bell hooks and spiritual pedagogy

To educate as the practice of freedom . . . comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. -bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, p. 13

I first read these words a few weeks ago. That same week, I had a conversation with one of my pastors about the need for Christian scholars to engage both the spiritual and material in their work. Too often, Christians are content to be functional materialists — people who believe in the spiritual, indeed who devote much of their lives to it, but who work as if the spiritual has no part to play in their scholarship or their teaching.

While talking with my pastor, I admitted to functional materialism myself. For example, when thinking about the relationship of music to human emotion, I’m convinced that there is a spiritual aspect to this relationship. Indeed, it may even be the foundational aspect. But, I told him, I don’t have any theories upon which I can base my scholarship or teaching of this phenomenon. And so I teach it like a materialist.

Of course, I don’t teach my children this way. My six-year-old loves astronomy. And when learning about the universe, I use every moment of wonder to stir in his mind an awe for God and a longing for the spiritual, the eternal. Some use God as a cheap explanation when children ask hard why? questions. But that’s not the case here. As much as his brain can handle — and usually more than it can handle — I give him the material, mechanical explanation. But, in good Kantian fashion, I use that to stir his sense of divine wonder even more intensely. (See the “mathematical sublime” in Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment.)

Many Christian academics do this. In our own minds, with our families, our congregations, we draw on what we know of the universe (or our scholarly corner of it) to inspire an experience of the sublime, and through it to meditate, and lead others to meditate, on the glory of God. But we put that lens down in the academy. This is often out of fear. Yes, fear of what outing ourselves as Christians will do to our credibility, even job security, in the academy.

But I think there is a deeper fear. Come with me for a minute . . .

Looking critically at materialist theories in the academy, the spiritually minded Christian finds some very low-hanging fruit: what does it all mean? As a music theorist, I know the temptation to “explain” something simply by accounting for its structural elements and the processes that brought them forth. But that doesn’t cut it. And every composer, performer, songwriter, musicologist, critic, and audience member will be quick to point that out. The meaning of a work of art is far more than — perhaps even orthogonal to — its structural characteristics.

But wait a second. It’s not just Christian musicians who level that critique. Not even religious or spiritial people more generally. Every human has the capacity to point out that materialism is not enough to explain what things mean. Why does every human culture have a music? How can a painting, a movie, a poem make someone cry? Why do people die? Why do bad things happen to good people? No one thinks that materialism is enough to explain these things. (And if they say otherwise, they’re lying.)

So then why do so many in the academy work as functional materialists, even if deep down we know that ultimate answers lie beyond materialism?

I think the answer is still fear. Not fear of being outed as a spiritual person. Fear that we have no theories for any of this. Fear that we could easily spend our entire careers seeking answers that we may never find. Fear of the impact that such a lack of answers could have on us as thinking, feeling people.

But back to bell hooks. Imagine the impact we teachers could have on our students — intellectually and spiritually — if we simply ask these questions. Or better yet, if we created a space in which students could ask these questions themselves. Still better, a space where they felt the responsibility to ask what it all means.

Paulo Freire writes that “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 85). This is not always physical violence. In fact, often it is not. But it is spiritual violence. To objectify another is to reduce them to material — meaningless material. Denying the existence of someone’s spirit, especially if in the process we convince them of its non-existence, is indeed spiritual violence. Further, Christians believe that humans are made in the image of God. And so the objectification of another, the denial of their subjectivity and spirituality, is an act of violence against that image — against God himself.

As I write this, I remind myself: I don’t have the theories to deal with all of this. I have doctrine, but its application here is difficult. So take the previous paragraph with a grain of salt. But I think that Freire and hooks are on to something important here. To avoid violence against our students, to care for them, to love them, means to awaken their spirit. For many, their spirits lie dormant, having been lulled to sleep by cultural materialism and beaten down by academic materialism. And so as we educate, we must counter the materialist liturgy that has committed this violence against them. The compartementalization of mind, body, and spirit must be undone — and it must begin with those of us who seek to educate. And we must seek at every turn to nurture that which has atrophied in our students, in their whole being, not simply their capacity to store and retrieve information.

bell hooks writes that “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” (TtT, p. 12). And caring for the spirit may be the most radical thing we do in those spaces.

Now I just need to figure out how . . .