It was a mild April evening, and we outgoing office-bearers were enjoying our last Council meeting. It was the last leg of our last meeting when committees make their respective reports. The gentle and soothing refrain of “no report, last minutes are in your box” dotted the landscape of periodic and brief motions and unanimous votes. Spring air (at premium for Michiganders this time of year) wafted in the east door and out the west. It was the homestretch. Then the Clerk forgot about something concerning “New Business” and began handing out big, stapled packets.
He told us relieved officers to let it go by as it was something that would transcend our tenure. But it was concerning something about Christian education. So I couldn’t resist.
Closer readers of the Outhouse know I have plenty to say when it comes to parochial educational labors. And most of it doesn’t square with prevailing views in the wider scope of Christendom, especially that of neo-Kuyperian transformationalism (and even the assumptions and conclusions of fellow two-kingdomites). So though the immediate task of taking up the proposal in order to study whether this particular school may use our church’s facilities is not mine, I took the literature home to see if there might be something to challenge my views. For as long as I can remember, perhaps midyear of my first year teaching in a Christian school, I’ve wanted to know just what Christian education is. Broken record that I am, I know what Christians doing education is—I just don’t really know what Christian education means. But maybe there was an angle I was missing that might persuade me to change my tune on parochial education.
Alas, there was no such thing. In fact, it only reinforced my views, part of which was helped along by one bit. With an eye toward a landscape that includes everything from Baptists to Presbyterians, Catholics to Eastern Orthodox (yes, we those in Grand Rapids), it was the FAQ section that caught my eye. The following answer was given to “Why are you ecumenical? What do you see as the greatest advantages of such an approach?”
“…we need to celebrate the common faith that binds us together. The issues that bind us are far greater than those that divide. At X-school, we are dedicated to Christian education. So, our goal is to educate children in such a way that they are formed by the richness of our faith. But we also realize that we live in a pluralistic world. So, we also desire to prepare our children to live in this world. We can think of no better way to accomplish these goals than to provide for our children an education in which they are simultaneously grounded in the fundamentals of the faith and interacting daily with children from different branches of Christianity. We should add, lastly, that our approach is not one that champions ‘lowest common denominator’ Christianity. Christianity is a rich faith. We have no wish to minimize this. Rather, we gather together daily at X-school with our respective confessional identities, thanking God for the faith we share and learning from our respective differences.”
First, there is quite an odd understanding of just what a “pluralistic world” is and what it means to learn how to live in it. It seems “the world” is merely all the different kinds of Christians. Maybe it’s my spatial-mathematical anemia again, but I sure thought a pluralistic world included a lot more than the varied Christian traditions. I guess my definition of plural isn’t as singular as the one suggested above. Maybe my linguistic skills have spent too much time with my spatial-mathematical ones?
But, secondly, and this more interestingly, I was taken with this notion of religious minimalism. The answer clearly wants to deny that ecumenism is expressly “lowest common denominator” Christianity. But aren’t those terms essentially analogous? Isn’t that what ecumenism really is, the forfeiting of finer distinctives in order to accomplish a common errand, in this case education? Unless I am completely without it in the first place, it seems to me that this is a clever dodge around common sense. Moreover, I can’t help but wonder if we are supposed to ignore it because, after all, “we are talking about our children’s education here.” I suspect that one of the assumptions layered upon assumptions here is that all too familiar mistake that instead of it being an intellectual one education is primarily an affective enterprise, which is to say, the shaping of human beings. But that is something exclusively ordained for the institution of the home and no other. This over-realization of educational seems to have forced the conclusion and, necessarily, out pops “ecumenism isn’t minimalism.” Huh?
Very typically one hears in the apologetic for Christian education that there is just too much from which to deprogram children when sending them to secular educational institutions. The usual suspects are trotted out to make the case, or more accurately, invoke deep-seated fears to shut up any dissent. Apparently what happens in public schools is that children sit around all day being told they are descended from apes and Heather has two mommies, then scatter at lunch time to pick up condoms tossed out like candy or dispensed in restrooms. Then it’s back to class to learn how to be a dummy-head-statist-automaton.
I will leave the caricatures alone for the moment. But I will happily concede that there is always something to deprogram when it comes to rearing children. Every parent must accept the fact that the ordained, creational task of making human beings can include just as much deprogramming as programming, sometimes more if you are a persuaded Calvinist (and I am). This is no less true in so-called Christian schools than it is in secular ones. I sense heads nodding in agreement, but more often than not I have found that Christian parents think that their creational and redemptive charges are significantly lessened for about eight hours a day if their child’s school is described as “Christian.” And the burden of deprogramming is immensely relaxed. Nice try, but it should go without saying that this is really quite naïve and not a little unbecoming of those who would presume to be considered conservative Calvinists.
Especially for those of us who take the radical intolerance of Presbyterianism seriously, it seems there is plenty to deprogram here. Some might suggest that religious pluralism is essentially being smuggled in under the auspices of educating children. That might sound sort of radical, maybe the two-kingdom version of the paranoid fears of other religionists who think secular education is, to lesser or greater degrees, out to dismantle religious belief and practice. The difference may be, though, that I presume secular education to be much more about the common task of educating than eradicating true piety. I also presume confessional Christianity to be jealous for its distinctives and not easily given to dulling any edges for any reason. Lastly, I am not much for looking for devils under doilies in these things; I’d send my children to the above X-school if our situation demanded it was the only option to get what appears to be a competitive education. I’m not so sure the same would be said by the architects of X-school of secular education (excuse me, “government school”).
Nevertheless, my relative lack of paranoia aside, it is an interesting set of questions. The case could be made that what is happening in the philosophy of this particular school is more dangerous to high-church confessionalism than suggesting Darwinism. It is at the very least inconsistent. Is there really anything in a secular school that is any worse than what is going on here? If one must deprogram notions of autonomy in secular education, for example, could it also be said that latent heterodoxy must be deprogrammed in this parochial one? Theological orthodoxy is a double-edged sword that both affirms and denies. As such, should those who claim theological orthodoxy really be in the game of fostering religious pluralism, even if the project is as noble as education?
Given that secular is really more synonymous with “common” than “sinister,” it seems to make more sense that plurality characterizes that which is secular than that which is sacred. Yet, ironically, this is the very thing that seems to frighten Christian religionists about secular education. And what seems to comfort them is the idea that Christian religionists can, and should, all get along “in order to learn from our respective differences.” The world is to be blamed for not enforcing broad religious dictates (e.g. God created the world) while the church is praised for refusing narrow theological distinctives (e.g. justification is by faith alone). Maybe it’s more cognizant dissonance on my part, but shouldn’t all that be a bit more shuffled around?