Teaching to the Eyes

May 8th, 2018

“I teach to their eyes,” my friend Tom once told me.

Middle aged with thinning, slicked back hair, Tom wore grey Hush Puppies and favored polyester pants. The black, rimless frames of his eyeglasses were vintage 1950’s.

His syllabus assigned a burdensome reading load. His exam questions required detailed, comprehensive answers.

And students thronged to his philosophy classes.

Tom’s lectures combined clarity, warmth, and wit. Undergraduates sensed that he liked them and cared about them as human beings. I suppose his approachability is one reason why so many of them lingered to talk with him after class. But I believe that they were drawn to him by something deeper.

Tom is a philosopher. He is more than an expert in that particular academic discipline. He inhabits a philosophical soul. The Greek words at the root of “philosophy” mean love of wisdom. Tom seeks a deeper encounter with the holy, with his own soul, and with other people.

This is the stuff of mystery. Eyes that merely quantify and classify, calculate and label will remain blind to such things.

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Students came in droves to Tom’s classes because they were looking for something. And they recognized in Tom someone who had devoted himself to helping them with that. Many realized that they weren’t quite clear about what they were looking for. Few recognized that they would have to learn how to look before any search would bear fruit.

Strictly speaking, Tom meant that he taught to his students’ eyes as a way to gauge their comprehension and to stay connected with his listeners. But my sense of who Tom is leads me to hear his words in a way that he may not have intended.

Sure, Tom explained the thoughts of Kant and Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus. But Tom was not satisfied to convey the facts of intellectual history. His aim was to impart the ability to look beyond surfaces into the depths of things. Tom taught his students how to look.

People came to Jesus looking for something. Some wanted bread or a healed body or a restored mind or a king who would finally be on their side. Jesus often gave them what they wanted. But he offered significantly more. He offered to teach them how to look. Jesus teaches to the eyes.

John tells us that, when Jesus’ very first disciples started following him, Jesus asked, “What are you looking for?” They didn’t tell him. Instead, they asked, “Where are you staying?” Jesus responds, “Come and see.” (John 1:38-39b)

Those first disciples, and I suspect lots of us ever since, were looking for something. But they didn’t know in precise terms what they were looking for. They were yearning to go more deeply into the mystery that is the holy, their own soul, and the souls of others.

They’ve asked where Jesus sets up shop so they can come listen to his teachings. When he tells them to come and see, they assume he’s going to show them his address. And indeed that’s what he did. But he also meant much more: “Come along with me and learn how to see.”

To find what they are looking for, the disciples will first have to learn how to see. Jesus will model that for them, so they will need to stick by his side. To stay with him.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus says a long farewell to his friends and prepares them to continue God’s mission as people shaped by the resurrection. He tells them, “Stay in my love.”

Well, actually, the translators render Jesus’ words as “Abide in my love.” (John 15:9b) But the Greek word for “stay” and “abide” is the same. Love reveals the mystery at the depths of every created being. Every human, every star, every mockingbird, and every salamander.

When we keep practicing what Jesus models, we see the world with the eyes of Jesus. As the place to celebrate and to heal, the place to repair and to nurture. The world is a messy place, and if you’re going to find God at all, you’ll have to learn to see God there. That’s what it means to abide in Jesus’s love.

Meister Eckhart puts it this way: “The eye through which I see God is the eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

I for one cannot claim this sort of mystical depth for my own experience all the time. Like many people I know, I grow impatient to accomplish my to-do list. Political dishonesty and religious hypocrisy draw me into cynicism. Rising white supremacy and the persistence of misogyny infuriate me. Tenacious ignorance discourages me.

But from time to time the holiness at the depth of things reveals itself to me. A smile exchanged with a stranger. The dog’s head in my lap. A young person’s courage. A moment when, miraculously, nothing distracts me.

I’m still learning how to look. And the meaning of the resurrection is that Jesus is still showing me how. He teaches to the eyes.

"Teaching to the Eyes" originally appeared on Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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