Hey, Parents, Leave Them Teachers Alone

faitheducationI recently came across an article1 in which the idea of education that is self-consciously ideological has again come under fire. The ideas are not new or even surprising, what I did find surprising was that these recurring ideas, which rest on patently fallacious reasoning, continue to be promoted. I decided, therefore, to take the opportunity to outline the argument’s main flaws.

Firstly, the idea that when taught something that I don’t believe I am being oppressed. This is all too common an argument in our society; even the biggest, most vocal groups lay claim to the poor persecuted minority card (strangely, it’s never the actual minority groups that get any kind of hearing). Surprisingly however, it is not oppression to be taught something with which you disagree, in fact, it’s really okay to disagree. It only becomes oppression when it’s not okay to disagree. So the atheist in church who is made to say the creed, is oppressed. Likewise, the Christian who is required to find “(ultimate) meaning in activity” in her Occupational Therapy studies is oppressed. To claim that you’re oppressed because you or your child or a friend of a friend is taught something with which you disagree is the academic equivalent of pulling the race card. None of the major groups are innocent of this and we’re not going to make any progress in inter-ideology dialogue if this is the way we interact.

Secondly, the idea that “secular” somehow means neutral. The myth of neutrality has been well debunked and yet again and again people claim that they are somehow able to soar above their own minds; their upbringings, experiences and opinions, that they are somehow able to escape having to interpret anything. When looking at the world, a Christian must see intentionality, an Atheist must not. What Modernism has shown us (and, in so doing, undermined itself) is that there is no fact that escapes the need for interpretation. Education teaches us to interpret the world around us (or at the very least, spoon feeds us interpretations). Education that is secular then, is anti-everything that isn’t secular. Islam is not secular, Christianity is not secular, Shembe is not secular. A secular education teaches an ideology. Promoting “secular” education is exactly the same as promoting any other flavour of ideological education. It’s not neutral, all education is ideological and we can’t escape that so we need to figure out some other way of dealing with it.

intelligenceThirdly, “secular” doesn’t have a monopoly on the ability to think or be intelligent. There are brilliant minds that come from numerous different ideological backgrounds, many are not secular. We can have dialogue in which we call each other stupid and blinkered and there will be just as much ammunition against the secularists as against anyone else. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking any particular ideology enjoys the subscription of all the intelligentsia (or, that we automatically jump a few IQ points by adhering to any particular ideology).

Where do we go from here though? If it’s true that we escape none of the ideological biases by having “secular” education, what solution is there? I am not sure that anyone has an adequate answer to the question. In the interim however, isn’t it better to know what you’re going in for than for schools to glibly tell you that they’re going to be “neutral”? Let’s allow the schools to tell us what they’re going to teach our children so that we know what we want to correct when our children get home in the afternoons and let’s realise that it’s not the state’s job to raise everyone’s children in the way we want ours raised.

Finally, imagine a school in which all the teachers are Christian but the school calls itself “secular”. Knowing why your children come home wanting to pray or thinking that God made the world would then be inexplicable and likely evoke some heated reaction. What we must realise is that the likely reaction of seeing to it, in court if necessary, that teachers deny their own understanding and interpretation of the world – their ideology – in order to teach your children, is in fact oppression.

1. See http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2013-04-17-hey-teacher-leave-them-kids-alone/#.UXD2HIaXezQ. I have not attempted to respond to this article in particular but to the thought patterns in general. While writing this up I also discovered this somewhat amusing article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7951358/Richard-Dawkins-faith-schools-should-not-be-allowed-to-opt-out-of-religious-education.html

Descartes’ Foundationalism: Presuppositions & Christianity

Descartes portraitUnlike the arguments for God that Aquinas bandied, which were a posteriori, relying upon inspection of the world, Anselm’s ontological argument is classed as an a priori argument. Studying Descartes one cannot help hear a clear resonance of Anselm’s ontological argument in Descartes’ perfect being. Descartes had arrived at the perfect being, by saying that it must exist; he tried to show that the perfect being gave the best explanation of our universe (McGrath, The Twighlight of Atheism, p32). But it is more how he got there, as well as the ramifications of that process, which I am interested in discussing. Descartes, though a confessed theist, has been rightly called a swing figure in the move towards naturalism. This is not obvious from the outset because Descartes was in fact a rationalist, and his philosophical Foundationalism relied solely upon thought, and not empirical examination of our world.

Firstly we will consider his process. His establishment of being by observing that he was thinking, even if that thinking was the act of doubting, was a brand new approach to epistemology. James Sire says it is here that we see the essence of the modern: the autonomy of human reason. Foundationalism meant liberation from all ancient authorities. It is important that we realize what was happening here; Descartes made the self primary in knowing. Truth was now available through human reason, nothing else was needed. So, even though Descartes next step was to invoke the perfect being as the reason that (a) our rationalism could be trusted and that (b) study of the world can proceed, it was too late; the repercussions of his rationalism, that was prior to the perfect being, would have results Descartes he never foresaw.

Secondly I will point out where Descartes’ approach took us, the ramifications of his philosophical system. It did not take long for the criticism that Descartes’ Foundationalism highlighted to conclude that this world does not really need a perfect being to explain anything, it is perfectly capable of running itself. The primacy of reason in explanation had replaced the primacy of God, Scripture or divine revelation. The next step was naturally to question whether the perfect being was needed at all. Surely, a system with human rationalism as primary did not need God at any point; a closed mechanical and material system removed Descartes’ second step, the perfect being, and shifted to trusting reason to explain reality. Another result was the accusation that this supposed perfect being cannot explain why our world is imperfect. With Descartes’ enthronement of reason and subsequent instalment of its prince, the perfect being, came difficult questions regarding pain and suffering and whether a perfect being sufficiently deals with them.

