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“Learning on the fly,” a phrase used by seminarian Phil Salter, is still on my mind.  I am taking a different tact from my previous ponderings ….

The inclinations, proclivities and aspirations to fly are abundantly evident in literature – folk, pop, euro-classical, and American Black.  Several generations have marveled at the stories of Superman, Peter Pan, and Astro Boy – all who could fly.  We are equally awed by, indebted to, the Wright brothers for achieving the, then, impossible – now, commonplace. Wingsuiting is the latest extreme sport, and Icarus still captures our sympathetic imaginations.  We want to fly – we want to remember how to fly. 

As a child, the TV shows, comic books and history lessons which told stories of flying people caught my curiosity, kept me entertained, all-the-while subtly suggesting that flying was fantasy or just not a desire suited for me/mine.  Thankfully, my family also told stories of people who could fly, but our stories were about wisdom keeping, truth telling, and liberation. The family stories instilled in me an unabashed understanding that certain Africans, then and now - could fly.    

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 2.30.28 PMWhile there are many iterations of the extraordinary story of the African people who could fly, blog space does not allow for a proper retelling.  I will tell generally about the stories, and refer you to The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton, if you wish to read a full version.

In a nutshell, the story of the people who could fly always begins by describing the unjust and brutal suffering of the dehumanized African people at the hands of the godless, inhumane oppressor during chattel slavery.   The story always ends with a captive(s) taking flight and making the successful journey to freedom.  The main idea of the story is that escape to freedom can happen through innate ability to fly when the Seer, the wisdom figure of the story, speaks magical words, causing the capability of flight to be activated in a person. 

My fascination is with the Seer. The Seer knows the person who has the ability to fly.  At an appointed time, the Seer pronounces the moment as ready, says to the person, “Fly, as you know how to fly!”  Then the Seer speaks more magical words, conjuring the strength of the flight, decreeing the person into freedom.  Suppose as teachers, we are meant to play the role of the Seer for our students?  Oh, this raises dire questions which are at the heart of our vocation …..

What if we, as scholars and professors, acknowledge that the yearning for the sacred mystery is why we entered religious and theological teaching, yet the inattention and disregard by the academy for our pursuit of the sacred has rendered many of us un-able to be Seers, or worse still, unwilling to fly.  What if that which flows directly from ancient, communal experiences of the Divine, and is meant for us to pour into our students, has instead been traded for loveless, meaningless, mundane jobs? 

To be a teacher who is a Seer means to open my spiritual abilities before my students.  It means setting the expectation for Divine, liberative encounter in the agenda of the classroom, not as a classroom that becomes a worship service, but as a classroom where the awareness of the activity of God is an integral and synergistic part of teaching and learning.  As a Seer, I am obligated to know the ways of God not only in my personal prayer closet, but also in the midst of the turmoil of the world.  My bit of the world is in the classroom. 

Transformative teaching, the work of a Seer, rejects the disregard and callousness of the academy and finds ways, bold or subversive or inconspicuous, for spiritual knowing and healing to be part of the learning experience.  Simply put, the experience of the Divine is to be beckoned in classrooms.  In the folktale, the Seer’s power is that he knew.  He knew: who possessed the innate capacity; the time for action; the words which were keys to open spiritual doors.  I want to push past knowledge of the disciplinary canons and the survival politics of higher education in order to delve into the knowing that is life-giving and life-affirming for teacher and learner, alike.  I want to linger over and immerse myself in the spiritual practices of the Seer who, in the midst of misery and bondage, enabled passage to freedom.  I want the kind of knowing that is so powerful my students take flight.  

This is the 7th post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

About Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D., is the fourth director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a home with family and extended family dedicated to public education. Her father was a school psychologist and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who, as a volunteer organizer, greatly influenced the school board of the city of Philadelphia. Lynne holds a BS in Agriculture from Murray State University, a MA in Christian Education from Scarritt Graduate School, and a PhD in Religious Education and Womanist Studies from Union Institute. Lynne, as a United Methodist clergy person, served on the staff of the Riverside Church (NYC) where she redesigned the family education program. From 1999 to 2019, she was on the faculty of Drew University Theological School (Madison, New Jersey) as Professor of Religious Education.
Lynne’s first book was a children’s book entitled All Quite Beautiful: Living in a Multicultural Society. Her second book was a publishing of her doctoral dissertation entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality. Her books written in collaboration include: Being Black/Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies and Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She also, for a brief time, wrote for the Huffington Post.

