Imitation and Contemplation

The first act of God in creating our world was to create a form, a pattern, and then to fill it with created beings.  This is true of our world and the “other” world.  The one He filled with animals, plants, and us.  The other he filled with angels.  But these acts of forming and filling are very relevant to us as we consider what constitutes an excellent Biblical education.  When parents entrust a school to provide a Christian education to their child, they are asking teachers to form and to fill that child.  With these ideas in mind, I wish to show how the two most basic acts of education are found in these creative ideas.  All education can to some degree be reduced without loss of its beauty and fullness to that of imitation and contemplation.

Christian education must admit that the student and teacher who walk together into the classroom are formed in the Image of God, and though sin has surely warped and despoiled this form, it is still there, desperately yearning to return to its created original shape.  The teacher must then be a more mature, wiser, more sanctified former of the younger student’s form.  Rousseau and his buds over the last many years have confused this by claiming that a child enters life well formed and is ruined by environment or power or the like.  We must not fall for this lie but rather understand from the beginning that education is formative first and foremost.

So how does this forming occur?  It is mostly in the form of imitation.  A student learns to read by listening to others read and then learning to read himself through this forming or imitative process.  Dads, this is the reason why you need to read to your kids, every night, through grammar school, and continues to read with them frequently through the rest of life.  Seriously.  A student learns virtue through narrative.  He imagines in his mind the hero (the good guy) of the story and then with formative guidance learns to want to be like that hero in his own life.  He observes a mathematical problem and then seeks to recreate what he has seen again and again with guided imitation.  As one poet musician said it well, “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief” (U2, “The Fly,” 1990).

But a form must be filled with something.  And we all know that everyone young human child is quickly filled with a great deal that is wonderful, and much that we wish had not “gotten in there.”  The teacher who is continuously forming a wise and virtuous student must be leading the student to the right “filler” by providing content and ideas that are true, good, and beautiful.  And my careful wording should be noted here: I said they should be led to, not simply “fed” the right filling.  They will be continuing to fill their renewed form for the rest of their lives so the wise educator and parent are both seeking to train the student in their appetites.  We cannot possibly give them everything they need to know, but we can teach them the right sources from which to seek what they need.  This is what leads me to call this filling act “contemplation.”  We are seeking to give the student time to fill his form with his own learning, not simply dropping in our prepackaged “knowledge parts.”

I think these ideas are building on our discussion a few weeks back about the difference of approaching education from the farm or the factory model.  When we seek to form and fill we are much closer to an organic cultivation rather than a simple transference of information.  And this is a much more enlivening way to teach.  When the focus of our teaching becomes the dispensing of information as the end of education, then teachers lose heart.  All you have to do is ask last year’s students a few simple questions from the content of your course and you immediately realize how fleeting such knowledge acquisition is.  When the focus is on forming a Christian mind and filling it with truth, goodness, and beauty, the whole student is changed indelibly into a new person.  The student embodies what has been taught.  This is permanent.  It is eternal.  It is Christ using others to bring the student back to his original form in the Image of God.

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