I’ve noticed over many years in the classroom that when students enter the physics or chemistry lab, they expect to be taught facts, and the teachers duly oblige by providing copious evidence from textbooks. But when those same students come to me to consider matters of theology, politics and philosophy, they generally take the view that they can choose what they like best, because just about everything that Hilton goes on about is mere opinion or speculation, if not total fabrication. If it feels good and brings serenity, it must be good and serene. Whatever they choose to believe is true, and truth is consecrated in the mind, just above freedom.
And so Plato’s ‘Form of the Good’ is meaningless, for goodness is “defined by the individual for the fulfilment of self” (according to Psychology Today). Conservatives have no values but those which “promote dog-eat-dog individualism, ruthless competition and the supremacy of private profit” (according to Owen Jones). And the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead is “delusional” (according to Richard Dawkins). You only have to hear Dawkins gasp with incredulity that anyone could be so dim-witted to believe such tosh to appreciate how difficult it is to incorporate the myths of faith into our increasingly secular plausibility structure. It is the eccentric and esoteric belief of a cultic community that prefers to sing with the musical spheres rather than thrash out simultaneous equations.
It seems that I’m concerned with evangelical fairy tales. God is profane, if not toxic, and his kingdom is purely religious, supernatural, spiritual and subjective. The gospel is divorced from reason: it is about human feelings and private experience. It can have no political significance or serve any earthly purpose. What, after all, is the meaning of sin in a society where morality is relative? Where there is no sin, there is no need for salvation. And where there is no need for salvation, there is no need of a saviour. Nietzsche is proven right: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Education has become obsessed with technological advance, material possession, scientific consumerism and economic purpose. Instead of inculcating virtues and moral values, we teach our children that they have the right to pursue happiness and live as they please. All problems are solvable, and those which remain are simply waiting upon humanity’s future mastery of the relevant facts. Man has the power to remake the world in his own image and according to his own design, and so all supernatural agencies are summarily dispensed with.
Students are subjected daily to an almost continuous bombardment of ideas, images, slogans and stories which presuppose a plausibility structure radically different from the Christian understanding of human nature and destiny. But we ignore these at our peril. It is not for nothing the daily school assembly (or “collective worship”) is supposed to be “broadly Christian”. It may have been originally conceived and set out by RA Butler in 1944, but the requirement was reiterated in the Education Reform Act 1988, the Education Act 1996 and the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 – under both Conservative and Labour governments. The intention was and is to inculcate values and a moral worldview because a task of government is to propagate national identity and sustain culture by reinforcing character and a communal disposition.
The law is otiose, of course: it is largely ignored by many headteachers and governing bodies, and Ofsted don’t bother inspecting it any more. But the school assembly ought to remain “broadly Christian” not because we are concerned with inducing belief in God or enforcing the worship of Jesus, but because our Judæo-Christian heritage is the basis of understanding every aspect of our culture and national history. It is woven into our notions of justice, our economic values, our understanding of liberty, the purpose of law and the pretext for war. Through the prism of modernity, it even informs our understanding of secularity, humanism and atheism.
To treat others as we wish to be treated and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves are “broadly Christian” teachings, and our Christianised grasp of Hellenised ethics is intrinsic to that breadth. The “broadly Christian” school assembly is sacred in a secular kind of way, not least because it probes our understanding of purpose, morality, and virtues such as resilience, honour and loyalty. It gives space for abstract cosmological reflection beyond what we see, hear and touch. It may not define life or explain suffering, but it opens up the possibility of eternal significance.
But communication of the meaning of “broadly Christian’” has to be in the language of the receptor: it has to be such that it accepts, at least provisionally, the way of understanding things that is embodied in God-less language. There is no place for unthinking dogmatism: the only way that “broadly Christian” numinosity may be apprehended is if children can stumble upon its light in genuine contextualisation. Only then can their hearts and minds be opened to an understanding of the sacred and the virtues of self-regulation and delayed gratification. And only then will they come to know the paternity of their culture, and the meaning of their artistic, philosophical and social selves in collaborative judgment and wholesome cooperation.