Learning to Think, Thinking to Learn

I hired a car for a few days over Christmas. It was the first time I’d driven in a year, and on the quiet holiday roads it was a truly pleasurable experience.

At some point I parked and noticed the car showed me a display of my “eco-credentials”. I wish I’d taken a picture at the time, because it gave me a score in the 90s, and my acceleration and anticipation marks were perfect. Sadly, later in the evening I took a long drive down a dark country lane which took the edge off my scores, so when the inspiration for this post came to me and I took the picture below, it was not as impressive as I’d hoped.

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Over the years I’ve learned to drive steadily, because doing otherwise serves no purpose. So I’m not surprised that my statistics remained quite good in the main. The interesting part of the display was my gear change score, which started relatively poor and didn’t improve.

Like many modern vehicles my car gave me a visual clue – a flashing gear stick icon – on the dashboard when it ‘wanted’ me to change gear. I didn’t notice very often because my eyes tended to stay on the road. But when it did attract my attention I became aware of what was going on, and what was hurting my gear score when I was convinced that I was driving smoothly.

When I learned to drive, about twenty years ago, my instructor taught me to listen to the engine, and said that the car would tell me when to change gear, either up or down, by the sound it was making. I found that the changing up spot would come between 2000 and 2500 rpm – usually towards the lower end of that range. This satisfied my instructor, and also got me through my test and my first nineteen years of driving.

But this Christmas, I found that my car was flashing its icon at me between 1500 and 2000 rpm, well before it sounded right for me to change up, and it would also tell me to change down when my senses and experience were telling me the engine was fine where it was. I tried to adjust, but it wasn’t easy unless I let my eyes linger on the dashboard much longer than felt safe. I expect it would take a few weeks for me to adapt my driving style to this new paradigm.

This got me thinking, asking myself why I was getting this simple task so wrong after all these years. Advanced motorists among you may have an immediate answer, but I was very interested in the range of possible explanations that occurred to me. They were:

  • Did I misunderstand the original instructions, but ‘got away with it’ when I was learning and being tested?
  • Am I remembering my instructions wrongly? My memory isn’t my greatest asset.
  • Was the instructor wrong?
  • Have cars changed over the last twenty years? Undoubtedly they have, so have improvements to engine design and efficiency changed the way they should be driven? And do different ‘rules’ apply to different cars?
  • Am I really just driving by ‘muscle memory’, through habits formed over years of experience, for better or worse?

Speculation about my driving technique is one thing, but as I thought about those questions it brought to mind another kind of instruction I’ve been receiving over the last ten years, which is of course Christian instruction – from reading the Bible or other books and articles, from Sunday messages, from small group discussions, and so on.

In the last decade I’ve moved home a few times, and as a result moved church as well. I’ve been a member of three different churches over those years. At each one there have been occasions where I was taught things that I was uncomfortable with at the time, or which I have come to doubt since.

Reflecting on this, I realise that the questions I asked myself about my driving are also pertinent to these teachings:

  • Did I misunderstand what I was being taught?
  • Have I misremembered what I was taught?
  • Was the teaching wrong? Even the best of us is human, and fallible. I’d love to believe that everything spoken from the pulpit is right and good, but I’m sure that mistakes are made. This reminds me of an occasion when I was in primary school. I don’t know how old I was, but I was very young! A teacher asked us what “USSR” stood for, and being rather too well-informed for my years I stuck my hand up and said “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” which the teacher promptly shot down and corrected me, informing the class that it actually stood for “United States of Soviet Russia.”
  • God doesn’t change, but the world does, and people do. I do. Does this affect what I was taught, or how it should be applied?
  • Has my experience of life, faith and God changed my perspective, beliefs and practices – or habits – for better or worse?

I think it is vital for all of us to consider these questions whenever something troubles us, either in our own understanding, or in what we learn from others, because not one of us has all the answers. We are all “looking through a glass, darkly,” we should all be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” which is an ongoing, life-long process. There are some tenets of faith that are fundamentally true, while we can sometimes hold on to others that merely make us fundamentalists in the worst sense.

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Teach Me

I’m thankful to Pastor Samuel Cole and Pastor Dena Cole for bringing this wisdom to the front of my mind, where it belongs. Before anything else, I want to pay tribute to my dear friend. Pastor Sam, we haven’t seen each other for some time now, but you remain close to my heart and regularly in my prayers. When I was starting on my journey of faith, you gave me the most powerful encouragement, and you showed me what it means to be salt and light in a world so bereft of both. You have continued to inspire me through the years. I don’t think there’s another human being who has done more to strengthen my confidence in the goodness of God in all circumstances. I’ve learned so much from you, and I love you. Thank you, my brother.

Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name. (Psalm 86:11)

Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness. (Psalm 143:10)

Teach me thy way, O LORD, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies. (Psalm 27:11)

Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end. (Psalm 119:33)

I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye. (Psalm 32:8)

Too many people speak and act as if they know it all. It’s a common human failing but it bothers me more when I see it in Christians. And I see plenty of it, sometimes in person, and very often online.

Why does it bother me more? Because we of all people, who recognise the almighty power and knowledge of our Creator, should also recognise how small we are in comparison, how blinkered in our vision, how narrow in our knowledge.

And yet, when we should be demonstrating humility, instead we display hubris.

There was not one perfect man or woman until the birth of Christ, and there has been none since. If we really knew the whole truth we would be unable to sin – the knowledge of the consequences would make it impossible.

In fact, even as we recite “lean not on your own understanding” we are busy constructing our own personal moralities, interpreting scripture in our own image, and condemning others who do the same.

How many times has the church, the body of Christ, fractured into new sects and denominations? Occasionally this might be due to a difference of style, but more often it is about substance, about doctrine. When the splits number in the thousands, and still brothers and sisters sitting side by side in services can’t agree on one hundred per cent of Biblical interpretation, how can any one of us honestly believe they are the one who has finally understood God’s message clearly. Even Paul acknowledged the limits of our mortal understanding:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

There is a beautiful phrase, apparently not coined by St Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” If only we could all live by it, and in particular by the third clause, because in truth we can find it hard even to agree on what is essential. Our social, cultural and political biases will determine what matters most to us, and hence we define our essentials, and then comes judgement towards those whose definitions vary.

We need to return to the psalms. We need to ask our Lord to teach us His ways and His will. And we need to keep asking, always ready to repent when we learn that our previous understanding was incomplete or just plain wrong.

And we need to be charitable towards those with whom we disagree. Be respectful and kind. There’s no place for arrogance or presumption in the family of God. We are all still learning.