Christian education: Digging deeper, building higher

skycraperI love skyscrapers. If visiting a new city, I’ll often head straight for the tallest building and – as long as the fee isn’t too much – take the elevator to the observation deck. There’s nothing like the view you can get of the city when perched up so high.

I’ve learned a few things about how engineers design skyscrapers. The more floors tall a building is, the deeper the foundation must be.

That’s a good picture of how the church should think about education. The church encourages education of all kinds for its people because she knows that God is not glorified by ignorance. Jesus never saw a contradiction between heart and head. He called us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Matthew 22:37). Jesus invites us: “Build high!” Followers of Christ are free to pursue truth and discovery in all its forms, but to build higher, we must first dig deeper.

Digging deeper

The Psalmist affirms: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. All who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10a, ESV). God is the sure foundation upon which we can build in all areas of life, including educationally. Saint Augustine (d. 430 AD) called this “faith seeking understanding.”

The Jewish people knew how important it was to properly teach their children about God. In Deuteronomy 6:6-8 (NIV), God commands :

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.

Children are like wet cement. It is never a question of of whether they will be imprinted but only who will do the imprinting.

Parents are a child’s first teachers, and when it comes to learning about God, they turn to us. Once when our older son was only three years old, he was thinking about the song that he had learned in Sunday School, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” As we drove in the car, his question was earnest: “Mom and Dad, does God really have the whole world in His hands?” “Yes,” I replied, “God really does.” There was a long pause. Finally, he replied: “God must have really big hands!”

Theologians can debate the finer points of whether God as spirit can have hands (John 4:34). To do so is to miss the point. The imagery of “big hands” is a lesson about God’s immensity, that God is bigger than creation – and, by extension – bigger than any problem we face.

Not all lessons about God taught by parents are helpful. A mother warned her son: “Even if I can’t see what you’re doing, God sees.” While this may be true, is it helpful? She planted in the young mind of her son an image not of God as a loving Father who forgives  and can help us rise above our failures, but rather a as divine version of the CCTV monitoring cameras used by countries to track their own citizens. We must be careful what we teach and how we teach it, nurturing in our children a desire to draw near to God as one who is not only bigger than our problems but also loving, gracious, and worthy of our trust.

One program that helps build deep faith foundations is Bible quizzing. Memorization of Scripture is encouraged by the Bible itself (Psalm 119:11) and few programs have been as successful in grounding youth in God’s written Word. In moments of uncertainty, passages memorized serve as an internal moral compass, guiding us to make decisions that are pleasing to God.

Yet Christian education – at home or at church – should focus not just on Bible memorization but also discovering how each of us fits into what Michael Lodahl calls the “Story of God.” That story in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments reveals God as a tri-unity (Trinity), God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Knowing that some of the subjects they would discuss could be unsettling, a theology professor was wise. He would always begin his class by inviting students to recite the Apostles’ Creed, the foundational, ancient summary of that story of faith:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

Educating our children in the things of God begins at the youngest age. It is the task of parents and other members of the household of faith to bring them up to love God. While learning about God is lifelong, many churches make a point to catechize children around the age of 12. Catechism is a system of questions and responses that a child memorizes. Some traditions call this “foundations of faith.” It is another opportunity to make sure that our children have experienced the transformational work of Christ in their lives, that for them Jesus is not just the Savior of the world but their Savior. Children who have not yet decided to follow Jesus can be encouraged to make that decision.

Easter Sunday is traditionally the day when new believers are baptized. Graduates from the catechism class who have a clear profession of Christian faith but who have not yet been baptized should be given the opportunity to be baptized by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Since Christian baptism is a sacrament of initiation and therefore is not repeatable (Ephesians 4:5),  those who at the request of their parents were already baptized as infants or young children can publicly participate in a ritual that reaffirms what their parents did for them — see the liturgy in the “Appendix.”

Building higher

Because God calls us to love the LORD with all our mind, the people of God are not threatened by education in all its forms. Rather, they embrace it as another expression of their worship. Though the emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) was wrong to not allow for the education of girls, he is to be commended for requiring cathedrals and monasteries to provide a course of study for intelligent boys who also had the desire to learn. Later, Pope Gregory VII (1073-85 AD) insisted that clergy be well educated, leading over time to the founding in the mid 12th century of the first university (the famed “Sorbonne”) attached to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Areas of study included theology, philosophy, law, mathematics, and medicine. Such an openness to both the book of revelation (Scripture) and nature’s book (science) was the seedbed that would later produce men like Gregory Mendel (1822-84), a monk who became a renowned geneticist.

Besides Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition of Christianity (birthed in the early 16th century) has taught that “all truth is God’s truth.” Celebrated English physicist Isaac Newton (b. 1642) was also a man of abiding faith, writing extensively in the fields of science and theology.  This dual curiosity was shared by the Anglican priest and co-founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-91). Wesley was fascinated by medicine, and wrote a book outlining remedies for common ailments. He also developed a machine used to shock those suffering from depression, a crude precursor to 20th century electroshock therapy.

Today, this ability to see science and Christian faith as compatible – not contradictory – lives on in persons like John Polkinghorne, an accomplished theoretical physicist who later became an Anglican priest. His attitude reflects the maxim of the late longtime Dean of Eastern Nazarene College:

There is no conflict between the best of education and the best in the Christian religion.

Far from undermining Christian faith, encouraging our children to pursue knowledge in whatever academic discipline they choose will often establish their faith. It gives them the confident message that our faith is robust, not like a fragile teacup, ready to shatter under the slightest pressure. Psalm 19:1 (NIV) celebrates: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Because God is the Creator, the creation will point to its author, like a painting tells us something of the character of the painter.

Christian education is like a skyscraper. With Christian faith as a solid foundation, we invite our people to build the skyscraper of knowledge higher than ever before. Yet to build higher, we must first dig deeper. For the people of God, education is founded upon the fear of the Lord, then builds upward. The pursuit of knowledge in all its forms is not an affront to God but a noble expression of what it means to love God with all our mind. This is our duty, and this is our joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accordingly, no matter the academic discipline, we encourage followers of Jesus to reach as high as they can, to build the superstructure of knowledge and discovery as high as they can.

 

 

A skeptic once defined “faith” as believing with all your heart what you couldn’t possibly believe with all your head. Yet Jesus never saw a contradiction between faith that is passionate and faith that is reflective. He urged us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Matthew 22:37). Loving God does not mean checking our brain at the church door.