Reader Interactions


  1. The initial images that come to mind are of the mediocre (that’s being kind) and campy TV series, “The Greatest American Hero,” 🙂 but also of my and many others’ fascination with the way in which a mere mortal Michael Jordan seemed to fly towards the rim. Of course, as articulated above, the fascination is less about physically flying and more about a certain freedom of spirit. The desire to fly seems to suggest that there is something that keeps our feet pinned to the ground and while, my very comfortable middle class suburban context may not present some of the deeply entrenched racial and other issues that have kept many nailed to the ground, the implications for myself and others around me are still significant. What responsibility do I have as a preacher/teacher to bring light to the on-going plight of the oppressed so that those who are more easily empowered can encourage through their words and actions, the flight of the oppressed? And how can I, considering my past role as youth leader for example, help young persons soar in their own lives and in the many ways they can serve others?

    As a preacher / former youth leader, I have always felt a certain sense to make sure those I teach understand that God is on their side … and so am I. We still, as a people, largely struggle with a God narrative that places God in position of judge. As a result, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to bring light to the God of grace (as seen through Jesus Christ). From that place, the role of Seer … and as one who can encourage students towards flight, is made that more possible. HOWEVER, it must be said that an important element of such “flying,” is the honest revealing of those forces that have and continue to limit our flight. Superman’s flight was only made necessary because of the forces of oppression that surrounded him and those he sought to protect. It seems as if we must encourage flight but simultaneously address the shackles that limit such freedom!

    Grace & Peace,

  2. All I can say is you are a Seer, you have uttered the magic words many times and I have begun to fly as I know how. Thank you.

  3. I do agree that “aspirations to fly are abundantly evident in literature” and almost everyone is fascinated by the heroes and heroines of the stories. I am also encouraged that you are pondering the notion of being a seer in the classroom that would aid the process of freedom and flight. As a female African American theologian I get to see up close the manifestations of systems of oppression on people of color. Flight and freedom are elusive concepts to us and much of our energies are spent on surviving and many have given up hope that we will ever truly be free to fly. So it would be interesting to hear what you have in mind when it comes to students who need that extra motivation to get in flight mode. It is my hope that those students would not be discarded as unworthy or lacking ambition but nurtured and encouraged to walk, then run and maybe fly eventually.

  4. I am afraid of heights, but I am not afraid of flying. A teacher as a Seer who would guide me in learning to fly sounds wonderful. Something I find myself warning new seminarians of is to take care of themselves spiritually, for they will not find their classes sufficient in this. I tell them they will be surprised at how drained they can become due to their studies and wonder how is it that spending days discussing spiritual topics can do this. I tell them that there is a difference between seeking God and studying God and unfortunately the academic work does not always bring us closer to our creator. Though, I have had experiences where this was recognized and I found myself uplifted when academic work was forced to make room for spirituality and faith in the classroom.

  5. The line that resonated with me most was this:

    I want to push past knowledge of the disciplinary canons and the survival politics of higher education in order to delve into the knowing that is life-giving and life-affirming for teacher and learner, alike.

    I thought about my experiences as a classroom teacher (where I taught a unit on Virginia Hamilton) and later as a Vice Principal, I used to wonder why I would hear so much noise and complaints in the district about the “politics”, the “problems”, etc., yet I would not know as much. While other buildings seemed to be in chaos, my school would always run efficiently and I would not be aware of the occurrences that had the attention and angst of my colleagues. I often wondered why until I discovered the answer: My principal had pushed past the politics so our building could fly. She had an uncanny way of shielding us from the bureaucracy that made education difficult and she did what was necessary for us to teach and our students learn.

    Today, I see so many of my students who have gone on to finish college and be successful. I also think of several of my colleagues, who like myself, are successful administrators. So, if we get get past the things that keep us ground, we could fly.

    I am still learning how to do this in my building as principal and also my church! Oh the things that keep members grounded. As this is a class of prayer, my prayer is that little by little, that we can move beyond the titles, positions, traditionalisms and other items that keep us grounded. I pray that I might fuel the energy of my congregation so we can indeed take flight.

