The Theological Educator as Sherpa

In 1943, C. S. Lewis gave three lectures in Durham later published in one volume as The Abolition of Man. [1] The first of these lectures he titled “Men Without Chests,” aimed as a critique of a recent volume that argued for the subjective nature of meaning in a book for school children. [2] The authors of that book, Lewis summarized, likely were attempting to “fortify the minds of young people against emotion.” [3]

However, Lewis countered, the challenge of the day for young people is not restraining or starving them of emotion, but rather awakening it and directing it toward what is just and true. The authors of the children’s book, Lewis concludes, are trying to build the intellect, but carve out the heart. In the end, what they create are men with minds but no heart. Men with intellect, but without chests, and yet we “expect of them virtue and enterprise.” Herein Lewis posits his corrective, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” [4]

For the theological educator, the task is no different. In the twenty-first century there are jungles of competing worldviews, arguments, and approaches to theological education. In as much as the theological educator attempts only to cut these down as an intellectual exercise apart from understanding how theological instruction is a matter of the heart, he is only cutting that which will grow back. The question to ask, rather, is how should the theological educator irrigate the dry hearts of his students and stir their affections to that which is just and true?

In a recent article published in Permanent Things, I give a long-form presentation on the two ways I think theological educators can answer this question: that is by serving as shepherds and sherpas. What follows is the second half of that essay.

The Theological Educator as Sherpa

In Kathmandu, Kami Rita owns the record for scaling Mt. Everest at 22 times.[5] Rita is a climbing Sherpa employed by elite mountain climbers to aid them in their ascent of the world’s most treacherous peaks. Growing up in a village near the base of Mt. Everest, Rita and his siblings learned early the trade of guiding and surviving the feats that many often start but do not complete. The task of the theological educator in caring for and leading students to survive the feat of their educational goals mirrors the task of a climbing Sherpa in several ways.

The Invisible Sherpa Who Serves and Points

The theological educator cares best for his students when he adopts the lowly posture of a Sherpa. With this identity in mind, the educator can serve without conceding any ounce of experience or rank. The Sherpa, as the result of his years of experience, is the best one fit to serve. Just as the Sherpa comes alongside his clients and helps organize, direct, assemble, and lead, the theological educator does the same for students. The Sherpa is not a drill instructor or dictator leading by bravado or instilling fear in his clients, rather he educates and serves (Mark 10:45).

One of the prime ways the theological educator, in and out of the classroom, has the opportunity to serve students as a Sherpa is by taking time with them and by making time for them. Often this is as simple as modeling patience and understanding with any question asked in class or in public. When students see that even the most mundane of questions are taken with seriousness and without smirk in public, they are more willing to ask their vital questions in private. The theological educator serves students well when the student feels and knows they have an audience and a sincere ear in their professor and are not a burden or waste of time.

In my classes, I make a point early in the term to let students know that their questions and interests are not only a high priority for me, but also something I enjoy and value. As many are aware I have a full schedule of meetings and faculty concerns, sometimes they shy away from approaching me. I work to preclude this conclusion by telling them that time with students for me is like an intravenous reviving of my calling and outlook in the midst of several other tasks and meetings. I try to convey that I need them to approach me and ask me questions as a help for balance in my life.

Related to this, the theological educator can serve and assist his students well by working hard to ensure he is communicating often and with clarity to them. Just as clear communication from the Sherpa to those he is assisting is vital for a successful ascent, the theological educator must not assume he is connecting with his students. To put it another way, while relying upon “It says it in the syllabus” might be enough to deflect claims of professorial malpractice, it is not enough if the professor desires to serve and lead students toward growth and development. The theological educator as Sherpa assists students best when he strives to communicate in multiple ways, many venues, and with repetition to ensure that even that one student, who seems to care the least, comes to appreciate the course and subject matter.

In addition to serving, the Sherpa also accomplishes his task with excellence when he does so in a decreasing fashion (John 3:30). When a climbing Sherpa leads his client up the path to take his final few steps to the summit, the climber, in one sense, should be celebrating to the degree that he forgets the Sherpa is even there. He has mastered the mountain, followed the instructions, implemented his training, and accomplished something rare and significant. In the end, yes, the Sherpa assisted him up the mountain, but the climber did the climbing. Perhaps this is most evident in the moment when the climber poses for a photo at the summit. The Sherpa often is the one, as his job, to take the photo, not to be in the photo. For the Sherpa has done this many times before and will soon again lead others to this very point on another trip. For now, it is the climber’s moment and accomplishment.

