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Learning as Discipleship

Discipleship and learning are not often thought of together, and yet discipleship is fundamentally about being a learner.

Think of the disciples, they learnt from Jesus for three years. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and is commended for having chosen what is better. Learning, yet more than just their minds were being transformed.

But we compartmentalise life. Without thinking, we have separated out God and discipleship from the rest of life, and in doing so bought into the myth that everything that isn’t spiritual is ‘neutral.’ This includes learning. How can studying ancient civilisations or the world of Dickens be anything more than gaining useless knowledge?

I think part of our problem derives from the glorification of curiosity. We see curiosity as a virtue today, whereas it has historically been seen as a vice. ‘Pursue your interests,’ we are told, but as soon as our interest fades, we flit onto our next fancy. There is no discipline, no great love for the topic which perseveres when that initial desire to simply know grows cold. No depths have been delved, no humility gained from the recognition of our miniscule and finite grasp on the vast wealth of knowledge in that area. We cannot see the Creator in and through learning because we do dwell with the knowledge long enough to appreciate it and allow it to direct us to the Mind behind.

These virtues that are no longer pursued are the very aspects of learning that shape us as disciples. The putting to death of our fleshly desires to be distracted; the submission of ourselves to something greater; the humility of allowing ourselves to be corrected and recognising that the learning we gain and the study we do may not bring recognition for ourselves, but may simply serve another, may simply be a seed planted that is harvested by someone else; the reminder that we are creatures in this intricate and expressive world that all depends on and points to the Creator- these are all exercises in the academic life that form our inner man.

But superficial curiosity is concerned with outward growth like the cursed fig tree, the quick information that appears to be knowledge but is devoid of real fruit when questioned. Amongst the frenzy of the ‘Kingdom of Noise’ in which we live, learning and contemplation become harder as we are constantly bombarded with content. It is hard to slow down in a world that values busyness. It is hard to invest in thoughts when we measure productivity by output. It is hard to think in a media saturated world, where words have become the currency by which you can buy social approval. It’s hard to be transformed by the renewing of your mind when everyone is telling you what to think, and we are afraid to be left alone with our thoughts. We do not allow ourselves to contemplate and make connections, and so have lost the connection between learning and discipleship.

So what can we do? The more I reflect on this, the more I feel we have to actively shut out the noise which exists only to distract and satisfy our curiosities. Social media, the news, purposeless entertainment on YouTube, even TV shows, what purpose do these things serve except to satisfy our curiosities and feed procrastination? Part of discipleship is discipline, something we need to seek to recover in our undisciplined world today.

A sign in a Newcastle park encouraging the vice of curiosity.


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