Deep into the throes of last semester—at that juncture when I invariably lose the pedagogical forest for the trees—I noticed a reoccurring discussion across each of my classes. While my courses focus uniquely on topics such as analyzing social welfare policies, child welfare practices, and grant writing—one pressing and underlying question kept emerging. That is, how does one create policies and programs that actually help the people who need them versus facilitating a [soul-crushing] dependency that thwarts one’s need to be creative and productive? An amusing side note is that I apparently discussed the dangers of “sloth” so often that one class gifted me with a stuffed sloth at the end of the semester (which I will treasure).
This particular question is hardly groundbreaking, of course. It surfaces across multiple disciplines including economics and political science and has been debated for generations. However, as a social work professor, a discipline known for its de facto social welfare expansion advocacy, I feel a particular responsibility to present theories and practicesat both ends of this continuum fairly. Ones that account for the enormous differences among those in need, the critical, but also limited, capacity of government interventions, and the theological truths that underlie human and institutional behavior.
But as weary as I am of this question (and those who simplify it), perhaps every disciplinary area has its own set of questions that defy easy explanations and frustrate those students who would be perfectly content to be told what to think and believe. Human behavior may be particularly prone to inconsistency and anomaly, but a global pandemic has highlighted an ambiguity that exists in the sciences as well. It doesn’t take much wisdom to know that formulaic responses will ill prepare our students for the complexity they will encounter in the world.
During this same semester, I took on some contractual part-time work doing psychotherapy, work I’ve done in the past. I began my career as a social work practitioner and enjoy thinking about the ways that practice and scholarship dovetail. So maybe it’s not surprising that I notice that same desire for straight-up answers among the people with whom I work. While most people intellectually grasp the fact that counseling is generally about supporting them versus intervening directly in the problem itself, they naturally long for solutions, for answers. But it’s increasingly clear that my role is often—more often than I would like—to increase their capacity for ambiguity and their ability to thrive in spite of unresolved situations and unanswerable questions. I think, for example, of a mother whose adult child is an alcoholic who must find a way to live with questions about his short and long-term future that terrify her. Another client is a man with muscular dystrophy who must live with a host of unknowns about the timing and nature of the course of his disease.
Increasing one’s capacity for unanswerable questions is enormously difficult, whether that is in an intellectual sense or an emotional or spiritual one. It runs against our normal, even God-given, desires. We have a creational need, a need imprinted upon humans universally, to make sense of the world, both the natural world and the small orbits we daily inhabit. But increasing our students’ capacity for ambiguity and uncertainty may be a critical part of our calling as Christian educators. I am not referring, of course, to answers that are clear and compelling, but to those places within each of our disciplines where textbook answers fall flat.
At times, this calling pushes against our instincts as teachers. It is easier and requires far less energy to put forward one-sided answers. But to do so may, in some respects, miss the opportunity to strengthen a posture in our students (and ourselves) that has relevance far beyond the academic enterprise. Yes, students need to learn healthy discourse with those who think and behave differently than them. But there’s another dimension as well. All of us have been, and I dare say will be, in positions that push us well beyond our capacity to understand. We must increase our own capacity to allow the peace “which surpasses all understanding” to fill the space where our unanswered questions lie. Let us not grow weary in bringing our students into this same space.