How to Educate Your Messiahs

Feb 4, 2012 by

Colin Hannaford

Colin Hannaford – All that your children really need to develop their full potential is to learn how to decide what an action means, as distinct from what it first appears to mean.

This is where doubt is more powerful in getting to truth than belief. A mathematics classroom happens to be a very good place to learn. It is not the only place; but it is the most convenient.

Does this sound difficult? It is not. Look: a sentence in text-book, any text-book, is the result of an action. “Please read it aloud!” I would ask one of my pupils, and then I would ask another: “What do you think that means?”

Almost always the first response will be: “Uh, I don’t know.”

“That’s okay; that’s alright. Just read it again: aloud.”

And then I would ask the same, or another: “What do you think that means?”

By now there should be at least a first suggestion.

“Okay. Does it mean the same to all of you? Can it mean anything else, anything more?”

Slowly, but surely, everyone will begin to realise: ‘This is how to learn!’

And then they also begin to realise: ‘But I can do this by myself!’

These were the principles of learning that we explored in our classroom after I had realised how easily I could damage both your intelligence and your pleasure in learning by attempting to teach you as if you were just one single undifferentiated brain called The Class.

Ignoring children’s differences like this produces emotional, mental, and moral cripples.

Every child is potentially a messiah. It might even be supposed that the aim of most systems of formal education is to ensure that they are as rare as possible. This happens.

And yet, whatever the formal system, some will survive. Some will preserve that modicum of primal innocence in believing that there is always more to discover, more to be learnt.

All religions accept that some messiahs will always be active in the world. In general, the aim of a messiah is to show that everyone shares the responsibility for making peace or making war. Everyone has this choice. We have it now.

Perhaps we can help our young messiahs best by recalling, in a single sentence, what the most outstanding of earlier messiahs said to their contemporaries, and say to us now.

It might be expected that most messiahs will be found in religions. But religions are run by professionals insisting that there is no need for doubt, that their religion is already completely true.

Professionals like these create more divisions than they can heal. And, in addition, they do not welcome unlicensed interference.

This was a problem for Socrates.

Socrates was accused of denying the importance of Athens’ gods. His actual offence was to declare that its most powerful politicians were not the most moral. He was really accusing Athens’ priests of failing to guide public morality.

This was a clear challenge to them both.

And then he refused to apologise. This was a clear challenge to the majority on his jury who were obliged every day to be humble before the rich, the powerful and immoral.

“An honest man,” Socrates told them,“is like a child.”

Another insult! What does a child know that a man does not?

As Forrest Gump might say: that’s all you need to hear from Socrates.

Unlicensed interference was a problem for Jesus too.

He was clearly a highly charismatic young man, but fatally confused. He could not decide whether to encourage Jews to become a democracy like Athens; or whether to accept the Emperor Augustus as a god; or whether to lead his followers as armed terrorists.

He hesitated too long. The Romans clearly feared him as a potential terrorist. They sent to arrest him a full cohort of soldiers: around 300 heavily armed men. Later, Jerusalem laughed at his indecision. They preferred Pilate to free Barabbas. He might at least begin to fight.

Three centuries later, without any sense of irony, a gaggle of priests decided to increase their own importance by declaring Jesus not only to have been a god, like any Roman emperor – itself an insult to his courage – but to be The God, eternally, and his Father, and the Spirit of honesty and truth. This clutch of illogical imponderables has been a barrier to peace ever since.

Yet despite the wars that have been fought, and that may yet be fought, in his name, Jesus has been decidedly as important as Socrates. What then was his most important sentence? William Blake, number eleven on Dr Bucke’s list, declared it to be: ‘Forgive and be forgiven.’

Interfering with professionals was Mohammed’s problem too. The professionals of his time, the pagans, the Jews, and the Christians, at first derided him, then let children pelt him with offal, then threatened him so seriously that he had to leave his home and surround himself with warriors simply in order to survive.

Let us not mistake his purpose. There is a battered old leather quiver, dark with age, in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul. It is said to be a relic of a brave and thoughtful man who refused, most remarkably, to allow anyone to suggest that he was more.

But to think of him only as a warrior is a very serious mistake. He made peace between the warring tribes. He forgave those who had fought against him and he turned his enemies into friends. And even more than courage, he valued honesty: especially of scholars.

Islam could turn to the same inspiration today.

And all of this is true because, fundamentally, and still most remarkably, Mohammed’s sentence is the most powerful of all. Here it is: ‘There is one God for everyone.’

For a time this hugely powerful elementary message raised Muslim mathematics, science, and medicine to historic achievement. If it had been left unchallenged, it might by now have illumined the world; but later arguments divided it, its sense and its meaning, until all its fire was stifled and the tribes that he united divided once again.

His, with these earlier messages, could unite all the faiths we know.

That they have not, I believe, is why many of you call yourselves atheists. You are not atheists. You are the flowers which grow from the prophets’ footsteps. You are on the right path.

Messiahs are always in danger from those whose power they seem to threaten. But they know themselves to be in constant danger of being silenced even by those who mean well.

On that evening, forty years ago, I knew at once that I had had a hugely important experience. I did not then expect that it would direct the rest of my life.

The next day, however, after a good night’s sleep and hearty breakfast, as I was preparing to meet my military and medical inquisitors for the first time, I realised that to declare that it had occurred in this place without any support from any modern professionals, would be to invite them immediately and unconditionally to judge me mad.

We talked instead of other things: of sedition and of treachery and of offering possible comfort to an enemy.

You may already have read Much later I wrote . In it I imagined the real perplexity of the formal professionals to whom eventually I told the whole of it. They were the kindest people imaginable; but they were clearly completely unable to agree what do. The best advice one of them could give me was: “Other theologians will not like it that you know, from experience, what they know from their books. Stay away from them.”

So, you see, it is impossible to say how to continue a messiah’s education. But at least we now know how to start. In the first of these essays I warned that this is a dangerous game. I hope I may have persuaded you that it is the only game in town.

Either we win this game: or they lose everything.

You may have been persuaded by my treatment of the God debate a few pages back that I disagree with the debaters entirely. In fact, I am critical only of their certainty. Their certainty is very close to the certainty that they criticise in others. Certainty starts wars.

By now, as well, if you are a mother, or if you expect to be a mother, I hope I will have persuaded you that your responsibility is to help your young messiahs preserve their innocence.

Telling them that they have always the right to be honest and to ask questions will not just give them a full grade advantage at school, especially if their teachers understand the real value of their questions, it is also the first step of their spiritual training.

My final addition is more than a sentence. It is also from someone you will not know. But he thought long about these questions, and he, finally, is a Jew: “If we judge the other, if we compare the other to ourselves, if, with whatever worthy motive, we play the schoolmaster or even the loving father and guide, there can be no spiritual meeting: for we have by no means cut our moorings: we have stayed on our own shore, and beckoned the other to us. He will not come.” 1

And, finally, try to forgive your mathematics teachers, and your religion teachers.

Their material is difficult. They do their best.



5th February 2012.


1 ‘From Darkness to Light’, p. 317,Victor Gollancz, 1956.

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