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Uncertainty in Learning
  • Formation
  • Language
  • Theology
Andrew de Carion

Learning a new language takes time. Having studied Spanish for years, I know how difficult it is to achieve a truly comfortable level of fluency. When I aim to have a conversation with my Spanish-speaking neighbors, I am often reminded how poor my grammar is, or how many words I forget just in the moment I need them. 

When it comes to teaching Latin and Greek, the languages of liturgy and scripture, it often feels that class is moving in slow motion. The same words and grammatical structures need to be refreshed again and again. Students might puzzle over a sentence for minutes at a time. Whether they will come to achieve fluency can feel uncertain.

The farther we advance into our language studies, the more this uncertainty seems inevitable. What bits of the language we acquire is all that we have. Often it doesn’t feel like enough. The struggle becomes learning to accept where we are in the language. As much as I want my students of Greek to be able to read and understand the New Testament in its original language, they must begin with basic vocabulary, and they must spend time puzzling over foreign grammar. We all want a complete understanding, and I hope one day all my students will get there.  

These experiences in learning languages remind me of what the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians, “We see through a glass darkly.” The King James Version translates the Greek word “ανιγμα” as “darkly,” which captures one aspect of the verse beautifully. Whatever knowledge we have now, it is only partial; it is "obscure,” to use a Latinate word also meaning “dark.” The Greek word itself, “ανιγμα,” in English “enigma,” carries with it the idea of a riddle or a dark saying. This little Greek word reminds me that all knowledge, all learning, has this quality of uncertainty. We slowly pick up bits and pieces of insight. We receive glimpses of where we are going, but not the full picture. We puzzle it over, and hopefully, slowly, we are becoming confident that we will reach the day when we can see clearly. 

In the end, our lives are in danger of feeling incomplete when we rush. Maybe we won’t get the chance to become fluent in Greek or Latin. But the daily discipline of making one small step of progress, of looking through one small window and purposing to see more clearly, allows the goal to always appear before us, in an ανιγμα.