Connecting education to Christian faith necessarily means drawing in some way on Christian theology. Christian theology is a rich and deep topic, the study of a lifetime for some.
Connecting education to Christian faith necessarily means drawing in some way on Christian theology. Christian theology is a rich and deep topic, the study of a lifetime for some. But this site does not exist to provide a course in theology; it focuses on the practice of Christian teaching and learning. We therefore have thought about how to draw upon theology in a way that is concise enough for teachers to work with, rich enough to open up further exploration, and focused on genuinely central issues.
People have found various ways of summarizing the message of the Bible, many of them useful. We have decided to work with one of the summaries offered within the New Testament itself. In 1 Corinthians 13:13 Paul writes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Faith, hope, and love are three great central strands of Christian thought and action, and we have organized the material in this site around them. The Christian tradition is long and rich and has given rise to a variety of specific theological positions and frameworks; by focusing on this concise Pauline summary we have hoped to focus as far as possible on what Christians of every theological persuasion hold in common, rather than on the particular accents of a certain group or denomination. For every teaching and learning activity we describe here, we ask how it connects to Christian faith, hope, and love.
These three words are short, familiar, and memorable, but they do need some unpacking. Taken out of context, each one is open to many possible interpretations, not all of them Christian. The links below examine faith, hope, and love briefly but carefully so that you can clearly see what we mean by them. This will help clarify the connections we see between “Christian” and “education.”
“I don’t need evidence; I just have faith.”
“Have faith; technology will solve the climate change problem.”
“I have faith in God.”
“Son, I have faith in you to do the right thing.”
“My faith affects everything I do.”
What kind of faith is suggested by these pictures?
What kinds of feelings, choices, and commitments might each involve?
“I hope I pass my driving test.”
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
“We need sources of hope in troubled times.”
“He doesn’t have a hope of succeeding.”
Although often tempted to despair by the state of the world, the human heart insists on hoping for something better. However, many of us tend to use the word hope to express uncertainty or an optimism that has, at best, a weak foundation: “I hope it is sunny tomorrow,” we say, with no confidence about the weather. We also tend to express hope as a feeling, a sense of cheery optimism that things will improve: “I hope my team wins the trophy this year.”
Look at the following pictures.
What do they communicate about hope?
What way of living, thinking, and feeling do they suggest?
Christian hope is not the same as optimism. It is about learning to place a growing confidence in God, who does not fail and who keeps his promises. God loves us, has made himself known to us, and has promised that his purposes for us will not fail; rather than being the strength of our own faith at any given moment, these are the grounds for Christian hope. Because our hope is founded on God and not on human achievement or feelings, we do not have to feel a sense of optimism or rely on things going well to have hope. Hope often is what keeps us going in difficult situations. It is closely linked to perseverance, for without hope we despair and give up.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians see God’s triumph over sin and death. Although evil is still present and active, its ultimate defeat is sure. One day this world will be made anew, without all the evil that currently mars it. One day there will be no death, sorrow, or pain; sin and death do not have the last word. This forms the focal point of the larger biblical story of God’s faithfulness to his people and his ongoing work of bringing life and renewal into the world, until that time when all things are made new.
The Bible sees hope as living the future now: living, here and now, the values and relationships of the kingdom of heaven and becoming agents of change, bringing hope to the world around us. Christianity is about living a way of life that testifies that good is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, and that life is stronger than death.
Hope in God is not the only aspect of Christian hope; we also have personal hopes for the future. Society often encourages an attitudes of “Wish hard enough, and it will happen” or “Follow your dream.” This usually is all about the hopes and dreams of the individual. In contrast, our Christian hope is communal and provides an undergirding framework for the particular directions that our individual lives take. Our individual ambitions might be disappointed or redirected, but Christian hope in God’s renewal of us and of the world remains as the larger backdrop. At the same time, this larger Christian hope can begin to shape the ways we imagine our own individual futures and the things we hope for others. It can affect the things we desire and pursue and the outcomes we think possible. Our hopes for our future and for the future of those around us, as well as our sense of what we might do to bring them to fruition, are then imagined within a relationship with God and with others.
