Before he let me go to seminary, my bishop (this is of course way back in the dark ages) wanted me to spend time in the “real world.” I managed to become a junior high math teacher on an Indian reservation, one of the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico.
It was at least a piece of the real world, and it was hard going. But afterwards, my wife inscribed a book to me: “For Victor, who taught division to Dominick.” Apparently I had been successful at least in teaching one person one thing.
You’ll sometimes see people call for “Christian education.” But what is Christian education? Is there Christian junior high mathematics? Yes there is, I will say, but Christian mathematics is just good mathematics.
You might think, okay, but what about ethics? Even there, some have argued, there’s no such thing as “Christian ethics,” there’s just ethics. Christian ethics is about what’s good for human beings; it’s about living as God wants us to live and as he has called us to live. And to live that way is satisfying to us; it is true human flourishing. Yes, this life is in Christ, and so you could say it’s “Christian.” But it’s not thereby un-human or super-human. It’s just ethics, because the gospel is for everybody’s flourishing.
But let me go back to other subjects. Take medicine. Do you want a Christian doctor? Actually, I just want a good doctor.
(Have I told you this one before? I was told, when you’re sick, get a Jewish doctor, not a Catholic, because the Catholics believe in eternal life!)
Some of you reading this will have been mentors or coaches of young people, helping them learn English or math, helping them develop good study skills, helping them do well so that they can flourish in our society. And you might not think that what you are doing is Christian. After all, you weren’t teaching them Bible stories, you were teaching them algebra or history, and you were teaching them how to build up habits of sitting down and studying.
Such work is, in fact, deeply Christian. To learn anything that’s true is to draw closer to the Truth. Our dear Jesus, as he drew close to the moment of his supreme self-offering, said he is the way, the truth, and the life. There is nothing true that is alien to Jesus, and every approach to any truth is an approach to him.
So, bravo to all teachers! And thank God for all our teachers!
Yet we also need people who not only draw us closer to truth, but who help us see that Truth has a name and a human history. These are people like Sunday school teachers, catechists, writers such as C. S. Lewis and Tim Keller, parish clergy, and sometimes friends who just informally open things up for us. We need these people so that we can know the story of Jesus ourselves, and the greater story of creation, redemption, and future consummation. We need them because they put us in position to embrace this story and make it our own.
Teachers of the Christian faith do not call us to conversion and commitment, but they set all the pieces in place so that, if God so moves us, we can consciously embrace our place in that story. They teach us for instance how to repent and receive forgiveness and amend our lives and offer forgiveness to others.
All teaching is of God and for God. To be able to participate in that—to be called as a teacher in any form, but perhaps especially as a catechist or theologian—is a privilege that is almost unspeakably wonderful.