Think Critically, Question Constantly, Learn Continuously, See Connections

Dear Kimberly,

I was moved by your March 30 post as you continued our discussion of empathy and othering.  Our conversation seems especially timely in view of  a number of events that have occurred since you wrote that letter: the death of civil rights leader Dorothy Height, the passing of the harsh immigration law in Arizona, the convening of the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Bolivia, to mention just a few.

All of these events relate in some way to what you were talking about in your letter.  I could hear and feel your frustration and irritation—even stomach-churning reactions—in response to certain book lists, syllabi, or discussions in your classes. On the other hand, from our various phone conversations, I know that other courses and classes did not disappoint you but rather stimulated new research ideas, introduced you to greater diversity, and enabled you to see connections between race, gender, and sexuality. Your thoughts after reading Jonathan Freedman’s Klezmer America make that clear.  You seem to be in a new stage of awakening, Kim.

But what I want to talk about here is this paragraph from your letter.  You wrote:

“Letha, perhaps you might have some advice on this for me? I feel as though I am in a rich stage of learning, but everything feels disrupted. I don’t know so many of my new reference points. I do know that gender must be studied within the complexity of so many other things—racism, heterosexism, classism, colonialism—and yet the task can feel overwhelming to me. There are ever so many moments of feeling like a beginner all over again.”

My advice is summed up in the title I’ve given to this post: Think critically, question constantly, learn continuously, and see connections.    Let me explain.

Think Critically

You’re already thinking critically, because you are mentally analyzing, arguing with, debating, and questioning many of your reading materials. You’ve been examining your course syllabi and looking over your assignments with a critical eye. And you’ve been bringing to them certain expectations based on what you’ve already been thinking about over the past several years, along with trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together and where you go from there.

What’s exciting is this: If some of your expectations and hopes are dashed and you’re concerned that certain perspectives may be missing in the course assignments, don’t despair. You can be the one to supply what’s missing—not necessarily to challenge your professors but rather to contribute to and enhance the materials already on the list. You can be the maker of your own expanded list. You can be the supplier of your own learning resources.

One way would be to think about what you would be doing and what materials you’d be recommending if you were teaching a particular class.  It’s possible you will be teaching such a class someday.  Or if you don’t go on to a classroom career, you’ll be teaching others through your writing, as you’re already doing!

You said you feel “like a beginner all over again.”  But that’s OK.  We’re all beginners over and over again as we come into contact with new information, face new challenges, ask new questions, and look for our own answers.

Question Constantly

Constantly asking new questions is crucial.  Think about the curiosity of a small child.  Kids are always asking “Why?”  When we read or hear new ideas we, too, need to be asking why questions.  “If this is true,why is it true? How can I know this is true?  What is the evidence?  How does this fit with my own experience and the experience of others that I know?  How might it fit with the experience of others that I don’t know? And how can I learn about their experiences so that I can practice true empathy?  And what does all this mean in the total picture?”

You and I are writing these letters from the standpoint of our Christian feminism. Feminism has questioning at its very roots. Seeking gender equality has always involved the questioning of tradition, the questioning of the status quo, the questioning of the limitations that have been placed on girls and women historically—even though we who are female are persons who make up half of humankind and who have brains and desires to learn and grow and achieve no less than is true of men (who have also been affected in different ways by cultural and religious expectations).

My first articles on Christian feminism, published in 1966 and 1968 sprang from my own questions. In fact, the first of those two articles was written in a way that consisted mainly of questions—questions that I was raising to challenge conventional thinking on the roles of women in the church, particularly within the evangelicalism with which I identified.  I didn’t feel the questions were being asked at the time so thought I’d raise them myself. Maybe that was presumptuous of me, but I wanted to get the discussion started at least!

