The great poet T.S. Eliot committed himself to Christianity late in his life, 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. These showed up both in articles he wrote in The Harvard Advocate and his excellent little book, The Aims of Education and The Issue of True Religion. In today’s time, revisiting these questions (and perhaps read these thoughts) is deeply worthwhile: What should Jesus followers take on as a 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 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 (CRT), brought 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 that sets our republic apart from the many other countries of the world where religious education is shunned, banned, or severely limited.
One of the conundrums of faith-based education, though, is its ultimate purpose. What is its mission? For many, church-based or Christ centered schools have become a substitute for failing public education and private education with an ideological bent. To attend a Christian school is to attend a school that leads to better student performance in reading, writing, arithmetic, and science. Much of this can be attributed to the many wonderful curricula that have been developed and how those organizations have continued to improve on them and integrate them into today’s technologies in a wholesome manner.
While these things are not bad in and of themselves, they 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 just another educational institution in the failing city of mankind. It still ends with simply improving a dying system, the world system.
Christian education should primarily be the training and shaping of souls in virtue, holiness, and righteous living. The greatest virtue is to love and glorify God. This 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 Christian theological tradition has historically 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 of Christian education.
Furthermore, it is the love of learning as a means of loving God that Christian education must instill. Excellence in education must be related to something greater than oneself (or “self”). Otherwise, excellence in education walks a tightrope toward narcissism and ultimately deposits one in the suffocating pool of haughty pride. And, as the wisest of men God gifted told us, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” – Proverbs 16:18
As one who has always attempted to understand the tension between educational excellence and narcissism; as one who has lived between ignorant forms of faith and bloviating pious gasbags, I can attest that narcissism abounds. 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 lives, which becomes poisonous to their spiritual and personal lives. It shows up in the sad spiritual state of valuing what you know about Jesus as opposed to knowing Him intimately.
The love of God requires humility. And, humility is not a metric to be measured on tests. There is no test score for humility. Yet this is part and parcel of the duty of Christian education, too. The 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. The love of God allows Holy Spirit within us to energize our human spirit and capture a vision of the humility of Christ. And it was Jesus who became incarnate in the world through His love of humanity, a humility that took Him to the Cross of Calvary.
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 of true love.
The point of these slogans is to make one feel good rather than know what is good, and to make one feel important rather than acknowledge the sovereignty of God, the power of the Cross, the New Covenant, moral law, and the natural order of things. The aforementioned 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 substitute, false love, known as license in spiritual circles, and what it implies can be found in the California billboards that say, “Love thy neighbor” while endorsing the murder of infants. That is no love at all. It’s a lie.
Christian education, then, isn’t just about excellence in the bare subjects of reading, writing, arithmetic, or science. Christian education must be training and formation in a godly, New Testament-based moral Foundation that is principally founded on the virtues of God’s understanding of love and absolute godly truth. It finds its highest attainment in love of God and, therefore, love of good over evil, right over wrong. To be sure, Christian education must aim at freedom: freedom to choose the good, freedom to choose God, and freedom to help others choose the goodness and love God in their lives. That is true freedom, and that is true love.
The vision of Christian education is centered on the human heart, which is defined as that place where our mind, emotions, and volition meet and our actions are formed based on our personal moral code. The heart’s ascent to God, not earthly success, is the goal. It aims to offer a complete, whole vision for life. The hearts that are shaped and formed to love God are subsequently prepared to enter the city of man and build God’s kingdom within human communities of love wherever they go. In doing so, they become living witnesses of the Gospel. The Gospel is not only living, but it is also wonderfully educated.
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 in the love of 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.