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3.02 Incarnation, Love, Wonder and the Imagination



Effective instruction begins with our own incarnation of what we are aiming for. If we are asking students to enter into a great conversation that aims to cultivate wisdom and virtue through a transformation of disordered loves into deep affections for truth, goodness, and beauty then this wisdom, this virtue, these loves must be sought after and embodied in us first. Our character, loves, and commitment to life-long learning speak to our students louder than our words. We are read before we are heard. For better or worse, our character is our students’ first text.


Aristotle describes the following three modes of persuasion in his treatise On Rhetoric(Aristotle, c. 350 BC): the first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. Of the three modes, he describes the character of the speaker as “the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”


Approximately 350 years after Aristotle it was the character of Jesus Christ – His life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection – that softened and persuaded the stone cold hearts of fathers, mothers, and children. Included among these changed hearts, was the apostle Paul who once wrote to the church in Philippi: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things (Philippians 4:8-9).”


1,600 years thereafter educational theorist, Michael Oakeshott, writes in his essay Teaching and Learning: “If you were to ask me the circumstances in which patience, accuracy, economy, elegance, and style first dawned upon me, I would have to say that I did not come to recognize them in literature, in argument, or in geometrical proof until I had first recognized them elsewhere; and that I owed this recognition to a certain gymnastics instructor who lived long before the days of physical education and for whom gymnastics was an intellectual art – and I owed it to him, not on account of anything he ever said, but because he was a man of patience, accuracy, economy, elegance, and style (Oakeshott, 1965).”


Today at Covenant Classical School, our parent and student handbook captures this concept of incarnational teaching in the following paragraph: “Most importantly, classical education means that teachers incarnate the ideals they teach. Their presence and character serve as the “text” in the classroom. While the great texts of the western tradition can speak for themselves, they speak most clearly, powerfully, and effectually through great teachers who embody their timeless truth, goodness, and beauty. Because students learn by imitation, the example of the teacher is paramount. This is why the ancient classical model involved students who lived with their teacher, so they could examine and ultimately imitate their lives. Nothing can replace the presence of an exceptional teacher. So, while the curriculum chosen and the methods used to teach the curriculum are important, the role of the teacher is most significant. The classical teacher is one who loves learning, truth, and the subject he teaches; he embodies the spirit of inquiry and the Spirit of Christ.  The relationship he has with students makes the vision of classical Christian education real (Covenant Classical School 2015-2016 Logic-Rhetoric Handbook).”


Just pause for a minute and consider the possibility of a dozen kindergarten students living in your home, constantly examining you and imitating you. Let your imagination run wild for a moment. Do you like what you see? While I am not proposing some kind of fantastic, perhaps horrific, or radical reform of laying down cots and sleeping bags, pitching tents in your backyards, and moving all of your students into your homes, I am asking that you consider what your students would conclude if they examined the in-between times and the after-school hours of your lives.


To the degree that there is congruence between the graduate we are hoping for our students to become and the example we are offering them in ourselves, this profile of the graduate becomes a more believable possibility and your example becomes more worthy of their imitation. May we not fool ourselves into thinking that the neglect of our own joy of learning and our spiritual formation is the sacrifice we must make to polish our lesson plans when this neglect may be more instructive, formative, influential, and memorable than the perfect delivery of a most excellent plan. Like the apostle Paul, might we also be able to say to our students, “These things you have seen in me – practice these things.” 


Incarnational teaching requires relationship. We must be committed both to being known as well as knowing and shepherding our students. We cannot hide behind our textbooks and our lecterns. I will be a more effective teacher if I love my subject out loud but love my students even more.


Building relationships, of course, requires discretion. Knowing and becoming known by your students includes a risk of a different kind – a risk of hurt and disappointment. 


