I have been fortunate enough to spend significant parts of my life in organised learning – and bloody-minded enough to have studied at six different Universities and Colleges.

Each institution had its own way of doing things, its own set of requirements and set of forms to fill in, its own library and computer systems. In fact, most of these institutions had multiple systems requiring multiple logins and passwords – and I dread to think of the many zombie accounts that exist in my name, somewhere in the digital dark.

It feels odd for someone like me, who really doesn’t like bureaucracy and institutions very much, to have been a part of so many. I generally don’t enjoy rules, requirements and systems and I don’t get a sense of personal achievement from qualifications and degrees. But I do love to learn – and, at its best, I have found organised exploration of knowledge and creativity immensely helpful to my life, my faith, and my sense of ministry.

God’s creation is filled with awe and wonder, and the works of God’s children can be subtle, inspiring and glorious. So the gift of learning has given me enough joy to stare down the most stony-eyed of administrators and the patience to endure the most frustrating set of educational requirements.

It is a tragedy that education is too often presented as a duty and an imposition. You must complete these tasks in this location at these times or you will cop it. In Australia we do a great disservice to young people just starting to learn – regularly making the experience less than joyful. Some stick it out, and go on to discover the wonder of learning – but for many resentment grows. Education, power, duty and compliance become so interwoven that a broad love of learning is soon undermined. And, where a passion for learning does survive it is often narrowed and people typically become specialists in very specific areas pertaining to their employment or personal interests.

Knowing the statistics of every player in a professional sports team is great – as long as we are also able to make room for an interest in science, the arts, constructive politics and so on. We don’t need to be experts at everything – but every area of human learning should be regarded as worthwhile.

In the Christian tradition a generous love of learning has sometimes been hindered by church authority, a misplaced sense of subservience or even a distorted view of revelation. And we have turned to texts like Genesis 3 – the one about being tempted to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – and presumed that the “moral” of the story is that the pursuit of knowledge is perilous, even ungodly. But I reckon that learning is better understood as an expression of the joy and passion of the Psalmist, who consistently looks on the goodness of God’s creation with exultation, and learning about how the world works and how people make sense of life and community is a natural consequence of our engagement with the glory of God. In the example of the Psalms, learning is almost an act of worship – devoid of hubris and the will to power.

For if learning is simply a way to get what we want or a means of asserting our authority it ceases to be a gift. But when we learn for the sheer joy of looking for God and exploring our place in God’s creation, there is nothing more wonderful.

I think that in the church we sometimes forget the joy of learning, tending to regard learning as another set of expectations to be filled. Now organised and recognised education does need rigour. But I feel that in the church, especially the Uniting Church, we might be better served by spending more of our time and energy on kindling the pure joy of learning.

Whether we are exploring God’s good creation, our shared humanity or the ways that we can best share the transforming love and power of Jesus with those who we are sent to serve – what we learn and how that changes us is almost most transformative if it comes from a place of joy. For learning is a gift of God – and that I’m pretty grateful for it.

Niall McKay is a new member of the Vital Leadership Team within UME


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