In community we can support each other as we seek to let Christian hope shape our ideals and our actions. In community we practice forgiveness when we fall short and take steps that lead to change and growth. This is true also of the school community. The ways in which we speak about the future of our society or about the futures of individual students will communicate something about the shape of our own hope. The ways in which we respond to student failures, whether they are behavioral, moral, or academic, will communicate (or fail to communicate) a sense of hope. The things that students learn in school about what is true and how the world works will inform their own sense of hope, positively or negatively.
“They’re hopelessly in love.”
“I love meatballs.”
“I loved Star Wars.”
“She was known for her love for the poor.”
“Love your enemies.”
Clearly, love is a pretty flexible word in English. It seems to be able to cover experiences ranging from intense romantic attraction to enjoyment of food and entertainment. Most of our everyday uses of the word refer to some kind of feeling of affection or attraction—but not all of them. Loving the poor, for instance, might not involve any such feelings, and loving one’s enemies actually goes against our feelings. Here, love is not warm feelings but rather an unselfish choice to care for another’s needs. This enormous range of meaning means that talk of love can invite misunderstanding.
What kind of love does each of the following pictures suggest to you?
What kinds of feelings, choices, and commitments might each involve?
The Bible celebrates all of these kinds of love—its stories embrace feasting, explore the joy and anguish of family bonds, and include erotic poetry. When the New Testament speaks of “faith, hope, and love,” however, the kind of love in view is primarily the kind that involves turning away from self-centeredness and seeking fellowship with God and the well-being of others. Jesus centered his teaching around a call to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourself. In other words, we are to focus not just on our own needs and desires but also on seeking the delight of God and those around us.
One famous passage, often used at weddings but talking about more than romantic love, describes Christian love as follows: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Christians believe that this kind of love echoes the character of God—as another passage puts it, God is love. Therefore, this kind of love should increasingly characterize our way of “being in the world”—our way of treating other people, regardless of our personal attachment to them, and even our way of treating the wider world around us. This includes our lives as teachers and learners, if our teaching and learning turn us from preoccupation with self to openness to God and attentive care for others and the world we share.
Once we begin looking at our teaching practices in connection with Christian faith, sooner or later the question arises as to whether the ideas proposed are distinctively Christian. The question can arise from critics or from sympathizers. On the one hand, there is a concern from some that particular ideas and practices may be claimed by Christians as something tied to Christian faith when in fact they could have come from other sources. Perhaps, it is suggested, Christians are claiming too much in calling a particular teaching practice Christian. On the other hand, some worry that practices proposed as part of Christian approaches to education are not distinctive enough, that they should be more different from things other people might do if we are really to claim that they are Christian. Perhaps, this concern suggests, something more obviously radical is needed.
In any particular instance either of these concerns might be appropriate and justified. It certainly is possible for Christians to mistakenly claim something as their own, just as it is possible for them to be too uncritically conformed to the cultural practices around them. But there are more things to consider before accepting the horns of this particular dilemma.
Our aim in choosing the categories on this site has been to provide simple, easily usable reference points around which teachers and school leaders can build an understanding of Christian teaching and learning. We therefore have not tried to be exhaustive or overly precise. Rather than trying to detail every facet of the learning process, we have tried to point to a few helpful directions to follow, drawing on our cumulative experience of various curriculum projects. But we also have drawn from relevant research, and we will summarize here some of the key connections for those who would like to investigate further.
Parts of the approach taken to teaching and learning in this site have a longer history in previous projects. For those who would like to know more of the background, this page explains how some of the ideas here originated in earlier work on Christian curriculum.