David Smith describes this risk in his book Teaching and Christian Imagination as follows: “Why not retreat from engagement and settle for handing out information? Settle for a dispassionate presentation of what’s on the test and let students do with it what they will. Let teaching technique override relationship and truth. If I invest less of myself, there is less chance of hurt. If I minimize expectations and go through the motions, at least I will reduce the chances of being wounded by disappointment. …The spiritual and moral states of teacher and learner are part of what is at stake in classrooms; they might even be steering the pedagogical choices made. Are our own classroom choices molded by insecurity and fear of failure, or resentment of students for not sharing our passions and fulfilling our dreams…? (David Smith, in Teaching and Christian Imagination, 2011)”


There is for all teachers a temptation to withdraw and avoid the risk of our passionate investment neither being understood nor reciprocated. This risk is real and the pains of our most desperate moments in the classroom are for us, I dare say, a very small but real taste of crucifixion. Yet we all know that teaching is an act of self-giving unconditional Christ-like love toward our students. We choose to teach because we believe that the risks of hurt and disappointment are well-worth taking. Any fear we might have is quickly overcome with the hope that at least one of our students might be drawn unto, even transformed by our subject through our love for both the subject itself and more importantly, for the student that we risked loving. Have you not been most impacted by those who have most sacrificially and unconditionally loved you? Is this not the pedagogy of our Savior?


The student who believes that he is known and loved by you is naturally going to be more interested in knowing why you get so ridiculously excited about the subject matter you teach. They might even be baffled by the reality that the same man who is ready to listen to me, to empathize with me, to show me compassion, to love his wife and embrace his children, is the same man who gets giddy when he proves the fundamental theorem of calculus. Students ponder, “How can this kind of character and this kind of nerdiness exist in the same body?” and then wonder, “Perhaps this character, in some mysterious way, has been shaped by the content he loves so deeply.”


A treasured colleague and friend once described her profession as the art of loving out loud. It was not uncommon for me to hear her say to her math students, “Isn’t, that, cool?”, or “That, is awesome.” What do you remember about those teachers that most inspired you? Was it their exemplary character, their sacrificial love and service toward you, the eloquence of their explanations or the contagiousness of their affections or all of these things?



Having commanded their attention trough our character, won their hearts through our care, and peaked their interest through our affections, we are then more able to awaken the intellects of our students through a contemplation of beauty and a posture of wonder. 


Given that the majority of my own instructional experience has been in upper school mathematics, I am more than familiar with the demand for utility and the common question, “When are we ever going to use this?” This, as in this quadratic equation we are solving right now, this proof we are composing, this rational function we are graphing, this definite integral we are calculating. The honest answer is that it is very possible that you are not going to use this equation, this proof, this graph, and this calculation outside of the classroom ever again, certainly not after your graduation, no more than you are going to use this particular symphony or this particular painting or even this particular work of literature to solve some crisis or make some bankable professional advancement down the road. 


We must be careful, especially in those humanities that some have called the “hard sciences” to not reduce our motivation to learn to a matter of utility. Let us remember that a liberal arts education aims to order the affections of our students, to cultivate virtue, and to give students reasons to burst out into doxology – to not just pursue truth, goodness, and beauty in the curriculum but to also worship the God who is truth, who is good, and who is beautiful.


Let us regularly present beautiful ideas, works and objects of wonder to our students and make time and space for their contemplation. Let me offer an example to you of the transformative power of beauty in a synthesis of literature, art, language and scripture as I once experienced it in an upper school Latin readings course at Covenant. The class was translating the parable of the prodigal son from the Latin Vulgateinto English while a framed (not projected) print of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal painting was displayed at the front of the room. Augustine’s comments on the parable were read from The Confessionsand finally the class was asked to pause and quietly contemplate that the father’s embrace of the son in Rembrandt’s painting is the same embrace that we move and live and have our being in this day – forever wrapped up in the arms of a loving father who when we were still a long way off ran toward our broken and contrite hearts.


Is there any beauty of this kind in the hard sciences? Hear the words of Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Science instruction that aims only at practical application might unintentionally promote science as a means of mastery, manipulation and control of the natural world whereas for the ancients and medievals, an understanding of the natural world as a harmonious theophonic symphony drew them into a contemplation of its beauty and for the Christian, even a worship of its marvelous Creator. 


Umberto Eco explains in Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages: “Medieval symbolism, thus, expressed an aesthetic conception of the world. There were, however, two forms of it. Firstly, there was metaphysical realism related to the philosophical habit of discerning the hand of God in the beauty of the world. Secondly there was universal allegory; that is perceiving the world a divine work of art, of such a kind that everything in it possesses moral, allegorical, and anagogical meanings in addition to its literal meaning. …We have merely to cast our eye upon the visible beauty of the earth to be reminded of the immense theophonic harmony, of primordial causes, of the Divine Persons. The face of eternity shines through the things of the earth, and we may therefore regard them as a species of metaphor (Eco, 1986).”


