How Does Learning Deepen Joy?

Audio Transcript

As Thursday’s episode ended, Pastor John, you had just begun to talk about the joy of learning. We’ll never understand your model for lifelong learning or education if we leave the affections and emotions out of the equation. This explains why joy and feeling — terms of emotion and affection — are terms we see all over your older book Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. In that book, you mentioned those terms — joy and feeling — 110 times, closely linking proper thinking with proper feeling. Think is twelve and a half years old.

I was eager to see how often you used the joy or feeling language in this new book, and they dominate even more! The words joy and feeling appear 357 times in your new book, Foundations for Lifelong Learning: Education in Serious Joy. They’re all over this new book — to the point you make this claim explicitly: “Some people think that emotions are marginal in the task of education. We regard them as essential.” Unpack this. What essential role do joy and feeling play in Bible-learning and in all our learning?

This is so, so important for understanding the nature of true education. When I try to help people understand what we are doing at Bethlehem College & Seminary, or what I am doing in my life, I regularly mention the following six habits of mind and heart that we’re trying to build into the lives of our students or that I’m trying to build into my own life. They apply both to college and seminary students and to everybody else who will listen.

“Education is the formation of a mature disciple of Christ who can go on learning for a lifetime.”

At Bethlehem College & Seminary, we don’t think education is mainly the imparting of information or mainly the training of a technical skill. Mainly, it’s the formation of a mature disciple of Christ who can go on learning for a lifetime of wisdom and wonder in whatever vocation God calls them. So, when I’m trying to help folks understand what we do, I mention these six habits: observation, understanding, evaluation, feeling (alarm bells go off), application, and expression.

The order is really important because these habits are governed by a Christ-exalting, God-centered, Bible-saturated worldview. First we observe accurately — we’re honest people. Then we understand truly what we’ve observed. Then we evaluate fairly on the basis of accurate observation and true understanding. Then we feel appropriately. Then, in all the ways of wisdom, we apply what we have observed, understood, evaluated, and felt. Then we give expression with our mouth (and in writing) in compelling ways that glorify God and bring blessing to people.

Why Feel?

What I find is that it’s the fourth habit of mind and heart that puzzles people. It causes them to have a kind of question mark on their face. It’s the same one that you are asking about, Tony. Feeling or joy — or whatever appropriate emotions — should arise as one is observing and understanding and evaluating. We observe, we understand, we evaluate, and then we feel appropriately, I say.

And people wonder, “Really? Really? I mean, one of your six aims of a college education or a seminary education is feeling?” The answer is a resounding and unashamed yes. When all is said and done in education, this may be the one habit of mind that distinguishes true education from artificial intelligence.

At one level, computers observe, understand, evaluate, apply, and express, but no computer will ever love or hate or admire or hope or rejoice or sympathize. No matter what emotional words the computer speaks out, and it doesn’t matter what a computer says, it’s not going to happen. These are distinctively human acts of the God-created image of God’s soul.

Not Optional or Peripheral

And these emotions are all-important in the Bible. The number one commandment in the Bible is not “know the Lord your God,” but “love the Lord your God with all your heart” — all of it, all your heart (Matthew 22:37). Then Paul said, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22). He also said that the whole Old Testament was written that “we might have hope,” an emotion (Romans 15:4).

Over and over, we are commanded to “rejoice” in the Lord (Psalm 70:4), to “serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2). We are commanded to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). We’re commanded to “be . . . tenderhearted” (Ephesians 4:32). “Tenderhearted” — that’s not a thought; it’s a feeling. We’re also commanded to feel compassion (Colossians 3:12).

These are not optional. They’re not peripheral in the Bible. They are essential to being a whole human being, an educated human being. They are essential to being a Christian. Nobody is saved by thinking true thoughts about God or even by believing true things about God.

