Integrity and orientation

My students and I began an interesting conversation yesterday.  We were talking about curriculum orientations and how they can and can’t help us educate with integrity.  We talked about how integrity is usually understood as clearly articulating our beliefs, values, and aims, and then matching our practice to what we have articulated, and then continually reflecting on whether or not this match continues.  We talked about the difficulty of being so completely self-transparent.  Can we really reflect accurately on the underlying motivations and overarching intentions of every aspect of our practice?  Do we really think about those things in the moment to moment decisions we make as educators?  Scripture tells us that our hearts are a mystery, only known fully by God, and that our actions flow from our hearts (the wellspring of life).  James Smith ( 2009) says we don’t move through the world with our worldviews, we move feeling our way with arms outstretched, “…we lead out with our heart and hands.” (p 47)  It takes a lifetime and more to come to know ourselves as we were intended to be, so it may be presumptuous to think we can know ourselves so quickly and transparently as teachers.  It seems that the integrity project, when conceived as a matching project, is closely related to the worldview project we discussed in a recent post.  I left the conversation with my students, prompted to think further about what it would mean to have integrity if one was oriented towards God.

Orientation is embodied and personal – life lived face to face with God and others, therefore integrity has to be about more than my individual efforts to match my practice to my inner thoughts and determinations about teaching or any other practice.  Integrity has to be about a bodily gesture that arises from a unified heart and mind that is intentionally responding to the other/Other.  What do I mean by a unified heart and mind?  I mean a mind that is stilled by a heart that is at peace – so at peace that Christ can be found there and righteousness is possible.  I mean a mind that isn’t distracted by discursive reasoning processes or the demands of a noisy ego or a busy day, but is listening deeply to the Other/other or others with them.  I mean a mind that is “mindful” of or “attentive” to the sacred space that opens where two or three are gathered, and authentically responsive.   Truly loving and fruitful teaching gestures can arise under those conditions.  Christos Yannaras (1984) writes about each person saving within themselves the universal possibilities of life-giving gestures.  I like to think about teachers saving within themselves the universal possibilities of the teaching act – treasures within them that can be offered at the right moment to the right students in the right manner.  It is good to know a great deal about teaching, to store up those treasures, to even articulate what your best understanding about educational practice is at this particular time and place, but integrity comes when you do what St. Basil the Great says, “…return to your cell,”  your heart, and allow the Holy Spirit to teach your mind to be at peace and to be ready to be fruitful.  Every teaching gesture can then be infused by the wisdom and love from above.  Integrity, when we are oriented, is a unified, unconditional offering of self to God and others.  It is a moment when we are both gathered and offered.  A lack of integrity would be a teaching gesture or offering that is fragmented, without presence, without peace, without intention for a particular person or persons, without anything from heaven to bring it to earth.

To think of integrity as matching practice to ideals is to fall into the trap of answering complexity with certainty and to believe that ideals, on their own, are life-giving.   Simone Weil calls ideals notions and says, those notions do not dwell in heaven; they hang in the middle air and for this very reason they cannot root themselves in earth…It is only what comes from heaven that can make a real impress on earth.”  Trying to address complexity with certainty can result in a ‘regime of truth’ that becomes easy to impose on others, as well as, yourself.  These ‘regimes of truth’ can result in self-justification or blaming when things aren’t matching.  We blame our students for not learning or our institutions for not providing us the right conditions for our ideals to flourish.  To think of integrity this way is also a swift road to despair because, in my experience, I’ve never been able to match my practice to my ideals.  And I’ve tried….hard…

What about this working understanding of integrity?  From the possibility of self-conscious transparency to the possibility, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, of offering person oriented, loving, life-giving teaching gestures in a multitude of moments.  This understanding gives me hope, hope in possible moments of integrity – even if those moments are few and far between.  I am just a beginner at unifying my mind and heart, of being gathered and offered.  This understanding also gives me a place to start – “return to my cell.” 

“Like a swan you swim across the quiet of my heart and make it fruitful.”   St. John Climacus

Smith, J.K.A. (2009).  Desiring the kingdom: worship, worldview, and cultural formation.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic.

Yannaras, C. (1984).  The freedom of morality.  Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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One response

  1. Dear Kim, You do an excellent job of taking what is normally seen as spirituality (and in some many academic contexts, as merely spirituality) and showing its relevance to all of life by focusing on how this spiritual action of bringing the mind into the heart might strengthen the practice of teaching. It may seem at times that you are a voice crying out in the wilderness, but please keep crying out. As important as the ideal or the notion is, I don’t think actualization of any ideal is possible until we acknowledge its impossibility. We make a fundamental mistake, it seems to me, when we assume that we either succeed or fail to “live up to” our standards. Perhaps a kind of humility is needed that assumes that I never succeed, but rather move toward a telos, a goal, which is Christ. I think Simone Weil is exactly correct on this. Christ is the only Ideal. All human constructs are aids and approximations, useful only in so far as they orient us toward Christ.

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