If the face of eternity does indeed shine through the things of the earth, then teachers let us help our students see it shine. Let it shine through the beauty of epic poems, paintings, songs, a proof of the infinitude of primes, literary masterpieces, the harmony of the spheres, and the design of carnivorous plants.


Carnivorous plants? Yes. I once spent 30 minutes with a group of second grade students with books closed and imaginations wide open contemplating a plant five inches tall, spiny, colorful, sprouting tentacles, dripping with sugary ooze, luring in unsuspecting insects, trapping them upon its sticky blossoms, strangling them with its tentacles, digesting them with chemicals, sucking the nutrients from their body, and spitting their exoskeletons back upon the ground. What a beautiful horror and feat of engineering or in the words of author Kieran Egan, a wonder that exists “halfway between magic and the mundane (Egan, 2016).” Together the students and I stood from our seats and pretended to be insects flying around the room attracted to a student name Keira, our stand-in for a carnivorous plant, who smelled like fresh donuts, and was clothed in attracting neon leaves and zebra striped petals, luring us toward her desk only to find ourselves falling to the classroom floor being strangled by her tentacles and digested by her chemicals. One student reflected afterwards, “I have never seen a substitute teacher do that before.” Several other students went home and asked their parents where they could buy and raise their own pitcher plant, sundew, bladderwort, or Venus flytrap.


Now shift your attention with me from the plants of the earth to the skies. Imagine the night sky as a deep black and elastic tapestry. Let the sun be placed upon this fabric and stretch it downward like a boulder dropped onto a backyard trampoline. Then let a bowling ball be rolled onto the trampoline so that as it rolls past the boulder it is attracted toward it and curves left and in fact keeps curving left, orbiting the boulder on an elliptical path (like those pennies spiraling down through plastic funnels into donation buckets at the entrances of children’s museums). Then roll out seven more bowling balls of various weights across the trampoline. Let them all roll past and curve toward the boulder and toward one another in elliptical orbits at just the right speeds and on just the right trajectories to never collide with one another nor ever collapse upon the boulder. This is the solar system that caused Isaac Newton to write the following doxology in the Principia or Principles of Natural Philosophy, perhaps the most substantial work in the history of physics: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed stars are the centers of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One… This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all… (Newton, 1687).” How is it that my own undergraduate studies of mathematics and physics never once brought me into contact with this work and these words?


To awaken our students’ intellects and curiosity through a contemplation of beauty, to hope that they might become the authors of such doxologies, is to also reject a purely secular perspective on aesthetics that leaves students awash in a sea of relativity – treading water in the changing tides of cultural fads and personal opinions. A classical, and yes, distinctly Christian pedagogy recognizes that there exist forms, attributes, characteristics, events, and actions that can be objectively identified as beautiful and have the power to transform our students affections.


Isaiah 53: 2-7: (2) …he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. (3) He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (4) Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (5) But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (6) All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (7) He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.


Behold the power of the cross, both the ugliness and the beauty that has transformed our hearts. As author Philip Ryken observes in Art for God’s Sake, “…our [very] salvation is directed by a redemptive aesthetic (Ryken, 2006.)”


So as we conclude this second session together, let us remember that we are our student’s first text, that we must love our subjects out loud but our students even more, and that the intellects of our students can and should be awakened by wonder.


  1. What do you remember about those teachers that most inspired you? Was it their exemplary character, their sacrificial love and service toward you, the eloquence of they explanations or the contagiousness of their affections or all of these things?

  2. What would your students conclude about the aims and importance of their own education if they were to spend a week or more living with you?

  3. David Smith asks, "Are our own classroom choices molded by insecurity and fear of failure, or resentment of students for not sharing our passions and fulfilling our dreams?"

  4. Why must we be careful, especially in those humanities that some have called "hard sciences" to not reduce our motivation to learn to a matter of utility?

  5. Should we be closing our textbooks and opening our imaginations more often?

  6. What are we teaching our students about the nature of beauty / aesthetics in our classrooms? Are we neglecting to fight on this battlefront for out students' affections?



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