We both know, however, that questioning is not always welcome in Christian circles.  From what you’ve told me, I know you were aware of that even as a teenager.  Often the assumption is that all the answers are already in and that questions should be discouraged—that walking by faith somehow disallows questioning.  Questioning is often viewed as doubting God.  After all, someone may argue, the first recorded question in the biblical story is the tempter’s “Yea, hath God said?”   But the Bible contains lots of question marks. Questions are how we learn.

Jesus asked a lot of questions as a way of teaching his followers, and he also answered a lot of questions that his listeners posed to him.  True, some questions were trick questions by certain religious leaders who wanted to trap him (which he handled in ways that always amazed them), but there were also many questions that were asked out of a sincere desire to learn from Jesus.  Jesus never discouraged that but encouraged his followers to find new ways to read, understand, and apply the truths of Scripture. “So he told them, ‘Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom” (Matthew 13:51, CEV).

Some of your questions may be leading you to discover “new treasures,” Kimberly —new insights and new ways of interpreting Scripture and applying it to our times with all their challenges.

So never despair when you think that too many questions are being left unanswered or may not even be raised in some of your classes in the way you’d like them to be.  It just means that you have the exciting task of finding your own answers!  You have the task of filling in the gaps. And better yet, you can then communicate your answers to others.  As I mentioned earlier, most of my own writing originated in seeking answers to my own questions and then sharing my discoveries and thought processes (and sometimes further questions) through the articles and books I wrote.

I think you’re already finding this to be true in your own life and writing.  Don’t ever, ever let your questioning stop, Kimberly!  Embrace the questioning, and think of life as an ongoing adventure of finding answers.

Learn Continuously

You might wonder why I chose the word continuously rather than continually. But I mean it in the sense of never stopping.  Unceasing learning is like unceasing prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  To “pray without ceasing” means being aware that we are constantly in communion with God, constantly in God’s presence, constantly in a conversation with God (Psalm 139).

Learning is like that. It means keeping our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds open constantly so that we are in some sense interacting with every new piece of knowledge that comes into our lives—whether through what we read, hear, or see through various media, or whether it’s through direct interactions with people who enter our lives or even just cross our paths.  Everything can contribute to our experience of learning.

But as you’ve been realizing, learning is incomplete if we don’t listen to the voices of those whose background and experiences are different from our own. And I know you want to hear those voices, which is why you were so disappointed when you looked at that one syllabus and didn’t find books fromwomen whose racial and ethnic backgrounds are different from your own (although you did find some of their articles, if not books, on the list). And as you said, the male authors of the books listed were not from the dominant culture but provided voices of minorities.  (Of course, even that kind of inclusion in school curricula was way too long in coming!)

But here is where your own task of filling in the gaps comes into play.  Look for works from such missing authors on library shelves and in bookstores. And the Internet is such a wonderful way to hear such voices (even their actual voices) through audio and video resources.  (I have thanked God— and I mean that literally—that I have lived long enough to experience all the rich resources available online.  It’s like having a world library right at my fingertips every day!)

Take, for example, the three news items that I mentioned at the outset of this letter: the death of Dorothy Height, the Arizona law on immigration, and the World People’s Summit on Climate Change. We can learn so much about them just from what’s available on the Internet outside of the classroom, including excellent primary sources.

Dorothy Height was an important leader in the civil rights movement and in the women’s movement.  Yet, she was lesser known than many others.  But we can learn so much by becoming aware of her accomplishments, her struggles, and her overcoming of obstacles as she faced both the gender and racial inequities in our society.  We can listen to her tell about all this in her own words!  Take some time to click on this link and listen to these video clips of Dorothy Height as presented by the National Visionary Leadership Project, which makes available primary source material by recording and preserving the wisdom of African American elders so that their experiences and wisdom can be passed on to younger generations.  The brilliance and resilience of Dorothy Height comes through, for example in her stories of the sexism and racism she had to deal with, even as a teenager.  And they can inspire all of us.

