Teaching with James

Posted on March 12, 2021


In earlier columns we dealt with different aspects of research and teaching. We examined teaching in general as one of the three principal missions of a modern university—teaching, research, and service. We also explored the “Socratic method” of teaching. Today let’s consider another approach, in this instance by one of my favorite Biblical teachers, James, the half-brother of Jesus.

James’s approach is basically different from Socrates’s which is the question-and-answer method, sometimes labeled “critical thinking” by today’s practitioners. James, on the other hand, was a Jew, one of Jesus’s followers, and he addressed his readers with the truth as he knew it, not necessarily how to find it.

The central theme of James’s letter, the Book of James in the New Testament, is that faith works. The letter is concerned primarily with practical matters related to the Christian’s way of life. How does faith work itself out in a Christian’s life? James taught that it is not what we do that leads to our salvation, but our faith that Jesus is Lord. It is through our faith in him that we receive eternal salvation. Good works follow from faith.

There it is: in a nutshell. Bible students and Scriptural scholars will do backflips over their pulpits, dead or alive, over such a simple rendition of James’s theological lessons, but we are interested in him as a teacher.

And we ask, what do good teachers do? Among the many things they teach is not simply how to think, but they also teach us morality and truth. So, while James is a book in the Bible, like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for example, or part of Christian Scripture, it also contains much truth that determines and explains Western civilization, both religious and secular.

You may be a globalist and believe that what the rest of the world offers is equally valid in what to believe and embrace, but let me ask a question: why do people all over the world want to come here, rather than migrate to Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, or Uganda for example? Answer that question and you begin to appreciate what America represents in the world. There you go, one example of the Socratic method at work.

James the teacher brings before us a full plate of challenges and truths that we need to know about in our lives. He advises us on trials and temptations, listening and doing, taming the tongue, boasting, patience and this is only a partial listing. Go and read the Book itself. It is short and filled with wisdom and you may get a leg up in your Sunday school class or small group. My very favorite teaching, perhaps in the entire Bible, is in James for example: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22)

As we consider James within the context of not only higher education, but also education in general from K to 12, we also, as teachers, not only teach students how to think, but we also teach them what to think and how to behave in the simplest terms. We, in fact, supplement what kids should get both at home and in their churches, except that we do it in a somewhat more secular fashion, observing, more or less, the old constitutional dictum of the separation of church and state. More of that later.

 What becomes relevant, however, is that when we approach the teaching of truth, morality, justice, equality, liberty, personal responsibility, excellence, civility, and you can name just about any quality we cherish in our culture and civilization, most of them are found expressed with immense and convincing candor and explicitness in the Bible.

In today’s world, the principles expressed in liberty and equality for example have been replaced by teaching “cancel culture,” “victimization,” “endemic racial prejudice,” “failed social justice,” “white fragility,” “white supremacy,” and you can read the headlines as well as I can. Read what the program in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion promotes at UA. And this is not, by any means, the most radical expression of that genre of politics in the universe of Leftist academics. I just received an invitation to Duke’s celebration of the same and they are moving at rocket speed ahead of us into the empty void of self-promotion.

We are teaching children and young adults that the inadequacies or failures of their world are in fact nothing but the results of factors all beyond their control or themselves. The “free agent” principle (we are what we make of ourselves) has been replaced by the world around us to blame.

We need the example of the Book of James to drive us forward in truth, putting God, learning, and Christian principles, even if expressed in a secular context, ahead of us.

It was said that St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the pillars of Western Christian civilization heard a critic tell him once, “Well Thomas we can’t legislate morality after all,” to which Aquinas answered, “what better to legislate?” I agree with Aquinas; not only legislate but teach. But you can’t package it in some wretched expression of victimization. Teach the kids to do well themselves, to share, and not to look for others to blame.

Published as “Book of James teaches that good works follow from faith” Sunday March 7, 2021, in The Tuscaloosa News