Thoughts on Non-Academic Learning
This short paper is part of a collection of materials on ‘Learning theology while avoiding academic culture’, written by practitioners in England and Wales.
I am attempting to distil some of the importance, background and principles behind Non-Academic Theology and Learning. This is an urgent call for action as well as reforming our thoughts and assumptions. This is not an attack against academia or academic learning, rather an attack on practices and cultures that do not recognise the need for diversity.
These thoughts are inevitably incomplete and are a spur to conversation. Please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any suggestions or questions. I will keep the most up to date version of these here:
- Everyone is created in the image and likeness of God.
- The glory of God is a person fully alive, and a person fully alive is the glory of God.
- In Jesus we see God’s utter concern and love for people and especially those on the edge. In them we see Jesus.
- Christian discipleship is lived out in the community of the Church and of the parish in which we live; it is corporate; it is about being part of the Body of Christ.
- There can sometimes be (unexamined) assumptions that discipleship and theology have to be in a particular academic way. These can be dominant and enforce the power of particular groups.
- People who come from non-academic and non-middle class backgrounds should not be excluded from theology or anything else that is to do with the heart of God.
- There needs to be continual and unrelenting clarity that discipleship is about following Jesus; about carrying on his mission with the help of the Spirit.
- All learning should be clearly connected to the life of the Kingdom, of the Church and of the life of the disciple within this
- Courses, etc are about participation in the mission of the Church in the world and include attention to all the five Marks of Mission
- They should grow out of the local context and then go out into the world. Truth starts in the local and particular and then moves to the universal.
- Anything which is purely or predominantly about just increasing intellectual knowledge or inward piety should be avoided
- Programmes and the like that are produced by and for dioceses and parishes should be written and delivered in a way which is appropriate to the particular cultures and experiences we find in our outer estates and inner cities.
- Great attention needs to be paid to the circumstances of the people who take part in learning, discipleship and theology.
- Questions which need to be at the fore include:
- How are people who cannot read or do not like to read, or for whom English is a second language going to access this?
- What does this mean for people who may have low self-esteem and confidence?
- How does this speak to and honour a person or parish’s culture, heritage and history?
- Learning must be in a way that liberates and builds up.
- There must be recognition that people may have experienced education as a means of excluding, belittling or keeping them down.
- Different learning styles need to be spread throughout any course,
- There should be a predominance of those learning styles that fit the needs of folk from non-academic backgrounds
- While recognising that these will be varied, ways which are key in this context include putting things in a way which is practical, and using styles such as apprenticeship
- A great deal of attention needs to go into the group – forming a learning group and culture that is supportive
- There needs to be a great deal of attention paid to recruiting, forming and supporting those who are leading and teaching groups.
- Good practice should mean that there is always clarity on things like what people are supposed to learn in a session and how they are supposed to learn it.
- Discipleship is about much more than understanding and assenting to doctrine or expanding our knowledge base
- Learning and discipleship should reflect different spiritual styles
- Everything should be rooted in prayer which must not be divided into into a separate sphere
- Christian life and learning involves our liturgies
- The use of story is essential in this. People exploring God’s story and how their story fits into this. People telling stories. (Examples of stories in estate context can be found at http://www.jesusshapedpeople.net/#!stories/c1s5x)
- There should always be practical examples and questions which connect clearly to the life and experience of the participant
- How can they be appropriate to and reflective of our contexts so that people may be drawn to worship and participate in the life of God?
- Eating together and sharing food is central to Christian – and human – life
- We need to recognise that people are often under very great pressure due to structural and pastoral circumstances beyond their control
- There needs to be good pastoral care as part of all this
- And also a grappling with the time it is realistic to expect people to spend on something
- There is a difficult balance between something needing to be of length in order to get into the culture of a place, and the time it is realistic to expect people to devote to something
- Those running the courses need to understand and support the people taking part in them
- There needs to be realism about attendance and about how much people can do beyond coming and taking part
- People do not necessarily have access to computers or the internet.
- People may not be able to afford course fees, transport, or have access to bank accounts or chequebooks to pay for things
- People do not necessarily use diaries. Text messages can be a good reminder, but people may not have credit on their phones.
- People should not be excluded due to circumstances of local culture or economic circumstances.
- There needs to a consistent house style for most of a course so that people feel safe
- People should not be expected to travel far
- There is great value in having a number of people from the same or neighbouring parishes learning together
- This helps with key issues around confidence and entitlement
- Working together as a parish or as a group from a parish reminds us of the essentially corporate nature of discipleship and the Church.
iii. Learning from this
- Attention needs to be paid to appropriate ways of assessing or catching what people have learned
- How can we assess the effect any piece of learning has had on an individual and a Church?
- What are people being equipped to do? Have they been able to do it?
- Attention needs to be paid to what is being learned and for what purpose
- Discipleship is wider than roles within the Church. It includes service in the community, at work, and being empowered to get better work. How are we fostering this?
- What pathways are in place for people to go forward when they have finished a particular course?
- If there are no pathways or if they exclude particular groups of people, what does this mean for the Church?
- And what do we do about it?
- The Church of God has a great deal it can learn from people from non-academic backgrounds, and from parishes and other groups which can often be perceived as marginal
- Do we want to replicate things as they are, or do we want to be open to the possibility that non-academic theology might open new avenues of life for us?
- How can people find out and decide what they need to know rather than having this placed upon them?
- Is the place to start here with and in Jesus insofar as we can? Where else could we possibly start?
- How can we ensure that we allow space for the Holy Spirit to act (perhaps in spite of us) and for grace to occur?
- Attention needs to be paid to some of the elements of discipleship the Church can find hard such as being and acting in prophetic and critical ways
- Non-academic learning is not about special pleading but is central to the life of God’s Church
- How can we cultivate big hearts that include and which enable us to learn from our mistakes?
– Andy Delmege, May 2016