My heart sank as I saw the speaking schedule. I was to lead a seminar at the Latvian Teachers Conference in Riga while the most important rugby match ever was to be played between New Zealand and France on the other side of the world!!
Fortunately I would be able to follow the first half on the internet. But everyone knows that–like life–it’s how the game finishes that counts. Of course, by half time the All Blacks would be well and truly in control of the match, I reassured myself, given the performance of the French so far in the Rugby World Cup.
How wrong I was. A mere 5-0 after 40 minutes was a very vulnerable lead.
So there I was, standing before teachers gathered from all across Latvia, eager to snap up whatever crumbs I could offer on the subject of ‘lessons from Jan Amos Comenius, the father of modern education’.
Unlike many audiences in western Europe, virtually everyone in the seminar knew the name of Comenius, or Komensky, as the Slavic world knows him. So I suggested they could teach me more than I could teach them. No, they said, they wanted to hear what I had to say from a Christian perspective. That Comenius was a believer was news to them.
Komensky is a Czech and a Slavic hero, a pioneer in educational theory and practice, well-known as creator of the world’s first picture book for children (see photo). Yet little was ever taught about his Christian convictions under communism. They were considered an eccentric irrelevancy.
Many of the teachers had been trained under marxism, or dialectical materialism; others, since the fall of the Wall, under secular materialism. Both approaches produce a one-eyed perspective.
I began by telling of the giant bronze statue in his memory given by the Communist Czechoslovakian government, now standing in the Dutch town of Naarden where he was buried. He had died in exile in Amsterdam in 1670, after fleeing from Poland, after fleeing twenty years earlier during the Thirty Years War from what is now the Czech Republic.
Unknown to my audience, my laptop screen not only showed my notes on Comenius. I also tried to keep one eye on the titanic struggle unfolding down-under in the corner of my screen, still connected via the wifi.
Soon that became an impossible distraction. I had expected to glimpse wave upon wave of black-clad players sweeping towards the goal-line. That wasn’t happening.
I decided to resort to my second-line of defence. My son, watching the game with cousins in England, would text my iPhone with updates.
Now fully concentrating on Comenius, I traced the progressive educational ideas of this bishop of the Ancient Moravian Church to his spiritual roots. All knowledge was God’s truth. Education should be for all, rich and poor, boys and girls. Lessons should be drawn from nature, God’s book of works. Schools were ‘workshops of humanity’. The ultimate goal of all education was the restoration of fallen human nature, not just of individuals, but for the harmony of society, and harmony of nations. And much more.
In other sessions, we had talked of the one-eyed perspective from which history is usually taught. Few knew how much the story of Jesus had shaped Europe through the centuries. The story of how much the Bible had influenced the spheres of European society was ignored, belittled or unknown even in Christian circles.
The Comenius story highlighted the source of Europe’s crisis today: the loss of spiritual roots. Latvia had joined the EU in 2004, seeking prosperity and protection from her eastern neighbour. Yet few Latvians were aware of the Christian motivation of the founding fathers like Robert Schuman, who warned that ‘the European movement would only be successful if future generations managed to tear themselves away from the temptation of materialism which corrupted society by cutting it off from its spiritual roots’.
Jacques Delors, when president of the European Commission, had urged religious leaders nearly twenty years ago ‘to seek for the soul of Europe, for a spirituality and meaning, without which the game would be over’.
My iPhone signalled that THE game was not yet over: the score was now 8-7! The seminar ended and I remained in the now-empty hall, transfixed to my laptop, biting my nails along with four million Kiwis. How disastrous a defeat to the French would be for New Zealand after a year of earthquakes, a mine disaster, the current oil spill near Tauranga and a 24-year shut-out at the Rugby World Cup!
Finally, in the last minute, the All Blacks were awarded a penalty and a whole nation exploded in relief and exuberation at their one-point victory.
If you told any Kiwi there was an even more important game being contested–the recovery of a two-eyed vision for Europe–they wouldn’t believe you.
Not this week anyway.
Till next week then,