You might well question what a book written by a chess prodigy could possibly have to say about Christian faith and practice. The answer, made clear in a column in a religious news magazine to which I subscribe, is: plenty!
The book in entitled The Art of Learning and in it the author describes his own approach to learning, first as a child learning chess and then as a young adult learning to become a martial arts master. He distinguishes between two views of intelligence: one static and the other dynamic. The static view sees intelligence as something you either have or don’t have; the dynamic view stresses that people can, over time, master difficult material. A further distinction is this: those who follow the static view become brittle and are prone to quit when confronted by challenges, while those who follow the dynamic view tend to rise to a challenge by learning more.
The author says that many of his chess opponents relied on the static conviction that they could win because they were very smart and talented. But his coach insisted that he keep learning and to see learning as an activity of apprenticeship, marked by creativity. Little by little, he learned to respect and pay attention to perceiving, thinking, feeling and acting.
In this approach to learning, what matters is the quality of understanding and the mastery of fundamental skills more than quantity of knowledge or technique. It’s not a certain technique that drives us to the top, he says, but a profound mastery of basic skills. “Depth beats breadth any day of the week,” he writes, because it opens us to our hidden potential. This entire process of learning he calls “a journey in the pursuit of excellence.”
So how does this apply to Christian life and practice? Well, to start with, you could say that there are two views of the Christian life: the one static, the other dynamic. In the static view, you either have faith, hope, love, etc. or you don’t; in the dynamic approach, faith, hope, love and other fundamentals of the Christian life are learned and mastered over time.
The static view is reflected in traditions like ours in which confirmation is often viewed as a graduation ceremony and there’s no need for further learning. It’s also reflected in traditions in which once you get saved you are considered to be fully equipped to live the Christian life. Also, in the static view the Bible is static: it is taken as a closed book of commands, instructions, and information and answers that are to be memorized, obeyed, and applied without consideration of deeper understanding or the new thing God may be doing. In addition, in the static approach faith tends to grow brittle and is often shattered when faced with crises or challenges – to avoid being shattered, it must retreat from the world or attack perceived enemies.
The dynamic view sees confirmation or conversion as the beginning of the adult Christian journey, not the end of it. It also views the Bible as an invitation into a growing, deepening relationship with God which involves life-long learning and the mastering of Christian skills. And the faith that is acquired is not brittle but elastic: it is not based on a particular interpretation nor dependent on defending a certain view, but rooted in the God who follows his own purposes and calls on us to behold the new thing he is doing.
In this sense, the Christian life is a journey in pursuit of excellence: an excellence based on Christ’s life and death and resurrection. After all, that’s what Jesus himself was up to with his disciples. The gospels make clear that Jesus invited individuals to follow him on an adventure of learning faith and hope and love and thankfulness and joy – in other words, learning to love God and the neighbor. It’s what his parables, his teaching, his miracles, his actions toward others were all about: teaching his disciples about who God is and helping them master fundamental understandings and skills in order to grow toward an excellence in loving God and the neighbor. And what the gospels and the rest of the New Testament also make clear is that believers are never to stop learning, stop deepening their understanding, or close themselves off to the Spirit and the possibility of being led to new truths.
We are not born with faith or hope or Christ-like love implanted within us, nor are these things simply injected into us in a single moment or in a few classes when we are young. They must be learned and mastered over a lifetime of trying to live the Christian life. And that is why Sunday School, confirmation, Bible study, adult learning programs, service ministries and worship are so terribly important: it’s how we continue to learn the fundamentals and grow toward an excellence based on the Gospel of Christ and how we come to have a faith that is a match for this world and all that happens.
Learning Christ is a life-long journey during which much must be unlearned in order to learn the new thing Christ wants to teach us and those who, over the years, I have considered to reflect the excellence of Christ have been the very ones who have never thought of themselves as having arrived but as still having a long, long way to go.
God be with you,