What is the Vision for Christian Education?
Later in his life, the great poet T.S. Eliot committed himself to Christianity and much of his poetry and prose writing subsequently dealt with Christian themes. Among them was the vision of a Christian society and Christian education. In today’s time, revisiting these questions is deeply worthwhile: What is the vision for Christian education?
If there was a silver lining from the COVID restrictions, it was the awakening of the American public to the continued failures of our education system. This, in of itself, was nothing new. There have long been problems in our education system that have remained unaddressed over the decades, starting with the anti-Western vandalism of the 1960s.
But the COVID restrictions of the past couple years, coupled with an increasingly militant promotion of an ideological agenda of critical race theory, brought an awareness of failing education even to well-meaning and wealthy communities whose schools have not experienced underlying issues of poor performance, high rates of dropouts, and broad failures in preparing students for their next stage of soulful maturation.
Religious education in America has long coexisted with our public school system. It is one of the blessings of the United States which makes our republic stand apart from the many other countries of the world where religious education is shunned, banned, or severely limited.
One of the confusing conundrums of religious education, though, is in its ultimate purpose. What is its mission? For many, religious schools have become a substitute for failing public education and private education with an ideological bent to it. To attend a Christian school is to attend a school that leads to better student performance in reading, writing, arithmetic, and science.
While these things are not bad in or of themselves, this should not be the sole aim of Christian education. If Christian education just seeks excellence in earthly matters, then there is nothing that distinguishes it from its failing alternatives. It is but another educational institution in the failing city of man.
Christian education should primarily be a training and shaping of souls in virtue. The greatest virtue is love of God which is manifested through an understanding and love of what is Good, True, and Beautiful. Thus, the vision for Christian education is a combination of the heart and mind rather than just the mind.
Moreover, Christian education’s emphasis on love and truth in all things is predicated on St. Augustine’s declaration that “all truth belongs to God” because God is Truth, as Holy Scripture reveals and as the Christian theological tradition has always maintained. Additionally, fostering and forming souls in the spirit of love: love of the good things God has created; love of the good things humans in pursuit of God have created; and love of the odyssey that love is, are the central pillars for Christian education.
Furthermore, it is love of learning as a means of loving God that Christian education must instill. Excellence in education must be related to something greater than the self. Otherwise, excellence in education walks a tightrope toward narcissism and ultimately deposits one in the suffocating pool of haughty pride.
As a graduate of Yale, this tension between educational excellence and narcissism abounds. I know it firsthand. Rather than acknowledge God, family, or friends, some who attain excellence in education become entirely self-centered and cut themselves off from their loved ones. There is a feeling of superiority, a pretentious pride, that comes over those who have attained such high degrees of exceptionalism in their educational life which becomes poisonous to their spiritual and personal life.
Love of God requires humility. Humility is not a metric to be measured on tests. There is no test score for humility. Yet this is part and parcel the duty of Christian education, too. Love of God leads to a humble recognition of what really matters in life and wards off the danger of falling into a conceit of self-love that is ultimately destructive. Love of God allows the soul to see the humility of Christ who became incarnate in the world through love of us.
We live in a society saturated in the language of love divorced from the Creator who is Love itself. Slogans like “Love Wins” or “Love Trumps Hate,” while having obvious political connotations, are false counterfeits to true love.
The point of these slogans is to make one feel good, rather than to know the good, and to make one feel important rather than acknowledge the sovereignty of God, the moral law, and the natural order of things. These slogans point to a self-conceited pride: “I am on the right side of history.”
True love requires truth; true love requires good and evil, right and wrong, and the human will to choose the good rather than rationalize the choice of evil. This, though, seems “authoritarian” to moderns. Choice, even to commit evil, is peddled as the highest manifestation of freedom. How awful. This is what is implied in California with billboards saying “love thy neighbor” while endorsing the murder of infants. That is no love at all.
Christian education, then, isn’t just about excellence in the bare subjects of reading, writing, arithmetic, or science. Christian education must be a training and formation in virtue, principally the virtue of love which finds its highest fruition in love of God and, therefore, love of good over evil, right over wrong. Christian education also aims at freedom: freedom to choose the good; freedom to choose God; and the freedom to help others choose the goodness and love God in their lives. That is true freedom, that is true love.
The vision of Christian education is centered on the human soul and its ascent to God and not earthly success. It aims to offer a complete, whole, vision for life. The souls who are shaped and formed to love God are subsequently prepared to enter the city of man and build kingdoms and communities of love wherever they go. In doing so, they become living witnesses of the Gospel.
The temptation moving forward, especially as public and even private education flounders, is to offer Christian education as an alternative to the failing public school system. This is not good enough. To shun or hide the true purpose of Christian education is to constrict ourselves in our ultimate and, frankly, only purpose for existence: fostering souls to love of God and neighbor.
The excellence of Christian education isn’t in test scores but love of the God who is Love itself. Everything else flows from that. And we must also ensure that this vision for life, love, and society is possible for all and not just a few.
Paul Krause is the editor of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books, The Politics of Plato, and contributed to The College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters.
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