Several of the teaching and learning examples on this site are adapted from a collection of curriculum materials first published in the 1990s as part of the Charis Project, developed at the Stapleford Centre in Nottingham, UK.1 In response to emphases in British educational legislation at the time, these resources aimed to promote moral and spiritual development across the curriculum by highlighting the moral and spiritual dimensions of subject teaching in secondary schools in various subject areas. The project produced teaching resources in English, French, German, mathematics, and science.
In the context of a growing emphasis in national educational discussions on spiritual and moral development as whole-school responsibilities, the Charis project sought to develop resources that were identifiably Christian in character but usable by teachers in a wide range of types of school. The goals of the materials were toenable teachers to respond to the challenge of educating the whole person; help teachers to focus on the spiritual and moral dimensions inherent in their subject; encourage students toward a clearer understanding of Christian perspectives on the fundamental questions that arise in all areas of knowledge; and contribute to the breadth, balance, and harmony of students’ knowledge and understanding.2
Seeking to bring these concerns to a variety of school contexts raised a number of practical issues for the writers of the Charis materials. Four of them are described briefly here.3
One common way of talking about the aspects of education where matters like faith, hope, and love come to the fore is to talk about spirituality, spiritual formation, or spiritual development. What does it do to our approaches to learning if we begin with the assumption that the learners before us are not merely processors of information or future contributors to the economy, but are also spiritual beings? More succinctly put, does spirituality have anything to do with learning?
An immediate problem in this kind of discussion concerns what we might mean by spirituality. Some have hoped that talk of the “spiritual” might move us out of the problems and disagreements implied by talking of “religion.” Could a focus on the “spiritual” get us away from uncomfortable disagreements about beliefs and let us focus on feelings of awe, wonder, and belonging that everyone experiences? This line of thought has proved tempting, but a closer look at the ongoing debates concerning spirituality in education makes it very clear that the nature of spiritual experience and its relationship to beliefs is one of the very things about which people have varying convictions. Our beliefs about the spiritual will affect how we approach it in school. On this website the focus is on spirituality as understood within the Christian tradition and the contribution that it can make to education.
Christian spirituality is, of course, a vast topic. Here we will focus on a few broad implications of approaching spirituality in Christian terms. We will suggest in another article a concise framework for thinking about spirituality practically in the classroom.
A previous page described some important emphases in a Christian understanding of spiritual growth. This page addresses the practical question of where to look as we begin to connect this with the topics and strategies that make up our everyday teaching and learning. Here we suggest three things to consider as accessible starting points, including a brief example with each one.
Career-shaping experiences often occur early in a teacher’s professional life. Here are two from my first few years teaching biology.Fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds used to do a lot of dissection; sheep hearts, cows’ eyes, and pigs’ feet were among the regular items. I soon found that there were predictable patterns of behavior in dissection classes. The boys responded liked actors let loose with a chain saw in a horror movie. The girls approached the specimen with temerity, as though it might leap out and bite them. (I exaggerate and am guilty of gender stereotyping, of course, but there seemed to be some truth in my observations.) The eleven-year-olds’ course included an embryology unit on chick development in the egg. It was a practical course that included opening up fertilized eggs from the incubator and comparing what could be seen with diagrams in the books. Every year I had to deal with upset children who had watched the beating heart of an embryonic chick stop as they viewed it through their binocular microscope.
These two experiences unsettled me. What dispositions was I encouraging by engaging my students in learning biology in this way? What habits of mind and heart were being fostered? Was I nurturing behavior that had its foundations in the idea that animal life was a cheap consumable, dispensable in the school laboratory just like the ingredients in chemistry experiments?
Certainly it felt like something wasn’t right, so I changed my approach. During dissections I worked on the classroom atmosphere, adopting a more formal style than other biology lessons, like not allowing conversation as students entered the room and insisting upon disciplined handling of the specimens. I wanted to convey the idea that respect for life was important, particularly when that life had been taken to support the students’ learning. My aim was to cultivate a sense of science with reverence. With the eleven-year-olds, I stopped teaching the embryology practically. (I had to get permission for this from the head of my department.) It seemed a bridge too far to make them watch the chicks die when they could see the developmental stages better on photographs.
