a web of simple thanks: part 4

Ian John – the unacclaimed teacher

I was sitting in a large room with maybe 100 other students. I’d never heard the word before, but I knew it was a powerful concept by the way Ian explained it. He talked about the scientific process and as an undergraduate science student I listened; Ian’s credentials included a PhD in Chemistry. But he talked about more than the process of research, thesis, and peer review. He talked about publication and communication in popular media and high school text books. The point was not just relating to the gap between original research and simplistic high school diagrams but of the seemingly impossible task of getting a dissenting voice any airtime in the popular system. Once something is presented as indisputable fact, many steps removed from peer review science, the competition for truth is reduced to what is palatable in the 7:30 time slot.

Plumb bob suspended from plumb line

To explain the phenomena Ian used the word a number of times. Because I’d never heard it before I could only guess how it was spelled. I wrote enthusiastically in my notes ‘paradime’. It was 1983. I had a hunch the word, which I later learned was coined (or at least first used in this way) by Thomas Kuhn and was correctly spelled paradigm, would be a useful one for me. It was.

I didn’t appreciate however that the bloke who had introduced me to the word would be an extraordinary teacher and friend over the next couple of decades. I have often read and heard about the romanticism associated with smoke filled Parisian coffee shops as students and sophisticates opined and philosophised about life and meaning. For Ian and I, the scene was much less glamorous – we tended to meet in the early mornings at fluorescent light lit near-empty soul-less food courts where some little café was catering for the early morning commuters.

But Ian’s thinking was peerless. We were grappling with the demise of modernity and in particular the associated evolution of Christian spirituality in the West. We read the latest and best books. We debated and critiqued. Ian’s thinking was usually on par or ahead of most things we digested. His consideration and rigour spurred me beyond my intuition. Ian’s responses were often unconsciously referenced as the plumb line among the people I knew.

Renowned theologian Eugene Peterson wrote a curiously titled book called Under the Unpredictable Plant. In it Peterson describes the vocation associated with serving locally without glamour, compared with ‘rock star’ Christianity. Ian typifies what Peterson argues for. He has not (to my knowledge) published anything substantial nor promoted his remarkable thinking and capacities beyond his immediate community. In this, Ian has modelled not only outstanding thinking but exemplary living.

I should add that my point is not to be critical of high profile thinking. Indeed, we need the figurative megaphone to be in the most accomplished hands, and at times I have lamented how little recognition Ian has received when lesser thinking is publically acclaimed. My point is simply to highlight the blend of humility and excellence that is rare, and I’ve seen in Ian over the years.

Ian, I cannot imagine the path my thinking and life might have taken without your companionship and teaching. I thank you deeply.