The Last Word

Jun 23rd, 2020 | Category: Columns, The Last Word
By Russell Dawn

Love and Learning in a Time of Coronavirus

      In The Great Divorce, a masterful little book about sin, death, and forgiveness, C. S. Lewis paints a fascinating image of Hell. Distinctly lacking are devils, pitchforks, flames, and overt suffering. Instead, the denizens of the great abyss are living what would appear to be ordinary lives. The problem, and “problem” is a gross understatement, is that everyone is completely isolated from God, and they eternally become more isolated from one another. Eternal death, posits Lewis, is found in the complete lack of relationship.

      Countless aspects of earthly life give us little tastes of Lewis’s Hell. From ordinary circumstances like linguistic divides, to maladies like physical and mental illness, to sins like anger, pride, and indifference, and ultimately to death, we are prone to separation from one another. Now, the latest cause of separation and isolation, the latest taste of Hell, is brought to us by the Coronavirus and our steps to mitigate its havoc.

      This is not to minimize the good that we have, even now. We still have relationships with one another and, most importantly, with God. Those relationships are made more difficult, however, by our inability to be together physically. We cannot worship and receive Christ’s body together as the Communion of Saints. For the most part, we cannot relate face-to-face with one another.

      We also, suddenly, cannot learn in the physical presence of one another.

      Learning is inherently relational. We learn not only from what another says, but from who the person is and how we connect with him or her. The character, interest, temperament, accessibility, and other characteristics of both teacher and learner matter to the learning process. Moreover, to say that learning is inherently relational is to say that it is founded in holy love: love of truth, of Christ who is Truth, and of neighbor who benefits from truth. I look forward to the New Creation, where we will be able to spend time without measure in the presence of Christ and our Christian brothers and sisters, learning from and relating to one another in unity, bound together perfectly in the love of Christ. Now THAT will be some great pedagogy!

      Of course, all earthly learning falls far short of this ideal. Even the most closely-knit and longest-lived mentorship communities suffer under the effects of the fall. Thankfully, perfection is not a prerequisite to learning. More to the point, physical presence is not a prerequisite to learning or even to the relationality of learning. From my own experience I can attest that, although St. Augustine wrote his famous Confessions about 1,600 years ago, I learned from him and felt somehow connected to him as I read it. Similarly, some years ago I supervised Masters students exclusively through electronic means, and we established good pedagogical relationships.

      Still, it seems inevitably true that those connections and relationships would have been enhanced by physical presence, and so also would the learning. The opportunity to flesh out nuance and explore paradox, to have spontaneous dialogue and read nonverbal cues, and in general to build up interpersonal relationships, would transform the learning. These things increase the depth, texture, meaning, and ultimately the love in the learning process.

      Which brings us to the spring semester of 2020, a time of Coronavirus. Students and teachers are away from each other, friends are separated from friends, and the relational aspect of learning is reduced. As beneficial as e-learning has proven itself to be (and it is extremely beneficial in many ways), we must face unflinchingly the damage that forced isolation is inflicting upon the relationality of learning. We do not yet know precisely what the extent of the damage will be, and in any case it surely will vary from teacher to teacher and from student to student. Today’s Last Word is not aimed at repairing or even fully assessing the damage. Rather, the aim is to put words to a common experience, the experience of barriers to the relationality of learning. That is to say, the experience of barriers to holy love. LEJ