Such incidents wouldn’t happen in school biology today. However, the questions that worried me as a young teacher are still pertinent now: What sort of people do I hope my students will become as a result of having me as their teacher? What sort of character will they develop? Which virtues will they demonstrate?
I lead a lot of training for teachers in Anglican and other Christian schools on developing distinctively Christian approaches to teaching and learning. One comment often made runs along these lines: “I teach science [or math, design and technology, sociology, history, etc.]. What does being distinctively Christian have to do with teaching, say, photosynthesis or the use of punctuation?” This is a good question, because it is so easy to create Christian approaches that have nothing to do with the subject matter of the lesson, like preaching a mini-sermon at the end of the lesson. One can imagine one of my heart dissection classes finishing with a pause for thought on the desperately wicked nature of the human heart. I jest, but not that much. It does happen.
However, once we take seriously the idea that how we organize the classroom and which learning activities we choose will inculcate habits of mind and heart that will contribute to shaping the people our students will become, then it begins to make sense that the way we teach photosynthesis (or whatever) can be distinctively Christian. This is true even though often (as in the case of photosynthesis) the facts and information conveyed might well be the same as in any other classroom. As teachers we therefore are responsible for choosing the sorts of dispositions that our students will be encouraged to develop as a result of being in our classroom.
In case this smacks of indoctrination or desecration of a student’s autonomy, it is important to remember that this shaping is inevitable in any classroom, whether or not the teacher is intentional in the way that I am advocating here. Character shaping goes on in every classroom. For example, my students would have left my biology classes having had certain dispositions reinforced regardless of whether I had decided to change my teaching approach to dissection. If I hadn’t been intentional about it in the way described, the peer-group disrespect toward sanctity of life would have been reinforced. Hopefully, through my revised, intentional approach, a different habit of mind and heart had been reinforced.
All teachers therefore have decisions to make about the character traits or dispositions that they intend to nurture in their students. From now on I will use the technical term virtues to describe these desirable traits that are fostered through education. Sadly, education can also foster vices. If teachers aren’t intentional about this process, they probably will nurture—by default—traits prevalent in society at large or in the peer culture. Some of these will be vices. In a distinctively Christian education, the virtues fostered intentionally should reflect a distinctively Christian understanding of what it means to be “fully human.”
So then, a Christian virtue can be thought of as a human disposition or character trait that is derived from a Christian understanding of what it means to be fully human. The Bible teaches that humans are not now in the state that God intended for them. However, Jesus’s becoming human and his death and resurrection began an act of restoration, which means that humans who respond to God’s invitation will be changed. The Bible promises the restoration of a “new earth,” where things will be as they should be again and humans once again will be the people they ought to be (Revelation 21:1-4). The stunning thing about biblical teaching is that it tells us that those who are “in Christ” can offer a glimpse of the character of restored humanity by the development of Christian virtues in their current life. The description the Bible gives us of God’s ideal human, as envisioned in the “new earth” and manifested in Jesus, can therefore help us to be intentional in shaping the virtues that we hope students will develop through a distinctively Christian education. To use other theological language, a distinctively Christian approach to teaching and learning can contribute to our students’ vocation as humans to be kingdom-of-God people now. They are literally anticipating the future state of humans in God’s restored kingdom by the way that they live today. Wow!
