Fly on the Wall—Educational Theology

Meaning in life need not be religious, but when life feels worthwhile that feeling can carry an almost mystical quality.  As our AU journey unfolds, we evolve into a new version of our self.  No matter how many facts, theories, and concepts we absorb the holistic benefit of our education surpasses the details.  Inspiration guides us in ways we’d have never thought possible.  We become, in our essence, educated as some switch in our minds is flipped and we learn to see the world as academic learners.  The whole experience can feel downright miraculous.

Jacques Derrida discussed the way that meaning can be perceived outside of actual words.  The term he referenced was “negative theology” and, like many a guru or yogi or apostle or salesperson, the implication is that by gaining a certain new understanding one will become with certainty a new sort of person.

Language and learning carry this promise of growth.  Athabasca may not change all of our lives, perhaps only some back corners of our minds, but rest assured that the more we learn and the more courses we conquer the more we will grow and flourish in the core of our being.  And this growth surpasses words.  Derrida wrote that “negative theology consists in regarding every predicate, or even all predicative language, as inadequate to the essence, that is, to the hyper-essentiality of God, and that, consequently, only a negative ‘apophatic’ attribution can claim to approach God, and to prepare us for a silent intuition of God” (146).  In other words, more is said in the unsaid than we’d realize.

To assume that knowledge is a series of terms misses the educational imagination.  The concept of divinity implies its presence in the smallest moment of pondering and the largest instance of life-altering sublimity.  Being open to both and becoming able to consider and analyze what it all means is core to an academic education.

Post-Modernism is Reality?

Derrida’s career occurred amidst the burgeoning postmodern theory movement, one that preceded the internet but reflected how consumer culture and lifestyle identities were now taking precedence in importance over and against one’s sheer relationship to the means of production.  Whereas, say, Lucille Ball’s character struggled to not be swept away by a factory conveyor belt, postmodern subjectivity implies that we are lost in a hall of mirrors no matter what sort of work our day jobs entailed.  As such, discovering a meaningful existence is harder than ever as the seams between leisure and labour are torn apart to reveal a gaping maw of nihilism under the surface.

Derrida, far from partaking in navel gazing insouciance, stood for the realization that within texts and thoughts there was something so magical and empowering that it might actually be a core to what had hitherto been called God.  Perhaps secular fulfillment is just waiting to be seen, or not seen so much as felt, as the unspeakable and unspoken baseline of all symbolic communication.  In any case, negative theology implies that wherever something absent becomes present outside of literal words then new mysteries may be revealed.  In education this means that we learn more than the literal material in our syllabus.

Derrida thus described the ambiguous root of learning as a base component of human experience.  “God is not merely the end, but the origin of this work of the negative” whereby textual omissions are themselves the origin of meaning.  Perhaps it’s syllabic utterances not spoken that allow to be revealed the phonetic reality of a verbal sentence whereby, “one thus arrives at a kind of proof of God, not a proof of the existence of God, but a proof of God by his efforts, or more precisely a proof of what one calls God, by the name of God, by effects without cause, by the without cause” (146).  What’s invisible transcends each moment and utterance and paradoxically becomes a part of us as we see the world through a new academic lens.

To me Derrida seems to say that language is a gloss over our human essence that for millions of years hunted and foraged and created and imagined without the rigours of cultural rituals like writing.  Maybe learning how to learn is about channelling this essential inquisitiveness so that all of the world becomes a playground of discovery.  Athabasca is a great place to make life a place of learning by being rather than learning as a thing we go and do. 

Learning as Living

Our efforts thus stream onward academically as an output of the great unfolding that is the consciousness of our species.  Yearning for knowledge, not as a list of facts and figures but as a way of becoming fully who we are, comes to be transformed into a generalized approach to life.  AU, being potentially a part of any aspect of life where we bring our coursework, is in this way a boon to our being.  Certainly distance learning can provide perspective on what matters to us, on what truly needs doing in our days and in our minds.

Symeon the New Theologian (born 849 CE, died 1022.  CE) a thousand years ago (so new in name only) wrote that “if you know that all visible things are a shadow and all pass away, are you not ashamed of playing with shadows and hoarding transitory things? Like a child you draw water with a bucket full of holes; do you not realize it and take it into account, my dear friend? As though there were nothing more serious than appearance and illusion, as though reality has been taken from them.” (online).  When we graduate we find ourselves with a sheet of paper to display but so much more within us to feel.  And that feeling is inspiring.

Far from ephemera, education gives us a gift that’s beyond ordinary knowledge.  We become almost changed animals, humans plus an invisible academic appendage.  And, unlike hard and fast meanings, like how to change a tire or how to fill out a form, we learn to think flexibly and creativity.

Meaning itself can be transitory, most assuredly in popular culture but also in the paradigms that guide our academic disciplines.  Beyond trifles, such as what view on a topic is currently in vogue, the capacity to combine academic concepts is itself part of seeing the world in new ways that transcend literal meanings.  We are changed as we learn because we learn to change our views, to try out new mantras of meaning and truly taste what feels right in our life.  After all, to think outside of a box would happen without the box but first we have to be aware of where the boundaries are.  In words and core beliefs we may previously have resided in doltish comfort, but education leads us to wander away from preconceptions both within and without us.  To know where the four geometric edges of our metamorphic box are is to begin to find out what all is out there.  The universe of the mind awaits!

Derrida, J.  (2008/1987).  ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials’.  Psyche: Inventions of the Other.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Symeon.  (circa 1022 CE).  ‘St.  Symeon the New Theologian’.  Bible Portal since 2003.  Retrieved from