National Institute for Christian Education Research (NICER)

An short note on a Christian theological vision of education


An short note on a Christian theological vision of education

Professor Bob Bowie

The new approach to SIAMS calls on Church schools to have a theological vision of what they are about. A theological vision is more than a mission statement or a list of values, or a Bible story.

So what is it?

I think the way to best understand a theological vision is an underlying big picture of ‘making sense’ which links together an understanding of God with an articulation of the big picture of the ultimate things that matter most. This is most likely to be a narrative that brings together the following:

  1. the anthropology of the person, the child and the teacher at the centre of the educational project
  2. the community of the school (its ecclesiology, the Greek word for assembly) with the moral and organisational elements, and how it connects to its broader local communities and its global communities, as part of a worldwide Christian family, and part of the created universe
  3. the school’s expression of these things through worship (liturgy) – that which is honoured, celebrated, held up, praised.
  4. the educational philosophy that flows from all of these elements 
  1. A Christian anthropology of the person

For example, Christian teaching upholds an idea that the human has dignity, made in the image and likeness of God. This links the concept of the individual person of who has ultimate worth, not simply some price, a commodity, or a random mutation of cells, an not simply a member of an identity group, or someone of a certain social status, class or race. Humans can be reduced to their price, or to their ability, or to something they were born into. 

A Christian concept of the intrinsic dignity of the individual person apart from all those identities is as ancient as the words in the Book of Genesis, ‘Made in the image and likeness of God’. Naturally humans are also sometimes prone to error and yet with an extraordinary capacity for flourishing fully, especially when they are taught in community, cooperating with one another, not just competing against each other, and especially when they are developed to their full across all the areas of human flourishing, not simply in some reduced way for the service of something else.  A human is more than an economic unit. 

2. The Ecclesiology of school

The community of school can be thought of as a place of healing, of good-natured competition, of forgiveness and of empowerment. It is, after all, a nursery of the future society and civilisation which Christians hope will be just and good. It is a present community with the practical requirements that this has. The character of the community, the rules it follows, the roles that it has which are needed for it to run well, link with its self-understanding of the future it is imaging with the human beings it contains. 

This philosophy of education cannot simply be transactional, with teachers the suppliers of services to pupils and their families as consumers. The anthropology of the person is a vision of a person who has worth intrinsically. Therefore, the human cannot be reduced to customer, client, service provider, citizen of one nation or another, or member of one club or another. The uniqueness of the individual reflects something of God’s infinite nature, beyond any form we can imagine. So the processes of learning in the school must be forged through a different relational character to that of the shop. The forgiving nature of the school must be tangible, but so its sense of justice. Behaviour is not managed for the sake of control, or authority, but for the sake of justice in the classroom, and the playground and the dining hall. 

This flows into the relationally of the adults involved in education, in the learning community of the school, and the wider practical community that makes the learning possible. 

3. The liturgy of the school- its worship

This must include time and space for a spiritual and aesthetic reflection on the deep things that matter, which is how we can think of worship. Where that which matters most is articulated again, celebrated, related upon, and contemplated. This kind of worship has a certain symmetry with the school. It should be school-ish. Ritualised actions and movements embody deeply held belief. When hands are placed together the body becomes focused and connected in on itself and beyond itself. Hands are no longer fiddling with things, connecting with others, grabbing, or pushing. We have learnt so much in recent decades about the science that tells us how valuable these moments are for all humans. 

Christian communities have long intuited this in the centrality of worship in the religious life.  We know from watching sport, or protests, the power of actions and signs to bring together. This happens in moments of civic unity, such as with remembrance, but also at turning points of the year. Worship is a way of embodying in our physical form, ideas which are deep and the Christian tradition, like the Jewish tradition that preceded it, expressed these deeper things through the drama of liturgy, cooperative praise and collective and personal prayer. This is an ancient human practice, perhaps beginning when early humans gathered around the fire at night after a days hunting and gathering, to eat together, tell tales of the day, remember their stories that mattered to them, those that have gone before them, and also, perhaps even before language was acquired, it was when they sang together of the things that seemed to them to matter most. 

4. A Christian philosophy of education: of the person fully alive, empowered and flourishing in education

The idea of the human links then to the educational vision of a flourishing person, fully alive.  This might be what a Church school asserts the need for abroad and balanced curriculum, to fully reflect the created potential within all human beings to explore well the created world in all its diversity. The breadth of subjects matter here as each offers integrities of meaning, ways of finding out and knowing. This is a potential that will serve not only the individual pupil, but also their family, society and the world through a productive, creative, healthy and moral life. The ‘end’ vision of education, the telos of the school (telos is the Greek word for end) is this focused purpose. The holism of this vision might be one reason to think of it as an education for a holy life, or whole-y life,  for the whole of the person, for the whole of the world. 

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