained, engaged encounter with ideas, concepts, and skills that are unfamiliar to us. Our ability to navigate the world is learned innately in our earliest years, mimicking our family members or responding to other environmental stimuli. As babies and toddlers, we struggle with our bodies learning to roll over, sit, stand, and walk. And because many of us were nurtured by loving parents as we passed through developmental milestones, we won’t necessarily remember the work and energy exerted to acquire those skills until we care for a toddler ourselves or otherwise encounter a developmental delay that prohibits further growth or suffer a catastrophic setback in which we must relearn these taken-for-granted skills.
Years of childhood and adolescent learning are spent in mandatory schooling—whether it be public, private, or homeschooled—seeking to make sense of linguistic, mathematical, and artistic concepts. Much of our modern educational system in the West might be critiqued for its successes and failures at creating a workforce to sustain a relentless wealth-driven economy, but the essence of lifelong learning is about becoming more fully human and realizing who we are created to be as creatures made in the image of God. The kind of learning involved in that endeavor is both intentionally deliberate and seemingly serendipitous (or maybe purely providential), and as confrontational as it is conformational in order that we might grow in faithfulness.
Our Wesleyan heritage applauds the “third alternative”—the nexus of “both/and” that seems paradoxical or contradictory at first blush. This is inherent in the charge of Charles Wesley: Do not divorce faith from reason! Knowledge and piety, learning and holiness, truth and love are handmaidens to each other. If we are to be fully human, we need to be rational and religious. Our learning can’t just be cognitive, it must be affective and have behavioral outcomes that shape us into the kinds of people who love God and neighbor. The church and the academy need one another.
Without a doubt, the third alternative that brings together the “either/or” choices is fraught with tension in our current cultural climate. Oppositional forces prefer polarization rather than conceding middle ground in the competition for constituents. But these divisions are false dichotomies. Following them may offer certitude but they disconnect us from the possibility of being transformed into whole and complete beings.
Being in the middle, though, requires effort. Folk who remain steadfastly centrist do so not because we naïvely believe divisive discord can be surmounted or because we thrive in the tense middle. Division in our beloved denomination is happening. For myself, I feel like a child of divorce being fought over in a protracted, embittered custody battle. To take a stand in the third alternative of the Wesleyan “both/and” requires conviction born from humility that life is complicated. To be in the center is to be convinced that hospitality can happen even in what feels like a war zone. We were taught that by living with one another in the presence of the Holy Spirit we were the body of Christ for the sake of the world. Though we are afforded glimpses at how great the truth of God is, we’ve only ever been able to see it because of sincere, sustained dialogue with those who have inspired us even as they have challenged us. It is Wesley’s middle way that has us shaped and we want to remain intentional about keeping the very space open where we first experienced invigorating dialogue and conversation so foundational to our formation as Methodists.