The devil believes more true things about God than we do because he knows more than we know about God, but he hates these things that he knows about God. That’s a feeling — he hates them. It’s not what he thinks that’s the problem, but that he feels all the wrong things. That’s what makes him the devil.

Shall we neglect in education the very thing that sets us apart from the demons, the very thing that fulfills the Great Commandment? Shall we neglect the very thing that shows we’re not mere walking computers? We are humans created in the image of God.

That’s why we seek to build into our own lives, and the lives of our students and our APJ listeners right now, the habits of observing accurately, and understanding truly, and evaluating fairly, and — I wish I could scream it from the housetops — feeling appropriately, and applying wisely, and expressing compellingly.

‘Men with Chests’

When we say “feeling appropriately,” we mean that there are healthy, mature, and virtuous emotions in response to different realities. Then there are unhealthy, immature, and evil emotions in response to different realities.

It’s evil to rejoice over the spreading of a lie. It’s a sign of mental unhealth not to feel empathy for a fellow Christian languishing in prison for his faith. It’s a sign of emotional immaturity to giggle at a slipup in a public communication. This is the real stuff of education. Knowledge is good; knowledge is necessary. Love is better. A critical mind is a gift; a well-formed soul with deep and virtuous emotions is a greater gift.

C.S. Lewis — we love Lewis — wrote about education in The Abolition of Man. Alan Jacobs, in his biography of Lewis, sums up Lewis’s point in The Abolition of Man like this: “Lewis passionately believed that education is not about providing information so much as cultivating ‘habits of the heart’ — producing ‘men with chests,’ as he puts it in his book The Abolition of Man.”

Then here’s his explanation of men with chests: “People who not only think as they should but respond as they should, instinctively and emotionally, to the challenges and blessings the world offers to them” (xxiii). To which I say, “Exactly. Exactly.” Education aims at right thinking about the world and right emotional responses to the world.

What Makes a Feeling Virtuous?

Now of course, once we say and believe that, we are launched into the massive question of what makes a feeling virtuous. This is why secular colleges and universities cannot state the aims of their education the way we do. They cannot say that their aim is to build into their students’ lives the habit of forming virtuous feelings because there’s no consensus in the universities about what makes a feeling virtuous.

When it comes to a feeling about sex outside of marriage, a feeling about trying to change your sex, a feeling about killing unborn children, a feeling about certain economic strategies, or a feeling about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation, secular institutions have no way that they can agree on what is a virtuous feeling in response to those massive realities. This is a tragedy when you think about it, that our kids are being educated in institutions that cannot state their goals that way.

“We are not well-educated people until we can respond to reality in healthy, mature, virtuous ways.”

The fact that in this new book, Foundations of Lifelong Learning, I include an entire chapter on the lifelong educational goal of appropriate or virtuous feelings only makes sense because I believe in radically Christian, Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting education. This podcast, that book, Bethlehem College & Seminary, all of this, all my life, aims at cultivating the mental and emotional habit of experiencing virtuous feelings. A virtuous feeling in response to an accurately observed, rightly understood, truly evaluated object is a glorious thing.

Educated for Joy

Yes, a virtuous feeling is a glorious thing. A virtuous feeling is an authentic overflow of the good treasure of the heart of faith. A virtuous feeling is shaped and intensified and limited by the fruit of the Holy Spirit. A virtuous feeling is an expression of love to God and people, even when it is hatred of evil. A virtuous feeling is a Christ-exalting feeling.

We are not well-educated people until we can respond to reality in healthy, mature, virtuous ways, as we feel appropriately. That will include abhorrence of what is evil (Romans 12:9). It will include sympathy for the suffering (Romans 12:15). It will include fear of any hint of unbelief rising in my heart (Romans 11:20). It will include overflowing joy in response to the gospel of the grace of God (2 Corinthians 8:2).

That’s why the subtitle of the new book is “Education in Serious Joy.” Joy will be the dominant feeling for the Christian in this life, but in a world like ours, it will be serious, even sorrowful, joy.

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