  6. So what is meant by “the fly” is it inspiration? When there is a reality for a Puerto Rican theologian and second career individual heading to empower others to move beyond
    the boundaries from others marginalized in the past? Still today as I am sitting here; I am struck by the need for “White folk” to behave as though dominating or rendering me powerless is necessary in order to remind me that the ultimate power lies in the ruling class. For some individuals my degrees and age and past accomplishments is of no value. For some individuals I am not a grown woman but someone that needs to be chastized until I surrender. In this day and age marginalized human beings still continue to struggle. As a child I used to watch Superman and other stories of heroes in flight and was fasinated by the paradox that such a powerful human being could be struck from exposure to a small green rock “criptonite”. While it seemed to me as a child that in “El Barrio”, growing up there existed a dense population of Puerto Ricans from 96th Street to 125th Street; East to West with limitations. Yet if they walked downtown beyond 96th Street into what appeared as another community altogether; the welcome signs were removed from stores and sidewalks on Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue. I accept the idea of being the seer for my highly diverse students and welcome the thought that they are to be encouraged to fly. I am really curious about the intentions for those same inclinations to exist everywhere with all seminaries and universities today for all of us.It is unfortunate that everything we want for all of our students regardless of ethnicities cannot be afforded for the Seers of color. Life goes on!! I pray for future generations of color to run and maybe fly.

  7. A poet once said, and I recall verbatim, I can fly like a bird in the sky, then completed the poem expressing all of her gifts and talents. The poetry through the lens of Nicki Giovanni, fasinated me because here was a African American woman taking a leap to say what we all ought to say. She flew with intention and dared to say all of what she is and will continue to be. Taking our students to that higher perspective is one of the ways in which I can see pursuing now and into the future. Here is a female heroe that revealed an inner strength for all women. Hmmm I wonder if “i can fly like a bird in the sky”.

  8. Dr. Westfield, I truly desire to be a Seer, that provides my students with trans formative teaching that would ignite flying power. Truly you have been that for me and I am forever grateful for those such as yourself who are committed to giving flight lessons. Thank you.

  9. As I read this 7th blog the chorus of R Kelly’s 1996 song “I Believe I Can Fly” popped into my mind. Even though the word “I” is mentioned fourteen times in the chorus I doubt that the belief which the “I” is now aware of, was entirely self-motivated. Somehow, somewhere, someone had a hand for the “I” to reach that belief system. A Seer no doubt!
    For teachers to accept this responsibility and huge undertaking of being a Seer does allow freedom in teacher and student, for scholarship is incorporated within intellect, knowledge, experience and spirituality. bell hooks once quoted Pema Chodron when describing past teachers: “Things are not always certain and they do not last and you do not know what is going to happen. My teachers have always pushed me over the cliff…” Although we may be flying or have reached the capacity to be air-borne, let us not forget the work and teachings of the Holy Spirit who is the wind which propels our flight.

  10. This is how I feel about Christian Education in the church. Sunday school is taught by people who have no desire to fly and certainly cannot inspire flight in others or have the intrinsic ability to know who has the capacity to fly. If they ever had wings they volunteered to have them clipped. Some people are satisfied with “just enough.” I am not.

    I heard a great sermon the other night and the preacher used several words (antiquity, modernity, parousia, eschatological, homoousios) that were unfamiliar to most congregants. What was the point of their use, when their rich meaning fell on people who had not been taught to fly or had the desire to fly but their wings had been clipped by “just enough” education given in Sunday School or Bible Study. Why is Christian Education, just for some, leadership or clergy. I am not satisfied with not knowing and how dare he use those words and not explain them.

    The church wants its members to evangelize, but how do we tell others about a Jesus we know so little about. We can’t fly with clipped wings.

  11. The word, vocation, has been a source of hope and creativity for me as I have explored my own faith identity, particularly here at Drew. However, there are times when I worry about vocation moving more into the realm of job (of the loveless, meaningless, mundane variety). What happens when that space is desacralized or just entirely neglected? Just thinking momentarily of the degrees of vocational reflection present in the classroom becomes incredibly daunting when I wonder about how we, as students, can care for the Seer. But the beauty of this illustration you bring up is that there is mutuality and fluidity present in the relationship between Seer and student/flier. The student must not only choose to hear those words of freedom but also choose to act. What a creative risk that is.