Such it is for the theological educator who cares for students as a Sherpa. The educator’s posture is that of one who is gladly decreasing in presence and influence with time. As Jim Hunt counsels, the theological educator should think of himself like instructional gravity. “If you think of the qualities of gravity, then you have a fairly good image of what you should do in your position. You help hold things in place so that they do not escape the institutional orbit and you are invisible.” [6] The theological educator serves, assists, prepares, and instructs the students—i.e. holds them together, but it is the students who do the work and who fulfill the requirements for graduating with their degree.

The theological educator, in this sense, should, at some point in the student’s life and career, be forgotten, even while what was taught and given to the student remains. The theological educator’s legacy is not that he is remembered, but that the students have adopted what was taught and are changed by it for the service of others. At graduation, the theological educator should be the one taking the photo for he has done this before and will soon again lead others to that point after another semester.

Yet, though striving for invisibility, the theological educator also cares well as a Sherpa by his pointing. The climbing Sherpa cannot do his job with success if he does not point his client up and down the mountain. Sometimes this pointing involves directing the climber away from danger or leading them to pause with patience while a storm clears. Sometimes this pointing is designed to motivate the climber to persevere or renew his perspective so as not to drift from the task in action or thought. Sometimes the Sherpa points at himself so the climber can see how to climb or what he should do next.

The theological educator who seeks to care for students as a Sherpa should also take care to point in these ways. However, the danger for the instructor is that he can spend too much time pointing at himself. This can be inadvertent, but without care, the theological educator can easily view himself as Auteur and the students as a fan club. Instead, like the Sherpa, the theological educator should point outward most and for a purpose. The theological educator, in this sense, is like a poet, about who C. S. Lewis reminds, “The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.” [7]

The Value of an Experienced Sherpa

The theological educator is able to carry out the task of caring for students as a Sherpa only through the knowledge and wisdom that comes from experience. The climbing Sherpa spends a lifetime learning his trade from others more experienced. He ventures on climbs several times a year throughout his life and, only thereby, does he build up stamina and experience. This discipline, and investment in his craft is what allows him to come to see the most challenging things as routine. The climbing Sherpa is an expert in his field, and this status is something he has earned over time.

Such it should be with the theological educator. Rare should it be that a brilliance alone equals readiness. For even the sharpest of climbing Sherpas are not ready to bear the weight and responsibility of leading a climb without tested and proven experience. The theological educator should welcome mentorship in teaching, writing, serving, and caring for students. His posture should be that of deference to those who have been “climbing” for years. The theological educator is an expert in his field only when he has mastered the content and also spent time teaching, writing, and putting that content into practice.

Further, the climbing Sherpa is seen as a professional only when he matures to the point of no longer seeking the praise of his clients or is enamored by the allure or fame or status. The theological educator as Sherpa, likewise, should not live for the approval of students even while he seeks to serve and assist them. The students need to be led and guided by a professional, not simply a friend who decided to join them for a “climb.” The theological educator as a professional is not impressed by knowledge alone or the fame of another scholar. Rather, over time, he has gained the virtue of discernment that comes only after seeing many other professors and scholars come and go.

The best of climbing Sherpas are marked by their wisdom that comes with creativity and longevity. Sherpas who climb year after year gain knowledge, but also experience. The experience of serving many different clients in a variety of conditions builds a storehouse of wisdom that cannot be taught or purchased. Further, many of the technological advancements that aid mountain climbers today are the direct result of Sherpas providing insight and ideas due to what they have seen and endured. For the experienced Sherpa has endured much, including sometimes, the tragedy of people falling.

The theological educator as Sherpa, too, is rewarded with wisdom that only comes with creativity and longevity. Years of serving and caring for students yields an opportunity for theological educators to grow and improve if they are willing to learn. The longer they serve, the theological educator can help shape the future of his field by sharing what he has learned and how he has adapted over the years to improve his craft. Innovation in instruction, educational delivery methods, and the use of technology, can all benefit from the influence of wisdom from seasoned theological educators. Further, the theological educator with earned wisdom can care for students the most, simply because of what they have seen and heeded. For longevity in serving brings wisdom to aid their students from falling (Jn 16:1).

Read the full article in the latest issue of Permanent Things.

—————-

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper Collins, 1944).

[2] Lewis referred to the volume anonymously as The Green Book, but the volume was Alec King and Martin Ketley, The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing (New York: Longmans, Green, 1939). See Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol 2 (Harper Collins, 2004), 561n59.

[3] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 13.

[4] Ibid., 13-14.

[5] “Sherpa guide Kami Rita climbs Everest for record 22nd time” The Guardian, May 16, 2018.

[6] Jim Hunt, “10 Years as a Provost,” Inside Higher Education, August 24, 2009.

[7] C. S. Lewis, “The Personal Heresy in Criticism,” in The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (Oxford University Press, 1939), 11.