I once heard a preacher deliver a sermon on Jesus’ encounter, in Mark 10, with “the rich young ruler.” I have heard many sermons on that story, but never before any like this one. The preacher chose to focus on verse 21, where it says that Jesus looked at the young man. Much of the sermon was devoted to the importance of making eye contact with our conversation partners.
If I could remember who that preacher was, I would contact him to offer an apology. I have told the story of his sermon many times, mainly poking fun at his treatment of the text. I have even said on some occasions that this was one of the worst sermons I have ever heard.
I am sorry for all of that. Here is what happened to change my mind. Recently, I talked to a friend who told me about a professor who had influenced him in a profound way. As an undergraduate this friend found classroom settings intimidating. He wanted to ask questions but was afraid that he would look stupid in front of his peers and the teacher. One day, though, he decided to take the risk. He raised his hand to ask a question. The professor acknowledged him and came to stand where my friend was sitting. “He looked at me,” my friend said. “This may sound strange, but it was a loving look. And he took my question seriously. That look—the eye contact—was an important moment for my life as a student!”
My friend’s mention of eye contact recalled the sermon that I had previously mocked. And, his reference to the professor’s “loving look” also reminded me that Mark reported that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler was not like those encounters when religious leaders asked him questions to try to trip him up. This young man’s questions were honest and came from a deep place in his soul—a reality confirmed by the fact that he went away from his encounter with Jesus greatly saddened. I think Jesus was saddened too. I suspect that the Savior showed a continuing concern for the young man when he said to his disciples, in the follow up discussion of the young ruler’s question, that “with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
But back to the classroom context. Rod Sawatsky, of blessed memory, was fond of arguing that CCCU schools were too much under the influence of the way that Reformed types like me place such a strong emphasis on “faith and learning.” What about “hope and learning” and “love and learning”? he would ask. He was getting at important issues.
The anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote an interesting book with the intriguing title How Institutions Think. That certainly is an important subject. Educational institutions are nothing if not entities that engage in collective thinking. But my conversations with Rod convinced me that we need to attend to how educational institutions can also engage in academic hoping and loving.
Love and hope are, as we Kuyperian Calvinists should recognize,” trans-spherical.” They take different forms in different spheres of social interaction: familial love, marital love, neighborhood love, churchly love, and so on. A teacher of mine once had us discuss what it means for us as Christian shoppers to love the person checking us out at the grocery store. “Not exactly an opportunity for an ‘I-Thou’ encounter,” he said, but we came up with a variety of good ideas. For example, if she is wearing a badge with her name on it, a “Thank you, Marcia,” would be appropriate when she hands you your receipt.
It could be fruitful for us, for starters, to talk to each other and with our students about academic hoping and loving. And I propose—with apologies to the preacher who did not deserve my scorn—that we make eye contact as we talk.
As usual, Richard Mouw is spot on here, both in so charmingly “confessing” his fault and in so wisely articulating an important pedagogical practice. I have often thought that the New Testament virtue of parrhesia (“holy boldness”) involves not only the willingness to profess God’s Word in the face of possible opposition, but also the willingness to listen carefully to one’s interlocutors before laying the godly witness on them. Preachers and theology professors (or Christian university professors generally) are paid talkers, and I am by no means suggesting here that we must shed the persona of “sage on the stage” for that of “guide by the side.” Or at least I have no intention of doing so. But speech is truly sagely only when it is blended with truly attentive listening, and listening is truly attentive only when it is blended with respectful eye contact. Thanks for the wise reminder, Rich!
Richard, thank you for this wonderful piece. We know that acknowledgment is a key component of a healthy communication climate. It confirms to a person that they matter–even if we disagree! I’ve had the pleasure to interact with Dr. Mouw on several occasions. He recently agreed to be on a podcast I co-host to discuss strategies for overcoming the divisions so common in today’s argument culture. His insights need to be shouted from the rooftops. If interested, go to Winsomeconviction.com. Richard, thank you for being such a wonderful example of a person who gives “eye contact” to everyone you meet. Blessings.