  12. Dr. Westfield you have grabbed my attention as well: to be the Seer. Immediately I think about the ancestors of my family generation; Aunt Buddy, my great aunt, seemed to possess this kind transformative power. She did not have a college education and barely had any high school training but oh boy could she share the words of wisdom! Just as the Seer in the story embraces and emanates WISDOM out the most horrific of situations, my Aunt Buddy had a similar position. Living life in the Jim Crow south was simply indescribable, but there was a possession within my aunt’s soul that moved beyond that of anger and resentment against the status quo. “Let your mind and your ability to speak be your fighting power.” “Know without a doubt that if the heart has a desire to love God despite the surrounding circumstances, then with a certainty it is that God, our God, that will guide you and give you the strength to withstand and endure.” I say thanks to my auntie for being the practical wisdom Seer. It is important for me to as a leader, as a minister, that the people of God are entrusted to such a one as me to move in mind, body and spirit. Let me be the one to fly so that Jesus is taught, preached, evangelized as the pilot; the pilot that is not stagnate, but the pilot who has commissioned us to GO!

  13. As you said, Dr. Lynn to be a teacher who is a Seer means to open my spiritual abilities before my students. It means setting the expectation for Divine, liberative encounter in the agenda of the classroom, not as a classroom that becomes a worship service, but as a classroom where the awareness of the activity of God is an integral and synergistic part of teaching and learning.

    A Seer is essential in their role to liberate, and inspire. The Seer can help shape the classroom, in fact any atmosphere with the presence of God, and not in the ways of what is “traditional” church or worship for some, but to exude the attributes of God. And once the attributes and living free Spirit of God permeates one can easily “Fly” Given the responsibility to Seer is an opportunity to transform the thinking of those whom which the seer encounter, enabling them to SOAR.


    As a Seer, I am obligated to know the ways of God not only in my personal prayer closet, but also in the midst of the turmoil of the world. My bit of the world is in the classroom.

  14. The image of Seer as illustrated in the story reminds me of not only Teacher, but as Prophet and Visionary as well. Visionaries don’t adhere to the limitedness and confines of a box. They have the capability to see beyond the scope of the ordinary to encounter the extraordinary. The Seer in the role of prophet has the ability to help encourage the “Flyer” to shift from a place of complacency and mediocrity to a place that allows liberation to encompass the whole of the person (mind, body and spirit).

    R. Kelly sang a song in the late 90’s entitled “I Believe I Can Fly” and in the song, these lyrics are embedded “I believe I can touch the sky, I think about it every night and day, spread my wings and fly away, I believe I can soar, I see me running through that open door, I believe I can fly.” These lyrics resonated with me as I read your blog because Seer as teacher helps create opportunities for his/her students to soar not only academically, but beyond the classroom as well, into the open doors of life where unconventional opportunities are availed.

    While many of us in seminary may never have personally suffered the inhumane treatment by an oppressor, many may know of or know persons who have. It is up to us to turnkey our seminary experiences as flyers and become the Seers who help others (the oppressed, the marginalized, those grounded by intimidation and fear) to fly.

    Allowing the work of the Divine to be integrated into the learning experience by embracing unconventional teaching and learning methods as experienced in “The Art of Teaching Life,” is one of the unconventional ways the teacher/Seer provided opportunity for us to take flight. I’ve experienced my flying moment because the Seer, Dr. Westfield allowed space for the work of The Divine in the classroom by exposing me to an unconventional way of learning. As you have mentioned in the classroom and I’ve had the opportunity to experience, learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom.

    Thank you for incorporating differentiated instruction for me.

  15. Professor Westfield I applaud you for your boldness in sharing your thoughts on a teacher who is a Seer. I can only imagine how this teaching/learning experience would manifest itself in the classroom. The very thought of a teacher in their authoritative role willing to expose their spiritual abilities before their students are transformative teaching. The teacher as a seer places a great deal of emphasis on manifestations of the Divine being present in the classroom, the presence awaits the learner while the learner enters expecting to encounter the divine. The Seer with the gift and ability to encourage all to fly while tenderly nurturing those who require more confidence is just breath taking.

Wabash Center