Friday, 20 June 2014

The Problem with Teaching Christian 'Values' in Schools: An Ancient Heresy

About a year ago, the deputy head of a local primary school contacted me and asked for my help. She explained that the school was preparing to embark on a 'value of the month' project in the new school year; would I come in and lead a monthly assembly to introduce the value of the month, and link it to Christian faith by telling a Bible story to illustrate it? Of course, I replied, I'd love to, and a few weeks later,  looked at a plan for the year's values. The first was 'courage.' Great, I thought, David and Goliath. Classic Bible story; all children should know it; lots of drama and plenty of potential to get children involved. The next month's 'value' was friendship. Good, I decided: Ruth and Naomi. Beautiful little story; mild peril leading to ultimate resolution; women; again, opportunity for dressing up. It was all going so well. 

So well, that is, until it started to dawn on me, in the uncomfortable, spreading sensation of pins and needles, that if I were wanting to look for a body of literature from which to extrapolate how to be good by reference to heroes and heroines who embody the kind of good values which this school wanted to inculcate in its community, the Bible might not be the best choice. After all, being brutally honest, there are far more cowards in the Bible than there are bravehearts; far more enemies and false friends than true ones. If we really took the dramatis personae of the Bible as moral exemplars, we might find ourselves advocating some somewhat dubious values. (Just take David, the hero of my first month's 'value,' who as well as bravely slaying antagonistic giant Philistines also slew the innocent husband of the woman with whom he committed adultery. Or take Jesus' own friends, who failed him and fled as cowards at the moment of his greatest need of them.) 

Most Christians know this, and actually, don't see it as a problem (not, that is, until they are asked to put together a series of school assemblies on values). We know that one of the big, loud and proud messages of the Bible is that people, on the whole, are a bit of a let down. We mess things up. We mess each other up. We mess the planet up. We mess ourselves up. And we bring the mess that is ourselves into church week by week to do the only thing we can with the mess, which is to bring it to the only place where we can become free of  it, the foot of the cross of Jesus. Yes, David was an adulterer and a murderer. Yes, Peter was a traitor and a spineless turncoat. But in the tradition of the Psalms, David went on to pour out his fickle and self-centred heart to God in prayer, asking that God would create in him a new heart, begging that God would not withdraw his presence from David; and Peter...well, depending on your churchmanship, you might say that to him were given the keys of the kingdom, or that he was one of the greatest preachers of the apostolic era and one of the most remarkable 'converts from within' that the world has ever seen. So what is the 'value' that they, and other such Biblical characters, exemplify? 

The real, and only satisfactory answer to that question has to be 'encounter with God.' It was David's encounters with God that defined and ultimately saved him from his sinful self, and Peter's Pentecost encounter that transformed him. This is the only answer, because just as loudly as it proclaims the parlous mess that humans make wherever they congregate in groups of more than one (and sometime not even that many), the Bible shouts forth the utter, complete goodness of God. Jesus lays it out: no-one is good but God alone (Mark 10:18). That we have a sacred history at all, a Bible, is testimony not to the moral values of a particular group of people, but to the goodness of God.  One tender moment in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy makes this point; God didn't choose this group of people because they were superior to the rest of everybody in any way, or more impressive, or more numerous, or more anything: it was simply and solely because God chose to  'set his heart on [them]' (Deuteronomy 7:7). God chose the them that in Christ became the us (I speak as a Gentile), and it had nothing to do with them / us but everything to do with the God whose heart so overflows with love that it longs to scoop up the whole world, starting with  small, unlikely bunch of nomads and working out from there. 

Of course, as a Christian I say that in the face of Jesus this God of love looked out upon the first-century world, spoke real words that were passed down and written down, lived a real life and suffered real pain that brought about the salvation of the world. It's only when we see ourselves reflected in His eyes we see what 'value' really means. And this reflection is transformative, a transformative encounter with the living God  that is the only possible means of becoming good. No-one is good but God alone, but, as Paul goes on to say, we are in Christ; Christ lives and breathes in us, and in what we call this 'newness of life' we can know goodness. 

The problem was, it wouldn't have been okay for me to have made 'transformative encounter with God' the value for every month in the local primary school. My brief was to talk about courage, friendship and so on. This wasn't a church school, so the local curate banging on about transformative encounters with God in assembly all the time would not exactly go down well. And yes, the Bible does have things to say about courage, friendship and so on. But...

