Smuggling Ecumenism In Under Education?

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?

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12 Responses to Smuggling Ecumenism In Under Education?

  1. Brenden says:

    Zrim,

    I’m new to your blog and really like what I’m reading. I must confess, your argument is quite convincing. Until now I’ve always considered lining up with a Christian school/home schooling point of view. Although Horton has influenced me quite a bit about recognizing the importance of the two kingdoms, some categories die hard. But I have a question; what about the quality of the education in public schools? I have a hard time picturing sending my kids (if I’m ever blessed with a family) to an institution that can’t teach them hardly anything worthwhile, let alone all garbage. I mean, if only we had Christians who went out and started real, solid, classical “secular” schools… Now that’s where it would be at.

  2. Zrim says:

    Brendon,

    Welcome.

    Good question. In all my years in one form of education or another I have learned that education can be done well or poorly by anyone. Education falls under creation, which means everyone has an equal shot at doing it well or poorly. I’ve seen, even taught in Christian schools I would never send my own kids to; and when our first started school we declined the public school right around the corner because it was sub-par (electing instead not the Xian school across the street but the charter school a few miles away). My kids attend the local public schools and I would never characterize what they get as “garbage” or “hardly worthwhile.” And the Xian schools around here (in Little Geneva, mind you) are really not much more than glorified public schools one has to pay extra for.

    The default setting on believers seems to be that public education has to prove why it’s not poor, while parochial education is assumed to be superior. Weird. The simple fact of the matter is that if you want to make sure your kids’ school is good you have to do your homework and not conveniently live with these assumptions. Who knows, that might even lead you to a Catholic school–they are really good at education.

  3. RubeRad says:

    Although Horton has influenced me quite a bit about recognizing the importance of the two kingdoms…

    FWIW, Horton is on the board of, and sends his kids to, this school (and that’s my son on the left there). It is interesting to note that in his endorsement, he makes no mention of Christianity, although it is a “Reformed school” (yes, I know that such a label begs Zrim’s usual question; but suffice it to say that almost all the faculty and families are in the PCA, OPC, or URC, and their curriculum includes daily chapel, scripture memorization, and catechesis).

  4. RubeRad says:

    The answer clearly wants to deny that ecumenism is expressly “lowest common denominator” Christianity. But aren’t those terms essentially analogous?

    It certainly seems difficult to imagine how a school could be both ecumenical and not LCD. Maybe if, for every topic, they present all major historical interpretations without making a judgment about which is correct? “And so you see children, justification is either an infusion of grace that makes us better, or the result of the choice we made in response to prevenient grace, or an act of God’s free grace towards his elect. Now go home and ask your parents which is right.”

    Also, doesn’t this statement:

    Rather, we gather together daily at X-school with our respective confessional identities

    cut out rather a large swath of anti-confessional evangelicals? How ecumenical is that?

  5. Wout says:

    I started public school in 1954. I learned English, learned to read and write, arithmetic etc. I was never taught anything about coming from monkeys or anything about evolution. In Grade 3, a teacher stated that the unforgivable sin was murder. Never having accepted blindly what any teacher told me, I discussed this with my parents who obviously disagreed. What if this had been stated by a teacher in a Christian school? Would it have been taken as gospel? A teacher also told me that one cannot see the moon in the daytime. As I had already observed that it could, I just let this bit of nonsense go. As a teenager, there were already some in my CRC who began to promote Christian schools. My parents did not. Christian education was in catechism and in my Christian home. ZRIM, by the way, we referred to Grand Rapids (tongue in cheek) as the “holy city”.

  6. Zrim says:

    I would bet that Cambridge School is a really good school, and I wouldn’t rule it out simply because it is parochial. My guess is that the favor isn’t as readily returned and that public school is ruled out because it is public. And I still wonder why, when it is said that “there is no such thing as a Christian version of any worldly endeavor,” a line gets drawn at education (by which I mean complusory day schooling, not theoogical training or churchly instruction). If education why not politics?

    It sure seems like transformers and theonomists are more consistent than some 2Kers on this one. They see Christianity as having a direct and obvious bearing on all creational endeavor (politics and education) and don’t equivocate between them.

  7. Zrim says:

    Yeah, if I wanted to do Xian education I’d choose something like Cambridge that at least has a sense of the intolerant narrowness of Christianity, not one that perpetuates the opposite.

  8. Zrim says:

    Wout,

    Deprogramming your kids will have to happen wherever there are human beings influencing them. Note I say “influencing,” not shaping or making, which includes deprogramming. The only insitution ordained to shape and make is the home. I’m not so sure parochialists are sold on this though.

    Christian education was in catechism and in my Christian home.

    Exactly. Why is this so complicated?

    There are lots of names for GRR: Little Geneva, GRusalem, Dutch Mecca.

  9. mboss says:

    My experience is that the triangle of Christian school, church, and home often becomes an unfortunate game of catechetical hot potato: each one assumes the other two will take care of shaping the yutes.

  10. Zrim says:

    I’m putting that one in my holster for later. Thanks, Mike.

  11. RubeRad says:

    Which, the hot potato or the ‘yutes’? Take ’em both, I say!

  12. mboss says:

    Glad to help. Use them sparingly. I don’t come up with them often.

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