by Anne Ostrowicz
Another school year is over and as I reflect upon it as an RE teacher, I return to the idea of ‘wrestling’, inspired by some lines in Jonathan Safran-Foer’s latest novel:
“Israel literally means ‘wrestles God’. Jacob wrestled with God… with Esau… with Isaac… with Laban… He wrestled because he recognized that the blessings were worth the struggle… [For Jews] wrestling is not only our condition, it is our identity, our name…. Arm wrestling, sumo wrestling, wrestling with ideas, wrestling with faith… They all have one thing in common: closeness…. You only get to keep what you refuse to let go of…. It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas… Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is the struggle.”[i]
Gerard Hughes, in God of Surprises, includes a discussion of Von Hugel’s analysis of three stages in religious and spiritual development: from an institutional element in childhood, to a questioning element during adolescence, to an element of mystical experience in adulthood, with essential continuous overlap. [ii]
At the start of secondary school, pupils are for the most part fundamentally comfortable in the beliefs they have received from their family, though interested in systems of thought other than their own. But inevitably the questioning begins and with it, ‘wrestling’, with questions around God, value and meaning. This year I have watched younger pupils wrestle with both delight and confusion. Delighted wrestling in terms of personal ethical response filled the room as year sevens encountered Satish Kumar’s description of his mother’s Jain lifestyle which expressed utterly beautifully and inspirationally her passionate belief that “God permeates all”.[iii] In contrast, marked confusion arose as year eight Muslim pupils read about the Berlin mosque with a female imam: “That is not Islam!” Yet by the end of a term’s study of Islam, the concept of ‘liberal’ had been happily and helpfully absorbed into their understanding. A letter from a year nine pupil thanked me for getting him to wrestle this term with ethical challenges arising from researching and writing an essay on the effects of meat-eating on our bodies, animals and the environment.
Sometimes such wrestling can seem particularly tough. A pupil from Afghanistan told me that this year almost every assumption he has ever held has been challenged: from the existence of free will, to the existence of God, to the motivation to do good being flight from hell. Nevertheless he was insistent that he was glad his assumptions were being challenged, glad he had realised the arguments of fellow pupils ‘on the other side’ had weight, glad to have to consider what foundations lay beneath his own beliefs.
A very few pupils venture into Von Hugel’s third stage: mystical experience. A pupil who left last Summer has just emailed me for my thoughts on how to begin a journey into spirituality, in need of an inner anchor in the whirl of London life. In the Autumn our RE department launches an on-line forum for former pupils to share thoughts on their journeys in theology and philosophy, and they will be invited to our very first ‘discussion over a meal’! And so the wrestling goes on!
As an RE teacher I wrestle constantly with questions around what is most needful to teach? How can I aid theological, moral and spiritual understanding in the deepest sense? How can I help pupils progress in their own journeys in seeking metaphysical truths? As I read some of the wonderful insights of writers like Gerard Hughes, I wonder in what form I might offer these to my pupils for their consideration: the need for inner integration; finding God in the world around us; finding God’s will in who God has made me in my deepest being.[iv] At the moment I am working on bringing some of the insights of psychologist Jordan Peterson to discussion; many older teenagers are avidly listening to him on You Tube. I regularly find myself bursting with emotions as I wrestle with the joyful weight of how to birth into a classroom potentially life-transforming ideas.
Viktor Frankl writes that we are made for tension, when that tension is linked to something of real value.[v] I like that Jonathan Safran-Foer links wrestling with loving. May we have the courage and dedication to wrestle lovingly for what we believe to be of real value.
[i] Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am (Penguin 2017), pp.511-512
[ii] Gerard W. Hughes, God of Surprises (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), p. 11
[iii] Satish Kumar, You are Therefore I am (Green Books, 2002 ), pp. 37-38
[iv] Hughes, God of Surprises, pp. 9, 56, 62
[v] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, (Rider, 2004)