In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the educative journey and compared it to the journey of faith. Here in Part 2, we will look at the structure of learning. We will see how it conforms to a Trinitarian model of communion and participation.
Whenever one studies, one studies some thing. It may be the alphabet or the rules of derivatives in Calculus, but if one is studying, there must be something toward which one turns one’s attention. And if one studies, then there must be some one who is studying, an individual who is attempting to learn. Finally, there must also be an act of studying.
While this may seem pedantic, these three elements of study and learning (object, subject, and active relationship) form the structure of human, and therefore, personal, learning.
-The object, that which one studies, provides content or occasion for learning. For instance, the English Alphabet.
-The subject is the person engaged in the act of studying, the child or adult who is learning the alphabet
-Finally, there is a relationship, an activity of coming into communion between subject and object. In this case, an individual learns to recognize the letters of the alphabet, to order them, connect their sounds, maybe even to join letters together. A relationship of familiarity comes to exist between subject and object.
These three distinct elements do not truly exist apart from one another, but the more perfectly each is engaged in the learning process, the more complete and personal the learning experience will be.
A Truly Human Experience
This tripartite structure helps us understand the difference between man and machine, and also between man and every other creature.
While a machine can have a collection of data, man transcends the content of his mind. For instance, when I scan an item at the grocery store, the computer identifies the item and price, but the computer does not know it is doing so. It simply responds by a change of internal state. Human beings are capable, not only of responding, but of having an awareness of their responses.
We can known that we know and what we know. In fact, when we say that a computer ‘knows’, we are speaking of knowledge in a truncated and secondary sense. A computer lacks the conscious self (the subjectivity) necessary to have a real awareness of an object as an object. The computer does not say to itself (even if it is programmed to tell customers), “This milk is a $1.25.” Money, milk, and other outside realities (objects) cannot exist for computers except as a triggering mechanisms for its software. And so of course, the relationship between the computer and the world is very limited. The world does not exist as a world for a computer, but simply as stimuli when the computer has been correctly prompted.
Just as when copper responds to the atmosphere and turns green, so a computer responds to its input. Neither the copper nor the computer thinks to itself, “I am now responding to such and such an object in such and such a manner.”
While human beings can respond to stimuli without conscious or volitional activity, we are also capable of observing, evaluating, and shaping our responses. The structure and beauty of human understanding is located not in data or memory alone, but in the manner that human subjectivity allows us to come into deeper relationship with all that we come to know. Our subjectivity is what makes the world a world for us.
This is because knowing, for a person, means relating! We are not just gathering information when we learn. The self is actually brought into fuller human activity when it attends to the realities of the creation. In other words, the activity of learning actually draws us into new, richer relationships. We are not unaffected by the process of learning, nor is the world unaffected by our engagement with it. In the process of learning, man becomes more fully who he is created to be.
We can contrast the sentience of the lower animals. While animals know the world in a certain sense, it is a radically limited and instrumentalized experience.
Ask a jellyfish about the ocean. Ask a turtle about the sky. Animals are not interested nor fully capable of knowing that which exists outside their limited environment.1 The ocean and the sky do not really exist for these creatures. Whereas, we have been created to appreciate, to wonder at, and to commune in some manner with all that has been made.
This is because human beings have not only a highly developed means of input or sentience, but even more radically, a form of self-awareness we call consciousness. Consciousness is at the heart of the meaning of rationality or logos. We know what we know, we know that we know, and we delight in knowing. In our knowing, we come to participate in that which we know. The jellyfish has no sentient connection to the ocean as an ocean. The turtle has little interest in the skies. But we enter into communion, not just with those parts of our world which serve as food or shelter, but with all that we encounter.
Because of this mysterious ‘self’ which has been gifted to us, a self which recognizes its otherness from the world, we are capable of experiencing the world as a world. Because there is in human understand this profound distinction between subject and object, we are capable of the most profound forms of communion. To put it more radically, our otherness from the rest of creation permits deeper relationship to the creation. This relationship is what makes our learning so profound and delightful.
Notice that without each element of human learning (subject, object, and relationship), our understanding would fall short of the unique and radical activity which it is. Without subject there could be no awareness or learner. Without object there is nothing to learn. Without relationship, we would be reduced either to isolation or mere data collectors. Each aspect of this structure is both independent and inter-dependent, to some extent constituting its others while remaining distinct from them. There is a reason for this.
All of creation is Trinitarian, but man is made in the very image of the Triune God. He is therefore preeminently Trinitarian. Man’s chief mode of relating (logos or reason) particularly exemplifies this reality.
The participatory and cosmic nature of our knowing has its source and its perfection in the cosmic Creator. Human beings exist and live as inter-subjective persons because they are made in the image of the personhood of God.
God is himself inter-subjective as Father, Son, and Holy, Spirit. Each Person of the Trinity is distinct and yet interrelated to the other Persons. Each Person can be said to be who he is in terms of his relationship to his Others.
The Son is Son of the Father, and he is that Son begotten by the Father through the Spirit. The Father is the Father because he is Father of the Son. And He is Father because he sends his Spirit. The Spirit is such because he is the Spirit of the Father, a Spirit given to the Son.
Because each person of the Trinity is in a very real sense subject, object, and relationship, the life of God is constituted by a procession of personhood.2 Each member of the Trinity remains distinct in Person, even as their Person is bound up and constituted by a relationship to the other Persons. This structure serves as the archetypal form of all consciousness, love, and communion. Interrelated or inter-subjective personhood is indeed the pattern of God’s and therefore our own knowing.
Personhood and Learning
Divine personhood helps us grasp the structure and purpose of human existence and activity. As the archetypal structure of life, every desire, every activity, every power and gifting is made to serve this Trinitarian order and the Trinitarian God. An understanding of personhood is essential to our self-understanding.
What is personhood? A person is a rational relational being.3 The happiness and calling of a person is to be drawn up into participatory and contemplative life. From this understanding, we can see how learning is the practice of personhood, in as much as it is the practice of coming into relation with our others.
Personhood refers to the relational nature of our being. We are created to relate to the world in this Trinitarian form of subject and object. In so relating, through body and mind, we come to embody and fulfill our role as persons, for we come into relationship with self, world, and God.
Ultimately, as relational creatures, we find that this is only possibly because He first related unto (loved) us. God, who lacked nothing, graciously and gratuitously called us into being. In Christ, he restored us to relationship with Him, and it is in this new life that all things are made new. Our personhood begins and ends in the love of God, which is prior, primary, and determinitive. Our experience of personhood is therefore the experience of gift.
Learning provides an apt analogy. Those who haves toiled in study, who have spent themselves in the effort of learning, from time to time come to experience the fruits of their labor. But when these fruits come, they appear, not merely as the products of their own efforts, but as gifts somehow more gracious in light of those efforts.
Ask any student, or better yet, ask any mother whether the burden of labor makes the fruit of such labor any less gracious. Such burdens, when reckoned redemptively, appear as part of our participation in a process of giving and receiving which has its pattern and source is in heaven..
1 cf. Josef Pieper, The Philosophical Act for this argument.
2The term object could be replace with Subject, but would confuse the pattern set forth at the beginning of this post. In other words, the Triune form of communion has Subject, Object, and Relation, but in such a manner that each Person is equally subject or person. The problem here is a problem of language in that object and subject have multiple denotations. Communion, by its very nature does not objectify its ‘object’, but participates in it.
3A Neo-Thomist definition developed by W. Norris Clarke and discussed in his Person and Being. The precise articulation is “a rational [intellectual] substance in relationship”. The term logos (John 1:1) could itself be translated as ratio, relationship, or reason, although such translations would exclude other important implications.