Or take the recent immigration issues in the news.  How do we relate these attitudes and actions to our efforts to see the interconnections between race, gender, classism, and all the other concerns you mentioned?  In all of these matters, we always need to keep before us the human face of all those involved as we try to sort things through. Some materials and links provided by Sojourners can be very helpful in that regard.

Or to take still another example, Kimberly, when you talked about economic classism and colonialism (which is really about systems of privileged “haves” with the power and wealth to dominate over the “have nots,”), I couldn’t help but think of the brilliant pedagogical theories of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Have you read his Pedagogy of the Oppressed? He said that “the oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. . . everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal. . . .To the oppressor consciousness, the humanization of the ‘others,’ of the people, appears not as the pursuit of full humanity, but as subversion” (pp. 44-45 in the 1986 edition).

I’ve been thinking again about some of his ideas recently since learning about the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  I chanced upon a public radio broadcast about it in April. (You can watch it as well as hear it and read it on the link above. As a feminist, you may especially want to listen to the answer given when a woman was asked how women in particular have been affected by soil and water contamination.) It is crucial to hear from indigenous people themselves as they tell in their own words how they are directly affected when powerful interests, driven by greed and a sense of entitlement, disregard what their actions are doing to human beings and the planet on which we live.  It’s painful to hear ordinary people tell how exploitative mining and deforestation have impacted their lives and livelihoods.

Part of our learning continuously through life is opening our minds and hearts to those who propose a different way to regard and treat Mother Earth (or “Pachamama” to use their term), the home God has given all of us to share together.

See Connections

Kim, I know it’s not difficult at all for you to see how all of these news items fit together as part of our discussion on empathy as an antidote to othering.   I’m sure you can see the connections immediatelybecause you’ve so often told me that intersectionality is one of your biggest concerns as a feminist of faith.

And that brings me to my final point. If, in a sense, we’re going to be our own educators throughout life by thinking critically, questioning constantly, and learning continuously, we also need to always be on the lookout to see connections–associations.  How does everything we read, or hear, or experience fit together?

We will find ourselves constantly thinking, What is this teaching me?  What are some ways that “this” might relate to “that”?  How does what I am seeing, hearing, observing, reading, watching relate to a particular teaching of Scripture?  How does this illuminate some aspect of feminism?  How can I keep from compartmentalizing and instead make sure that all that I experience in my daily life and learning is not separated from my faith and my feminism and to other aspects of social justice?

As we live consciously in an “always looking for connections” way,  we are likely to find that something we hear or see that might seem to someone else to be totally unrelated suddenly provides us with a new insight, a new way of understanding, a fresh illustration of a particular concept or theory.  Seeing connections is a main component of creativity.

Speak Out and Share

But we can’t stop with only seeing connections with and between ideas.  Both you and I also care deeply about another kind of connection– connections with people.  Our various writings are one way we can speak out and share with others what we have learned. This blog not only provides a way to communicate with each other as friends across the generations but also connects us to readers scattered in various places.  At the close of your last letter, you spoke of your gratitude for our readers’ comments and assured them we read every one.  I echo what you said.

And incidentally, if any of our readers are able to attend the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today Gathering in Indianapolis in June, we would love to meet you in person, as we present an “Intergenerational Christian Feminist Dialogue,” along with Erin Lane (Beam), on Friday afternoon, June 18, 2010. You can find full information through this link.

Kim, I’m so glad that your schedule has worked out so that you can be there, and I’m really looking forward to seeing you again and working with you there!  I think many of our readers may be surprised to know that even though we’ve been in touch constantly through email and through occasional phone calls, you and I have only ever met once in person.  That meeting, too, was at an EEWC conference in Indianapolis, as our “About 72-27” page explains.  Maybe we can have another milkshake at the sidewalk cafe again this time!

As always, I look forward to your response to this post and to your thoughts about what I guess amounts to my personal philosophy of lifelong learning!  See what happens when you ask for my advice about something?

Your friend,
Letha

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