Finally, if we look at Descartes’ Foundationalism we see that there is in fact no such thing as ‘starting from nothing’; all systems are built on assumptions. Classic Foundationalism assumed that there are basis beliefs which guarantee their own truth. Descartes was that by thinking he knows that he exists. But why reach that conclusion? He assumed that thinking was proof of existence. It was from this basic assumption that he derived non-basic beliefs: first God and secondly that God’s existence means we can trust our senses and carry out inductive study of the world. But he constructed a system that assumed senses couldn’t be trusted in the first place, and reason could. The point is that all systems come with a preset of principles, or assumptions, which justify that system. Foundationalism, or rationalism, is no different.

Blake's Newton monotypeIn closing off I want to point out, drawing mostly from my last observation, that Christians need not fear philosophy. We have grounds to interact with and ask our own hard questions about other philosophical systems. Modernism, in whichever subcategory, firmly believes in the autonomy of human reason to carry out inductive and deductive study of our world. Most prominent atheists today, such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, are pulling the wool over the world’s eyes when they point out that theism is based on the false presupposition that God exists. I say this because they will not, for the sake of maintaining the strength of their own argument, acknowledge that they operate within a system based on assumptions about reality. They are working from the assumption that God does not exist, that he did not create the world. So there is strong rationalism. But what reason can they provide for the amount of trust that they place in the human mind alone? And there is strong empiricism. But, again, what reason do we have for trusting in our senses alone?

Because all systems are built on assumptions and beliefs are derived from them, our task is to examine the truth of both basic and the contingent beliefs as they relate to each other and to our world. People are in pursuit of a system that is consistent with itself and our experience. I believe that Christianity holds its own. The accusation that Christianity argues from a priori is misleading if the accuser fails to admit that they have their own basic beliefs. Christians believe that God created our world; he ordered it and gave us minds to study what has been made. In that statement alone we have grounds for inductive and deductive reasoning, the study of order installed by a Creator.

Scripture’s Doctrine And Theology’s Bible: A Bilateral Hermeneutic

Circular hermeneuticsI recently wrote a post on what I labeled, The Dangerous Evangelical Assumption. In it I asked if we are in danger of limiting the work of the Holy Spirit to good exegesis. The comments made on the post helped me give some precision, which was originally lacking, and you can read the exchanges there. One comment raised the issue of the theological convictions with which we approach Scriptures. Scientific exegesis of a biblical text will not always bring us to the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ but instead gives us the author’s intent or original meaning. Our understanding of Scripture means we interpret texts within their wider salvation context and therefore Christian exegesis asks how the author’s intent – attained through careful exegesis – fits within the message of Scripture as a whole, the gospel of our Lord. I want to repeat my response below with supplementation.

The Evangelical approach to Scripture is both presuppositional and a result of perspicuity. In other words, the Christian worldview presupposes that God is the single author behind Scripture, therefore Scripture is read with that view; and exegesis of Scripture has lead to the understanding that Scripture contains a single, unified and coherent message. Our doctrine of Scripture is founded on and flows from Scripture. How do these two characteristics of the Evangelical approach fit?

Firstly, Christians presuppose revelation is coherent because God is the author behind it. So, in our age of narratives, Scripture is viewed as a metanarrative scripted by God. During the Reformation, and in protestation to the Catholic claims of exclusive interpretive rights, the analogia fidei was introduced as a corollary to non-contingent divine revelation. We can only use the clearer parts of Scripture to interpret the murky bits because of this presupposition. Furthermore, if God is the cause of Scripture in its entirety we can ask the bigger question of authorial intent for the work as a whole.

Secondly, studied exegesis of Scripture has and does yield its perspicuous message: the gospel of grace. Though our interpretation of Scripture is based on a theological conviction, outlined above, that theological conviction is proven by exegesis. As we study Scripture we see that the parts contribute to and are enmeshed with the whole, the grand unifying theme of salvation in the gospel. I have already noted that our theology is a fruit of exegesis and I believe that careful exegesis of Scripture results in us being confronted with the summons to salvation, as well as proving the presupposition that God is the single author. Perspicuity is, as the Reformers emphasised, an objective attribute of Scripture.

9780567083777_p0_v1_s260x420If this post argues for anything then it is this: there is a dialogue in hermeneutics between theology and exegesis. And we must hold that it is a dialogue and not a monologue. The latter would have us advance no further than Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum or Augustine’s ‘believing in order to understand’. There is no denying that we work from a presuppositional doctrine of Scripture yet, as John Webster reminds us, in his essay On The Clarity Of Holy Scripture, all dogmatic confessions are “wholly subordinate to the primary work of the church’s theology, which is exegesis.”

To close I will adapt something Karl Barth wrote in the introduction to the fourth edition of his commentary on Romans. We are never compelled to choose between strictly scientific exegesis and our doctrine of Scripture, for they enjoy an established and healthy bilateral relationship. And so, like Barth, we can expend all of our energy in endeavoring “to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit. What was once of grave importance, is so still.”

(PS: the title of this post is stolen from the collection of essays edited by M. Bockmuehl and A. J. Torrance, which is sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.)