Partnering with the Perfect Educator
By Ian Todd
Life is Problem-based Learning: God doesn’t spoon feed us with everything that we can know about God because that’s not the best way to prepare us for the rest of eternity.
If there is one person you want to have confidence in, that’s your physician. You need to know that they are well-educated and “on top of their game.” Whether their specialty is internal medicine, surgery, or psychiatry, you want assurance that they’ll get it right! After all, sometimes it’s literally a case of “your life in their hands.” It’s therefore no coincidence that medical education is at the leading edge of advances in teaching and learning methods. Admittedly, people’s methods of learning vary; what is effective and efficient for one person may be less so for someone else. However, it’s undeniable that a type of educational process that’s blossomed in popularity, and which was first developed for medical education, is “Problem-based Learning” (PBL).
The principles of PBL are straightforward: rather than presenting students with the knowledge and understanding they need to become successful practitioners (and to pass their exams!) on a plate, in PBL they are presented with a “problem,” e.g., a patient’s symptoms on first presentation. Then, by working out the possible reasons for these symptoms (i.e., the possible solutions to the problem), and the investigations to reach a correct diagnosis, the students acquire the necessary knowledge and understanding. An advantage of this approach is that it teaches medical students to tackle the problems of patient diagnosis and management just as they’ll be doing in the “real world” of medical practice. It also means that they are developing the knowledge and understanding needed to practice medicine in an applied, and more meaningful (and therefore memorable) way than by a spoon-feeding approach. The aim is thus to encourage “deep learning,” as distinct from “shallow learning” that may get students through their exams but may not stay with them into their professional lives.
I propose that PBL is pretty much how God teaches us, and that’s the purpose of our time here on planet Earth.
When St. Paul found himself in Athens—the most academic and intellectually active city of his day—he was stunned to find there many altars to many gods. Indeed, this included an altar to the “unknown god” because the Greeks didn’t want to risk upsetting a god that they’d missed out! In the famous sermon that Paul delivered to Greek philosophers at the Areopagus (Hill of Ares), Paul uses this information cleverly (Acts 17:22-31). He explains to the Athenians that their “unknown god” is, in fact, the one true God: “The God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). Paul goes on to say, “(God) made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27). Here Paul gets to the crux of the matter—the reason why we’re here—and that is to “seek and find God.”
Thus, as Paul understands the ultimate purpose of our earthly life, it’s like PBL! God hasn’t given us all knowledge and understanding “on a plate.” As Paul explains, “God is not far from any one of us”—and yet we have to search for God, following the clues and signposts that God provides. And, when we get a glimpse of God, we must continue to reach out in order to find out more and to know God better. God has thus arranged things in this life so that it educates us and prepares us for life in God’s eternal kingdom (where all will be known and understood). So, this life is a sort of “training ground” in which being told too much too easily would be counterproductive for our education. We have to put in the effort—to face the challenges and solve the problems that bring us closer to God.
So, with this view that our life is like a PBL course in knowing God and understanding God’s will for us, how can we benefit fully from our education and preparation for eternity?
First, we can be confident that God is the perfect educator because God’s intentions for each of us are perfect. In Imagine Heaven Devotional, John and Kathy Burke recount how Crystal, who underwent a Near Death Experience, described her encounter with God:
I’d spent my life doubting His existence and disbelieving His love for me, but in that instant I knew God had always, always been there—right there with me. . . . And you know, back on Earth, I had so many questions for God. . . . In His presence, I absolutely understood that in every way God’s plan is perfect. Sheer, utter perfection. Does that mean I can now explain how [it all] fits into God’s plan? No. I understood it in heaven, but we aren’t meant to have that kind of understanding here on Earth.
Crystal’s experience of heaven accords with St. Paul’s message in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:12): “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Crystal also confirms here what Paul told the Greek philosophers in Athens all those years ago—whilst on earth we have to seek God although, in fact, God is always with us. God is our perfect partner as we progress through our earthly learning experience.
So the implications of this for the PBL journey of life is that God provides all the support and resources necessary for our learning. First, God is always available: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7). God is never too busy to give us full attention; no question or problem is too trivial for God to address; nothing is too much trouble—that’s what prayer is for. As in all educational programmes, the answer may not be the one we hoped for in the short-term, but God has the overall outcomes in mind.
God has, of course, provided us with the perfect “worked example” in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. As Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And God has provided a constant companion to help us and remind us of this: as Jesus also said, “. . . the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).
God has also provided comprehensive learning resources. There’s our core text—the Bible. Of course, this isn’t just one book—it’s sixty-six books (at least). And these books contain many genres of writing—there’s history, prophecy, poetry, legal stuff, educational stories, parables, letters, revelations, and more! But none of it is straightforward—every part of the Bible requires study, thought, interpretation, cross-referencing, discussion and, of course, prayer for guidance. It’s all perfect for PBL.
We then have the writings, sermons (and, these days, podcasts) of theologians through the ages as God has inspired our predecessors and contemporaries to share what they have learnt in their own search to understand and know God.
In God Can’t, Thomas Jay Oord describes six other resources that are provided for us to know God and feel God’s love. Prominent amongst these are our interactions with other people, those we think of as our fellow students in the learning community of life. Indeed, a key feature of PBL is that students don’t learn in isolation; they work in groups where they discuss, brainstorm, divvy up learning tasks, and then share their information and insights. And, if the church works properly, that’s what it should be—a community of learning. As we follow the PBL course of life, as Paul said, seeking God and reaching out to find, know and understand God and God’s will for us, we should do all that we can for both our own education, and that of our fellow travelers in this adventure of learning with God.
Question: Why do we have to search for God in order to know God better?
Ian Todd is a retired Immunologist with an Honorary position at The University of Nottingham, UK, where he was formerly Associate Professor and Reader in Cellular Immunopathology. He has spent over 30 years teaching medical students and contributing to curriculum development. He is co-author of the textbook Lecture Notes: Immunology (Wiley Blackwell).
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.