Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Have to say, as an educator in various shapes and forms for 30 years now, I find this passage really hard. With a bit of rewording we are describing a stereotypical mathematics teacher. "I teach you mathematics so that you will hear but not understand, see but not perceive. I will deaden your interest in the subject so that your ears will become dull and your eyes closed. I will ensure that my teaching is bad, because otherwise you might see with your eyes, hear with your ears, understand with your hearts, turn and enjoy the subject and see its wonderful potential. I do these things principally in order to demonstrate how clever I am and how stupid you are, and also to establish mathematics as a secret garden accessible only to a small elite of whom I am one and you are not."
I mean, no, no, no, no, no, no, NNNNNNOOOOOO!!!!!!!! Is it possible to make this any clearer in writing? This undermines everything I have stood for for the entirety of my professional life. I want mathematics to be open, accessible, enjoyable, meaningful to everyone, with clear connections between developing topics, other subjects and the outside world. Secret garden, accessible to only a few, meaningless to the majority? No!
So how do I reconcile my professional and Christian values? Before I try to answer that question, let me dig the hole a bit deeper. This is absolutely not one of the issues in which we can say that New Testament teaching supersedes that in the Old, eg. the eating of pork and male circumcision. In Matthew 13:13-15 our Lord Jesus Christ quotes exactly this passage in answering his disciples as to why He used parables in His teaching after He told the parable of the sower. Now let's make sure we're understanding this: Jesus said that He used parables in order that people should not understand, and should not respond. Doesn't sound right, does it?
A passage which may help understand the underlying issues here is this:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25.
Again, this does not sit comfortably with me as an educator. I don't like the idea of teaching things which are stumbling blocks and foolishness, I like things to be understood, clear, intelligible.
How do we make sense of these passages? Let me suggest a possibility, do let me know what you think particularly if you disagree. My understanding of God's words to Isaiah in Isaiah 6, following Isaiah's commission as a prophet, is that they can reasonably be paraphrased as follows: "It is your job to preach My Word, and Mine to worry about how it is received." This still isn't entirely comfortable, I do want to worry about how messages I speak are received, then to modify them, restate them, help people to understand. But if we combine this with an understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in speaking directly to people's hearts, maybe this does start to make sense.
And then, addressing the point in the 1 Corinthians passage, I wonder how many Christians have been made to feel really stupid as colleagues or friends who are antagonistic towards the faith have forensically gone through a number of key beliefs and made them sound nonsensical - the deity of Jesus, His birth, death, resurrection and ascension, the work of the Holy Spirit, miracles, the nature of Israel as God's chosen people to name but a few. I certainly have! As Christians we believe these things are true, and that the extent to which we are made in God's image means there's a voice inside absolutely everyone proclaiming this - albeit it may be very muted for some! But looked at objectively, from the outside, we have to agree with St Paul, I think, what we believe is foolishness and a stumbling block.
I would say that this line of thought indicates the need for a level of humility when we are, as Christians, in a position of strength, considering other faiths and even cults with what seem to us outlandish beliefs, and need to avoid the temptation to ridicule and dismiss these beliefs as others can dismiss ours. St Paul can help us here, I think, in his example in Acts 17 in Athens when his starting point for preaching was their 'Unknown god'.
And as for Jesus's use of Isaiah 6 after telling the parable of the sower, is the following a reasonable understanding of what He said? In a largely pre-literate age He deliberately used strong visual images in His stories in order that the stories would be remembered, retold and written down even if not understood at the time. And again there's the importance of preaching the message irrespective as to how it is received.
So what do we make of all of this in the context of communicating the gospel? The principal message seems to me to be this: do not try to soften the gospel as we communicate it. Acknowledge the nature and consequences of sin, keep to a Biblical understanding of sexual ethics however unpopular that might make us, do not promise a life free of problems or of material prosperity. In this context, show love to all - after all, parents loving their children does not mean that they are happy with everything that they do. Accept that retaining these thoughts may make us look foolish in certain situations, that is part of the deal we have signed up for as Christians. Pray for the people who speak harshly to us that the Holy Spirit would work in their hearts to convict them of the truth of our words in the fullness of time.
But looking at things somewhat differently, do I think that as an educator I have expertise which can usefully be applied in a Christian context? Yes, absolutely I think that. I like the idea that in sermons we keep true to the gospel message whilst adapting to the understanding and experience of the people present, looking to use summaries on notice sheets, PowerPoint slides, discussion in home groups afterwards to reinforce these points and take them on. I like the idea of finding ways of applying the knowledge learnt in simulations on in real situations. I like the idea of applying Piagetian psychology particularly in a Sunday School context, as children's understanding of god typically goes from very concrete to more abstract - although many children do not make this transition and reject God altogether as they reject the image of God as an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. I like the idea of using Vygotsky's zone of proximal development in building people's understanding in a clear sustainable way. I like good use of bill board space outside of church buildings to communicate a clear and / or provocative message and to communicate service times. I like the idea that we go about teaching in a variety of different ways over time. And with all kinds of ways of communicating available now that were not previously available - blog, Facebook, Instagram, email and many others - let's use these opportunities boldly yet sensitively to proclaim Christ.
To summarise: let's use all resources at our disposal to communicate the gospel clearly, widely and boldly. And as we do so, let's ensure that the integrity of the message we proclaim is retained. Bwana Yesu asifiwe! - the Lord Jesus be praised!