...but my niggling problem with teaching 'Christian values' in schools is that it bypasses the transformative encounter with God which the Christian faith has always fought to defend as the defining characteristic of the Christian, and goes straight to the outworking of that encounter. The problem is that this sort of 'values' project runs the risk of presenting Christianity as a 'how to be good' manual without any reference to the Jesus who alone shows us what goodness looks like. To use St Paul's language, it's trying to pick the fruit of the spirit without sowing any seeds of faith first, a maddening logical impossibility. 

Four hundred-odd years after St Paul wrote about the human struggle to be good only being resolved in the God-human Jesus Christ, St Augustine vehemently opposed the persuasive Pelagius, who contended that human goodness was possible without any transformative encounter with God. Pelagius would have done some excellent 'values' assemblies; listen to him: 'Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues.' No, replied St Augustine, human nature is incapable of achieving any idea of God's goodness, unless God himself graces humanity with the gift of (you guessed) transformative encounter with God. Then God himself takes up residence within that graced person, and starts to be good, and weirdly enough, it looks just like the person is the one being good. But it's the hidden spirit within that radiates goodness. 

Christian history has sided with St Augustine on this one, just as it had with St Paul, but the temptation to believe that we can be good without God is insidious.  Over a millennium later, Martin Luther was to lambast the church for relying on what he called, in very Pauline terms, 'works righteousness', the illusion that salvation comes from being good.  (Luther would have done some terrible 'values' assemblies.) Salvation, thundered the passionate young monk, is all about faith, and without faith we are nothing. Whether Luther got his understanding of Paul's portrayal of 'faith' entirely spot-on is another question, but he was certainly right to put faith centre stage of salvation history. 

So, back to that creeping pins and needles sensation that I was somehow misrepresenting the Bible by offering it as a 'hall of fame' of virtuous value-rich men and women of old (it's worth noting that the only time that the Bible offers any sort of 'hall of fame' it ascribes the same 'value' to each person; faith, in Hebrews 11); yes, as St Ignatius says, pay attention to your feelings, as God may be trying to tell you something through them. The best-case scenario is that 'Christian values' might introduce children to some classic Bible stories and inspire them to be more courageous, more faithful in friendship and so on. The worst case is that we, I, perpetuate an ancient heresy that Christianity is all about being good, without offering any sort of indication as to the only means to find this goodness in the God who alone is good, through transformative encounter with him. The words of Jesus of the Pharisees ring onimously in my ears; 'they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves re unwilling to lift a finger to move them' (Matthew 23:4).  Hmm.


Friday, 6 June 2014

A blessing from on high and an eccentric Englishwoman abroad: a short thought

The heat bounced off the bright white walls of the church, casting sharp shadows in the cobbled courtyard. By the door an elderly woman sat, a basket of shawls at her side, ready to cover up shoulders and knees as the tourists briefly became pilgrims to this small but utterly beautiful Byzantine church.

After we had traced the stories of salvation on the church walls, the saints and the angels, the devils and the demons, the people whose eternal fate hung in the balance between these two groups as the scales wobbled between heaven and hell, my son and I approached the sanctuary. It was odd not being able to go in; after all, I'm a priest, and sanctuaries are places to which I am both drawn, and in which I feel a profound sense of being at home. But the thick rope kept us away, so that all I could do was to strain my eyes and crane my neck towards the domed ceiling above the altar.

'There's someone up there', I muttered, looking up at the figure painted on the ceiling, wondering if it might be St John the Baptist, to whom the church was dedicated, but suspecting it more likely to be Jesus himself. It wasn't easy working it out from that angle, so I did the only thing I could do: I crouched down to get a better view. Some fingers, a nose and a mouth came into view. I crouched down further, wondering at what point the eccentric behaviour of this Englishwoman might get me thrown out by the elderly woman. There was nothing else for it: I had to lie down on the floor of the church to see the whole picture, and when I did, the face of Jesus gazed back at me, hand up in blessing.    

My son wandered over. 'Can't you see?' he said, standing next to me as I got up and smoothed down my skirt. 'It's Jesus.' Of course, he is that much shorter than I am at ten years old, so for him, seeing the face of Jesus was effortless.

Jesus himself talked about us needing to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Maybe part of what that might mean is that we need to become humble, to crouch down lower and lower so that eventually we will be short enough to see what children see easily; and when we do, we will see the face of Jesus gazing back at us, his hand raised in blessing.