What do Christian virtues look like? What vision of being human does the Bible offer that reflects God’s vision for restored humanity? In his New Testament epistles, the Apostle Paul offers a compelling picture that is highly relevant to teachers when he describes faith, hope, and love as the three Christian virtues that will endure (1 Corinthians 13:13). This website has adopted these as the key virtues that a distinctively Christian approach to teaching and learning will seek to foster. Sometimes these can be mistakenly understood as nice, middle-class characteristics that well-raised children manifest. Not so: they are far more radical than that and paint a compelling picture of what it means to flourish as a human being. Three important things can be said about them.They are not just characteristics of interpersonal behavior. They also have huge implications, for example, for social structures, for attitudes to the environment, and for the sorts of ambitions that we harbor for a career. A serious read of what are called the Beatitudes in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) will make the point. Try that now, reading each verse slowly and pondering what that might mean to your life if you tried to take it seriously in your own behavior. It has been said that the Bible is biased toward the poor. Biased might be the wrong word, but it certainly emphasizes the responsibility that humans have to promote the well-being of others, particularly those who are disadvantaged. Importantly for education, faith, hope, and love also have implications for the habits of thinking that we develop and not just for moral behavior. All human knowledge is interpreted from within a framework of understanding shaped by certain beliefs about what is important in life. Currently influential worldviews include consumerism (the notion that what we own is what is important) and utilitarianism (the notion that knowledge is important only insofar as it contributes something useful, like economic growth). If faith, hope, and love underpin our worldview, we will think very differently about the knowledge that we learn. The responsibility of the Christian teacher is to help students understand how much their thinking is shaped by the habits of the world around them, and to encourage them to take responsibility for forming their own habits of the mind by helping them to see what a difference a Christian worldview makes to learning. This means not only intentionally teaching from a Christian worldview, but also being intentional in helping our classes to understand why we are thinking about the subject in this different way. Finally, faith, hope, and love offer a picture of what it means to be human that is very different from what the contemporary culture offers. For example, there is a movement today that wants to reemphasize the role of happiness in life. There is much to be welcomed about this, particularly its desire to shift government policy away from an excessive concern with economic growth as the main thing that matters in life. However, in many people’s minds happiness is associated with self-fulfillment, whereas Christian teaching would say true happiness is to be found in becoming the servant of others. An Anglican bishop recently suggested that patience, humility, charity, and chastity are four defining Christian virtues; imagine suggesting that during a government consultation on the nature of citizenship! The Church of England website (http://www.christianvalues4schools.org.uk) illustrates how differently values are understood from within the Christian worldview. In planning for distinctively Christian teaching, we will need to be thinking carefully about how we might move our students from influential “vices” toward Christian virtues by how we reframe our approach so that the development of faith, hope, and love shape our students’ learning.
Virtues are hard-won prizes. Our students will not develop faith, hope, and love as the result of attending one assembly or by having the school rules posted on the classroom wall (as important as both of these are). Rather, they are developed through years of supported learning-by-experience, shaped by the work of an intentional teacher. For this to happen there must be a whole-school, shared understanding of what it means to flourish as a human being in Christ. Then there needs to be a school policy of promoting faith, hope, and love as the virtues that the students will be encouraged to develop.
You can explore the ideas that have informed this project further here. This page also suggests some further reading for those who want to place the ideas on this site in a larger context or pursue particular strands in more detail.
The following reading is directly focused on the question of how a Christian school can connect its faith framework to its educational practices:
Trevor Cooling, “The Distinctiveness of Learning in Church of England Schools,” in Howard Worsley, ed., 200 Hundred Years of Anglican School Education (Bloomsbury, 2012)
John Cox, More than Caring and Sharing: Making a Church School Distinctive (Kevin Mayhew, 2011) http://www.kevinmayhew.com/info/contributors/john-cox/more-than-caring-and-sharing.html
Shahne Vickery (ed.) Living Values: A Practical Guide to Rooting Your School in Christian Values (Jumping Fish, 2011). Available from Diocese of Gloucester, Church House, Gloucester (UK), GL1 2LY. Go to the website for a free downloadable chapter. http://www.gloucester.anglican.org/resources/jfish/
There are a number of magazines around the world that exist to promote conversation among Christians educators about a wide range of educational topics. You can find information about a number of them here.